‘The Rules of Supervillainy’ by Charles Phipps
Gary Karkofsky is an ordinary guy with an ordinary life living in an extraordinary world. Supervillains, heroes, and monsters are a common part of the world he inhabits. Yet, after the death of his hometown’s resident superhero, he gains the amazing gift of the late champion’s magical cloak. Deciding he prefers to be rich rather than good, Gary embarks on a career as Merciless: The Supervillain Without Mercy. But is he evil enough to be a villain in America’s most crime-ridden city? Gary soon finds himself surrounded by a host of the worst of Falconcrest City’s toughest criminals. Supported by his long-suffering wife, his ex-girlfriend turned professional henchwoman, and a has-been evil mastermind, Gary may end up being not the hero they want but the villain they need.
Rapidly setting a precedent for Superhero novels, we’re here with the second official Terry Talks Fiction review!
Unlike our previous review of Super! by Jennifer Chen, The Rules of Supervillainy by Charles Phipps is very much an adult story for an adult audience—or at least, it’s supposed to be.
In the preface, Phipps makes a statement which seems to perfectly characterise his approach to the novel: ‘There’re plenty of people who have created more grounded or “realistic” superheroes. I have no interest in this, though. No, my world is unabashedly unrealistic and proudly so. It is the result of me sticking every comic book I’ve ever read in a blender and hitting frappe.’
As a blog that focuses on building and deconstructing imaginary worlds through the application of the rigorous and scientific archaeological method, you might see why this raised a few red flags from the outset! I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when the world of this novel didn’t live up to my lowered expectations. Although marred in places by the writing, trope-tastic characterisation, and largely absent grand narrative arc, the overall setting for The Rules of Supervillainy is remarkably consistent and unquestionably interesting. We’ll start by examining some of why that is.
Gary Karkofsky lives in a pretty strange world by our standards, but remarkably standard for the superhero genre. His city is a veritable battleground between superheroes and criminals, each competing for control over their relative metropolitan fiefdoms. Somehow, this hasn’t caused the populace to flee, or spend all of their time shopping and banking on the internet to reduce their chances of being caught up in some sort of horrible hostage situation.
What really intrigued me about the way Phipps presented this social and criminal pyramid, however, was how straightforward its rules seemed to be on the outset, but how nuanced they turned out to be on closer examination. In this world, criminals—well, ‘supervillains’ at least—climb the hierarchy by deposing the villain above them. Whilst protagonist Gary mostly achieves this through violent murder, the secondary characters of the novel reveal how this can also be achieved in less dramatic fashion: through certain villains falling out of favour with their henchmen/women, failing to keep up with the financial overheads of maintaining a lair and a payroll, or simply by retiring (or heading off to jail) and leaving a power vacuum in their wake.
The up-and-down nature of this power balance has led to a curious level of influence for a villain’s henchmen/women. Career underlings—at least, the main ones we see in this story—seem to have a level of responsibility we don’t normally see in the genre; from directly negotiating their contracts with their employers, to working for multiple crime lords, all the way up to acting as de facto majordomos for their current supervillain. And acting is a key word here—it seemed to me, at least, like middle management is where you want to be (and to remain) in this world, regardless of which villain appears to be the one in charge (and acting on your advice all the way).
On the other side of the coin, there is a clearly-defined and efficient superhero organisation which has all but rendered the (ineffective) local law enforcement bureau obsolete, and which is led by a select few Ubermensch whose powers verge on the obscenely god-like. They operate from their headquarters (in)conveniently located on the moon (like a lot of fiction, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of exactly how far away that is). The way the organisation integrates with the governments of earth seems quite solid, though, and the lacklustre police response/presence in the story is probably a fairly realistic representation of what this occupation would be when dozens of superheroes were likely to swoop in and save the day before you could get to your squad car.
