The cover for Paul Tobin's debut novel "Prepare To Die" from Night Shade Press bills it as a book about "Superheroes, sex, and secret origins." And broadly, this book by by the frequent "Marvel Adventures" writer is about those things, but it's also about very adolescent power fantasies: what would it be like to get super powers (and more importantly, what would the sex be like)? What kind of badass things could you or would you do if you knew you were going to die? Would the girl you loved in high school still want you?
Tobin recycles the superhero on short time motif (and why not, it's a good one), but far from bearing the humor and charm of much of his comics work, the relentlessly dour "Prepare To Die" essentially exploits all of the most played-out elements of so-called "mature" superhero fiction about the dysfunctional capes and tights set.
Steve Clarke has spent nearly the last 10 years in the public spotlight under another name, fighting super powered (and just plain run-of-the-mill) villainy as the costumed hero Reaver. His gimmick, the result of a chemical spill during his teen years, is that in addition to increased strength and the ability to move at speeds three times that of the normal man, he can take a year off of the life of a person with every punch he lands. The scientists at the government-run SRD which monitors and controls superhero activity don't quite know why it only works when he punches people, but it has something to do with cellular decay.
Well, in an ironic twist, Steve has found himself with only two weeks to live. Not from disease or anything so prosaic as that--he just got into a fight with a group of villains that he couldn't win, and in exchange for letting him walk away, Steve promised to let the members of the villainous Eleventh Hour take him out in half a month. Steve doesn't understand why the Eleventh Hour and their mysterious, technologically advanced leader Octagon, let him go, but he decides to use his remaining time to tick off items on his bucket list, mostly revolving around returning to his hometown to check in on his high school sweetheart, Adele, who he hasn't seen since a fluke of science and bad driving made him a superhero.
"Prepare To Die" is at both its best and most frustrating when dealing with Steve's early romance with Adele and his awkward, halting attempts to reconnect with only a few days left. Adele, who now publishes scholarly works looking at the lives of the super powered set, has been holding a candle for Steve since he disappeared from his hospital bed and put on a costume to punch bad guys. Tobin starts to dig into the idea that these characters are arrested emotionally, but he can't seem to realize them in the book as more than teenaged hormones and wells of guilt (both characters are in their mid-20's during the story's present-day portions).
Likewise, it's hard to get excited about the relentlessly miserable world of superheroes Tobin has created here. Only the villains are having fun and that's because most of them are crazy/alien/or both.
Reaver, in particular is just a walking mass of guilt and self-recrimination, blaming himself for the deaths of two fellow heroes, hanging his head in shame for any number of trysts with models, actresses, at least one superheroine, and one villainess. When he talks about using his powers early on, it's all tied up in the explicit thrill of sex and violence (expect to hear a LOT about his erections--there's no subtext here), and later it's just the horrible thing that he does to people that causes the average cow-eyed civilian to recoil in fear if he offers to shake their hand.
I'm not sure what to make of the women in Tobin's stories who are either hyper sexual vixens, traitors, or the pent-up Adele, but maybe it's instructive to think of them through Steve/Reaver's eyes given that he leaped from being a snot-nosed teen to a world-famous superhero without the benefit of having the chance to grow up (although it doesn't explain Adele's often topless, lesbian manic pixie sister Laura who's just... yeah). Likewise, the true motivations of the book's villain are kind of nonsensical on the face of it after the entire book puts the most cynical face on humanity, reducing the average man or woman down to a gawping accident watcher.
Tobin started out with a strong premise, but it's unfortunate that the weak, immature characterization here is from the same writer who gave us clever, engaging takes on well-work, decades-old heroes for kids.
"Prepare To Die" is available both in print and digitally from Night Shade Books.