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Whimsical 'Invincible' showcases human interaction

| Sunday, June 24, 2007

About 10 years ago, Austin Grossman was driving in his car when he heard a voice in his head. A voice he couldn't ignore. A voice that commanded him in some strange way.

Dr. Impossible, a villain with super powers, was speaking to him.

"I pulled over to the side of the road and started writing in a notebook," Grossman says.

Plans for world domination• The secret to a powerful machine or potion• Psychotic ramblings that would take Grossman on a long vacation at a sanitarium?

None of the above, actually. Grossman would work with the voice, massage it via some short stories, add some complementary characters and, finally, a decade later, release his first novel, "Soon I Will Be Invincible."

It is safe to say, there's nothing in popular fiction quite like it. After a decade of germination, Grossman introduces Dr. Impossible as a diabolical, complicated evil genius who makes Lex Luthor look like a common pickpocket. He's up against a cadre of psychologically impaired superheros such as Feral, half-beast, half-man, who is under investigation for his brutal methods, and Elphin, the Warrior Princess who was excluded from a mass fairy emigration hundreds of years ago.

"The way I try to introduce people to the book who don't like superheros is I tell them it's a book about real people who happen to be superheros, or supervillains," Grossman says. "It just occurred to me as a good way to write about real people, and the problems they have in their lives."

One must ask, what kind of mind would dare construct such a book that so lovingly creates this alternate world of freaks and geeks• It's natural to think it would be a person who is somewhat invested in geekdom himself, but while that's partially true -- Grossman is a noted video games design consultant whose credits include "Deus Ex" and "Clive Barker's Undying" -- he's not just dabbling in literature. A Harvard graduate born in Concord, Mass., in 1969, he currently is attending the University of California, Berkeley, where he's a doctoral candidate specializing in Romantic and Victorian literature.

While designing video games and writing a novel might seem like wildly divergent pursuits, Grossman thinks there is some commonality.

"Working on a video game, they hand you a lot of genre stuff," Grossman says, "and you have to make it real. Stuff like here's a spaceship, and you spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it real, realer than it's even meant to be. You have to think about the air on that spaceship and how it smells when it's getting recycled, what the dynamics are, like when people have to live in close quarters for so long. I like to say that working in video games was my substitute for a regular fiction MFA program."

Grossman admits for awhile he was the sole audience for his work -- the idea that his stories would become a novel never occurring to him. But the material kept drawing him in, and while it seems perfect fodder for a comic book or graphic novel, Grossman had other ideas.

"By making it a novel, making it all in words, I could develop the little quotidian details that comic books tend to skip over," he says. "Sitting there and working out the details was the great fun of it, and it wasn't until about two or three years in, there was a thought of turning it into something that somebody would publish."

While Dr. Impossible was the book's spark, Grossman knew that he needed to voice the concerns of the villain's nemeses. Enter Fatale, part-human, part-Cyborg, a woman who woke up after a serious car accident in Brazil and found a good deal of her body was metal. She's summoned to the headquarters of the Champions (billed as the world's most famous super team -- and yes, there are others) and given what amounts to a tryout.

"I wanted to write about superhero life," Grossman says, "and gradually, it arose there would be a rookie superhero figure who would enter into that world and learn about it. Dr. Impossible started the book, but clearly there were questions Dr. Impossible couldn't answer, like what it was like to hang out with a superhero team. ... You want somebody a little more normal and a little more confused. Dr. Impossible knows where he fits in that world, but you want somebody who can find and think their way into that world."

One thing that gave Grossman pause about his creation: the comic book fraternity and its steadfast devotion to the form and surliness toward imposters and interlopers.

"I was afraid they would turn on me like the Comic Book Guy on 'The Simpsons,' " Grossman says.

But the earliest reviews have been favorable -- although Grossman says he has yet to hear from bloggers and their take on his work -- and he's delighted that he's already received feelers about making a film of the novel.

"It would have been easier to write a book that dispatched superheros and sort of made fun of them and sort of deflated the genre," he says. "But I think nobody can really mistake reading the book that I really love superheroes so much. I just wanted to make them work, and I invested so totally in the genre. I'm hoping it will be clear to the people who love superheroes that I love superheroes, too."

Additional Information:

'Soon I Will Be Invincible'

Author: Austin Grossman

Publisher: Pantheon, $22.95, 287 pages

Capsule review

You don't have to be a fan of comic books to enjoy Austin Grossman's hilarious 'Soon I Will Be Invincible.' On one side there's Dr. Impossible, an evil genius whose schemes always are destined to fail: 'I've commanded robot armies, insect armies and dinosaur armies. Alien god invasion. Even a corporate takeover. ... Each time, it ended the same way. I've been to jail twelve times.' Like a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, he's confident the next time out, he'll win control of the world.

In opposition, there are the Champions, a fractious band of superheroes who are joined by Fatale, part-Cyborg, all-woman, who gives voice to their internecine rivalries.

What makes 'Soon I Will Be Invincible' work, however, is its humanity. Substitute farmers or musicians or lawyers (well, perhaps not lawyers) for superheroes, and its still a very human book about human interaction.

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