Phipps inserts a lot of dangling plot threads in the background of his world as well—the occult themes of the city’s architecture, the wider conflicts between sets of super hero/villains, and numerous allusions to a history of the world that only touches the page. The sense of a deep history here is very good; it fills out the world fantastically and is by far and away the greatest strength of the novel. It makes the world seem like a realistic place in which the characters have grown up in, not just been plonked into at the start of the story. And speaking of characters…
The Rules of Supervillainy follows a small cast of characters, mostly interchangeable, but predominantly focuses on Gary and the magical cloak which bestows his super powers. And the cloak is, itself, a character—it’s voice present inside Gary’s head, questioning his motives and providing him with advice and exposition throughout the narrative.
Gary is a… complex character. He teeters on the edge between lunatic and lampoon, bumping into objects one moment and savagely beating people to death the next. At his core, there is a fascinating potential for commentary on duality and the way a person’s actions can be defined by their personal relationships: Gary’s list of lovers, his family and his friends all seem immune to his psychopathy, and he has genuine concern for their feelings and well-being whilst harbouring zero empathy for his victims. Sadly, this potential is not effectively explored in the writing, with Gary’s characterisation all too often falling back on an immaturity and inconsistency of tone. It’s also more than a little eye-raising that there doesn’t appear to be a female character in the book who this erstwhile lothario hasn’t slept with—egregious to the point of straining credulity, and like many of Gary’s other actions, smacking a little too close to apparent author wish-fulfilment for reading comfort.
In contrast, the character of the Reaper’s Cloak—Gary’s source of supervillainous power—is remarkably consistent throughout the novel, in both tone and voice. The voice of reason against Gary’s madness, it is often the breath of air the reader needs in an otherwise suffocating scene.
The real elephant in the room, however, is the other character who appears on the cover.
Arbitrarily naming herself ‘Red Riding Hood’ somewhere in the middle of the novel (because reasons), this character simply could have called herself Harley Quinn and been done with it. The novel would miss very little if the character was completely absent; in fact, it would probably be substantially improved. Author preface aside, the deliberate choice to lean into this thinly-veiled expy does more to take the reader out of the unique world Phipps has built, than provide value to the story.
And speaking of the story…
Although it is enjoyable on the whole, the narrative of this novel less resembles a consistent plot as it does a collection of sequential events. Many of the events of this novel are clearly intended to set up the backstory for later books, and the overall narrative arc suffers as a result.
Certain threads of the plot such as purchasing a lair, the occult flavour of the city and how that relates to Gary’s powers, particularly his communication with the dead, are heavily invested in, in terms of reading time and word count, but have very little substantive impact on the novel’s climax—in fact, the narrative arc that culminates at the end of the story only begins in the final third of the book and is almost entirely unrelated to the events that came before; every single character (besides Gary and his cloak) and even the setting is replaced with something altogether new.
Overall, there is no sense that the plot is driving to anything throughout which, combined with the carousel of secondary characters entering and exiting the story around the protagonist, makes for little stakes. I also harbour an innate and intense loathing for the practice of terminating a novel mid-scene in an inelegant attempt to direct the reader towards the sequel. This is particularly egregious here, when a poorly-contextualised mystery is presented on literally the final page before a scooby-doo-style chase into the credit roll.
If you’re willing to look past the negative elements of the writing here, there’s a kernel of truly interesting worldbuilding and superhero exploration to be had in The Rules of Villainy, particularly thanks to the focus on the nefarious side of the genre. It would be interesting to see where the many dangling plot threads end up weaving their way back into the serialised story, and for the price of a large coffee it’s probably worth checking out for oneself to see if the milieu of Phipps’ world is enough to grip you through the story as well.
‘Super’ by Jennifer Chen
In a society of superpowered children, all eyes are on Beata Bell, descendant of the great Frances E. Shaw, the world’s Original Super. Bets are placed on which amazing superpower she will develop. Flight? Telekinesis? Super strength? Only Beata Bell remains stubbornly, infuriatingly, and inexplicably ordinary. Sidelined, she must face the painful reality that she might never live up to everyone’s expectations. But when a new villain threatens the city, Beata is launched into a whirlwind of mystery, danger, and conspiracy. With a totally un-Super skillset, she must exhaust all her wits and courage to save her friends—and to survive.
