The Astounding Antagonists is a super-hero, or rather, super-villain, novel by Rafael Chandler. Many will liken it to ‘Soon I Will Be Invincible’, and there are similarities, but also differences. It’s a fantastic novel from a very talented writer.
Full disclosure: I’ve chatted with Rafael Chandler more than a bit on social media, and supported two of his Kickstarter projects (the Teratic Tome and Lusus Naturae, monster books for old school tabletop roleplaying games). When I ran a Kickstarted for a new edition of my own superhero roleplaying game, ‘Invulnerable’, I planned on having Rafael write an adventure for that game. Rafael gave me a review copy of the book for the purposes of this review. He’s a great guy, but I don’t believe that’s prejudiced my read of the book.
The novel is about a group of sympathetic villains that come together to stop a band of truly despicable heroes from conquering the world and imposing their will on everyone. In the history of this world, most superhuman powers come from alien artifacts called ‘prisms’, and it’s easiest for the rich and powerful to locate them. Becoming a superhero is just another luxury of the grotesquely wealthy, the final bit that edges one from celebrity to demigod. A few heroes, like Sacrament and BioTech, gained powers from strange, possibly divine, sources, or build their own gadgets, but most are powered by the prisms.
But the novel’s not about the heroes. The Antagonists of the title are the protagonists of the book. Motley is a super-agile thief in fool’s costume, working in a womens’ shelter and bent on one final score, mainly for her own good but also to help out the shelter. Dr. Agon is a pedantic sociopath and megalomaniac who was an idealistic revolutionary long ago, but lost that idealism long ago, but continues because he can’t bring himself to quit. Coltan is a young revolutionary, in the middle of an illicit affair with a married heroine. Helen Damnation is an alien soldier who refuses to kill, for her own reasons that we discover later on.
Already we can see one of the striking things about this novel: the heroes defend plutocracy and the modern surveillance state, and fight because it makes them rich. They almost never lose, and they tend to be bullies and cowards. The villains want to remake the world, and if they’re crazy, it’s mostly because only a crazy person would think they’d have a chance. The villains mostly refuse to kill, or if they do, it’s only as a last resort, while the heroes employ severe torture methods as a matter of course.
Comics are a weird medium. In the old days, comics were ignored as “just for kids”, and so developed as a kind of outsider art. Comics sometimes shine an interesting light on the world. In today’s comics, every popular villain becomes and anti-hero and joins a “good guy” team, and then the good guy teams fight one another. This is more than a little like the world we see on CNN; without a Communism to fight, we’re left helpless against the real enemies of progress, the banks and corporations that destroy the world and walk away unscathed, and governments that assume everyone with a shadow could be a terrorist. Chandler’s book shows us a world where the people are called “villains” because they stand up for what’s right, and we can’t help but root for them.
Okay, so the story has a good theme. More importantly, this is a really fun read. All of the characters are interesting, real, and witty in a way that (important in a post-Whedon world) doesn’t seem forced. Motley’s pop culture references make it easy to forget how clever and dangerous she is, and the real threat is her trickery. Dr. Agon might have suffered with a different writer, but despite his condescension and ego, he comes off even cooler than Dr. Impossible from “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, especially since he doesn’t have or need a pathetic backstory to make us pity and root for him as an underdog. The moment he starts to seem emotionless or annoying, we realize how much he cares for Helen Damnation and his other, former teammates, Chillpill and Speed Freak. Helen could have been the most annoying, with her pseudo-Russian alien diction, but she also comes off just flat-out badass. Coltan is just a big dork, but a lovable one, like a teenage kid full of ignorance and zeal and puppy love. In the little we see of the heroes, we realize that they’re not really pure evil, either, they’re just lucky, advantaged folks taking the easy way out, or at worst entitled douchebags that are willingly blind to how bad the world has become on their watch. Who doesn’t want to see obnoxious reality TV stars beaten up by the cool kids who smoked under the stairs after school?
Who shouldn’t read this book? Folks stuck on comics’ Silver Age, that can’t swallow the idea of villains as heroes. Folks that eschew any sort of moral ambiguity in their heroes. Young kids or other folks that have problems with sex, violence, drug use, some swearing, or other HBO stuff should also steer clear.
If you’re a fan of super hero movies and comics, and want to read a good noir-ish heist story about some bad guys that aren’t all that bad, pick this one up.