Capes vs. Goggles - A Book Report

Time for another "compare and contrast" sort of book report from me, based on my somewhat irregular reading habits.  (Click here for my previous book report.)

This time out, the books are Wearing the Cape by Marion Harmon, and Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm A Supervillain by Richard Roberts.  Both are the first books in (possibly intimidatingly) long series, which I picked up because friends online spoke well of them.  I read both on Kindle, and they have the usual "cheap Book One to hook you into the series" pricing model.

Okay, surface features first, in the tradition of high school book reports.

Compare: Strong female protagonists who are children of semi-retired superheroes in a semi-realistic superhero universe where superheroes and villains have been a thing for long enough to be considered normal but not so long that there aren't survivors from the first wave still active.  In the first book, they come into their powers and have to decide how to go about joining (or not joining, it's an option) the community of heroes and villains.  Both worlds are careful to not have any real world trademarks flying around, and while there's loads of "Yeah, that's a reference to (hero/villain)," neither dips into parody along the lines of Not Brand Ecch or the Legion of Net.Heroes.  Super-society has a number of written and unwritten rules that protect the protagonist while they decide how they want to do things.  Extremely powerful manipulators take an interest in the protagonist and steer their activities before the inevitable attempt to Refuse The Call.  However, by the end of the first book, they've largely accepted their path, even if they're not completely comfortable with it.  They can't deny that they're very good at what they do.

Contrast: Here's where it gets interesting.  Wearing the Cape (WtC)'s protagonist, Astra, is a fairly standard Legacy Hero sort with the generic Superman-ish power set, and she quickly develops a partnership with a Bat-themed heroine.  While her ethical conflict is the core of the first book, she never really considers being a supervillain.  Bad Penny, the protagonist of Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm A Supervillain (henceforth DTMP), kind of stumbles into supervillainy, but the stakes in her world are low enough that she can tell herself she'll do a face turn later (given how long the series is already, "later" may be very late indeed, I guess).  Also, while there's a few Standard Superhero Archetypes around (including a rather Astra-like character who's known as Generic Girl), they're mostly supporting cast or deep background.  Bad Penny and her friends are far less archetypical than Astra and those she mostly interacts with.  Astra becomes a hero during her college years, and her parents immediately know about it.  Bad Penny's powers come out during middle school, and as the title implies her parents are kept in the dark (although one of her friends is the daughter of a reformed villain, and said former villain very much aids and abets the junior high supervillainy).  Astra gets all sorts of high powered help in preserving her secret ID for as long as she wants to maintain it, while Bad Penny has to depend on parental blinders and the goodwill of those who figure it out (not all of them being nice people...or even "people" in the usual sense).  While both settings are only a generation removed from superheroes bursting onto the scene, WtC posits that reality shifted in a White-Event-like situation that made superpowers happen, while DTMP has some powers going back to antiquity but there was merely an upsurge thanks to a particular hero's actions a generation back.  Finally, on a personal level, it's kinda creepy how many elements from my Academy of Super-Heroes setting were independently developed (I presume) by Harmon, in terms of how government and society deal with the presence of superheroes.  But DTMP for better or worse doesn't develop things in that level of depth, at least not in the first book (heroes are mostly self-regulating, like a really powerful trade union that the government keeps its hands off of).

Okay, that out of the way, it's time to consider the tonal differences, which are rather more important than the surface elements.

WtC is definitely a darker setting.  Astra's origin story has her surviving a terrorist bombing that kills a bunch of people, her Batgirl-ish friend's origin is even darker, and a lot of people get killed on and off stage over the course of the book.  By comparison, DTMP has zero on-screen deaths, although a healthy appreciation for the general lethality of the hero/villain game (driven home when Bad Penny almost gets shot by a security guard).

