Superfolks - Robert Mayer (1977)

Superheroes are people too, with mid-life crises, romantic troubles and so forth just like the rest of us. This is ground which has been well-trodden in past years in movies like The Incredibles, as well as in comic books and other media. Superfolks, however, may have gotten there first. Originally published in 1977, recent editions feature a 2004 introduction by Grant Morrison, the well-regarded comic-book writer, who calls it "a barely acknowledged contribution to the vivid and explosive evolution of the 'mature' superhero story ..." that arose in the 80s independent comics. How much of a contribution it made, I cannot say, but it has much to recommend it as an a forerunner of many of themes that were explored in those glory days of comics.

Superfolks is laden with cultural referents and in-jokes, concerning both comic books and the mid-70s in general. Our hero, a clear Superman homage, came from the planet Cronk, and was given the name David by his adopted family the Brinkleys. Which means, naturally, that David Brinkley's weakness is Cronkite. Some of the references of this type are a bit dated, of course, but are still rather funny - assuming you get them.

Likewise, the comic book references are sometimes a bit obscure, although most of the iconic figures he gives a nod to are still more or less au courant - Superman, Captain Marvel, and others. All have the serial numbers filed off, and are given more depth than their four-color inspirations usually had in 1970. For the comic afficionado, there is certainly pleasure to be derived from seeing how many of the off-hand references you can identify.

All that aside, however, there is a pretty darn good book underneath that jokieness and seventies kitsch. Brinkley is middle-aged and has been slowly losing his powers for some time, degenerating from a near-god, to a mere mortal. Or, we see as the book develops, is it really degeneration? Is he not, rather, maturing from a flat caricature into a functioning adult, with wife and children? The themes of loss of innocence, personal responsibility and, ironically enough, coming of age, are the actual driving forces of the narrative.

Mayer weaves these threads together into a strong fabric, shot through with strands of humor and pathos, and the final result is very good, indeed. It helps if you remember the seventies and/or are a comic book reader (or were in the 80s), but even without either of those qualifications, Superfolks is well worth a read. If you liked The Incredibles you should definitely read it - after all, the creators of that movie almost certainly did.

Overall Grade: B+

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