Book 37: A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

The title suggests some sort of sci-fi epic but Bob Proehl’s debut novel is firmly grounded in the real world. It is at heart a family drama: the story of a woman and her son who have fled heartache and tragedy but can’t truly escape their past.

It’s also a novel about sci-fi epics. And comic books and superheroes and modern pop culture: the nerds who create it, the suits who commodify it and the fans who consume it – and are sometimes consumed by it. Even more broadly, it’s about stories: the stories we tell each other and those we tell ourselves to get through life.

The main character is Valerie, a former actor on a defunct sci-fi show called Anomaly, a clear stand-in for The X-Files or Fringe. The show ended poorly, with a conclusion both messy and unsatisifying, but it still has a cult following. After years away from the limelight, Valerie has decided to make some money on the nerd convention circuit.

Travelling with her is her nine-year-old son Alex, a boy with a love for comics and superheroes but whose own origin story – his family history – is murky. His father, Valerie’s Anomaly co-star Andrew, wants custody.

Valerie’s relationship wth Alex is the novel’s beating heart, beautifully realised. There are other characters, most notably the frustrated comic book artist Brett, and the even more frustrated comic book writer Gail, both of whom come to play a minor role in the main story.

Just about everyone else in the book exists purely as a vessel for Proehl’s commentary on the comic book industry: the bosses who have no creative freedom now that Hollywood has taken over; the old Brit who’s considered a visionary genius as long as you don’t mind all the rape and misogyny; the young models paid to cosplay as sexy superheroes. Proehl clearly has great affection for comic books – he works in the industry – but he’s also frustrated by the outdated gender politics and the creative bankruptcy of the modern era. He’s thoughtful if at times a little preachy.

I’ve seen this compared to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer Prize winner that also centred around comics. That’s a stretch: Proehl is a fine writer but he’s no Chabon and this has none of the scope or sprawl of Chabon’s masterwork. But like Kavalier and Clay, this is a book that will hopefully transcend it’s subcultural roots to find mainstream success.

It deserves it.

Next: Girls, girls, girls.

Author: adamgartrell

Political journalist drowning in books

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