As this is the first review to officially appear on Terry Talks Fiction, let’s start with the obvious: Super! is a great book and a worthy addition to the superhero genre.
In fact, it’s a noteworthy addition not only because of what it does right (and trust me, it does plenty of things right) but also because of what it deliberately doesn’t do (more on that in the spoiler section below). The narrative here is engaging and well-written; it effortlessly pulls the reader through the story (I read the entire thing in one sitting, deep into the night) and it adroitly navigates the dizzying mess of cliché that comes with any new media that includes the word ‘Superhero’. The characters are believable and well-rounded: there are no papier-mache constructs here, only a bunch of kids who’ve got themselves way over their heads, and a series of adults befuddled by the strange requirement of taking these kids completely seriously—some of whom could take their heads off with a laser beam at any moment if they don’t.
As an archaeologist, my approach to analysing (and appreciating) a work of fiction is highly contingent on the basic archaeological principle of context, both the internal principles of setting, character and narrative within the novel, and how these elements play against the wider genre in which it sits. So, in that vein, I’d like to break down what I think are some of the salient points that make this novel so great, one by one.
Like most settings in the Superhero Genre, Super! takes place in a world technologically and socially very much like our own, with one key difference: the existence of those who’ve won the genetic lottery and developed a range of unique and fantastical abilities. As far as superpowers go, all of your old favourites are here: flight, telekinesis, super-strength, eye-lasers, fireball-flingers; you name it, and it’s probably mentioned somewhere within these pages. Even a few non-traditional powers make it into the mix: technology manipulation, precognition and empathic abilities are all possible in this world, as well as one less-seen power that is a core element of the leading superhero’s (and antagonist’s) repertoire: metal manipulation.
Of particular note here, is the unique hook that comes with these superpowers—they are only wielded by teenagers. Although it took me a little while to be clear on this point (whether from my own skimming of an important paragraph near the beginning or through Chen’s communication of this particular detail), a defining characteristic of superpower expression in this setting is the short window of time within which a particular superhero can operate. With their powers fading upon adulthood, the Superheroes of this setting are truly dangerous, both to the normies and to themselves – left unchecked, who knows what these kids, still discovering themselves as all teenagers are, could possibly get up to in a fit of adolescent rage or simple immature misunderstanding. And because these powers fade, the world is populated by a truly interesting mix of people who, like elite sport stars past their prime, are watching and mentoring the next up-and-comers to the public stage of ‘Superhero Work’—some taking this responsibility with grace, but others, as one would expect, with resentment or jealousy. Add to that fact that these kids are gifted with extraordinary abilities at the most hormonally-tumultuous time of their lives, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
Luckily, like with many fictional worlds where superpowers are the norm, there is a clear (inter?)national policy on super-powered individuals: in this story, represented by the ‘League of Superheroes’, a pseudo-governmental corporation that manages and directs the Supers of Toronto and their missions. This corporation is, for the most part, written incredibly realistically and is an interesting take on how a predominantly-unpowered social group would and could seek to direct the activities of possibly-uncontrollable superweapons walking around in their city. They have a highly-developed early detection system for identifying super-powered individuals, a rigid social and directorial hierarchy for incorporating those supers into the business of protecting the city, and they are—as one would expect in the social media, 24-hour-news-cycle age—extremely good at directing their Supers’ publicity. This facet of the organisation, in particular, becomes more and more important as the story progresses, and provides a very interesting and believable means of control over the uncontrollable, especially given the particular and specific emotional needs of the teenage population they’re working with.
Overall, this setting is wonderfully consistent, with a proper and engaging exploration of how all these elements tie in with one another. Reading through, you never get the feeling that there’s an element of this world that hasn’t been fully fleshed out and, if you do feel like there are some aspects of the social structure that are hard to swallow at first, Chen returns to those points in the later sections of the story, masterfully elucidating why those particular niggles, obvious to an adult audience, were flying so unquestioned over the heads of the young teen protagonists.
