All Manner of Damned-Fool-Bravery
By Nick Harkaway
“It’s a strange world,” says Elijah Snow, at the end of the first issue of writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday’s comic series Planetary (1999). “Let’s keep it that way,” replies his partner, Jakita Wagner. They, along with a scruffy man called the Drummer, investigate the pocket realms of weird found in other comics (The Fantastic Four), literature (Dracula), and pulp fiction (Doc Savage).
What would the Planetary crew would think of a pelican accidentally eating a pigeon? Nick Harkaway, author of Angelmaker (2012), opens his new novel Tigerman with the scene, doing his best to keep the world strange, and reminding us that—when we pay attention—reality can shine more brightly than the colorful pockets we hide in. One of his two main characters, a wiry preteen boy who’d love to be called Robin (as in, Batman’s sidekick), pulls away from the “funny-book” he’s reading to absorb the ornithological mayhem.
Harkaway’s other protagonist is the British military officer Lester Ferris, aka the Sergeant, who witnesses this scrumptious oddity alongside the boy. They’ve come to enjoy each other’s company on the volcanic island of Mancreu, in the Arabian Sea, which periodically vents noxious clouds capable of melting stone, giving fish sex changes, and stealing people’s speech and vision. Such charming unpredictability has made the island as much of a hazard as it is a paradise, for its mixed population of Asians, Indians, and Europeans, and for civilization. The good folks of the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu—NatProMan for short—can’t wait to bomb it from the Earth.
His time with “Robin” limited, Lester wonders if the clever, comics-obsessed boy is cared for by family or friends. He’s a veteran of combat in Afghanistan, with no loved ones to cushion the bumpy road leading to forty. Were the boy an orphan, perhaps something could be worked out. Eventually, the murder of a mutual friend named Shola—in whose cafe Lester and the boy met—galvanizes the Sergeant into costumed action on behalf of a populace facing apocalypse. Japanese scientist Kaiko Inoue and enigmatic spiritual guru White Raoul support his crusade not just against Bad Jack (Mancreu’s heroin-smuggling, possibly non-existent Fairy King), but also against the sudden loneliness life thrusts upon us.
Rather than pumping a fatal amount of helium into Tigerman, the idea of Mancreu’s inevitable destruction acts like the perfect ballast. Otherwise, such a wryly-told tale about mutant gas and animal-totem vigilantes might sail off to where the bottom two-thirds of Vonnegut’s work has gone to die. Tigerman, if I may categorically gush, is a shimmering ode to fatherhood that stokes the heart and the imagination with equal attention. After scenes of graphic cruelty, we’re relieved by sweetness. Between moments of fevered righteousness, in which all manner of damned-fool-bravery is possible, these characters knock the wind out of us. Tigerman, in other words, should make Harkaway’s career.
But of more immediate relevance, why is Lester on Mancreu and pals with a street urchin? The short answer is that he’s a freakish loner (not to be confused with being lonely). The long answer is that he was the highest ranking non-commissioned officer of the U.K.’s NatProMan command when the original Brevet-Consul left—bolted, actually, before Mancreu’s next Discharge Cloud could force everyone to dance the Watusi. And yet, what is a potentially crippling gas spume compared with having fought desert insurgents? Lester stays on Mancreu, in a “haunted old manse” overlooking the town of Beauville, because it’s beautiful. Rounding the island daily, beat cop-style, greeting locals and guests, drinking tea—that’s all he needs right now.
The boy, however, travels routine paths of his own. He haggles for black market wares at the docks (like fresh reading material), sits for hours in Shola’s cafe, and more often than not doesn’t mind the Sergeant at his side. Their first conversation about comics is hot-to-the-touch with pop nerdisms (like most of the boy’s argot), and through Lester, Harkaway does a great impression of an adult treading youthful waters:
“You like comics?” the Sergeant asked, then heard the echo of the question and saw his own child self shaking his head at the stupidest thing ever said by man.
But the boy was gracious, respecting the gambit for what it was. “Yes.”
“All. Some DC, for Batman, Grant Morrison! But mostly Marvel. Warren Ellis. Also [Simon]Spurrier, and Gail Simone. [Brian] Bendis is full of win.”
The Sergeant grinned. He had never heard this expression before, but he approved of it. Full of win. It had a digital flavour, merry and modern. More things should be full of win.
“I like Green Lantern,” he said.
“Which one?” the boy demanded.
