Occasional Geek contributor Andrez Bergen — who put together our JapaneseCultureGoNow! section way back when the magazine first hit shelves in 2006 — has unveiled a new novel.
While Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? wasn’t supposed to see the light of day until September 27th, thanks to the miracles of modern publishing it’s already doing great shakes at Amazon.
We therefore slapped Bergen a few times to find out some Geek-friendly insider trading about a book that pushes 500 pages with 35 illustrations included, set partially in the three-time winner of World’s Most Liveable City (Melbourne, here cast as a near-future dystopia), and dedicated to legendary comic book artist Jack ‘King’ Kirby.
First up, let me confess before anyone jumps the gun that this book is my homage to 1940s and ‘60s American comic books — so of course I rammed the text full of Easter eggs from these periods in the form of nods, winks, references and asides. Some are purposefully hidden, others clear as day, but not a single one runs the story.
They are incidental offerings, for comic book aficionados like myself. If you’ve never read a comic book in your life, these references are not meant to run interference with the story being told. However, I’ll run by some examples in order to get the gist.
For starters, key character the Brick is shamelessly drawn from my favorite ever comic book character the Thing – in particular how the Fantastic Four member was visually perceived by Jack Kirby’s pencils (aided by Joe Sinnott’s inks) in the mid ‘60s, along with his character developed by Kirby in collusion with Stan Lee from 1961 on.
Other major players, the Professor and Louise reside near the corner of Burnside and Monroe Streets - a direct reference to the ’50s Captain America and Bucky, William Burnside and James ‘Jack’ Monroe.
Our protagonist Southern Cross is very much modeled on that late ’60s “image” of Captain America honed by Kirby (with inker Syd Shores) from #100 to #109 of Cap’s self-titled comic at Marvel. Not just the look of the man, but also the concept of him being a hero out of place, hefting a truckload of idealism that sometimes threatens to break his back.
Southern Cross gets a suit made by “Phineas Horton. He’s our local tailor, a whiz with a needle.” Horton was the comic book scientist who created the original Human Torch in 1939.
In fact Southern Cross without the mask and union suit is Jacob Curtiss – a tip of the hat to Kirby’s real name (Jacob Kurtzberg) and one of Kirby’s artistic aliases (Jack Curtiss) – but his ‘look’ is further based around that of actor George Peppard’s character Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).
In Heropa there are loads of riffs on dialogue, shop names, car registration numbers and characters from TV, books – and their film versions. Think Tiffany’s, RoboCop, Singin’ in the Rain, War of the Worlds, The Goodies, Johnny Guitar, The Big Sleep, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Captain America, The Lavender Hill Mob, Dark Knight, Peter Pan, Comic Strip Presents and Dr. Seuss’ I Wish that I Had Duck Feet.
Bandleader and radio personality Cake Icer is nicked from the 1940 Porky Pig cartoon Africa Squeaks, itself referencing real-life bandleader Kay Kyser.
Our newspaper publisher Donald Wright “has a pretentious manor named Hatfield House, somewhere on South San Rafael Drive.” In the 1960s TV series of Batman the exteriors of Wayne Manor were shot at 380 S. San Rafael Dr. in Pasadena; the interior of Wayne Manor for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman were filmed at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, in the UK.
Wright’s newspaper, the Port Phillip Patriot, “occupied an entire twenty-two story building at 335/1000 Broadway,” and this is a snatch on two sources: Wright’s Patriot building is modeled on the art deco Marine Building in Vancouver – which was used to fill in as the Daily Planet headquarters in Smallville. 335/1000 Broadway is the address used in the show.
Even the teacups are guilty.
“Heading to the sink after finishing my tea, I rinsed the cup. It had the brand name ‘IMPERIAL DALTON’ stamped on the bottom, with smaller print reading Morris René Goscinny. The obligatory Equalizers logo was affixed to one side of the cup.”
I couldn’t resist naming the mug for artist Morris and writer Rene Goscinny’s fictional outlaws The Daltons, who regularly appear in the Franco-Belgian cowboy comic Lucky Luke (1946 on).
While it might sound like I’m being a pop-cultural smart arse (God, forbid!), I actually reference this stuff because I love it – and the 7-page acknowledgments section at the rear-end of the book is supposed to steer people toward the originators of some bloody brilliant ideas.
See, 1960s Marvel comics, along with classic tomes, TV and cinema, aren’t the only thing paid dues here.
Southern Cross may hang out with a Thing lookalike (the Brick), but his other closest teammate is Pretty Amazonia – a seven-foot-tall nod to the Pretty Cure anime heroines currently popular here in Japan.
And while, sure, the kids Jacob meets at the idInteract/virtual reality arcade Tower of the Elephant – Roy, Barry and Sal – are modeled after Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith and Sal Buscema (John Buscema’s brother) who did such creative stuff at Marvel in the late ‘60s and early 1970s, the Tower itself is sourced from a pulp Conan story by Robert E. Howard.
When reporter Gypsie-Ann Stellar orders a bottle of merlot called ‘Les Gouttes de Dieu’, I neglected to mention this is the name of a Japanese manga series about wine created by Yuko and Shin Kibayashi. Stellar takes a taxi to Hymie Heights – Hymie being the birth-name of Captain America co-creator Joe Simon who worked with Kirby at Timely, the predecessor to Marvel. The Simonson Centre mentioned in the book is for Louise Simonson, the writer of Superman: Man of Steel #61 (October 1996) since it’s here a riot happens… and Simonson created the DC character Riot in that issue.
I nicked the lightning logo for superhero team the Equalizers from the 1930s British Union of Fascists, or B.U.F. – figuring it was hilarious appropriating silly people’s stuff (the B.U.F. were definitely silly), but the image also sat rather cool. So I reversed it in order that Jack could make his quip about it looking like an N or a Z – and to set up the Great White Hope for a bigger fall.
The thing is that, like in a 1960s comic book, the heroes aren’t supposed to die – but, taking a leaf out of the 1980s work of Frank Miller (Daredevil/Batman) and Chris Claremont/John Byrne (X-Men) somebody’s switched off the safety mods and is slowly bumping off heroes and villains both.
Hence the mystery that backbones the story.
Along the way I got to toy with a wild array of other heroes and villains including Baron von Gatz, Bulkhead, Black Owl, Milkcrate Man, The Tick, Rabble Rouser, Sinistro, Nana Mouskouri’s Spectacles, Funk Gadget and Prima Ballerina. Half the fun has been the naming of them and/or paying homage to unsung four-color Golden Age heroes from comic books no one ever heard of.
Hopefully they now will get some recognition – rather than my novel ending up just as obscure.
HEROPA IMAGES: Cover Art by Rodolfo Reyes, The Big O & Major Patriot by Maan House, Southern Cross by Paul Mason, Bullet Gal by JGMiranda, Pretty Amazonia by Juan Saavedra, Equalizers logo by Israel Schnapps.