Prose fiction has often seemed to have trouble dealing with the figure of the superhero. While the subgenre can boast many excellent graphic novels, and film and television adaptations have been successful, it has never really found its voice in a less visual medium. There have been some notable successes, but it feels as though the breakout work has yet to be written. Wearing the Cape (2011) is a pretty good try, though it does have its flaws.
First, though, let’s talk about the fun central premise. As is standard for postmodern superhero stories, some sort of cataclysmic Event has taken place that has given a random segment of the population super powers. No one seems to know exactly how this has happened, and it ultimately doesn’t much matter — comic books have come to life overnight, and so the result is far more engaging than the cause. Author Marion G. Harmon‘s interesting twist on this well-worn premise is that the powers manifest according to the cultural expectations and beliefs of the superhuman in question. So in America, Superman powers are common, but in Japan you might instead meet a kitsune. A stage magician might suddenly find himself capable of using real magic, while a religious zealot finds himself growing angel wings, and so on. What’s more, superheroes are not given the usual carte blanche to zip around enacting vigilante justice. On the contrary, the top tier heroes have become something between reality tv stars and emergency response teams. They’re strictly regulated by law enforcement on the one hand, while on the other they’re perfectly happy to sell film and merchandising rights to their lives.
It’s a neat conceit, and the amount of thought Harmon has put into his world and how it functions makes the story feel rich and colorful. Our protagonist is another plus for the book, a girl named Hope in her late teens who becomes the Supergirl-esque Astra after being caught in a supervillain attack and wrecking her car. Always having been a superpower fan, she finds herself joining her idols in defending Chicago from various threats, all the while working alongside her hero (and crush), Atlas, the world’s first and most iconic superhero.
Hope is a fun character with a strong voice, and she serves as an engaging window into the world Harmon has created. The narrative feels a little overstuffed at times, especially in regard to subplots (for reasons I’ll get to in a moment), but the central storyline is solid and well-crafted, building to a surprisingly action-packed and emotional climax. The supporting cast is charming, with a number of fun superheroes and inventive power types floating around. The writing is smooth, the dialogue is generally snappy and entertaining, and the scenes are well-paced. Even better, Harmon clearly writes from a place of love, and largely sidesteps a lot of the awkward self-consciousness that has been the downfall of some of his predecessors in writing about superheroes. Even as he engages in some gentle deconstruction by turning the entire institution of superheroes into a form of show-business (explicitly tying it to film premieres, action figures, and comic conventions), he still manages to maintain a romantic tone concerning the idea of the superhero, rather than an absurdist one. This meshing of satire and starry-eyed speculation is very well-done, in fact probably the novel’s greatest strength. It all leads to a very fun popcorn read… most of the time.
My major problem is the way Harmon handles conflict in Wearing the Cape. He has good instincts in regard to setting up a lot of solid, character-building problems for Hope to deal with, but then he all too often makes the problem go away through authorial fiat rather than allowing it to shape the protagonist. Hope is forced to choose between her old friends and her new teammates? No, never mind, her friends learn her secret and get over it and everything’s fine. Hope gets lambasted in the media for screwing up? Oh, don’t sweat it, the PR team will handle that. Hope’s idol Atlas turns out to be something of a womaniser and a grouch? No worries, those character flaws should be evaporating in 3, 2, 1…
To put it baldly, Harmon often seems to love Hope a little too much. While he’s aware that he has to inject tension into the proceedings to keep his audience interested, he also seems reluctant to make Hope miserable for too long or force her to sacrifice something she can’t reclaim. He’s like a helicopter parent trying to teach responsibility: he keeps tossing character-building problems at her and then resolving each one himself (generally via plot contrivance) almost before she can fully react to it. This means he has to keep bringing in new problems to replace the ones he just resolved, leaving the narrative feeling hyperactive and unfocused (it probably would have been wiser to stick with only a few suspenseful subplots that were resolved more gradually).
Another issue — or perhaps another expression of the first one — is that Hope is inescapably a bit of a wish-fulfillment character. She’s not just a superhero, you see, but also the daughter of another superhero, Iron Jack (which is not even slightly pertinent to the plot); a member of Chicago’s elite upper crust (again, inconsequential to the story); and she keeps accumulating best friends forever who all get along so perfectly that one begins to suspect some kind of creepy Stepford Wives explanation that never quite materializes. Then there are the cool costumes, and the fame, and the awesome headquarters, and so on. Wearing the Cape’s central premise is solid, but it’s surrounded by fluff.
Admittedly, it’s nearly impossible to find a superhero who isn’t a fluffy wish-fulfillment character in some regard. Batman’s batcave is a 10-year-old’s ideal secret clubhouse, right down to the scale-model T-rex and the hidden firepole behind the clock. There’s no pragmatic reason whatsoever for Batman to have these things (regardless of whatever so-and-so said to explain it away in issue #358 of The Dark Knight Files His Tax Return or whatever). They’re just cool, in the same way that Hope’s awesome dad and high-flying lifestyle sound like cool things to have. The difference is that most superheroes don’t get to enjoy this stuff free of charge: the powers and toys and fame tend to come bundled with a prominent element of sacrifice. Batman is rich and aristocratic, but also a lonely, bitter orphan. Spider-Man has lots of friends and family, but he constantly has to choose between his loyalty to them and his duties as a superhero. Even Supergirl, the most obvious equivalent for Hope/Astra, might be an optimistic young woman with a lot of power, but she’s also effectively a castaway from a dead civilization. She’s so cheerful and eager to please because she wants to feel that she belongs to her new homeworld. For most of the book, Hope doesn’t have a similar source of pathos. It’s just pretty rad to be Hope, and that’s the end of it. No destroyed planet, no dead parents, not even much of a crusade for justice. Hope just kind of likes being a superhero, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it does make her seem like she’s living a charmed life (what with being rich, popular, pretty, and then gaining her childhood dream of super powers on top of all the rest).
Overall, Wearing the Cape is a fun read with a very interesting take on the superhero subgenre. It would benefit from a less frenetic storyline and fewer pulled punches when it comes to the protagonist, but at the end of the day it’s a pretty good superhero story, especially on the conceptual level.