It occurred to me earlier this week, when the author posted a summary of some of the recent reviews of her book, that I'd never actually posted one of my own. This, despite being unabashedly in love with it (and kinda liking the author, not to mention the publisher thereof), pimping it here at many a turn, and even, at one point, personally accounting for over six percent of the publishing house's own sales of the thing.
So I thought I'd remedy that, with the added benefit of reminding you to go! buy! read! love!
You think being a mere mortal is tough, huh. Well, the Supermen among us don't exactly have a walk in the park either, or even a single-bound-leap over it. Supe's case has probably been the most extensively documented (perhaps most famously and funnily here), but it can't be a lot of fun for any of them to be that different, that misunderstood, even if they do have the company of a few others of their kind hanging around at those weekly Justice League meetings. (I suspect they're the same as AA, only the "steps" are a lot higher.)
Writing about them can be just as tricky. For one thing, there's the temptation to focus on the powers, those glittery special effects that power the summer blockbusters, rather than on the man or the woman under the spandex. Far better writers have fallen prey to this mistake; in last week's New Yorker, John Lahr reviews the tangled Broadway web that is Spider-Man, and finds its visual-effect sock-pow-bammy work to be, well, Amazing, but: "The stagecraft is about as good as it gets: all 'Spider-Man' needs now is a new book and new songs." And other than that, Aunt May, how was the play?
It's also damn mine-fieldy to avoid referencing, much less outright infringing on, the varied 'verses of superly-abled characters when you're trying to create something original. For instance, how can you populate a story with a variety of genetically-mutated humans of extraordinary abilities without having Stan Lee's lawyers at your door with a cease-and-desist letter?
I have no idea, but Susan Jane Bigelow does- because Broken does exactly that.
Broken avoids all the traps and trap-doors inherent in focusing on the abilities rather than on those who have them. Sure, there's some flying, and an occasional well-placed superhuman heal, but nobody changes the course of mighty rivers (they have to shlub across one in a boat, same as the rest of us), and nobody's there bending steel with their bare hands. The action in these action heroes is almost incidental, and that's what makes the story so much more compelling.
The one supernormal ability that Broken puts the most focus on, and we all have the most interest in (and even fun with) is the bending of time rather than of steel bars. While the cover and the title feature a flyer and healer of names that include "Broken," arguably the story is more about a younger prescient named Michael, who sees, not the future per se, but the possibilities for people IN that future. Bigelow weaves these strands of yesterday, today, and maybe-tomorrow into a far more beautiful web than the one that's crashing down nightly on Broadway right about now; she's helped in her effort by an imaginative and effective use of the text itself, which, through a variety of fonts and bolding/italicizings, makes it movie-screen clear when you're in the past, the present, or a possible future.
Nor does Bigelow have anything to worry about from anyone else who has worn the capes or tights or Nine Inch Nails before her.
If there is even the slightest suspicion that Broken is going to turn into a Xerox of X-Men, it's gone in the first chapter or so. Yes, these "extrahumans" have many of the same abilities, and societal reactions to them, and some of their particular mad skillz might slightly resemble something Marvel-ous. Still, those images were faded at best for me even at the beginning, and by the time you get to know these people AS people, however skilled, you'd be shocked as shit to see a chairbound Jean-Luc Picard showing up in the middle of one of Bigelow's scenes.
(In fact, if I were to nitpick anything in the entire book for being a little too homage-genous, it'd be one scene focusing on a post-apocalyptic bunch of "Americans" in this one-world dictatorship of the early 22nd century; it was nothing X-Men or anything else Marvel-verse, but a bit too evocative of Star Trek TOS's "The Omega Glory," lacking only the words "E plebnista!" to make the connection complete.)
Bigelow shines by not using too much of the shiny to make the point. Sky Ranger's flying is an incidental aspect of his character; there's far more of interest in who he is, and was, and how he uses, and is used, by those both of and not of his kind. You can't confuse him with Supe or Spidey or any other competing hero because his insides are laid out far more extensively, and beautifully, than their stories typically are.
And a memo to anyone seeking the film or Broadway rights: you could stage this production for a microscopic fraction of what is being sunk into the stage of the Foxwoods Theatre (not to mention several nearby emergency rooms). And I, for one, would buy a season pass to see it from the front row over and over again:)