Wearing the Cape: Good fun, but pulls punches


Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon speculative fiction book reviewsWearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon fantasy book reviewsWearing the Cape
by Marion G. Harmon

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.

WEARING THE CAPE Series

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…

Marion G. Harmon

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.

Published in 2011. Who wants to be a superhero? Hope did, but she grew out of it. Which made her superhuman breakthrough in the Ashland Bombing, just before starting her freshman year at the University of Chicago, more than a little ironic. And now she has some decisions to make. Given the code-name “Astra” and invited to join the Sentinels, Chicago’s premier super-team, will she take up the cape and mask and become a career superhero? Or will she get a handle on her new powers (super-strength has some serious drawbacks) and then get on with her life-plan? In a world where superheroes join unions and have agents, and the strongest and most photogenic ones become literal supercelebrities, the temptation to become a cape is strong. But the price can be high—especially if you’re “outed” and lose the shield of your secret identity. Becoming a sidekick puts the decision off for awhile, but Hope’s life is further complicated when The Teatime Anarchist, the supervillain responsible for the Ashland Bombing, takes an interest in her. Apparently as Astra, Hope is supposed to save the world. Or at least a significant part of it.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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3 comments

  1. Hope nearly died of cancer and her sister did. Her BFF jumped off a building. Her plans for college were sidelined by her breakthrough. Her fiance dies. The tabloids paint her as an underage slut. She is regularly beaten up. Then her secret identity is deliberately leaked to the press.

    I liked that it was more realistic. Superheros can’t just knock down doors and grab bad guys. They have to have warrants, insurance, legal standing. All those pesky details they skip in the comics.

  2. The realism is a great strength for this series! I quite liked that end of it. And it’s not that I think nothing bad ever happens to Hope. Quite the contrary! Sorry if that wasn’t clear in the review. Each of the challenges you mention could have been a great source of character growth or central drive, but I didn’t feel that most of them quite managed it (except perhaps the BIG spoiler you mention, but that happens right at the end, when opportunity is largely gone until the sequel). I felt that lot of the obstacles were just things that happened to Hope rather than building from any particular mistakes she’d made, and many had a tendency to disappear on their own rather than forcing Hope to face them directly (and thus grow in the process).

    At least, that was my reading. It may not be yours, but thanks for commenting all the same! Hope that clears things up (no pun intended).

  3. Marion G. Harmon /

    Hello, Mr. Scheidler. A reader sent me the link to this critique, and I quite enjoyed it. Thank you!

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