Since its release in early June, the word of mouth on Austin Grossman‘s prose novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible has been growing. Wanting to learn more about the book, SBC recently interviewed Grossman.
Craig Johnson (CJ): Tell us a little about the book, sell it to us!
Austin Grossman (AG): It’s a superhero action-adventure but treated really realistically, and narrated from both sides of the fight. A supervillain, Doctor Impossible, languishes in jail – this was his twelfth attempt to take over the world. We follow his thoughts as he ruefully considers his situation. No girlfriend, no job, his island fortress in ruins…has the smartest man in the world done the smartest thing he could with is life?
The second narrator, Fatale, is a cyborg, and a superhero. Or at least, she’s a woman in her mid-twenties with armor plate, a fusion reactor and an intrinsic targeting computer. As the book starts she’s just gotten her big break with a JLA-style superteam, the Champions (the book has a big supporting cast), and starts to see superhero life from the inside. She’s kind of snarky and still a little traumatized from the accident that gave her her powers, as well as partial amnesia.
So it’s about life with superpowers – which is to say, confusion, trauma, lost love, thwarted ambition, obsessiveness, and everything else we put up with in adult life.
CJ: The Doctor Impossible strand in the book is an unusual take on a supervillain’s problems – how many readers have ever wondered just how much effort the Kingpin had put into an operation before Spider-Man came along and busted it up in five minutes? Do you think that maybe superheroes have it too easy?
AG: Well, I get that superheroes have their problems but really, how can that compare to what villains put up with? All that work, all that planning, years of research, revolutionary new approaches, and in the end everyone’s just a dick about it, and you’re back in prison. No sympathy, no “nice try!” And heroes at least know they’re on the side of right; villains don’t even have that to fall back on. It’s them against the universe – I can’t help feeling that means something. You could argue that it’s heroism of its own kind.
CJ: With Heroes proving a ratings success on TV internationally, and superhero films doing well at the box office, I presume there’s interest for seeing Soon I Will Be Invincible on screen at some point – is that something you’re looking towards? Something you’d want to script, or just sell the rights and allow the different medium to tell the tale its own way?
AG: Well I’m certainly going to spin the wheel. I have a great agent and he’s working hard to keep me involved all the way through. We’re all aware that not all superhero films have done right by their source material, and we want something that’s genuinely character-driven the way, say, The Incredibles was. I have no idea how to do that in cinematic terms, but I hope I’ll be able to hang out and keep the vision alive.
CJ: Many people may say that stories about superheroes are predominantly highly-colourful, action-packed, but most of all visual experience – how can you get over this with a prose novel? What does prose bring to the table that “comics” can’t – or don’t?
AG: We lose the visual but get so much of everything else – what it feels like to be inside a superpowered body, what heroes and villains are really thinking during a superfight, what they’re feeling. Where their attention is during those Situation Room lectures. And of course, what the supervillains are doing all that time while the heroes are flying around and waving to the cameras. It gives a grittier, richer, realer, funnier world
CJ: On this theme, the Bryan Hitch cover is a superbly realised piece of work – but perhaps this gets the book off on the wrong foot, a superb piece of comic art kicks off 300 pages of black and white text…obviously when writing the book you were aware what might appear on the cover, but were you secretly disappointed that the cover was that good?
AG: I started writing Soon I Will Be Invincible only a few months before The Ultimates began coming out. There were days when I wrote with an issue open on the desk next to my notebook, thinking “This is the feel I want – cool glamorous superheroes who also feel like real people! Now how do I do this in prose?” So you can imagine my reaction when we got him to do art for the book!
CJ: Hitch also creates some superb faux covers at the rear of the book, was there ever the possibility of this story being told in comics form first, or was it always to be prose? Any interest on your part in actually re-scripting it as a comic?
AG: The core concept was always to realize superheroes in prose, but I always had in mind the idea of picturing some of the set-pieces to create a multimedia effect – Hitch’s work completes that perfectly.
As to doing a separate comic book version – there would be a ton of rewrite but I think it would be very interesting. I love the effect when – in books like Dark Knight and Watchmen – you have a character’s thoughts running over a series of narrative panels, and there’s a kind of tension there. So I’m just waiting for the call!
CJ: The book is very respectful in its treatment of super-powered people, you avoid a lot of the traps that so many text pieces fall into – how easy were these to avoid, did it require a lot of conscious effort to succeed at this?
AG: Superheroes are – as we know – awesome, and one of my goals was to enrich and celebrate that awesomeness. I set rules for myself when I was writing Soon I Will Be Invincible, and one of them was to make this a cool superhero adventure, to stay absolutely true to the genre, and anything else – emotion, character work – can be layered on top of it. Like Watchmen and Dark Knight did. You’re exactly right, that anything else is a trap – when people set out to make fun of superheroes, it gets boring and cheap very fast.
But to answer your question – it didn’t take much conscious effort, once I realized where the trap was. You just trust your love of the genre, and try to write something that lives up to that.
CJ: With so many superhero comics running for so long, did you ever run into problems with originality in writing the book?
AG: The act of writing a novel about superheroes seemed original enough, to let things feel fresh. I didn’t want to strain myself to think up wacky new powers no one has done before – I wanted to use prose to get a new view of what the classic powers feel like – flight, super-strength, and so on. What it feels like to use them, what it’s like going to a restaurant or driving a car and still having those powers with you, always.
CJ: You’ve been a games designer in the past, you’re a game design consultant now, how did the novel come about? Indeed, with such a literary family, why did it take so long?
AG: Games are intensely collaborative and I love making them, but at this point they’re not truly a writer’s medium. At some point I had to sit down with a clean s
heet of paper and discover what I could do on the page if I pushed myself. I’d quit full-time games work and started in grad school at in English Lit at UC Berkeley, so that was the moment. I was in a writing workshop and put a supervillain in my story, expecting everyone to be appalled at the geek factor, but actually they liked it. So I wrote another story and it started from there.
As to my literary family… when you’ve seen the writer’s life from the inside it’s not always the most attractive thing! I made up my mind that if I wrote something it would be about cool stuff, that I would prove you could write literature and have it be fun. It took me a while to figure out how to do that.
CJ: What comics do you read at the moment, and which do you consider personal favourites?
AG: Well my tastes are pretty mainstream, so I’m not like a guide to the hidden gems – and there are so many good writers in comics now, I don’t even have time track it all down. I try and catch anything Gail Simone does, and Ed Brubaker (I thought Sleeper was amazing). I think the new Blue Beetle is very cool, and I’m just getting into Grounded – could be something cool happening there. I thought a lot of good stuff came out of Marvel’s Civil War – I’m really liking The Initiative and New Avengers stuff.
CJ: Who or what are the inspirations behind your writing?
AG: Apart from the obvious, right? Well I’m an English grad student, so I read a lot of 19th and early 20th century literature, and every once in a while there’s something from Dickens or Thackeray or whoever, a dramatic moment or a trick of timing, that feels like it would work really interestingly for a superhero or a villain, and I bring it in. Kafka, Chesterton, Tennyson, whoever. When you read outside the contemporary, it expands your sense of what’s possible in storytelling, and you can bring it back to a contemporary sensibility, and make it work.
CJ: What next for Austin Grossman – any plans for a follow-up to the book, or even a revisit to the same universe?
AG: Soon I Will Be Invincible‘s world is a lot like Marvel or DC – there are a lot of stories happening at once. I may be looking at some of the events and characters that were on the margins of this book, and bringing them to center stage.