I interviewed Austin Grossman, author of the critically acclaimed original superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible and graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in early June 2007. Then I got RSI and moved across the Pacific, which is why you’re getting this in August.
My review of the book is listed here; the forum thread regarding it, to which Austin contributed, is here.
KH: So, speaking of superheroes before we talk about the book, who’s your favourite hero? Your favourite villain?
AG: My canonical favourite superhero is Batman. There are a lot newer and flashier heroes but Batman just encapsulates the obsessiveness of superhero life. His origin is constantly recapitulated and he really doesn’t have anything going for him other than his origin and its obsessive force. So yeah, I’m a Batman guy. And his romantic tension with Catwoman is for me the greatest romance [in comics]
Favourite supervillain? I ought to be able to answer that properly! I learned the rhetorical style of supervillainy from Doctor Doom, and he’s really terrific, although I feel like we never really get enough of his internal life. I think we’re a little locked off from [him]. [thoughtful noises] I wish there was a perfect supervillian that I liked. Lex Luthor… I quite like Lex Luthor. I know you’re trying to give me a softball here but really, I got nothin’.
KH: In the publicity information, you mention that you think the angst and drama of superhero comics always comes from the villains; that they are the real figures of interest in a superhero story. I found that really interesting, because I rather despised Doctor Impossible, and loved Fatale. What is that appeals to you in Doctor Impossible?
AG: Well, Doctor Impossible kind of encapsulates this [idea] that villains are so generative, they’re so inventive, there’s so much energy that goes into their creations. They’re the ones who kind of plot a lot of superhero comics. They author what happens. I mean, the villains have set it up. They’re the ones who have to do their homework about what’s going to happen in the next issue.
Villains are figures of thwarted ambition, thwarted passion, thwarted love. There’s just no way I could help gravitating towards their position.
And it’s so elective. They’re people who ought to be Olympic athletes, Nobel prize-winning scientists. They really don’t have to be doing what they’re doing. There’s something so perversely driven and willed about what they’re doing. I find them endlessly fascinating.
KH: Fatale was not exactly an afterthought, but a second thought. Where did she come from?
AG: There was another voice. I mean, at the beginning I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel at all. I was messing around. But there was another voice and another situation going on that I was taking notes on that clearly weren’t [Doctor Impossible]. That’s what developed into Fatale.
I really, really like Fatale. Some reviews don’t even mention her, which makes me very, very sad.
Fatale’s so numb, so traumatised, so not at home in her body, someone who’s not really at home in this war between superheroes and supervillains, someone who has to figure out a place there. Whereas Doctor Impossible seems so naturally placed in the genre. Fatale’s so aware of her body and other people’s bodies, and has a larger range of things to think about and deal with.
There’s clearly something so hermetic about Doctor Impossible that I couldn’t make a whole book about him. There has to be someone open to the world outside, who was walking around and met people,
So yeah, I have a ton of interest in Fatale. Most of the second half of actually writing the book was about [her].
KH: The deconstruction and reconstruction or enhancement of the body is a huge theme in Soon I Will Be Invincible. Doctor Impossible mentions that there’s a price paid for powers, and that price is housed in the body it’s visible within a few steps if you know what to look for. Many of these people are broken in some way or another, relying on drug regiments or painkillers. That’s unusual in superhero fiction, where old injuries usually only turn up for plot-convenience. Why this focus on the body and the price paid in Soon I Will Be Invincible?
AG: One of the things that emerged from the experiment of writing about superheroes in prose instead of in pictures was a much closer description of what it was like to inhabit a superpowered body. It led me to thinking a great deal about how violently altered the normal body is for a superhero.
It seemed to me that in a lot of superhero comics people’s powers are kind of stand-ins for their personalities, or what they have instead of a personality, or extensions of their personalities. It’s probably the graduate student coming out in me, but I see superpowers as a kind of symptom on the body, of some kind of personal bind or situation. The canonical example of this is Rogue, you know, the way her superpower is so distorting for her personality.