Which brings us to…
Writing superheroes is hard. On the one hand, they have to behave like you and me; normal, or at least normal enough that we can relate to them. On the other hand, they have these fantastical abilities like flight or the ability to suck the metal out of the very device you’re reading this on and turn it into a tiny statue of themselves. Y’know, if they just felt like it.
Chen sidesteps this issue by centring the narrative on Beata, the apparently-unpowered descendant of the worlds ‘first’ superhero. By doing this, Chen introduces the reader to the world through our own perspective: the person looking on as those around them, or before them in the pages of the book, go off and perform these marvellous feats. Not only does this bring us closer to Beata’s character, but it also allows us to focus on the fantastic and the celebrity of these super-powered heroes in a very relatable way. We feel Beata’s frustration at being left out, just as we feel the same sense of understanding as she gradually comes to realise what kind of lifestyle lies behind the gilded cage; one that we readers can relate to in our own observations of the benefits—and the drawbacks—of real-world celebrity.
Chen’s bold choice to make the protagonists (and a major antagonist) of the series very young teenagers is also an interesting one. Whilst this is obviously done in part to satisfy the age of her primary reading audience, the rules of the world she’s created also trap her in this regard. In order to have Beata’s central character conflict—her worry over whether or not she will finally develop superpowers of her own—she needed to be of an age where the doubt was still up in the air. By making superpower development analogous to puberty Chen must, therefore, place Beata at the age she does: twelve years old.
This leads to perhaps the only real niggle that I have with the novel in its entirety, which is Beata’s incredible competence for a child of her age. Whilst I’m certainly not suggesting here that twelve-year-olds aren’t capable in the real world—and the changed social strata of Chen’s world that comes with idolising youth, and the very possible chance that a parent demanding their fourteen-year-old clean their room ending with an immolation—the competency that the narrative demands of Beata sometimes presses against credulity. She is not only an expert app developer, but a naturally-adept VR gamer, detective and, due to her family legacy and close personal friendship with the city’s leading Super, intuitively cognisant of all the various social situations she finds herself in, whether that be evading bullies at school or having a one-on-one chat with the de facto leader of the entire League of Superheroes.
Even so, Chen’s writing of Beata’s character is presented well, with enough of the narrative’s themes (initially) completely passing over the protagonist’s head that we are able, as readers, to buy into the fact that this is a credible twelve-year-old’s perspective on the world which she inhabits.
The supporting characters of the novel are similarly well-fleshed: Beata’s ragtag group of normie friends are well-written and engaging, but it is, of course, the superhero that draws one’s attention. Beata’s best friend, Gweneira, is an engaging and honestly real character. Her perspective on ‘being a superhero’, both spoken and seen in the context of her actions throughout the book, is unique and refreshing in a genre that has all-too-often relied on its characters being The Boy(/Girl) Scout or The Gritty Anti-Hero. Gwen is refreshingly human, and refreshingly childlike—not ‘childish’, but still prone to all the mood swings, drama, and malleability of creed which comes with her stage of life, in addition to her straining to bear the weight of adult expectations. Inherently, like most of the characters in this novel, she’s a good kid, one who just happens to have been thrust into the global spotlight at a young age, burdened with exceptionality, and expected to perform to the standard her role models demand of her.
And speaking of those roles…
Super! follows a unique ‘superhero’ plot, in that it does not follow the struggles of a young Superhero. Instead, the ‘hero’s journey’ of this novel is focused on one of those left behind—a ‘dud’ who is not rising to their family’s (or the public’s) expectations for exceptionality. Unlike some of the other entrants in this particular niche of superhero story—Disney’s 2005 film ‘Sky High’ presents itself as the obvious comparison—the tension of Beata’s apparent superheroic inertness begins as a key element of the plot, then slowly fades into the background as the scope of the tale widens. It is honestly refreshing to see a story in this genre that truly moves its characters beyond the problems that they face at the beginning of the tale, and focuses instead on the wider problems that develop as the characters explore the world. Beata’s ability to move past her fixation on whether or not she will develop powers once she begins to unearth the true scope of the threat facing her city, and Gwen’s character development through the narrative to reflect the changing circumstances and pressures that are occurring around her, are a welcome departure from the normal repetitiveness of both the Superhero and the YA genres.
