Comic books sales have held somewhat steady in the past 15 years, waxing and waning little from year to year, with a few sudden jumps (last year) and slumps (2010). But super heroes? They are virtually everywhere. From movies to TV shows, in advertising and product endorsements and numerous cross-media tie-ins, super heroes are riding high.
And what’s not to love? There’s the every-man Peter Parker and his Spiderman alter ego, Batman with his gadgets and his strong sense of right and wrong, Tony Stark with his startling wealth and accompanying smart aleck attitude, Superman with his goodness, Hellboy with his goodness set against his demonic appearance, the struggles of the mutants in the X-Men series. And what’s not to hate? The Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, Lex Luthor and the Green Goblin, svelte Catwoman and steely Magneto, Venom, Carnage, Kingpin, Doctor Doom, General Zod … all those leering, ridiculous and obviously evil bad guys.
But those are comic books; that is Hollywood, make believe. What would happen if there were super heroes in the real world; or rather, if suddenly some folks, ordinary folks, happenstance people, were unexpectedly imbued with super powers? Would everything be as black and white as in the movies (thematically speaking)? Would good be so separate from evil? Or would everything come out as some sort of petty, egotistical gray?
V.E. Schwab‘s new book, Vicious, explores the not so noble side of sudden inexplicable power in the not so distant future. Victor Vale is a brilliant, taciturn, cynical college student whose self-help guru parents’ wealth opens doors but provides no emotional support; his preferred mode of relaxation is to take a black Sharpie to one of parents’ books and redact it so as to totally change the meaning of the text (“Be lost. Give up. give In. in the end It would be better to surrender before you begin. be lost And then you will not care if you are ever found.”). His sudden and initially unwanted roommate, Eli Cardale, is a brilliant, charming, all-American golden boy who, if watched closely enough, has something about him – a fervor, a keenness – that is “decidedly wrong.”
In a senior thesis seminar at Lockland University, Victor (on a whim) declares his thesis will be on “Adrenaline and its physical and emotional inducers and consequences.” But Eli has something a bit more sensational in mind. He wants to prove a theory for “feasibility of the existence of ExtraOrdinary people, deriving from laws of biology, chemistry and psychology.” To everyone’s surprise, Eli’s thesis is accepted.
In this near future world, ExtraOrdinaries – EOs – are a mysterious phenomenon that may or may not be real; as of yet, they fall into the urban myth category. Most people know of the possibility of EOs through “believer sites and the occasional late-night exposé where ‘experts’ analyze grainy footage of a man lifting a car or a woman engulfed in fire without burning.” But Eli (who may or may not be a “believer”) wants to not only find existence of such beings, but also – if they can be confirmed -determine if they are born that way or if they are “made”. And to do so, he needs Victor’s help.
The two set out to prove what they have determined – that EOs, if they exist, can be created. The way to do this would be extreme, and very dangerous. Once the idea has gripped them, though, they forge ahead, forgetting caution or even reason, swatting away consequences. Deciding to test their theory on themselves – not so much because it’s the right thing to do (sidestepping if it IS the right thing to do) but because it’s easier, less problematic – it becomes apparent that not only is each of them addictively curious as to the outcome of their experiment, but also, if successful, desirous of being able to draw on some kind of superpower, even if there is no guarantee of what that power will be.
The moments that define lives aren’t always obvious. They don’t always scream LEDGE, and nine times out of ten there’s no rope to duck under, no line to cross, no blood pact, no official letter on fancy paper. They aren’t always protracted, heavy with meaning. Between one sip and the next, Victor made the biggest mistake of his life, and it was made of nothing more than one line. Three small words.
“I’ll go first.”
What follows is a fast paced, gripping story of bitterness and revenge, with people being used mainly as pawns by those who have positioned themselves as above ordinary laws of man or gods.
Author V.E. Schwab’s narrative positively vibrates on the page. Her characters – not just Victor and Eli, but the others with whom they come into contact, with whom they align and who they use, and those who use them – would be at home on the pages of a comic book, but she manages to bring that dark and colorful nuance to a more literary styling without losing the visceral edge of pen and ink. She takes all the super hero tropes and applies them to the mundane world in a way that makes it anything but mundane. And she manages to play into our modern cynicism of media and myth to give us unsympathetic characters who yet evoke our sympathies, and has us cheering deeds that in lesser hands would be devastating. For once, we don’t really care about happily ever after, we just care about revenge.
…these words people threw around – humans, monsters, heroes, villains – to Victor it was all just a matter of semantics. Someone could call themselves a hero and still walk around killing dozens. Someone else could be labeled a villain for trying to stop them. Plenty of humans were monstrous, and plenty of monsters knew how to play at being human.
Heady stuff, that.
As the nights around us start to lengthen, and for many of us, the world starts to die back and become thinner, stingier, more restless, as we move towards the popular bent of spookiness and mayhem, now would be the perfect time to settle in and read Vicious. While it involves no spandex and only one somewhat supercilious incidence of a masked hero, while its Gotham-like city of Merit holds no highly organized phalanx of good nor even the genesis of an axis of evil, Vicious nevertheless will chill in a way even more unnerving because the possibility of it playing out in our world seems oh, so much more real, so much scarier.
And oh, so entertaining.