I learned about the book In Hero Years… I’m Dead while I was still writing Wearing the Cape, and avoided it. Not because I didn’t like the Amazon description, but because at that point in my writing I didn’t want to take a chance on cross-contamination from a great book by an established author. But I already loved the main character, Revenant, from his supporting appearances in PS238, and in February I decided to take a break and seriously survey the field for other superhero-genre novels. In Hero Years… I’m Dead came in at the top of my list.
The heart of IHID is the story of a superhero out of his own time; Coyote, a “Felix”-type superhero (an athlete/martial artist with a utility-belt full of gadgets), returns to the US and Capital City–a combination of Metropolis and Gotham City–twenty years after disappearing without a trace. He has spent the intervening years secretly imprisoned, and now that he’s home he naturally wants to find out why, but he also has to adjust to a world far different than the one he was snatched away from. Because superheroing has become big business.
Our then-unnamed hero adventured as Coyote in a simpler time; iconic superheroes like Graviton and Nighthaunt (Superman and Batman) have disappeared or retired, a new generation of heroes threw a lot more firepower than Coyote had been used to, and modern superheroes were plugged into a media/marketing/rating system that allowed them to do things like bid for thwarting rights on leaked supervillain capers. On the plus side, the system discouraged graphic violence which didn’t play well on TV–so superheroes rarely resorted to deadly or crippling levels of force and supervillains and their minions used non-lethal weapons (tasers, sonic stunners, etc). The ex-Coyote despises the new system, and, being twenty years older now and not as physically indestructible as he once thought he was, he has no idea if there is room for him in the new superhero world even if he’s still up to the game.
But someone from his past doesn’t believe he’s hung up the mask for good…
The best description for IHYID is right on the cover: superhero noir. Stackpole’s superhero world is a cynical one; some superheroes may be in the game to Do Good, but most of them appear to be thrill-junkies and fame seekers (granted, we see the world through our ex-hero’s eyes and he isn’t the most reliable narrator). The system both takes the edge off of supervillain crime and glamorizes and perpetuates it. The line between Good Guys and Bad Guys, as clear as day on the surface, blurs to gray as we learn more about what is going on. Our ex-hero can trust nobody, and few trust him.
That said, IHYID isn’t Watchmen; Stackpole’s superheroes are (with exceptions) far from dysfunctional psychotics. Good prevails, and Stackpole’s message is hopeful. I would love to see this novel turned into a graphic novel, even a TV series–it would be worlds better than Heroes, The Cape, and No Ordinary Family, the latest attempts at superhero shows.
As importantly for me, it stands as one of the few superhero-genre novels that doesn’t try and completely deconstruct the genre itself; with a wink here and a nudge there, it more or less plays the superhero tropes straight. For me, for a superhero story to succeed it must pass the Reality Test: reading it, can you imagine real people, given these powers and in these situations, acting like this? Can you imagine a real society functioning like this? While I found the Superfriends rating system a bit of a stretch (and one political development, the compulsory omni-presence of Murdochs–TVs blaring newsfeeds and sponsored programming 24/7–completely unbelievable), Stackpole’s superhero world is no less believable than the worlds of Superman and Spiderman, and the human story held onto me right to the end of the book.
To conclude, I have to say that In Hero Years… I’m dead is a must-read for comic-book enthusiasts. Several of the characters are naked transplants of iconic superheroes (Gravitron comes from another planet, Nighthaunt lives alone with his butler…) and the reader will probably miss a lot of subtext if he isn’t very familiar with our comic book heroes, but Stackpole spins a fun story and if you have any tolerance for superheroes, I say go for it.