Genre in the Mainstream

Nested Pop Culture Narratives: A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl’s debut novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds, has what may be my favorite premise of a novel ever: Andrew Rhodes and Valerie Torrey—an alternate dimension David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson—fall in love on the set of their television series, Anomaly, and have a child together. This was, literally, everything I wanted to happen during the mid-90s. I didn’t ship Mulder and Scully—I wanted the characters to stay platonic partners without messing up their relationship with sex. It was incredibly important to me (and still is) to see a hetero man and woman working together as friends, and trusting each other, without assuming a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship. But I shipped the hell out of Duchovny and Anderson.

Proehl makes a great, smart, daring move, because having given us everything we’ve ever wanted, he quickly dashes all his readers’ hopes: the relationship ended terribly, Valerie and Andrew have been estranged for years, and Valerie has raised their child, Alex, not just alone, but essentially in hiding. It’s only as the book unspools that we slowly learn exactly what Valerie is hiding from, and why she’s finally decided to let Alex meet his famous dad.

This story is told as an ingenuous picaresque, as Valerie travels across the country making appearances at comic-cons in a lead-up to the biggest conference in Los Angeles (presumably a stand-in for San Diego Comic-Con), where she and Andrew will finally have to face each other after six years. This story, along with flashbacks to the better old days on the Anomaly set, are intercut with two other narratives. Gail is one of the only female comics writers working for a major publisher and also working the con circuit while figuring out her life now that her run on a mainstream title, The Speck and Iota, is ending. Along the way she meets Fred and Brett, a writer/illustrator team whose indie comic, Lady Stardust, has met with enough success that they’re hoping for a life-changing business meeting in Los Angeles.

Anyone who has ever cared about comics, cons, cosplay, The X-Files, or geek parenting will relate to at least one of this book’s threads, and Proehl does a great job of outlining the different facets of the world. While Gail loves comics, and wants nothing more than to be even more immersed in the world, Valerie holds the world of the cons at arm’s length, viewing it as a job she has to trudge through before her next stage role.

One of Proehl’s best recurring motifs is Alex’s nightly storytelling sessions, which are actually plots from Anomaly retold by Valerie with some slight age-appropriate edits. This lets us see Valerie’s perspective on her old gig and her shifting feelings about her ex, plus Alex’s thoughts about his dad. But best of all, we get to watch a really inventive sci-fi show unfold in short bursts throughout the book. Mirroring this conceit we also get a sense of the fantasy novel Alex is writing, as well as Gail’s mainstream comic, Fred & Brett’s self-published comic, and even the plot of Andrew Rhodes’ new show (which is essentially just Californication, with maybe a dash of Hung) until there are so many nested narratives you start to wonder how many sequels and spin-offs Proehl has planned.

Some things don’t work. Proehl wants to tie some thematic elements of the book to Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America (and I wanted that to pan out, because AIA is probably my all-time favorite work of fiction) but the references don’t really go anywhere. Also, and this is a bigger problem, Alex is a little too precocious. Some of his dialogue is perfect “smart kid raised in Brooklyn,” but he’s really too calm and well behaved, given that he’s being dragged across country to meet a father he doesn’t remember. What about the friends he left? Where is his anger at both of his parents?

Proehl’s portrait of life at a con is pretty accurate, but there was one particular aspect that got to me. I bristled at the portrayal of a group of women hired by the majors to cosplay as characters and make appearances at booths. They act as a Greek chorus (see? I didn’t say “geek chorus” even though I really, really wanted to. Oh, wait…crap.) which is a cool idea, but this is the largest group of women we spend time with and they’re only there to get paid, and seem mostly uninterested in the comics they’re appearing for. Since we also see Gail primarily interacting with her male comics writer buddies, and Val primarily spends her time clashing with Andrew and mothering Alex, the first part of the book gives us a comics world that is sharply divided down gender lines. It would have been cool to see groups of women comics fans hanging out together, because (and I say this having worked every New York Comic-Con since 2006) that’s the reality of comics now. The old stereotype of thousands of white guys all trying to impress the few geek girls and paid booth attendants are long past, and it frustrated me that most of the women at the cons in the novel are being paid to be there. This situation improves quite a bit by the time the characters reach Los Angeles, but it still starts the book off with a gender division that reminded me of the “fake geek girl” nonsense of a few years ago. Plus from a purely technical standpoint, the inclusion of those Greek chorus scenes occasionally bog the book down in a sea of back-and-forth dialogue.

There’s another ongoing quirk, in which rather than using Marvel and DC as the majors, Proehl creates alternate universe comics publishers Timely and National, thereby sidestepping any potential lawsuits. This obviously calls to mind Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which has been name-checked quite a bit in reviews for AHTW (Tobias Carroll wrote about Kavalier and Clay, AHTW, and other novels with fictional comics here) but Chabon created Empire Comics, and explicitly gave his Escapist character traits from Captain America, Batman, and Harry Houdini. He also made sure that while Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay referenced Siegel, Shuster, and Will Eisner, they were also people in their own right. Proehl fills his book with references to a dozen different comics characters, plus quite a few real comics creators, in addition to the Anderson/Duchovny doppelgangers of Valerie and Rhodes—all of whom are direct parodies of existing characters and people in our world. This is a book about genre in the mainstream to an extent that Kavalier & Clay was not. People who know comics can read Chabon’s novel and play spot-the-thinly-veiled-biography, glory in the Easter egg hunt, and feel like the book was just for them, but Kavalier & Clay was also literary fiction. It touched on giant themes, wrestled with the question of what it means to be Jewish in America, and asked what escapism means to people in times of trauma. Anyone who enjoyed fiction could read it, identify with the characters, losing themselves in a world of comics, magic, Jewish mysticism, and New York during World War II along the way, and focusing on whichever aspects of the story appealed to them most. And since it was set between the 1930s and 1950s, the book also has that sheen of historical fiction, and we could look at its treatment of gender, sexuality, and anti-Semitism at several decades’ remove.

