When author Andrez Bergen undertook the Herculean task of describing to me the premise of his upcoming book, I was, quite frankly, amazed when he didn’t pass out from sheer exhaustion.
“It’s a futuristic-retro superhero romp that mixes and matches 1930s Art Deco architectural lines with the gung-ho Soviet formalist propaganda style, twisted into 1960s pop art sentiment and the huge influence of Jack Kirby. Think golden and silver age American comics channeled into a dystopian future—via Japanese manga—while heavily skewed by the ’60s Marvel comic book baggage of Kirby, Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko, Steve Ditko and their ilk. And then decant that concoction into the legacy of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.”
Now, I did say ‘book’, not ‘comic book’. Andrez Bergen has stuffed all these comic book concepts into one hefty novel. But the visuals so dear to comic book aficionados have not been forgotten. Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? is illustrated by a variety of artists from the UK, Italy, the United States, Japan, Russia, Spain, Canada, Argentina, and the author’s homeland of Australia.
“I wanted a more professional take on the visual concept and I also liked the idea of disparate visions of the same character—it’s the way comic books, after all, work in the real world. Bryan Hitch’s perception of Captain America in 2009 was far different from John Buscema’s in 1969.”
But the most challenging hurdle of all was his decision to let me read the book. I appreciate comic books for their rich history and contributions to our culture in the form of action movies, occasional fashion statements and a rich abundance of cultural references. However, my own interest in comics was short-lived, just a small dose of Superman back in grade school. I was more of a Tales from the Crypt, MAD Magazine, Asimov and Bradbury girl. And so, with my anemic comic book background, I cracked into Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? feeling like the odd kid out. Right off, I was introduced to Jack, a kid struggling to survive in the dirty ragged remnants of Melbourne, Australia. Jack and I clicked immediately, since I’m fond of survival tales, and so through his eyes I was finally able to discover what comforts and wonders can be found within comic books.
Eventually, Jack learns of an unusual way to escape his life in Melbourne and finds himself wandering Heropa, a retro-virtual metropolis that seems capable of giving him everything he needs. He gets a fresh start, food, shelter, clothing, and caring friends. Jack bumbles along, slowly figuring it all out, while I cheered and encouraged him along. Turns out Jack is a ‘Cape’ (Heropa’s superheroes) by the name of Southern Cross. He settles in with other Capes and learns more about life in the virtual world of Heropa. There are standards he must uphold; no drinking, swearing, or smoking (there are repercussions), and he quickly learns that wearing a superhero mask every day is really annoying. Oh, and there’s another fact of life in Heropa – every night at midnight, the city gets a reset. The ‘Blandos’ (ordinary folk, think non-player characters in a roleplay game) wake up in the morning and go about their jobs and lives with any mayhem, personal injuries and city damage from the day before set back to a nice tidy default. Their memories are reset as well, so every day is a new chance to do the same old things, oblivious to the repetition.
Seems simple enough on the surface, but Jack begins to discover that something is very wrong in the city. Capes are being killed more often and more flagrantly. The resets have stopped working. Alcohol is re-discovered and overly enjoyed. Jack meets a bank teller Blando who steals his heart. And that’s just the beginning of some very big changes happening in Heropa.
Meanwhile, what’s happening to the people back in Melbourne while their virtual Cape personas fight, fall in love and die? And what about the Blandos? With the reset off, are they closer to becoming real people? Are they capable of building memories and relationships and bringing lasting changes to Heropa? Is the definition of reality changing?
I taunted Andrez about writing this whole review as an allegory to a 1947 Studebaker, but instead I’ll just give you a taste. By comparison, his previous novel, 100 Years of Vicissitude, is a Mazda RX-7, able to zip through convoluted Japanese streets and change directions quicker than you can blink.
Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? is more like a 1947 Studebaker Land Cruiser. Big enough to hold a pile of passengers and all their baggage, but with enough attitude to cruise stylishly down a vintage virtual boulevard. First gear takes time to work up to speed, but that’s all right, we can study life on the sidewalks as we pass by. Second gear gets you moving along quicker – it’s going to be bad news hitting a pothole at this speed. Third gear and you’d better be strapped in because this car’s not stopping for anything. This novel ramps up the action one gear at a time, each shift revealing faster and more breathtaking scenery right up to the very end.
As a bonus, the back of the book contains a glossary of all the slang and comic books mentioned in his story, as well as bios of the artists, acknowledgements, inspirations, influences, moments of worth in the authors life, and essential comic book reading highlights. As you can see, Andrez is not one to take shortcuts when talking about his passions. I absolutely recommend Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? You have nothing to lose but your preconceived notions.