Superfolks

Superfolks is a 1977 novel by Robert Mayer, which satirizes the superhero and comic book genres, and was aimed at a more adult audience than those genres typically attracted. Superfolks examines comic book conventions and clichés from a more serious, ‘literary’ perspective.

The novel was influential on many writers of superhero comic books in the 1980s and 1990s, notably Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek. Although the book’s pop culture references clearly date it to the 1970s, its influence on the deconstruction of the superhero genre is still felt through Moore’s ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Marvelman,’ and ‘Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’

The novel’s protagonist is a Superman analogue named David Brinkley. His superhero codename is never fully given: various intelligence agencies refer to him as ‘Indigo’ (the color of his mask) and ‘der Übermensch’ (‘Overman’) and the original book jacket refers to him as ‘Everyman.’ He hails from the planet ‘Cronk’ and is vulnerable to the substance ‘Cronkite.’ Brinkley gradually lost his superhuman powers due to the influence of an unknown enemy, and all of the other superheroes (Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Snoopy, among others) have retired, disappeared, or died. It’s later revealed that this is a plot made by Pxyzsyzygy (an elf from the fifth dimension) to kill all heroes.

Superman is missing and presumed dead when a meteor of Kryptonite fell on Metropolis. Batman and Robin died when the Batcar crashed into a school bus carrying African-American children to school. Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Black Adam, and the other members of the Marvel family died when they were hit by a bolt of lightning. Wonder Woman retired to become an active feminist, giving speeches constantly. Snoopy was mentioned to have died in the beginning, but in fact appeared later to be alive, even though he was only given a short cameo. Brinkley’s powers gradually return, years later, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and as criminals swarm Manhattan.

The loss of Brinkley’s powers is discovered to be because his enemies—unsure of his secret identity—had introduced minute amounts of Cronkite into many common products, as well as the water supply. The return of his powers is later revealed to be a CIA-sponsored attempt to lure Brinkley out of retirement so that they can assassinate him as required by a nuclear disarmament treaty with the USSR. With the assistance of the institutionalized Captain Mantra (Captain Marvel) and a grown-up, flamboyantly gay Peter Pan, he relearns how to use his powers and ultimately defeats his enemies: gigolo ‘Stretch’ O’Toole, aka Elastic Man (Plastic Man); the incest-born ‘Demoniac’ (reminiscent of Captain Marvel, Jr. and Black Adam); and the millionaire Powell Pugh, a.k.a. the alien elf Pxyzsyzygy (Mr. Mxyzptlk by way of Howard Hughes).

Superfolks is also notable for examining how superheroes might affect human sexuality—a topic then rarely (if ever) examined in mainstream comics (though the topic was undoubtedly the subject of much speculation among comic fans). Brinkley occasionally uses his ‘gamma ray vision’ to peer through women’s clothing, and is heartbroken to learn that his high school sweetheart has become a stripper and a bisexual superhero groupie.

Grant Morrison wrote an article in ‘Speakeasy’ #111 and ‘[i]n the span of a few paragraphs, Morrison implies that Alan Moore stole the plots for ‘Marvelman,’ ‘Watchmen,’ and ‘Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ from Robert Mayer’s relatively obscure novel.’ When asked about the influence of ‘Superfolks,’ Moore said that he had read it at some point before writing ‘Marvelman’ but that ‘it was by no means the only influence, or even a major influence upon me output.’ He added, ‘I’d still say that Harvey Kurtzman’s ‘Superduperman’ probably had the preliminary influence, but I do remember ‘Superfolks’ and finding some bits of it in that same sort of vein.’ According to Kurt Busiek, ”Superfolks’ was a revelation, over time changing my outlook on both superheroes and on writing, and making it possible for me to write ‘Marvels,’ ‘Astro City,’ ‘Superman: Secret Identity’ and more.’

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