Oh, sod it. Now he remembered: there were so many Lanterns to choose from, and always changing, and the wrong one was like the wrong football team, the wrong church… “Hal Jordan,” he said, dredging up the name.
Quite fitting, and “totally Old School,” since readers following the paternal and upright Hal Jordan through his career saw him go gray at the temples. Lester never broaches or examines what troubles him—like whether or not anyone loves the boy—with the boy himself. But when he’s alone, Harkaway grants us passage through those gorgeously frail spaces inside an aging man, where fears drift translucently for closer study:
He sighed, and peered at his face in the mirror: a young face, really, if slightly foxed. And yet, at the same time, the face of a too-old man. He had slipped from one generation to another without feeling the change, and this was abruptly the face of a father, not a son. A childless father, to be sure, but all the same he was exhausted and the fatigue never quite seemed to go away however much he slept. He wondered if this was what it was like at forty, if you just never quite felt yourself again, slowed down and down and down.
Then Shola is shot to death in his own cafe, leaving our heroes to fend off the murderers with a frying pan and a tightly rolled comic-to-the-eye. After the funeral, a soused Lester wanders home and cuts through someone’s jungle-adjacent garden. He soon loops back to the graveyard where Shola is buried, passing out. When he wakes, a tiger ambles silently up and allows the Sergeant to stroke its oily fur. A transcendental recalibration of the soul, if ever there was one.
The boy, and many readers, think immediately of a young Bruce Wayne, encountering bats beneath his parent’s manor years before becoming the Dark Knight. Readers may also try to recall when they last encountered superheroes in their literary fiction. I’m not sure Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) counts; nor does Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003). Both navel-gazing novels are ripe with comic references, but they ultimately treat superheroes like schmutz to be scraped off before reaching adulthood.
Superheroes aren’t schmutz, or barnacles that grow on real literature. Done respectfully, superhero stories can be the teak panels that comprise literature. Tigerman is the first novel since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) to assert this. And luckily for us, Harkaway isn’t content to simply comment; his action sequences, in which Lester wears military-grade body armor and a tricked-out gas mask, are superb. While trouncing sailors and bikers, Tigerman is repeatedly pummeled, shot at, and exhausted, taking his frame to the limit. But fate continues piling the intractable onto his shoulders. Here’s Kaiko, his effervescently dorky crush, explaining why blowing up Mancreu won’t actually stop the Discharge Clouds:
“It will scour the surface and if we are all lucky a tectonic shift will seal the vents. But the bacteria will survive. That’s what they do. They already live in an extreme environment. They are protean. And it is possible that the vents will not seal and the bacteria will get out into the sea. Again. So far they have not done well there, but that can change. If the chambers discharge directly into the ocean floor, for example, over time… And the radioactivity will increase the likelihood of mutation. It is a very bad plan.”
For what, exactly, does Lester risk his life? It was already the boy’s idea that he fight crime, and they bonded over the costume’s assembly and creation; if Tigerman hasn’t earned his love yet, can he ever? Maybe there’s more at stake. Harkaway offers some first-rate comics analysis while Lester discovers that he and Tigerman aren’t the same person, and that makes all the difference:
The message varied like the soldier. For Superman, that point was about justice and ideals. He really was a perfect American dream. For Batman, it was something else altogether. It was a statement that no matter who you were some things you simply could not do. He was not primarily about punishment or even prevention. He was a living cypher, a message that the set of actions which were available to human beings did not include certain crimes, and that line was absolute, made absolute not by him but what he represented, the human capacity to say “no.”
About every fifteen years, a writer miraculously reinvents what superheroes can be. Alan Moore’s 1986 Watchmen did so, ushering in an age of heroes who stared down the seedier aspects of life in spandex. For the next decade-plus, the comics industry ran in every direction with the idea of “adult” superheroes; as many creative walls were hit as were successfully leaped over. Then Warren Ellis gave us, alongside Planetary, 1999’s triumphant The Authority. These heroes were humanists, from many different nations, and written maturely in the classic sense; they fought for the entire planet, going after dictators as well as alien overlords.
Again, the industry rippled, only this time superheroes well and truly escaped the page. Marvel’s movie studio is an undeniable hit-factory, and world consensus has rapidly confirmed that a human in flight to save the lives of several others is one of the most awe-inspiring sights ever put on film. Will we glance back at Tigerman, realize that it’s part of the genre’s punctuated equilibrium, and agree that superheroes belong on the shelf with To the Lighthouse and Gravity’s Rainbow?
Stranger things have happened.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.