It extended to what I think of as the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma; the way superpowers arise in trauma to the body that one never quite gets over. The trauma impresses itself onto the body but also leads to a hyperfunctioning of the body.
It seemed to me to be a really rich way of talking about how everybody has bodies, and everybody has trauma. The way people hold their bodies or use their bodies , just in conversation or in walking down the street, are deeply symptomatic or deeply related to some kind of origin or personal narrative or physical experience that they’ve had at some point.
It seems like the trauma element gets glossed over a little bit in superhero comics; it gets glossed over even though it’s the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special or makes you superable, superenhanced.
For Fatale it’s trickier with some people she has a harder time with that trauma. And the subject of her story arc is coming to terms with that.
KH: Actually, that’s my next question! Fatale’s story deals with the physical and personal destruction of her previous self, who she doesn’t remember. She has a lot of trouble coming to grips with her reconstructed body, particularly because it’s not conventionally attractive. And yet, she identifies as a hetero woman, and is still a sexual being, and eventually comes to some accommodation with her created self. For these, and other reasons, I read her as a feminist hero. Would you agree? Was this deliberate?
AG: I’m glad that you read her that way. It’s vulnerable to the critique that I made a female character the one who has the most trouble with her body. Honestly, when coming up with the character, I didn’t put in a lot of political feminist thought into what she would be like. I sort of wrote it as I felt it and I didn’t really mark for myself her problems as women’s problems. Obviously, everybody has a body and everybody has to come to terms with that.
I played with a lot of stuff with Fatale. I played with the idea that she was really strong, but part of that was because she was a big person; she weighed a lot, she carried a lot of hardware around.
KH: She’s not a ghost in the shell.
AG: No, she’s not a ghost in the shell. She’s not a fembot. She’s sort of aware that fembots exist, or are supposed to exist, somewhere in the world, and that she’s not one of them.
Writing about her, I didn’t really think of them as female problems. I thought of them as problems everyone has; coming to terms with the events that altered their relationship to their body, and how they have to come to terms with that as an adult. But I didn’t put a huge amount f thought into making that gendered, I just tried to make it human.
KH: What do you think of the treatment of superpowered women in comics, particularly the ‘sexy cyborg’ trope, which you explored through Fatale and her predecessor on the team, Galatea?
AG: Galatea has her tragic death and her legend and Fatale has to kind of step into that role. And she kind of resents that situation, but whatever, it’s just part of another day as Fatale.
Uh, treatment of women in comics… well, obviously, a lot of things are kind of appalling.
KH: You talked [pre-interview] about the sexy new Ultron what’s your take on that?
AG: Oh, I don’t know, I just kind of stare at that. As [She’s Such A Geek co-editor and Techsploitation writer] Annalee Newitz pointed out, somehow that being came from Tony Stark do we know yet, how that actually happened?
KH: No, and we’ve had three issues so far.
AG: So there’s kind of the open question of what that’s going to come to mean. Is it that whatever it is used to be Tony Stark; is it a transexual being what exactly happened there?
I mean, I’m kind of… take as read a lot of the critique that’s already on [Girl-Wonder.org] because it just seems too obvious for me to mention there’s hypersexualisation of bodies, there’s… you would think that it would be getting better, faster, than it is.
And I wonder what’s going to come out of Gail Simone’s run on Wonder Woman whether that will get interesting. Clearly people are feeling their way into more interesting takes on [women in comics].
I’m a Buffy fan… I’m really kind of sorry that Gert from Runaways got killed.
KH: Oh, that was so sad.
AG: That was supersad! I mean, why Gert, of everyone on the team?
KH: I think Brian K. Vaughan said something about how it had to be Gert, because she was the one everybody loved.
AG: That’s just not right.
Uh, well, there are a lot of characters I really enjoy Ms Marvel, Manhunter there are women carrying titles. And they’re still drawn on the same model, but something more interesting is happening with their lives they can have private lives, they can have sex, they can deal with that.
