Publisher - The Book Smugglers
Published - Out Now
Price - £3.78 ebook
In a world of superheroes, supervillains and a machine that can create them all, millennial vlogger and girl reporter Friday Valentina has no shortage of material to cover. Every Lottery cycle, a new superhero is created and quite literally steps into the shoes of the hero before them – displacing the previous hero. While Fry may not be super-powered herself, she understands the power of legacy: her mother is none other than the infamous reporter Tina Valentina, renowned worldwide for her legendary interviews with the True Blue Aussie Beaut Superheroes and her tendency to go to extraordinary lengths to get her story.
This time, Tina Valentina may have ventured too far.
Alongside Australia’s greatest superheroes – including the powerful Astra, dazzling Solar, and The Dark in his full brooding glory – Friday will go up to another dimension in the hops of finding her mother, saving the day, maybe even getting the story of a lifetime out of the adventure (and possibly a new girlfriend too)
Since I was a child and saw Christopher Reeve fly (he really did!) I’ve been aware of superheroes and their impact on our culture. In the 90’s they got darker and edgier while in the twenty first century they are now a huge wide-spanning genre ranging from the comedy of Guardians of the Galaxy to the hyper-realism the Dark Knight trilogy aimed for. They are now very much part of our culture not just in movies and comics but used within our day to day language and increasingly used to champion and debate changes in our society. In this novella we get a strangely familiar set of heroes that has a lot to say about how we value our icons and also gives us a fresh and satisfying adventure that goes from secret labs to the stars
We are visiting an alternate 21st century where mysterious machines are given to the countries of the world that appear to have one purpose - to create superheroes. In Australia it was decided a national lottery would be held to choose who gets upgraded and over the past forty years there has been a steady mix of heroes ready to fight internal and external threats from all sorts of quarters and indeed hidden dimensions. Heroes often have a limited shelf-life but their legacy from the clean cut (almost pure Boy Scout you could say) Solar and the grim and gritty The Dark started a run of superheroes that over the decades evolved into what could almost be described as its own celeb fandom with bloggers and youtubers creating a culture reporting on their various adventures as well as their wider impact on society.
We meet popular up and coming vlogger Fry. The next lottery is about to announce the next new hero, but she is distracted as her mother; who was there at the dawn of the superhero age, appears to have vanished. Has she gone undercover; perhaps hiding/romancing with other heroes or has her past caught up with her? Tina was the original Girl Reporter to Solar giving him an opportunity to show his human side to the public and their relationship was always the source of great speculation. However now Fry must decide who can she trust with helping her and are the heroes going to allow a very young keen reporter into the world behind the masks and capes?
It’s tempting to think trying to do a comic in pure novella format will not work because the visuals are being lost but Rayner Roberts easily adds in a focus on character and world building that makes you forget that you’re having to do the artwork yourself and instead gives you a richer world you should really enjoy visiting. The whole world (indeed universe) these adventures take place in is fascinating. It feels totally natural that if heroes did exist then by 2017 we would be following them online daily. The public eye is firmly fixed 24/7 on who they are, what they say and possibly who they date. Fry captures the 21st blogger anxiety to get the story but also that sense is she trading on her mother’s reputation and can she step out of her mother’s shadow. Life is more than how many hits her page generates but instead dealing with that feeling as you grow up that you occasionally must start looking after your parents yourself. She is an engaging narrator happy to jopke but also gives you a honest view of herself and her fears.
The story is lightning fast moving across various set pieces but also has an exceptional ability to hit its character points beautifully at the same time. We move from Fry’s vlogging homelife to the secret HQ of the heroes and then out to a mysterious other dimension where some long-standing secrets will be unveiled. It’s not afraid to laugh at the genre either in one scene we see that in the 90’s the heroes took on board the familiar over designed costumes that would easily have graced DC/Marvel covers back them - with heavy armoured looks balanced with appalling hairstyles! It could easily veer into parody, but each character gets a moment to show their more human side and although there is the team snark you could easily see in any recent blockbuster there are some delicate human touches to show us that these are real people who have found their lives completely changed and that can be both very lonely but also incredibly empowering.
By moving the main plot to Australia, we get to mirror but subtly tweak certain icons of the comic age...Solar and Dark ahem …and get to use their history to set up some interesting contrasts. Solar has been replaced recently with a young woman who also has a physical disability – and just as has sadly taken place with various recent comic reboots we see a divided public reaction between those who see this as a betrayal of traditional values in favour of political correctness to those who welcome greater representation and how it empowers those who previously never saw themselves in our wider culture. There are some interesting debates on growing female representation, privacy and a reminder not everyone will want to be a symbol. There are some reminders that issues on race and sexuality while still an active subject today – Fry is openly bisexual – also have a longer history where public attitudes led to people in the public eye having to take different choices.
By the end of the tale I think we get a fascinating look at a world I would happily explore the adventures of the heroes again in. Its unique and there are hints of wider issues behind the appearance of the heroes, but we also get a very modern and intelligent look at the role of superheroes in our own modern culture and how this changing to meet the needs of society today. Rather than the cold aloof godlike heroes we sometimes get in the movies we get a reminder that often superheroes represent us at our human best and I think that’s a message we sometimes need to hear a bit more often.