Sunday, November 11, 2007

Superheroes and Disability in Soon I Will Be Invincible

While there are a lot of potential topics for an essay on Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, the one that fits the best with the theme of this blog is the novel's extended analogy between superpowers and disability. It sounds contradictory, but very few of Grossman's characters are simply superhuman. Their powers camouflage the extent to which they can't function in the everyday world. We get the impression that many of them fight crime (or mastermind it) because the wider world has no other use for them.

An ongoing theme of the novel, voiced at different times by its heroine, Fatale, and its villain, Doctor Impossible, is that superheroes (and -villains) pay a physical price for their power:

[Doctor Impossible] learned ... to spot the telltales of power: the stutter-step of a bad nerve operation, and the alien hybrids, Altairian eyes and Enderri hands. How to look at the way superheroes walk ... and see what happened to their bodies, once upon a time. Most of them had paid a price for their power, and for most of them it was too high.
That holds true not only for the bottom-tier freaks and strongmen that Doctor Impossible meets during his early career, but also for elite superheroes like Fatale's group, the Champions. Fatale herself is a cyborg, having had her body rebuilt after a car accident that destroyed half of her real body. She has no memory of her former life, she needs to be constantly on immune-suppressing drugs to tolerate her implanted circuitry, her added height and weight make her somewhat awkward and graceless, and she is infertile. The leader of the Champions, Damsel, is an invulnerable flying powerhouse whose bizarre alien-hybrid metabolism has her constantly throwing up (Fatale initially believes she has bulimia), and a teenage sidekick, Rainbow Triumph, is on an extensive drug regimen, both to keep her, too, from rejecting her cyborg implants and to hold off the degenerative bone disease that's slowly killing her. The level of sheer physical dysfunction that the Champions have to deal with every day is brought home when Fatale describes her teammates' nightly routines, spying on them with her x-ray vision:
[Rainbow Triumph] opens a metal briefcase and begins opening pill bottles and boxes, until fourteen pills, capsules, and dietary chews are lined up on the edge of the marble sink in front of her. She does it every twelve hours. She's probably been doing it since she was seven; maybe it's to fix whatever was wrong with her in the first place. ...

Underneath my feet, Blackwolf [a Batmanlike martial artist/detective]washes his hands for a full five minutes before popping three or four painkillers, which explains a lot. Then he pushes the little room's furniture to the side and puts himself through a series of calisthenic exercises ...

Feral [a huge cat-person, super-strong and a fierce fighter] drops to all fours when he's alone, and sleeps curled in a ball. I think he has back problems from trying to stand on two legs all the time.

Besides the physical (and, often, psychological) complications of the kind of altered physiology a superhero would have, Grossman's characters also have to deal with a larger society that marginalizes them. The personality quirks that lead characters to choose heroism or villainy over civilian existence are labeled disordered on both sides: Doctor Impossible is said to have "Malign Hypercognition Disorder," literally evil genius syndrome, while Fatale, quitting her job as a mercenary to fight crime, is accused of having "an adjustment disorder." Fatale is regarded with extreme suspicion by her landlord, who requires her to put in a thick carpet at her own expense, and to sign a series of waivers before he will rent to her. Doctor Impossible and another villain, Laserator, are both brilliant scientists who nevertheless are unable to succeed in academia; Laserator languishes in an obscure professorship while Doctor Impossible quits "legitimate" science as a postdoc, after watching himself grow older and older than his classmates while failing to do any serious work.

In the passage containing the description of the Champions' pill-popping bedtime rituals, Fatale articulates what might well be the novel's guiding thesis on what it's like to live as a superhero:
For everyone else, it's a momentary fantasy. They don't have to take them into the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom. Or wake up in the night in flames, or sweep up shattered glass in their apartment, or show up late for work with a black eye. No one else knows where they itch or bruise you, or has tried the things you've tried with them when you were bored or desperate. No one else falls asleep with them and finds them still there in the morning, a dream that won't disperse upon waking.

This litany of domestic details strikes me as particularly relevant from a disability-rights perspective: no one but us knows what it's really like to live with whatever it is we live with. No one but us knows our real "quality of life," the constellation of small, intimate details that define our condition. The passage was meant to de-romanticize the superpowered life, as experienced by our ambivalent and somewhat cynical narrator, but just as she wants to dispel the "momentary fantasy" of how wonderful it is to be a superpowered crimefighter, a similar passage would also work to dispel the equally one-dimensional vision of horror most nondisabled people imagine when contemplating disability.

1 comment:

Corina Becker said...

From my reading of the book, I think Feral is suppose to be based on Wolverine from X-Men.

I also remember reading that Blackwolf supposedly was diagnosed as being autistic.

But yes, I did get that thought about no one knows what it's like to to be us, whether a superhero, a villain or disabled (or a combination of all three :D)