AHTW, however, is primarily about geek life as we’re living it right now. We get interrogations of gender bias and homophobia in comics, but they’re delivered by the paid cosplayers, who are on the receiving end of most of the sexism. There are gentle pokes at sci-fi TV, but each poke lets the reader know that Proehl knows the shit out of The X-Files and Fringe. The examination of the relationship between mainstream comics and indie comics wisely avoids the trope of “indie comics are personal and artist driven, mainstream comics are commercial pap”—rather, indie comics can seem as daunting as mainstream comics when you’re a self-publisher, indies themselves have their own shifting hierarchy, and plenty of comics writers love the mainstream characters they write for. And then there are the economics of comics and conventions: the literal economy of Artist’s Alley, but also the more spiritual (and far more vital) economy of the hotel bar, where the guys on the lowest rungs have to keep an eye on who’s paying for whose drinks, and who’s sitting with who, while the guys on the highest rungs have to give the right toast to the right elder statesman to keep their cred. (I found myself nodding along, laughing and cringing in all the right places, while memories of working at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art flashed before my eyes.) But here’s what I’m wondering: will non-comics folk care about this?

I’m going to tentatively say yes, and explain why via another comparison to Kavalier & Clay. K&C leapt over tall building and dashed from Prague to LA to the Antarctic to the top of the Empire State Building. It was a boys’ own adventure story that distinguished itself by showing how that story damaged both boys who didn’t live up to a masculine ideal, and women who were forced into a story they didn’t want. Chabon’s book is bursting with life, humor, and even at its grimmest moments, a sense of possibility. AHTW, on the other hand, keeps itself confined, whether to cars, booths, bars, or childhood homes, in a way that underscores the central tension of the story. All of these characters are trapped in one way or another. Alex has no real say in which parent he lives with; Valerie will never be free of her past, or her relationship with Andrew, no matter how much she wants to escape it; Gail will always have to fight other people’s expectations of women in comics; Brett will probably never make enough money to create the grand artistic epics he dreams of. Many of the characters will remain in a state of flux, worried that their love of comics has trapped them in a permanent adolescence. What is mainstream in 2016? What is adulthood? Is Valerie an adult because she’s spent a decade raising a child? If you can make a living writing a comic like Lady Stardust, or dressing up as a comic character, have you achieved adulthood? Is it wrong to show up to your comics panel in jeans and a t-shirt, or is dressing up actually selling out to The Man? Can people who make up stories all day ever really achieve mainstream America’s idea of adulthood?

Proehl is also concerned with the stories we tell to define ourselves, and that weaves into this constant worrying over adulthood. Can people choose their stories, really? Or is your story defined by the society around you? Alex believes he can decide who he is, and who he’s going to become, but the adults seem much more constrained. Gail is one of the most successful adults we meet in the book: she has a rare position as a woman writing mainstream comics, she wears what she wants, she knows who she is, she has good friends. But drop her in a bar with her male friends and she’s terrified about her position in the hierarchy. More problematically, drop her in a room with the paid cosplayers and her mind spins out with physical comparisons with the other women as they critique her usual jeans-and-t-shirt uniform, even though she’s the comics professional, while they’re essentially temp workers with no stake in the con world.

This obviously hits close to home for me, as I sit here in my Star Wars t-shirt, holey jeans, and beat-up Chucks, writing about a book about comics beneath the watchful gaze of my Groot and Rocket Raccoon Funko pops. Actually, my desk is littered with toys and comic books…. But my desk is also in an office in a historic building, and I pay my rent with the money I make writing about pop culture. Am I an adult? Do I get to define myself in that way? Or am I, too, a suspended adolescent?

Which is my long and winding way of saying I liked this book, and I think anyone who is a geek or a parent of a geek should read it. In these interesting time, when the term geek itself has been devalued by a glut of blockbuster comic book movies, when some geeks fight other geeks over who’s a real geek, when the line between “genre” and “mainstream” is knife’s edge-thin (if it even still exists at all, if it ever existed in the first place) books like A Hundred Thousand Worlds are doing the work of navigating a new reality, where work, family, and adulthood are all being redefined. I’ve seen other reviews of the book that felt it was too sprawling or messy—I have no trouble with that, since I am a proud maximalist and I like my books to be overstuffed couches with the occasional spring popping out. What’s more interesting to me is that I’ve thought about this book many times since I finished it, and that the characters have dropped into my brain to say hello a few times. I think the sheer love of the subject matter that is on display here will win a lot of readers over—even if comics aren’t your thing, you’ll get to spend a few hundred pages with people who are enthusiastic about what they love, and a writer who isn’t afraid to interrogate the things he loves.

Leah Schnelbach has ceased to see the differences between Genre and the Mainstream. he is excited to step into the next phase of her evolution. Come argue with her on Twitter!

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