I almost didn't read Prepare to Die! To be honest, superheroes have never really clicked for me in novel form. Maybe it is their inherent visual nature, or maybe — like superhero films until recently — writers just hasn't figured out how to make it work yet; but for whatever reason every superhero-themed book I have read has been a disappointment. The only exceptions I can think of are the early Wildcards books, which were fun to read but owed as much to sci-fi as to superheroes. But I was lured into this book by Paul Tobin. I haven't read too much of his work, but his adaptations in The Savage Sword of Robert E. Howard impressed me enough to give Prepare to Die! a shot.
And you know, what? He did it. Tobin pulled off one of the best superhero novels I have ever read — with a massive, massive caveat.
First the good stuff. Best of all, Prepare to Die! is full-on superhero. This isn't some sci-fi-hybrid, some "well I guess you could say that blah-blah-blah was a superhero novel" mash-up. All the tropes are here; costumes, secret identities, team-ups, evil organizations of super villains. Everything. Tobin took all of the Grand Opera of classic superhero comics and scripted from a humanistic viewpoint that works really well. There are shades of Astro City in the approach, and that works for a novel. I didn't miss the visuals at all, because Tobin was drawing pictures right in my head the way a good author should.
And I loved that Prepare to Die! showcased the infinite possibilities of the superhero genre. I am always shocked at how writers can come up with new powers, new names, in a pool that should have been drained dry long ago. His superheroes are original and innovative: Reaper, the protagonist, whose punch literally drains a year from your life. Kid Crater, who can fly up and descend like a meteor strike. Paladin, the holy hero who takes on the pain of the world. Laser Beast. Octagon. Siren. Macabre. All of Tobin's heroes and villains are fantastic. I would love to see more of them.
All of which is good. But Prepare to Die! has a fatal flaw that is almost impossible to overlook.
Prepare to Die! is "superhero as male power fantasy" at its most pandering. While the male characters are fully realized and creative, the women are just one-sheet fantasy girls straight out of Letters to Penthouse. I don't mind some sex with my superheroes, and when Tobin introduced the character Siren as a sex-crazed super-being I thought it fit with her powers. But when every new woman that appeared on the page was just gagging for it, the book got harder and harder to read. I love James Bond, and I am far from a prude, but this book just got too ridiculous for me to take.
A short run-down:
- Judy — The most accommodating teenage girl to never exist. She happily supplies on-demand handjobs and blowjobs to her boyfriend with no need for reciprocation. She'll hop in a car, service her man on a quick drive around the block, then be on her way with a smile, content with a job well done.
- The Gorner Twins — A pair of Hot Twins, who are more than happy to do an incestuous three-way with the clerk at a convenience store in exchange for a six-pack.
- Laura and Apple — Classic lipstick lesbians who are constantly naked and groping each other in front of everyone. Cannot be left alone for more than two seconds before they are going at it.
- Stellar — Alien babe from another planet looking for the "perfect mate."
- Tempest — Evil super villain who flies around naked.
And then there is Adele. She gave me the most WTF, face-palming moment in the book. SPOILERS BELOW for those who haven't read it.
Adele is the Reaper's perfect little girlfriend from his childhood, before the accident transformed him into a superhero. Things are all quite innocent between them, until the Reaper flies off onto the world stage to become an international man of mystery, sleeping his way through thousands of the world's most beautiful women. But it is all empty, so his path eventually leads him back to his childhood love, and finds her patiently waiting for him these long ten years, his little virginal prize waiting for him after sowing his wild oats.
Really? I mean really? Are people still doing this slut-shaming, virgin/whore male/female double standard? I was honestly shocked by Adele. She is such an unrealistic character, such a male fantasy. And the whole idea that Reaper gets to essentially fuck his way across the world (in detail!) and still have his pure little princess there for him, unjudgmental, not jealous or reproachful, just patiently waiting, a trophy to be claimed when her man is done romping with the loose girls…
What year is this again?
It's really too bad, because aside from the blatant sexism and male fantasy, Prepare to Die! is a damn good book. I would love to edit this, to cut out every paragraph that has a woman acting like a fantasy doll. ( Even the stuff with Adele wouldn't be too bad if Reaper hadn't spent most of the rest of the book bragging about what a stud he is, and how women throw themselves at him.) But as it is, unless you in the market for a pure male fantasy novel — unless you thought the recent revamp of Starfire as a fuck doll with the brain of a goldfish was A-OK — then you should probably stay away from this book.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.