JULY 18, 2013
BY NOW, the sympathetic comic geek has become a literary archetype. From Jonathan Lethem to Junot Diaz, we’ve come to expect fictional characters who find solace in real pop cultural universes (and authors gain bonus points for their abilities to reference these universes with knowing accuracy.) A character’s obsession with comic books might once have been a symbol for childishness; now it’s more likely to indicate a sensitive soul. Given all that, it’s almost a relief to learn that Lenard Sikophsky, the main character in Samuel Sattin’s League of Somebodies, doesn’t like comic books. Problem for Lenard is this: his father is trying to turn him into a superhero.
Lenard’s father, Fearghas, is committed to raising Lenard according to the Book of Manaton, a tome on masculinity that he treats with religious verve and awe. The Book of Manaton is a mysterious screed laden with insane anecdotes, illustrations, and lots of bombastic, often vituperative advice on how to be a true man. Inspired by the tome, Fearghas secretly feeds Lenard plutonium in the hopes that this will grant his son superpowers. In the world of League of Somebodies, this gambit actually works.
The first part of the novel is taken up with Lenard’s coming of age in Massachusetts, starting in 1967 when he’s 12 years old. He lives a life alienated from other kids, under the thumb of his swaggering, crazy, domineering father, forced to go through a series of tests and ordeals designed to ultimately turn him into a paragon of masculinity. Lenard himself would prefer to be normal, but there’s no room for that when his body’s been mutated into super strength from radiation poisoning, and his rites of passage include not just being bar mitzvah’ed, but also fighting a lion in order to save Laura, the girl whom his father has decreed will be Lenard’s girlfriend.
The novel’s focus is most clearly on trials of masculinity and father-son legacies, and it constantly, untiringly returns to these themes. The book not only explores the relationship between Lenard and his father, but also jumps ahead to the 21st century in order to show us how Lenard repeats the process with his own son, Nemo. Thus, the novel’s superheroic structure is essentially an endless origin story, giving us not one but two coming-of-age tales, with superpowers developed under the “guidance” of an insane father, in a cycle of (literally) toxic parenting. To some extent, the question of the novel becomes whether Nemo will break this cycle. (Nemo is holding a secret Lenard refuses to understand, and is a smarter and perhaps more sensitive soul than his father. And yes, Nemo, unlike Lenard, happens to be a comic book aficionado.)
League of Somebodies represents an interesting turn away from other literary treatments of comic book themes in that it seems more inspired by the graphic medium’s present than its past. Other fictional looks at the superhero genre have tended to focus more on the medium’s real history (Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) or its archetypical dynamics forged in the Golden and Silver Ages (Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will be Invincible). By contrast, Sattin appears to draw inspiration from more current postmodern superhero writers like Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis. In one of the best scenes in the novel, Nemo is silently outraged by an unfaithful film adaptation of a fictional superhero series reminiscent of the work of Alan Moore (a scenario that should seem familiar to any modern comics fan.) League of Somebodies bears far more of a debt to Doom Patrol than to The Avengers.
Unfortunately, the novel’s also inherited a weakness of the postmodern comics writer: the bombastic tone. This is a novel in which everything must be shouted rather than spoken, in which characters are drowned out by their manias. Nobody is normal here. Even peripheral characters are given extravagant backstories. Laura’s mother, for example, turns out to be a wealthy real estate magnate and a strident Marxist who hosts bimonthly meetings for the Socialist Matriarchs of America. Hardly a minor character is allowed to pass through this book without a digressive explanation of his (or occasionally her) oddities.
Occasionally funny, this tendency is often exhausting. The same can be said for Sattin’s prose, which is written with all the subtlety and restraint of a Jack Kirby double page spread, though there is something loopily entertaining in Sattin’s ability to seize upon a metaphor and absolutely refuse to let go:
In the last few years the members of his family, like a deserted cluster of unbalanced planets, had begun to near collision. Lenard had somehow been kept safe. He was a small moon with minimal traces of water, ciliatic threads of bacteria teeming beneath its regolith, which had been bull-wrangled into close orbit by the blazing sun of Fearghas to encourage growth. Floris, however, had zipped off into a different solar system. She’d found a more auspicious rock cluster and merged with it kindly for a brief while until the chaos of space and filial circumstance prepared to xenon her into oblivion.
Buried under the zig-zagging overstuffed plot, the purposefully ridiculous pseudonyms and mysterious acronyms, the diegetic illustrations of chest hair, and the copious amounts of swear words and occasional Scottish-isms, lies an emotional truth. By re-examining the classic superhero theme of transformation, League of Somebodies reveals something fundamental about humanity: we all wish to change, to become the most powerful version of ourselves. While League of Somebodies initially presents this drive for change as destructive and even monstrous, it eventually arrives at the more redeeming vision of personal change made for the sake of love.