There is a reason Spider-Man was such a huge hit with comic book readers when he first swung into popular culture half a century ago. Until then, superheroes had generally been steely-eyed, square-jawed, barrel-chested men who both were and were not of this world. Even Batman, whose only powers were his enormous wealth and intelligence, was more of an ideal than a person. Spider-Man, however, was messily human. He was full of insecurities and made mistakes. In other words, he was just like the kids reading about him, give or take the bite from a radioactive spider. And if superheroes were like anyone else, it only followed that anyone could be a superhero. All you needed was a suit, a cool-sounding handle, and nerve.
Nothing Man and the Purple Zero, by Toronto author Richard Scarsbrook, features the brief career of two accidental super-dudes who stumble their way through a novel that, frankly, does more than its share of stumbling on its own. The eponymous heroes are a pair of high school friends who, through sheer dumb luck, take down a pair of bank robbers and become the talk of their small Ontario town.
Bill Brown is a farmer’s kid and ultimate nice guy: waking before dawn to make deliveries with the family tractor, breaking up fights in the schoolyard, helping younger kids cross the road at lunchtime. His best friend is Marty Apostrophes, a flamboyant rich kid who loves attention, which he garners mostly by causing trouble, mouthing off, or wearing outrageous clothes. On a night they are supposed to be collaborating on their Grade 12 English presentation, Marty shows Bill the collection of classic cars amassed by his grandfather, a fantastically wealthy industrialist. Marty plays upon Bill’s obsession with old cars, convincing him to take a spin in a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton (the story lingers on the specifics of the car’s make, though in the end it only matters that it’s old and very fast). The duo dons some old-timey clothes and helmets, and heads out for a joyride.
After almost getting caught speeding, Marty and Bill come across a robbery-in-progress, and through a series of well-timed accidents and one perfect punch to the jaw, they manage to subdue the culprits, then split the scene. Their exploits are caught on film and uploaded to YouTube by the book’s other main character, Elizabeth Murphy, a nerdy and overlooked friend who aspires to be an investigative journalist. The video quickly goes viral, and Nothing Man (Bill) and the Purple Zero (Marty) are born.
Nearly half of this short book is spent on the characters’ origin stories, most of which involve the difficult time the three heroes (Elizabeth is now “Observer X,” her username on YouTube) have fitting in with their classmates. By the time the heroes decide to embrace their accidental alter-egos, so much expectation has been built up that the reader can’t help being let down when they don’t really do much with them. Part of the allure of superhero stories is getting to see former losers revel in their newfound powers and freedom. Instead, we watch Marty, Bill, and Elizabeth fumbling around and mostly failing at being heroes just as much as they did at being normal kids.
Scarsbrook can’t seem to decide if he’s writing a realistic story about the problems of modern teens, full of sexual tension (of the gay and straight variety), or a goofy, Gordon Kormanesque adventure farce for younger readers. The characters are all two-dimensional, the dialogue is full of all-caps exclamations, and some of the scenarios are downright campy. Yet the story is also crammed with serious issues – including, most bizarrely, Marty’s guilt over how his family made its enormous fortune by manufacturing bullets and shells during the two World Wars. It’s hard to know how seriously to take any of the weightier material when the book’s climax involves most of the town’s high school students showing up in superhero costumes.
The novel often feels a few decades out of date, as most of the pop-culture references were already a little old when I was a teenager: The Blues Brothers, Fat Albert, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Sean Connery–era James Bond, Bullitt, and, strangest of all, Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light.” Readers under the age of 40 will spend a lot of time on Google trying to figure out what these supposedly contemporary teens are talking about.
Though the epilogue ties up every loose thread, Scarsbrook does leave the door open to a possible sequel. What’s really needed here is a reboot.