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From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, by Minister Faust Book Review | SFReader.com
From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, by Minister Faust Genre: Superhero Publisher: Random House Published: 2007 Review Posted: 5/29/2007 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: Not Rated
From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, by Minister Faust
Book Review by Karen Burnham
Have you read this book?
In the terms we use to talk about the fantastic, superhero comic books have long been a genre unto themselves. They combine elements of fantasy (magical and mythic powers) and science fiction (mutants and alien invasions) with archetypal characters and violent conflict. While comic books and graphic novels in general have expanded far beyond these genre boundaries (see "Sandman" and "Maus," et al) recently this sort of story has been moving into the world of the conventional novel. Minister Faust subtly used some of these conventions in his amazing debut, "Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad", and now approaches the heroic comic book genre head-on in the hilarious and pointed From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain.
Dr. Brain takes as its conceit that it is a self-help psychoanalysis book for superheroes titled UnMasked!: When Being a Superhero Can't Save You From Yourself. The "author" is Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, and her other publications include Side-Kicked! When the Alpha-Hero Treats You Like Omega and Sacred Identity: Reclaiming the Demi-God in You. In the wake of the "Götterdämmerung," which saw the defeat of most of the world's supervillains, superheroes -- the individuals and the organizations they belong to -- have been forced to redefine their place in the world. Indeed, the six biggest stars of the Fantastic Order of Justice (F*O*O*J) are so dysfunctional that they have been ordered to Dr. Brain's office for group therapy. Take all the soap operatics that you could imagine with dysfunctional superheroes, and that's our starting point. Every comics fan should read this book. Even those with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the field will enjoy a huge host of in-jokes. A cast of characters will give you a feel for the tone of the book:
*Omnipotent Man (basically Superman) is from planet Argon. Argonium is his one weakness, but that's because it's made into a drug that he's addicted to.
*The Flying Squirrel (Batman, also Iron Man) is an arch-conservative industrialist whose megacompany Piltdown International gets massive defense contracts through the F*O*O*J. He's angling for the presidency of F*O*O*J to set the agenda for the post-Götterdämmerung world, and to secure his company's contracts well into the future.
*Iron Lass (Wonder Woman, also Storm), is a Norse/Germanic demi-goddess. She was the tactical genius behind the Götterdämmerung, and has a spectacularly dysfunctional family past.
*X-Man (no immediate analog -- which is part of the point) is a hero who came up through a Black Panther-type organization, the League of Angry Blackmen (L*A*B) before joining F*O*O*J. Like The Flying Squirrel, he seeks to become president of F*O*O*J, but he wants to shift its mission towards social justice issues. His power involves words and shadows (which is also part of the point).
*Power Grrrl (think Paris Hilton with superpowers). Crime fighting is secondary to her world-wide self-branding efforts. Deeply narcissistic, she has staked out her turf as a lesbian power hero.
*And last but not least is Superfly (Spiderman), a young black playa version of Peter Parker who tends to buzz around the margins of the group, and who is also a shout-out to blaxploitation films.
It is clear from this set-up that there is no end to the number of subjects that Faust can address, and he takes full advantage of his target-rich environment: capitalism, race relations, generational differences, politics, celebrity culture, psychology, post Cold War America, and the War on Terrorism among others. To hit so many serious topics in a book that is frankly hilarious to read is a testament to Faust's incredible talent as a satirist. A lot of them are issues that pop up in fan discussions about comic books, but are rarely addressed directly in the comic books themselves, especially issues of race and class.
Like all the best satirists, Faust is true to the literal reality of his scenario. This is especially important because it means that you don't have to agree with all his politics in order to enjoy the story. The superheroes perform true to their character types and archetypes, and there is a real plot with a real threat to F*O*O*J. The F*O*O*J had been formed by an Egyptian deity known here as the Hawk King. Near the beginning of the book he is found dead. Was it natural causes? Assassination? How can a god die? As the characters try to investigate the death of their own hero and role-model, and continually snipe at each other, Dr. Brain (the sole first-person viewpoint and narrator) runs around trying to get all the superheroes to continue therapy and deal with their feelings, lending a surreal air to the entire narrative.
One of the subtlest elements of the book is how the biases of Dr. Brain herself infect the text at an almost subconscious level. More than once the characters accuse her of being an unreliable narrator, so you can't say Faust is trying to sneak something by the reader. The way Brain marginalizes and pathologizes the concerns of X-Man are an indictment of the way psychology can privilege the standards of WASP society above those of other cultures. X-man is justifiably concerned about the poor and black community he grew up in, and he's especially afraid that if the (barely closeted) racist Flying Squirrel takes control of F*O*O*J the consequences will be dire. However, Dr. Brain repeatedly dismisses his rants and concerns as "Racialized Narcissistic Projection Neurosis." He claims that Hawk King's alter-ego was a black professor named Dr. Jacob Rogers, but she never credits this claim in any way, always attributing it to his race politics. She constantly, if subtly, privileges the viewpoint of Flying Squirrel, who spends more time campaigning (and caring for the ailing Iron Lass) than searching for answers. Not that X-man is some sort of figure of purity and martyrdom. Superfly especially takes some glee in hoisting X-man on his own petard, showing how he's violated his own standards of moral and racial purity. This also points up generational conflicts: X-man, a fighter from the civil rights era, has barely any common ground with Superfly, a hero from the post-civil rights hip-hop generation. Likewise Omnipotent Man, Iron Lass and Flying Squirrel (basically the "Greatest Generation") often find themselves in opposition to the younger X-man, Superfly Power Grrrl (the "Gen X" and "Gen Y") axis.
Faust isn't actually raising any issues here that haven't at some point in the past cropped up in the pages of the comic books, at least marginally. What he is doing is bringing them out into the open and exhaustively interrogating them. He can do this because he takes superhero stories seriously, even as he's laughing at them. There is nothing to stop a reader from approaching From the Notebooks of Dr Brain as simply an action-adventure parody but, like comic books (and the fan discussions of them), there's a lot more to find if you read between the panels. In a way, Faust is asking all of us why we haven't been seeing these things in our comic stories all along, since they've always been there. And when we're done laughing and enjoying ourselves, his book might help us read comic books in a different way, from a new perspective. No matter how broad or pointed the humour, or how cheesy the cover, that is true art.
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