Friday, February 24, 2012

Confessions of a D-List Supervillain review

    Damn, we need more independent fiction like this.

    That's my summary of this work. I put it up there with Soon I will be Invincible for 'best superhero fiction I've read.' I put it above Brian Clevinger's Nuklear Age, which was funnier but left a sour taste in my mouth, and about even with Wearing the Cape. This is remarkably upbeat for a story about a career criminal.

    There's some flaws in the book, don't get me wrong. I'm not a big fan of the cover and there's some story issues. Still, it's about as good as a comic book I'd enjoy reading. It reminded me a lot of the age-old maxim comics should leave the reader feeling happy at the end. Given the glut of "darker and edgier" storytelling, it's nice to have something which gives you a warm fuzzy feeling.

    The title is a bit misleading. The protagonist, Mechani-Cal, is only a supervillain for the first fifteen or so pages of the book. His criminal inclinations are barely existent and he didn't fall into evil as so much slid vaguely downward (thank you, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett). It is, however, an excellent story about how one man gets wrapped up in events far larger than himself and ends up making stupid mistakes.

    Cal is likable enough. He's a bit like an evil Peter Parker or a criminal version of the second Blue Beetle. He certainly has the Spiderman and the Blue Beetle's "hard luck" going for him but he also has the same background as the Beetle/Mach V (attention whore scientist turns against the company that employed him as a means of getting revenge/money).

    The book sympathizes with him a bit too much. It's as if we're expected to agree embarking on a life of crime is an acceptable response to getting laid off. Still, the fact Mechani-Cal is BAD at being a supervillain is a big source of the book's humor.

    One of the funnier jokes in the book is how Cal is so completely lost in himself that he accents the "Cal" in several of his inventions like "Mani-Cals." Likewise, everyone assumes his name is the very superhero-esque "Mechanical" but Cal hates the name despite it being objectively less stupid. Amusingly, no one points this out to Cal over the course of the story. Cal, thankfully, goes by his real name for the bulk of the narrative.

    The bulk of the narrative focuses on Mechani-Cal's involuntary quest for redemption. Not to spoil, since this happens in the first few pages of the book, but another supervillain has conquered the world. Given the alternative is becoming a slave, our anti-hero protagonist becomes one of those people who wants to see the world freed. The rest of the book focuses on Cal's on-again off-again relationship with Aphrodite, one of the world's few remaining superheroes.

    I confess, the romances didn't exactly wow me in the story. Calling it plural romances is also stretching it a bit since the main part of the story focuses on Cal's romance with a superheroine while I was rooting for another character with whom he has sexual tension. As with all "shipping", the story runs the risk of having readers like one character over another and I confess, I liked the "secondary love interest" astonishingly more than the main girl. I suspect I will not be alone, which may come to bite Jim Bernheimer in the butt if he ever wants to do any sequels.

    Maybe they can hook up in the sequel? What can I say, dare to dream.

    An area where the author succeeds is that he manages to make a fully populated and original superhero universe. 'Original' is relative since the author takes some obvious shortcuts like making the "Olympians" the main superheroes of the setting. You don't really need to know much about Greek mythology to have a vague idea what Athena's personality and powers are.

    This shorthand works well in giving us a dozen (or more) superheroes without having to waste much time describing them. More attention is paid to Ultraweapon, who seems to be this universe's Tony Stark with all of his darker qualities turned up to the 11. I'm a fan of the minor characters, especially, like Wendy and the Bugler.

    One thing I liked about the book is that the author isn't afraid to let things go horribly wrong. When the book opens, the heroes have really screwed up and the consequences are devastating for the entire world. For a time, it reads like Permuted Press fiction with the setting approaching post-apocalyptic.

    Thankfully, it never progresses from Mad Max to The Road Warrior. Yes, a book with serious consequences to the world being taken over is lighter and softer than most comics out there. What can I say? We live in a time of very dark comics.

    I confess, though, Jim Bernheimer really should have thought of a different name for the setting's archvillain. The Evil Overlord? Yeah, it's cute and funny due to the Evil Overlord List but it kind of undercuts the menace fellow is supposed to possess. He also has subplot that's introduced which never really goes anywhere. I'm hoping we'll see the consequences to Cal's Faustian bargain with the man in the sequel.

    If I do have one major complaint there's a gimmick that the book is essentially the real-time first person perspective of Cal. This is distracting and while it does eventually have a payoff that makes perfect sense, I think the set-up could have been done differently. A few people may claim the ending also has a "cheat" regarding one of the character's fates but I'm a sucker for happy endings.

    Which brings me to the price. Honestly, this is an oddball complaint but the price on this book's Kindle is abnormally low. At three dollars, I felt the book should have been 5.99 since that seems more equivalent to the value of the content.

    As a result, I'm going to save up the pennies from my very tightly wrapped book budget to purchase the physical copy of the book as well, which is only $8.99. I don't usually do this with independent fiction but I think the author earned his fee with this work.


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  1. I read and really enjoyed this book too. It wasn't perfect, with a few minor flaws, but compared to what's out there, D-List Supervillain is more than a cut above most.