“This book is set in the real world” *Literally has Men in Black*

by Alex Hern

2. Ostensibly, the book pitches as a “superheroes-in-the-real-world” story. How much does this actually hold true, and how does it compare to other entries in the genre? Does Clark’s world feel like the real world, or is it actually as fictional as the DC Universe?

This question gets at a real issue that rubbed me all through the book, which is that while we get Clark’s elation at being the ‘first’ superhero, we don’t get the full punch of the world’s realisation of the same fact. That’s what I was really hoping to see from this, and I was a bit sad not to get it.

Just as an example – and I’m sure my title hints at where I’m going with this – the “real world” that Clark lives in already has genuine Men in Black in it. By the start of the book, a clandestine agency devoted to tracking down manifestations of super-powers exists, and is hugely powerful and aware.

Now, I can reason it away. We see those bodies in the morgue, for instance, so maybe it’s taken twelve prior, weaker, Clarks to get the agency to be taken seriously and funded well. But I’d have liked to see Clark as the real first, not some bullshitty, New 52, “he’s not the first but he’s the first that’s acted publicly and in the open in a costume which sort of makes him the first”-first.

This is sort of matched in the glossing over of superheroes going public. I get that Clark never does, and as his story we don’t really need to see the rest, but again, it feels like a crucial part of the story of the first superhero in the “real world” is the reaction of the “real world” to the first (‘first’) superhero.

On the flipside, of course it isn’t as fictional as the DCU. Aside from the MiB, it really is basically our world – and given the public wouldn’t know about them, it is to all intents and purposes the same. Busiek is clearly eager to make sure that nothing that would dispel that illusion makes it in, and so we get frequent references to real things. The New Yorker, Pantheon Books, and so on. Slightly irritating that Picketsville doesn’t actually exist, but given I had to google to confirm that, it hardly dragged me out of the book.

I’ve reached the stage these days of trying to second-guess what Seb and James are going to talk about so that I don’t step on their toes, so I’m now also going to complain that the book ending in the future threw me out a bit. I’d have liked it more as a proper historical novel, ending in the present, but I suppose Clark rather had to be born after Superman was a Big Deal, or his name-thing wouldn’t make much sense.

Still, some of the flying car stuff felt a bit weird in the book, and I wasn’t quite sure if it was a Watchmanesque “look how much superpowers have changed the world” thing, or just a “now it is the future” point. I feel it was the latter, and I do wonder whether Busiek has ever read any near-future SF before. Because writing about flying cars when the scene is set, what, 20 years in the future? That just looks silly, man.