One of My Life’s Great Mysteries, Solved!

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

superfolks.jpgI read something when I was seven years old that, even though I didn’t know what it was, stuck with me for the rest of my life. From what I’ve been able to reconstruct of my memories, it must have been in a magazine, probably something like Esquire, which my dad got sometimes–and I was the kind of precocious kid who would basically read any chunk of print I could lay hands on. Anyway, it was a story in which all the superheroes in the world were gone, most of them killed. The thing that always stuck with me was that, as I’d one day rediscover in its exact wording, “Even Snoopy had bought it; shot down by the Red Baron; missing in action over France.”

For years I tried to remember what the heck that story was and how could I track it down again. At some point, because I remembered there being so many characters created by other people, and because I’d read it in a magazine, I got the idea that it was a Philip José Farmer story. (Which, for some reason, also made me think it had sex scenes, because I also remembered not really getting much of the story beyond the fact that it named comic book heroes I recognized.)

A couple months ago, I was browsing in my local bookstore when I stumbled onto Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, which had just been brought back into print, and nearly felt chills as I read the opening pages, because I knew instantly this was that story. I’m positive now that I read an excerpt in a magazine, because I can’t imagine either of my parents buying this novel in 1977–it turns out to be sort of a parody of Donald Barthelme parodying Frederick Exley by making his sad sack suburbanite a washed-up superhero who’s retreated entirely into his secret identity…as newspaperman David Brinkley. And, yeah, it’s pretty much the real David Brinkley: the entire novel is populated by a mixture of real-life and pop culture icons. It’s also a send-up of 1970s New York, when crime was hitting all-time highs and the city was nearly broke. That’s one of the things that would have gone completely over my head in ’77, since I was not only at the complete opposite end of the country, but another couple thousand miles beyond that, living on a military base in Hawaii.

So of course I started reading the novel as soon as I left the store, and pretty much devoured it overnight. It’s just fantastic stuff–apparently, a lot of comic book writers who either read the whole book in ’77 or a few years later cite it as a major influence in their desire to write more psychologically “realistic” superheroes (including the sex scenes, which do turn up, but which I probably didn’t read back then–a good thing, too, as the thinly disguised Marvel Family scene alone would have scarred me for life if I’d seen it as a kid), but there’s a lot more to it than just the comic book satire. I would definitely recommend going out and tracking down your own copy.

12 thoughts on “One of My Life’s Great Mysteries, Solved!

  1. I also whole-heartedly recommend this novel! I stumbled across it on the Science Fiction Book Club web-site with a reference to it being an inspiration for ‘The Incredibles’. An excellent book!

  2. Hah, John H! No, but the only substance that can hurt him is fragments of his home world, the exploded planet Cronk. That’s right: Brinkley is vulnerable to Cronkite.

  3. From a comic book fan perspective, the book is mostly interesting because of its undeniable historical importance to the superhero genre, being one of the primary influences on Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, and many others.

    It’s the Velvet Underground equivalent of superheros–not that many people read it, but all of them went out and started writing comic books.

    Nowadays, I actually think it’s a bit tedious to read; the puns and pointless drop-ins get in the way of the story.

  4. I stumbled upon this book back when it first came out, its cover catching my eye from where it was perched on a table at the now defunct Bookmasters near NY’s Penn Station. I couldn’t resist its comic book cover. I was in my 20s and still an avid comic book reader. I, too, devoured it and still have my copy. I was thrilled to see it back in print so others can get to enjoy it. I was too afraid to lend my copy out lest I never get it back. I prefer the original cover, tho. I think maybe it’s time for me to reread it. :)

  5. I think I read this over a decade ago. Did the hero lose his powers because the ‘kryptonite’ substance got put into everything from toothpaste to laundry detergent?

  6. Somewhere I have the first edition of this book tucked away (many moves, you know). I remember enjoying it at 14 or 15, but I suspect a whole lot went sailing over my head. I’ll have to dig it out again.

    D

  7. As someone interested in the history of comics, when I saw this I immediately looked the book up at my local Borders, and grabbed the only $14 copy they had… and read it in about an hour and a half. I think… yes, I can see how it was (or at least could have been) an influence on the late 70’s comics community… but I think for new, modern readers, and those under 40, it will be a tough read. It’s so anchored in the 70’s that unless you’re REALLY good with your socio-political history, or actually lived through it with an awareness of the events of the time, it’s just not going to make a great deal of sense. I was 10 in 1977, most of the names dropped in Superfolks I know only through historical reference.
    I did enjoy the book, but having been spoiled but the far more highly-polished works of those who were influenced by this book thirty years ago, and having found the period-piece aspect rather trying, I don’t think I’d recommend this to casual readers or those younger than 40. I’d say get it at the library and try it out first.
    Thanks for bringing this to light!

  8. I was eighteen in 1977, when I read this novel at a turnstile at the minimall bookstore. Unfortunately, I did not have enough money on me at the time and when I returned the next week it was gone, haunting me with its merciless revisionism of mythology for nearly three decades.

    I purchased it in June at an SF con and read it today. I agree that most young readers now a days won’t tap into the power of its perversion of the 70s zeitgeist but it’s still ahead of its time in some features — a black president, fr’instance.

    Also, I seem to recall that the character of Punch was Chet Huntley in the original edition.

  9. THANK YOU! Believe it or not, I found this in my high school’s library circa 1983! Obviously one of those titles that no one bothered to check before placing it on the shelves, but i thouroughly enjoyed it! Like you, I couldn’t find it for years, and was stymied because I couldn’t remember the title. But one day I thought, “try and Google this,”:

    “Even Snoopy had bought it…”

    …which took me here, and then it was a short jump over to Amazon. HUZZAH!

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