Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Robert Mayer's Superfolks

Robert Mayer’s Superfolks has been recognized as a seminal work of the modern superhero genre; it is allegedly one of the first novels to focus on the ordinary lives of extraordinary beings. Popular opinion suggests we ought to thank Mr.Mayer for inspiring the more “serious” and self-conscious approach to writing comics that arose in the 1980s, making Superfolks a spiritual predecessor to such graphic-novel milestones as Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

While Superfolks should rightly be praised for its fascinating examination of the tension between the humdrum and the heroic, it would be inaccurate to laud it as much of a literary first. Many of the earliest adventures of Superman depended on this same tension to drive the plot forward. Even a cursory review of the Golden Age episodes will attest it was not Truth, Justice, and the American Way that weighed most heavily on the mind of the Man of Steel: it was rather his secret identity, which he protected from Lois Lane through farcically elaborate methods. Given a different narrative direction and more time for the medium to mature along with its audience, these neurotic elements of the Superman mythos might very well have come to be exploited with the same kind of irreverence found in Superfolks.

It is somewhat paradoxical, moreover, that we should credit Superfolks – a work of parody – with inspiring a more honest, transparent use of comic-book tropes. Though at times profound – even erudite – and quite masterfully written, the novel nevertheless disappoints by dedicating far too much of the author’s indisputable talent to making scenarios for the interplay of dated clichés about sexual inadequacy, infidelity and gender confusion. The most successful, most inspiring parts of Superfolks are in fact the ones which aren’t trying to be funny, and this can be fairly disorienting for any reader opening the book with different expectations.

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