People are not feeling their way in at an incredibly rapid rate.
KH: But you think things are improving?
AG: It seems as if things are improving, just as writing in general in the comics industry has got so much better. It’s a little difficult because… if I could imagine the next step I would take it.
Things must be getting better! They couldn’t get any worse.
The next question and answer contain seriously massive plot spoilers I am not kidding you guys. If you haven’t yet read the book, read on only if you like that sort of thing.
KH: I particularly enjoyed your take on the superhero’s reporter girlfriend archetype, which literally empowered her to save the day. How did Erica/Lily become such an important part of the story?
AG: Lily was already an important part of the story because she was the character who was neither a hero nor a villain. Whereas all of the other characters are obsessed with that divide, Lily, even from the beginning of the book, sense that that’s bullshit. And a bit silly. She’s the person who could consciously walk across that divide and doesn’t really let it define her. So she’s already just about the smartest person in the book.
The late revelation about her real origin that occurred to me late in the writing, but it seemed perfect once it arrived. Writing the book was always tightrope walking between following the genre conventions and investing in them, and stepping outside them, or at least revealing a larger emotional world outside them. It seemed like the seem left to do was to treat with the Lois Lane figure the sidekick girlfriend and do something with that.
I’m not sure what else I can say about it that isn’t said in the book itself. I can just say that, yes, on many levels she’s clearly the smartest person there. And the person best positioned to see well, not quite to see the foolishness of the superhero/villain genre divide, because it’s a divide in which I also deeply invest and have a lot of fun with but at least to sort of see an outside to it. And on some level, all the other characters in the book are obsessive neurotics regarding their role in the superhero world. Lily at least can see outside the obsession.
KH: She seems more relaxed about it.
AG: She’s more relaxed about it, she can see that it’s sort of funny, she can live around it, but not be so trapped in it.
Okay, the spoilers are done!
KH: This is a book steeped in superhero comics mythos, from the knowing winks at characters like Batman and Superman to the chapter headings. And it is also, for lack of a better word, grown-up fiction. Superhero comics have been protesting for a long time that they’re ‘not just for kids’ anymore is this book a step in that direction?
AG: Well, [the book] is a step in some direction. Even as independent or alternative comics became very interesting, I was always kind of the guy who was still super-invested in superhero comics. I totally loved them. I’d go down to the comic book store and I’d see other people who were my age also kind of checking out the superhero comics and I’d think to myself, there’s got to be more to this genre: more emotional range; more expressive work we can do with the tropes of the superhero genre as it exists.
And then Fortress of Solitude came out, and I thought, great, this is going to be it. And it wasn’t really it. I thought, writing it, Letham seemed a little too ashamed of superheroes; not quite trusting enough to fill it out more.
It’s a step in some direction obviously it’s a step that follows the steps of others. It follows Frank Miller, it follows people who are really, really good who are writing now, like Ed Brubaker, Gail Simone.
KH: It seems that many of the people who write best about superheroes have written in reaction to superheroes Miller and Moore have both expressed their dislike for superhero [tropes]. But you love them.
AG: Yeah, I love them. And they love them too. Who are they kidding?
Part of the trick of the book was to write it without subverting the genre entirely, without deflating it, without making it look ridiculous. To write it while still investing in it and loving it and try to make it real, and have the characters function as superhero characters, while also functioning as real people.
I, hm… I wrote the book I wanted to read. The one I wanted to have. I don’t want to say it’s a step in the right direction, like, hey, I’m leading the way! But it’s a step toward what I hope is a more vital literary creation. I guess I came of age as a literary reader in the age of Raymond Carver and [inaudible]: these perfected, minimalist short stories that were so incredibly dry and incredibly controlled and I thought, there must be some other way we can go with this. There must be some way to write the stuff I love in a way that feels more emotionally honest, that feels more emotionally full or fully realised.
