Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sidekicked (Sidekicked #1) by John David Anderson

This novel pays homage to conventions of superhero fiction novels, as well as pokes fun at the genre. I am a newbie when it comes to reading comic books or graphic novels, but I have seen oodles of movies over the years and I did hear Stan Lee speak this summer, learning a bit more about common comic book tropes. Stan Lee created: The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Spider-man, Thor, Iron Man, to name a few. Lee was one of the creators that influenced a new type of superhero in the mid-twentieth century that had weaknesses as well as strengths. His characters were not always handsome or affable and had moments of depression. Women characters sometimes played the most prominent role. Spider-man was a teenager with pimples who was a worrywart. Other characteristics of the comic superheroes were that they were adults with sidekicks that teenagers were meant to identify with; hence, Batman's sidekick was Robin or The Human Torch's sidekick was Toro.  The sidekick was supposed to appeal to the adolescent, although I've never met a kid that wanted to be Robin and the author plays on this notion with his main character, Andrew (Drew) Bean, and others of the H.E.R.O team that hate being novices or sidekicks to the adult superheroes. What's fun about this book is that Drew has a self-deprecating, sarcastic inner monologue that pokes holes at common superhero conventions and themes, such as alienation from society, but it also embraces familiar tropes found in well-known comic book characters. Author, John David Anderson, puts his own spin on the familiar in this genre, creating thirteen-year-old Drew who is dealing with alienation and loneliness but tied to middle school issues such as dating girls, feeling inept, disillusionment, divided loyalties, and having no authority. While the plot had enough complexity and twists, it is the character development that held my interest most.

Drew is in middle school and a part of a school environmental club, H.E.R.O, that conceals a secret facility below the first floor classrooms that operates as a training ground for kids with superpowers. The members of the team have cool physical powers. One can turn into granite. Another can produce electricity. A third can walk through walls. Another has super strength and acrobatic skills. Drew? Well, he has hypersensitive senses that can hear or smell scents from miles away. When he finds himself dangling over an acid pool, he mocks the superhero conventions and his less than spectacular superpower: "I can't believe I left my utility belt at school. Again. Not that I could reach anything on it. It's just a comfort thing. Like forgetting your watch or not putting on underwear. Without my utility belt, I am basically harmless. With it, I am at least somewhat potentially threatening." Once in a while the inner gab goes on too long, but for the most part it shows his growth as a character. As the action moves forward, he learns how his superpowers are invaluable to the team in different ways whether picking locks, sniffing out danger, or following the scent of a person.

All of the members of H.E.R.O. are sidekicks and connected with a mentor that trains and teaches them until they are ready to go off on their own to be a superhero. Drew's hero is the famous Titan that put away the villainous Dealer and henchmen. For some mysterious reason, the Titan refuses to mentor Drew and spends most of his days drinking at bars. When Drew is almost killed, he confronts Titan only to be told to "save himself." He learns to deal with his insecurities and isolation with the help of his friend, Jenna. She too struggles with the same issues although the first person narrative limits the reader from getting inside her head. The two have a discussion about good and bad decisions and how they boil down to choices and consequences. The debate shows how the two are ambivalent about the morality of killing a person and what defines loyalty. When the Dealer comes back from the dead and reenlists the help of his previous henchmen the city becomes terrorized. The Dealer hunts down the superheroes who first put him in jail and as the sidekicks mentors start to disappear they decide it is time to take action on their own.

Drew says that the hardest part of being a super is "keeping the secret." This isolates the superhero making them feel alienated from others. Middle school is a time when students are becoming more self-conscious, develop a stronger sense of what is right and wrong, learn to be more independent, and need to belong to a social group. Drew and the other sidekicks have to lie to family members and friends so no one knows when they've been involved in a battle involving villains and superheroes. They are unsung heroes and the seduction of fame and wanting to be special is very real for some of them. Just like Clark Kent was the nerdy, inept reporter by day, Drew is an inept middle schooler. Marvel Comics created teenage superheroes that felt ambivalent toward society and alienated from it. The sidekicks are alienated from other middle schoolers unable to tell them or their parents about their powers.

Gavin and Drew are both interested in Jenna. Drew is insecure with his skinny arms and looks compared to the buff Gavin. The two don't get along as a result. When Drew talks to police about a break-in at his home the officer asks if anyone has a grudge against Drew. He thinks of the villains trying to kill the sidekicks and Gavin who can secrete lava rock, but got injured by some "goon's beam-blasting eyeball." When Drew finally responds to the policeman he says that people don't care about him one way or the other to which the officer humorously responds, "Right. Looks like not much has changed since I was in middle school." When circumstances push Gavin and Drew together and Gavin saves his life, the two learn to work as a team and swallow their differences. Much of this story has to do with friendships, as well as the disillusionment of being a superhero.

In an exciting conclusion, Drew finds his potential as a hero and becomes more confident in his abilities. I did have some questions about the plot such as not being sure why the mayor was a target and how the bee villain fit in to the overall scheme. Some spots are slow and I the prologue confused me (I was thinking the narrator was pretending with a friend), but it comes together and takes off by the end. The world building is solid and the super human powers explained well. Superheroes oftentimes have their hearts broken and Drew does a few times and he is not the only character that struggles with disillusionment. Titan is disenchanted with the superhero gig while Jenna questions the morality of it. Rocket and Mr. Master's want to protect the sidekicks like a parent from getting hurt. Loads of humor and action layered with themes make this worth your while. Another good superhero book is "Steelheart" by Brandon Sanderson. Grab your mask and settle into your favorite reading spot with Drew, a.k.a. "The Sensationalist."

Interesting article on comics in EBSCO database:
Trushell, J. M. (2004). American Dreams of Mutants: The X-Men—“Pulp” Fiction, Science Fiction, and Superheroes. Journal Of Popular Culture, 38(1), 149-168.

4 Smileys

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