by Mur Lafferty (2008): ISBN: 9781934861165 (Swarm Press)
We’re not your classic heroes. We’re the other guys.—The Shoveler (Mystery Men, 1999)
The “misfit superhero” storyline is nothing new. One of my all-time favorite movies is 1999’s Mystery Men about a team of wannabes who have to step up and become real heroes to save Champion City from the clutches of the evil and delightfully campy Casanova Frankenstein. That movie was based on characters from the cult comic book Flaming Carrot. There was also the The Specials, which followed the misadventures of the “sixth or seventh best superhero team in the world.” Another prime example is Ben Edlund’s “The Tick” (both the comic and the cartoon series). Of course, you could trace the sub-sub-genre back to the TV show “The Greatest American Hero” or even further into the comics themselves; the superhero genre has never been afraid to look at its own absurdities and find the humor in them. Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps is a fine addition to this sub-sub-genre, managing to adequately mine the comic possibilities while playing it straight often enough to force the reader to pay attention as they rip through the fast-paced story.
“Keepsie” Branson runs a bar in Seventh City, glorious home of the Academy and its superheroes. The “First Wave” heroes, such as the legendary Pallas, have worked time and again to save the city from the depredations of the villainous Doodad, the deadly Clever Jack, and the maniacal Seismic Stan. Keepsie’s bar caters to people like her…the “Third Wave” of super-humans. The Third Wavers have powers that have been deemed not useful enough for the Academy’s purposes. Keepsie’s gift is that nothing can be taken from her. Her business partner can never drop a bar tray. Other Third Wave gifts include having utter control over elevators or being able to smell information about people and objects or the ability to spray high-powered jets of fecal matter from one’s fingertips. The Third Wavers are, naturally, bitter about being rejected by the Academy and its head, Dr. Timson. It also doesn’t help that, with the exception of Pallas, the heroes are all holier-than-thou, pretentious jerks.
The action starts when Keepsie gets drawn into a fight between rookie hero White Lightning and the arch-villain Doodad (master of machines). While being held in the grip of a giant robotic claw, Doodad manages to slip Keepsie a mysterious metal sphere, an object that the heroes turn out to want very badly. Out of curiosity and sheer contrariness, Keepsie hangs on to the sphere (no one can take it from her, after all) and tries to figure out what’s really going on. Over the course of a couple of days, all hell breaks loose as the villains and the heroes attempt to recover the object held by the Third Wavers and a dangerously unstable new supervillain is unleashed.
The novel’s plot moves at a very fast pace with plenty of twists, turns, and complications to keep things interesting. While the novel is satirical of the superhero genre, it is not an out-and-out satire; the humor is clever but more subtle than a full-on satire would be–well, as subtle as humor involving high-powered streams of poo can be, at any rate. The great strength of the book is the way Lafferty will start with the funny premise but then play it straight, looking ahead to the unforseen consequences of the gag. This adds a nice extra dimension to what would normally be a light-and-fluffy read. Also, as expected, the misfits find out that their powers are not so useless after all. However, this has less to do with the plot contrivance of finding the perfect situation for the imperfect power than by having the characters look a little deeper at themselves and see their powers as gifts or tools instead of punchlines.
As stated previously, the plot moves at a brisk pace, often at the expense of deep characterization. Keepsie and Peter (aka “Bloodhound”) are fairly well-drawn but, like most ensemble casts, other members of the team are less developed. Another casualty of the pace is that the ending seems rushed. Instead of providing a long sigh of relief, it feels like more of a “Phew! We made it! Cut!” At any rate, we’re set up quite well for a sequel…which would be a development to look forward to.
Playing for Keeps is a fun, fast-paced read. Like the denizens of Keepsie’s Bar, it’s flawed, but it has character and unexpected depth.