Although a lot of the particular things I loved about the narrative really deserve to be discussed in the spoilers section below, I will say that there are certain subversions of the ‘traditional superhero story’ which take place in this narrative, and that they are very satisfying. The scope of the plot, focusing mainly on what a society including both super-powered individuals and normies could actually look like, rather than focusing on the spectacle of said powers, is welcome and well-executed. The central ‘reveal’ of the narrative, whilst perhaps an obvious one, is nevertheless satisfying and delivered well through the eyes of our twelve-year-old protagonist. Internally, the story does a good job of setting all the clues in place for the reader—if, again, a bit obviously for adult eyes—to service the moment where the protagonist recognises the retrospective significance of those clues, and thus this reveal remains effective within the context of the story. And within the wider context of the genre, this is an under-explored narrative arc that serves as a worthy addition to the thematic discussion of ‘superhero stories’ and what it would mean to have these people amongst us.
Overall, Super! is a satisfying and interesting romp through a classic Superhero tale, with a unique and well-executed twist. The teenage superheroes are intriguing, and the protagonist and her team are engaging, offering a worthy commentary on the aspects of Superheros we have learned to take for granted after a hundred years of their representation through comics, books, film and television. In avoiding some of the major clichés of the genre, it offers a fresh take on Superhero society, and that alone makes it worth your time to read and absorb in its entirety.
You can get Super! by Jennifer Chen on Amazon Books here, in both paperback and Kindle formats.
Beware, Ye Who Enter Here: There Be Spoilers Ahead!
If you’ve already read the book, or you’re just that kind of crazed maverick who says ‘surprises be damned! I want to know it all!’, then there is a ‘spoilers’ section available for reading below. This section has been written in white text, so in order to read it you simply need to select the text with your mouse (or hold your finger down on your screen) and that should highlight it for you. Be warned, though: this section will be discussing some major aspects of the plot and characterisation, so if you want to organically experience these revelations through the narrative (recommended), then it’s best to hold off reading the below until you’ve read the book.
Okay, enough warning?
*deep breath* Then here we go:
There are two main points I want to hit here in the spoilers section:
The League of Superheroes are both the Good Guys and the Bad Guys
The central twist of the narrative, that the League itself is responsible for manufacturing the major crises which the Superheroes are dispatched to redress, is one which I think was mostly done well. As noted in the above sections, this reveal seemed incredibly obvious for the adult reader, and I’m honestly pretty sure your average reader of 12+ would also see it coming from a mile away. But, crucially, it’s eminently believable that Beata, the protagonist, could be sucker-punched by this information. Although we see all the clues in sharp detail, aided by our reading of this book within the established context of the genre, Chen does a great job of massaging Beata’s character to be just naive enough to be taken in by the glitz and glamour surrounding the League of Superheroes. After all, who hasn’t wanted something so badly as a child, that we overlooked all the glaring impossibilities of our wish? (no, this totally isn’t about the horse I wanted to keep in my backyard and ride to school when I was seven. Shut up)
Granted, it’s more surprising that the adults in the setting are taken by surprise at this revelation as well—after all, Beata’s dad is seen in some early scenes questioning why the supervillain attacks and subsequent chases are always so clean and endanger so few innocent bystanders—but some of this can be written off as remnants of their own indoctrination by the organisation.
The real question is why the non-superpowered people of this world don’t raise a finger and question ‘hang on, what’s going on here?’ Not having been through the League, it seems inconceivable that more of them haven’t twigged on to the reality of the situation—there are more people who haven’t been in Pro Wrestling than have been, for example, but everyone knows that the entire thing is Kayfabe. And since the internet is as endemic in this setting as it is in our own world, it seems utterly bizarre there’s not at least one ‘Superhero Truther’ website out there spreading theories that glaze the undercurrent of the cultural zeitgeist just as the Flat Earth society and Anti-Vaxxer movements infect our own. If it does exist, it seems not to feature in this book.