This goes beyond the "well, the protagonists in DTMP are in middle school," aspect, too.  It's just a generally safer world.  The really dangerous stuff (like the conflicts between Mourning Dove, the Batman/Punisher analogue, and her regular villains) tends to be very far away and considered an aberration, while death is a constant companion in the WtC world.  Too, the very idea of superhuman brawls is taken as less necessarily lethal in the DTMP world.  Most superhero activity in DTMP involves fighting villains, while most hero work in WtC is search and rescue, disaster relief, and other non-combat work.

So, a definite contrast there...more fighting in one, more lethality in the other.  And yet, I never got the feeling that either world was wrong about how they approached things.  Just different ways the world dealt with superpowers.  In WtC, there were immediately true monsters driving the narrative, not to mention terror states building superhuman strike forces, while the villains are largely self-regulating in DTMP (seeing it as a sweet racket that no one wants to screw up by taking things up too high...the villains who get too monstrous tend to get their locations anonymously tipped to Mourning Dove).

From war, let's move over slightly and look at love.

Interestingly, I think Bad Penny's romantic subplot is dealt with in a more mature way than Astra's.  Sure, she's in middle school, but she has budding feelings for one of her friends, and it's full of the usual uncertainty and denial that comes from a "just hitting puberty" sort of relationship.  It's awkward, but feels organically so.  No plot element is forcing it one way or the other (although there's some eye-rolling by people watching it not-happen-yet, as one might expect).  Will it last through a half dozen more books?  Maybe, maybe not...first loves are fragile.  I don't expect it to go past making out, though, unless they're still together after several years in-story and the books get her out of middle school.  That seems unlikely, as this feels like it's pitched at YA readers.

On the other hand, Astra is a Good Catholic Girl who is Saving Herself For Marriage, and that gets dragged into things rather jarringly.  Her romantic subplot isn't really that organic, and it ends up being Vitally Important to the main plot rather than just something that happens in her life.  I don't want to go into spoilers here, but suffice to say that there's revelations around her romance and its resolution that make it ring false, and make it hard for the relationship to go anywhere.

Going forward, each series faces a different challenge of sustainable premises. 

Astra comes out of the first book knowing something about how bad things can get in the future, so the "über-arc" of the series would seem to be trying to avert the more horrible possible futures while dancing ever closer to the edge.  Eventually this could lead to a Dragonball-like escalation of bigger and bigger threats to the world.  Now, I know there's a bunch of other books, and I could read some back cover blurbs (or their digital equivalents) to see if this does happen, or if Harmon manages to strike a balance between big stories and personal stories, but I merely want to cite it as a potential challenge.  There could also be a balance between Big Arc Story books and personal development books with stakes confined more to the characters rather than the whole world.  And yes, I know the focus of the second book and the previous sentence includes a pun.

Bad Penny's big oncoming headlights are in the form of Wacky Sitcom Hijinks.  While the first book manages to keep her secret from her parents (as well as other Wrong People) through some reasonable coincidences and fast talking, eventually this is going to have to escalate.  Her looming horrible possible future is merely personal rather than global, but it's also harder to avoid by simply changing the focus of the stories.  On the other hand, she could manage a face turn at some point without getting rid of the "Don't Tell My Parents..." conceit, since there's all sorts of heroic stuff that a teenager could get up to and not want her parents knowing about.  (Heck, she could end up with both a heroic and a villainous identity as part of trying to keep her secret...her parents know about her powers, after all.) 

Any long-term premise contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, of course, so the fact that I've identified these points does not argue against getting into either series.  I'd recommend trying out both of them, but you'll probably enjoy Wearing the Cape more if you're into global political intrigue and more life-and-death stakes in your superhero stories, whereas Don't Tell My Parents has a more upbeat "high but not lethal" stakes superhero feel.  Stormwatch/Authority versus Spider-Man or Blue Beetle, I guess.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), got to have his first ever overnight hospital stay this month, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Capes vs. Goggles - A Book Report Capes vs. Goggles - A Book Report Reviewed by Dvandom on Saturday, December 21, 2019 Rating: 5
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