Clearly there’s a literature there that wants to happen. And I can’t help feeling that it is happening. I mean, the superhero writers, the comics writers we have right now are really good, and I really enjoy reading comics. And when I look back at the 80s and 90s of mainstream comics I’m kind of appalled; there’s a lot of really bad stuff going on there. They clearly are getting better.
Whether they need to become more like Soon I Will Be Invincible, I don’t know. That would be too much to say.
KH: How did your years of experience as a game designer impact the writing of the book?
AG: I’d like to say somewhat pompously that working in video games was my substitute MFA. That was where I got to do a lot of writing, without very much supervision, and I got to play around with a lot of genre and pulp staples.
KH: What games did you write for?
AG: Oh, mostly games that you don’t know unless you’re a pretty serious gamer. I wrote for Ultimate Underworld 2, System Shock, Deus Ex. I worked on Tomb Raider: Legend, the newest but one Lara Croft game. I’ve worked on a lot of games.
I learned a lot. There are huge formal challenges in the context of writing for video games so it was kind of a narrative formulist education. But it also made me want to write a novel, where I could sort of control everything and not have to collaborate, and sort of stretch myself a little bit, which is what Soon I Will Be Invincible is.
It’s probably boring to most people, but working in 19th Century literature actually had a big influence as well. One of my big literary influences is Tennyson, who nobody reads now-
KH: No, I love Tennyson!
AG: I love Tennyson, I love the way he well, he and a lot of other people take the material of epic and saga and so forth and condense it down into these expanded, intensified lyric moments. Like, ‘Ulysses’, is the favourite example. And I tried to bear the same relationship to this superhero material that those writers did to their classical stuff; updating it, making it feel more human, making it [inaudible] in a way that isn’t always apparent when you’re reading the older epic material. I tried to make the same trick happen.
I don’t normally tell people that because I don’t want to say, ‘It’s like Tennyson! You’ll like it just as much as you like Alfred Lord Tennyson.’
Obviously, working in academic literary studies built up a certain amount of frustration that you get to take out writing about superheroes. The fact that Doctor Impossible is kind of an escaped graduate student, you may freely chalk that up to autobiographical [material].
KH: I’d like to point out that Doctor Impossible isn’t actually a doctor.
AG: No, that’s true. Like many supervillains he granted himself his own degree. There’s a line from Chapter Five that I read last night to a largely academic audience it’s after the lab accident the line is, ‘That was the beginning of Doctor Impossible’s long, impossible doctorate.’
It took me a while to name him, but I knew he was either going to have to be a Doctor or a Professor. Because that’s part of the fun! Supervillains have that sort of scientific or academic gravitas that superheroes never seem to have.
KH: Except [Marvel’s] Doctor Strange.
AG: Oh, except Doctor Strange! Yes, well spotted.
KH: Do you have any plans for a sequel? What other projects have you got lined up?
AG: Yeah, I’m trying to make a decision what to do there.
We’re actually working on a film version of the book, which I can’t really say anything about, which I’m super-enthusiastic about. With one or two exceptions, I’ve actually been really, really frustrated with nearly all film versions of superhero action. It seems always to fall apart when it’s compressed into a two-hour format. The Incredibles is the notable exception to this, but I would be hard-pressed to name another superhero film that I really felt had achieved what it was trying to do. In working on the film we’re working very carefully to ensure that the option isn’t just snapped up.
I’m thinking about what else to do. What I would really like to do is if the book does well, leverage a little bit of that creative capital or credibility and make a really, really good video game. Make a video game that was sort of creatively realised the way we know video games can be but so seldom are. Obviously, the writer’s not the main guy on most video games. But what if they were?
That would be really, really nice to try, if I can line that up.
And of course I’m thinking about a new book… but I really have no idea.
KH: Pantheon has you on a… two-book contract?
AG: Ah, no, they don’t. [laughs] I have to actually think of an idea. But I’m sure something will arrive soon.