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.