Although this is a niggling doubt in the novel’s context, and the extent to which the general public chooses to participate in the Kayfabe of the LOS or not is left unclear, at the end of the day I still personally think that since we’re seeing the story through the eyes of a twelve-year-old, the twist works. I am a little disappointed that more wasn’t made of this facet of the LOS, though (and seriously, LOS, underwrite a separate location for your Warehouse of Evil Squidwards; if you can hide their R&D budget in your tax returns then you can afford to buy out an old factory somewhere, you geese). There were a few obliquely-referenced fatalities arising from some of the staged incidents that would have been interesting to explore, and in a perfect world I would have liked to have seen a lot more of that. A bit more development of the ‘Counter League’ as a true terrorist organisation leaving scenes of horror and body counts in the dozens in the wake of their attacks would have made the entire LOS smokescreen more believable to me (we’ve all seen the lengths of denial societies will go to in the real world when they feel their safety is threatened). I get that this level of darkness would have been difficult to develop in a book designed for a younger audience, and I really do love the focus on the LOS’s role as de facto damage control against the possible threat of unchecked, bored, super-powered teenagers instead, but as a result the Counter-League seemed to be a fairly non-existent threat. Even some things in the world as simple as Counter-League tags on crime scenes or on buildings/bridges that the heroes fly past would have made the shadow organisation feel a bit more present in the story. I never felt the danger of these extra-imaginary antagonists, and it’s one of the few true missed opportunities of the book.
But speaking of ‘missed opportunities’, there’s one deliberate choice of Chen’s that makes my heart sing with joy:
Beata Bell is really NOT a Superhero
This made me happy beyond all reason.
Not because I didn’t like the character or anything, and not because I didn’t feel the young girl deserved to be special, but for the important message that this decision sends and underscores: it’s your actions that make you a hero, not your genetics.
All too often, so often that it HAS become a cliché, the protagonist of the story—who stands out because they are the normie without powers stuck in a world where they’re surrounded by Supers—fights and struggles to accept themselves for who they are… and are granted superpowers by the narrative as a kind of ‘reward’ for going through that character development.
I’ve always hated that narrative cheat. Not only is it lazy—authors seemingly unable to tell a compelling story, unable to make their protagonist special without the capital ‘S’—it also undercuts the entire point of having the non-powered person there in the first place (I’m looking at you in particular, Heroes: Season Three). If you’re trying to show that human beings can be exceptional by working with their own strengths, putting their heads down and just doing what needs to be done, then for God’s sake, stick to it. When that’s the message, it can be uplifting and inspiring—someone who has no powers at all, still choosing to step in front of the raging maniac who could literally eviscerate them as easily and as consequence-free as killing a blowfly? Now that’s badass. When they suddenly discover, in that moment, that SURPRISE! they’ve been super-powered all along, all they really needed to do was believe, then… well… it goes from the world-stopping cultural drama of Tienemen Square, to just another story about the problems of the one percent, doesn’t it?
It must have been tempting, oh so horribly tempting to fall into this trap while writing this book. Beata wants to have super powers so bad. It would really feel like a reward for all the nonsense she’s put up with throughout the course of the story. But instead, the character comes to terms with who—and what—she is, and in doing so she finds her strength. Nobody else could have talked Gwen down in those final moments. LaserBeata certainly couldn’t have by doing the only thing superheroes seem able to do: threatening to end violence with violence. But plain old Beata Bell could. Beata the friend. Beata the normal girl whose exceptionality is her pure courage and determination.
As it should be.
Whilst Chen hedges her bets a little by leaning into the possible-precognition angle throughout the story, the conclusion of the tale certainly makes it seem like Beata Bell is really who she appears to be: one of the very few normal people capable of standing firm as a Hero in a world where superheroics have made everyday courage obsolete. If this book ends up having a sequel, then I really hope that’s a message that remains because it makes her, and this book, all the more special for it.