Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa by Andrez Bergen depicts murders within a virtual city of heroes and adoring masses—now isolated from the rest of dystopian reality—as a stylistic homage to 1940s detective noir and the 1960s Marvel age of comics (available September 27, 2013).
This story is, quite simply, a love letter to superheroes.
It’s also a mystery wrapped in a virtual gameworld wrapped within an adventure that is deadly, inside and out, and also a commentary on what’s real versus what should be real.
Mostly, Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa by Andrez Bergen is fun, with a style that strongly reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. There are the same wild leaps of imagination in a world not unlike our own and the same jokey tone that masks some serious themes.
Readers enter the virtual world of Heropa at the same time as our hero, Jack, aka Southern Cross of Australia.
Heropa is populated by all sorts of Western superhero and manga archetypes, though Brick is absolutely the standout from his first appearance:
He glanced up to see a ton of bricks stuck together in the shape of a person. There were even patches of white cement smeared between the ochre-coloured bricks.
This arrival had on a giant-size trench coat that was open, displaying more paving across the torso, and propped up on the back of his great, stony skull was a small hat at a jaunty angle. The charcoal-grey straw number had an indented, fedora-style crown like every other man Jack had seen here, but contrarily sported a narrow brim, only about two inches wide, making it more 1960s than 1940s.
If you notice a resemblance to the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing of the Fantastic Four, that’s entirely intentional.
Bergen’s virtual world has some great details, such as the superhero “rules” on no swearing and not being allowed to drink alcohol:
“Okay, easy.” The Brick sat up and returned his leg to the floor. He raised one hand, as if preparing to count. “Heropa has rules. Stupid, dodgy ones I’m the first to whine about—like the Comics Code Authority all over again. One: no swearin’. Minor profanities like ‘bloody’ an’ ‘damn’ are fine, but steer clear o’ the ‘f—’, ‘c—’ an’ ‘sh—’ words. You know the ones I mean, or do I need to spell ‘em out?”
“I know. Weird rule, though.”
“Like I says. Number two, honour. Yep, our very own Bushido?. Treat others — yer enemies, hell, even yer undeservin’ peers—as you expect t’be treated in return.”
“No worries about using ‘hell’?”
“Sure, ‘hell’ is okay too. Y’can push the limits o’ the honour fiddlesticks, but there’s no cheatin’ or betrayal—they expect yer t’be a fine, upstandin’ role model. Now, there was a third rule, but I’ll be bummed if I can remember that one. Four—no alcohol, no tobacco, no pharmaceuticals o’ ill repute. Number five—what’s number five again, PA?”
Pretty Amazonia smiled. “Thou shalt not kill.”
Jack’s not sure what to think of this brave new world at first, despite the explanations by Brick and Pretty Amazonia, who’s inspired by numerous manga heroines.
Nothing is quite as it seems. For the first time, heroes are dying and that’s not even the worst problem. The “Blandos,” the virtual, set-dressing people created inside the game, are somehow retaining their memories instead of being reset to a default every night. Are they sentient? Are the designers outside the game messing with the players? Jack has to find out the answers, especially after he falls in love with a Blando.
Despite the cool concept, the story's virtual world was overwhelming and somewhat disorienting in the beginning. Not until about eighty pages into the book, where Jack’s past and reasons for entering Heropa are detailed, did I feel I had a handle on any character, including Jack. It also features a terrific sequence where Jack has to know superhero trivia in order to even find the game that allows entrance to Heropa:
“The password: comics.” The voice had taken on a warmer, conspiratorial edge. “Okay, one more question, a doozie, but if you get it, I’ll open up. What was the Red Skull’s real name?”
“Depends. Johann Schmidt, Albert Malick, or George John Maxon?”
“Sheesh, I dunno—I would’ve been satisfied with only Schmidt.”
The door creaked open a few centimetres and another teenage face appeared before Jacob’s glare. This boy had squinty rodent eyes, sunken cheeks, severe acne, and lips looking like they’d recently been employed to suck on a lemon.
“Was there really three Skulls? I just heard of the one.”
The book picked up steam from there, but it did require a reader’s patience.
There are also times when it seems like the plot is stalled and going nowhere, especially the main murder mystery, but the last third of the book picks up as the stakes are raised, and lives in the virtual and real world both need to be saved.
The over-thirty pages of original art that decorate this book are terrific, and I particularly love this one of Southern Cross bursting out of a Heropa newspaper. (There are many other artists's interpretations of this moment as well.) Bergen also includes recommended comic reads in the back that are fantastic, and represented a trip through memory lane for me.
Will those who know little about comics like it, even though it has an eight-page glossary of terms and names in the back? I’m not sure. I’m not an English literature major and I loved the Thursday Next series, so it’s certainly possible. But like Thursday Next, Heropa sometimes sacrifices compelling story for in-jokes and references about source material the author clearly adores, ones that were sometimes obscure, even to someone who’s been reading comics for four decades, like me.
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Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog on Wired.com and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.