The true stalwart
It features one Xavier Thaxton, highbrow arts guy at the newspaper, who wouldn’t use a comic to wrap fish in let alone read one, but who (you can see this coming) gets super powers. Through a series of plot moments he becomes identified as a fictional superhero named Count Geiger and takes on that role for real. In the novel, such characters are called, after the in-setting comics title, “stalwarts.” Although Bishop’s writing, partly due to Xavier’s point of view, implies that comics standards and culture are nigh-bizarre and occasionally contemptible, the discerning reader will note that his stalwarts, i.e., the fictional comics characters within the novel, are mighty familiar-looking, as if the writer were, you know, really familiar with them.
Xavier’s concept is pretty tightly done, more so than most comics heroes. He turns out to have a Need, which must be fed to keep himself healthy – maximum infusions of junk food and junk culture. So not only does he embody the kind of pop superficiality he so hates, but he has to experience it. With a bit of help from his slacker nephew (who introduces him to the awesomely-named band Smite Them Hip and Thigh) and bemused girlfriend (whose fashion designs cross the junk/highbrow culture line), he even manages to embrace his new life. For a while, it’s an exhilarating high for everyone as Count Geiger turns out to be a damn good real-life stalwart. He muses over his situation often, turning the corner with this bit:
Much of a stalwart’s effectiveness, Xavier reasoned, came from the reputation – maybe even the celebrity – of that character. The angel one knows is a more accessible public resource than is an anonymous angel with no known home address and no verifiable track record as a crime fighter. The problem here, Xavier reasoned, was finding a way to trumpet Count Geiger’s achievements and potential without (1) turning him into a gaudy media freakshow and (2) wholly disrupting his own private life as Xavier Thaxton.
This is the money-shot paragraph of the book, just past halfway through. Although the in-fiction reputation or celebrity of a character may not be the single most defining feature of a superhero character, it’s extremely important, and if you get a tad meta and think of the in-fiction version to be a reflection or assumption based on the public/consumer appreciation, it’s indeed crucial. This is a statement not merely about a superhero’s fictional situation, but about the superhero medium as experienced by its real-life commercial production. The fictional character cannot be effective unless the non-fictional audience is willing to see him or her as effective, and wants to do so as an ongoing reading experience.
To get a little gaudy about it, I’ll go so far as to say that Xavier is struggling to preserve his role as Count Geiger from being trash even though it is indubitably born from trash.
Despite its stunning accuracy, there’s also a glaring problem with it: it’s finishing where we came in. That’s not a climactic insight, it’s a given. The question is what do you do with it? Superman elides or transcends the problem depending on your point of view, whereas Spider-Man grapples directly with it (see Who I am). I get that Xavier is figuring it out for the first time – the quintessential case of the snob who discovers the value in what he thought was tinsel – but for the whole point of the book to be that the reader is to “see it” for the first time … I confess I’m sitting here and replying, “Is that all you’ve got? I coulda handed you Spider-Man #90-100 a while ago.”
As for what happens story-wise, both his success as a stalwart and Xavier himself unfortunately deteriorate. He accomplishes one or two more things, gets into a complex situation with victims of the same radiation that gave him his powers, and the story unravels. It doesn’t manage to bring in anything else which either trashifies or validates superheroics – no villain, in the first place, and no context for his activities beyond the unfortunate reliance on coincidence that by the 1980s had become entirely ridiculous. In all this, it’s hard to tell whether Xavier’s a protagonist or a foil for his nephew.
I have never been satisfied by a prose version of superheroics (close: see Aces high; for supervillainy, yes, rarely, see Right there in the title), but I don’t think it has anything to do with the medium as such. The classic view tells us that comics are kid stuff which rely on distracting visual spectacle and toy tie-ins, and their content wouldn’t stand up two seconds if it were played straight in prose form. Which is nothing more than the bullshit leveled at movies, or any other medium before it outlives a given generation.
Prose superheroes badly tend toward being about themselves as idiom rather than being effective at the idiom, and by “effective” I do not mean “faithful” or “makes comics fans squee.” Count Geiger’s Blues is good at explaining it to you and good at showcasing the tension between “the world as we know it” and the world a superhero needs to be in. However, as a story it struggles between discoursing about its subject, so that neither one winds up all that coherent.
I’m still waiting for the one that gets it.
Next: What was the question again?