For all the comics I read (anywhere from 20 to 40 a week), the world of superhero genre books is still new to me. You know, the other kind of books: without pictures to go along with all the words. Most of my reading is done in snack size portions, and I devour these books at a rapid pace; two or more on the go at the same time. Binge-reading is a rarity, something my rational brain forbids as it means time away from being productive. Or sleeping. Who is killing the great capes of Heropa? by Andrez Bergen (One Hundred Years of Vicissitude, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat) overrode that logic with its compelling story, leading to me staying up late two nights in a row feverishly trying to unravel its mysteries.
It’s obvious that Bergen shaped this murder mystery out of a blatant love for comics, technology and his homeland. Set in Australia, it’s a welcome change from North America-centric stories. Equal parts sci-fi, noir and with a healthy dose of caped crusaders, it’s a masterfully woven mystery featuring the city of Heropa as the seemingly simplistic setting for these super-powered crimes. In Heropa, good guys fight bad guys all the time, and overnight, the city is restored — its people are safe, damage is repaired and all is right in the world again… until the next day’s inevitable super-powered face-off. The technological side comes in when you’d least expect it, and is best kept as a surprise for readers.
No one used to die in these battles between good and evil, except for the common folk, or Blandos as one character refers to them. Recently capes of both moral alignments are found dead all over town, and only our protagonist Southern Cross (or Jack, when he takes off his mask) seems particularly concerned about it. Jack’s the newest member of The Equalizers, Heropa’s version of the Justice League or Avengers. He does his best to survive while he and his teammates work to unravel what’s taking down their super-powered comrades. Oh, and maybe fall in love with one of the Blandos along the way. Ah, romance.
I recently had the chance to ask Bergen a few questions about the series, including how he came up with the concept for Heropa and Southern Cross. “Heropa’s always been in my headspace, since it chiefly brings together two things I love: classic hardboiled noir fiction and the flavour of 1960s Marvel Comics. [But the concept] came to me while I was rifling through boxes of my stuff at my mum’s place back in Melbourne two years ago,” Bergen explains.
“I was downsizing my possessions so she’d have more space. After being in Tokyo for over a decade, I doubted I needed most of the junk, but I stumbled across an old drawing I did of a superhero I created in high school. The character’s name was Southern Cross, and he was basically the teenage me’s parochial Aussie answer to heroes like Captain America and Union Jack. I sent the character to Stan Lee in the mid-’80s and he wrote back saying he liked the idea, but it ended up that Tom DeFalco — who was then editor-in-chief at Marvel — wasn’t so into it and the character was shelved for about 25 years. Anyway, when I rediscovered him I started thinking about ways in which to reinvent the guy.”
No matter what shape he’s in or what resources he has available, Southern Cross proves himself to be a hero, despite his constant state of being woefully in over his head. He stumbles, learns and grows through the book, making the denouement ever more bittersweet. “The twist towards the end of the story regarding our villain of the piece? I didn’t see that coming.” Bergen admits. “I remember I was tweaking the second half of the manuscript from around September last year, and it wasn’t really doing anything for me. That was a fun, Four Musketeers-style wrap, but lacked impact. So I was mulling over things on a packed peak-hour train to Shinjuku [ward in Tokyo], squashed against a window, when the current finale came to me. I had to wait several stops before I could pull out a pen to jot this down.”
“The development of the final story was interesting,” he continues. “I finished the final draft in December 2012 — or so I thought. At that stage I had only illustrations of lead character Southern Cross, but I decided to open these up to include Pretty Amazonia, The Aerialist, the Big O, Major Patriot, Prima Ballerina, et cetera. So, while I was awaiting the artwork over the next three months, I tweaked the story further. Much as I dig the bickering camaraderie of the ’60s Marvel Bullpen, I also grew up on darker comic book offerings from the early ’80s, stuff like John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s run with X-Men, Frank Miller on Daredevil and Batman, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez doing Teen Titans… so at times the story steered in that direction too, and I had to drag it back on track. There are still elements with that darker feel in there, but tempered, I like to think.” I won’t lie, the darker parts of the story threw me at first. It’s only a third of the way through the book that you realize the world and characters you’re so engrossed with have barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on.
Bergen injects his story with his knowledge of the comic medium. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of subtle references to characters, creators and even long-dissolved publishers throughout the book. These references are either so subtle most readers would miss them entirely, or they serve a specific purpose, with Bergen expanding on their inclusion in an interesting, thoughtful way. “Although I like to believe I have a good memory of comic book trivia, I really needed to do a lot of research here,” he confesses. “Along the way I discovered some obscure facts and characters I’d never heard of — so it was doubly worthwhile.” It reads like a love letter to the genre without being obtrusive to the overall story. Obviously a huge fanboy (this is meant as a compliment), Bergen’s passion for the medium adds an intelligent undercurrent to archetypes that are still sometimes perceived as nothing more than brawling heroes in spandex.
One of the things that makes Heropa so unique is the illustrations of these heroes, peppered throughout the book. With over 35 contributions from the likes of Dave Acosta, JGMiranda, Paul Mason and more, Bergen explains what a pleasant surprise it was to have his characters come to life. “I do artwork myself but I’m bit of a hack. It was fantastic to work with professionals, to bounce around ideas of characters that were very real in my skull and in text on the page. Getting another person to visualize their take on the character was a wee bit stressful, so I tempered this by asking particular artists whose work best reflected the character itself. I think all of them nailed their individual character designs, and I love the range of styles within the book. That’s what comic books are all about: the variety of interpretation, especially visually. Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby saw Captain America differently, but both versions are brilliant.”
The illustrations bring the book full circle, back to its comic book roots, and gives readers a glimpse at the heroes they are still getting to know. “Funnily enough,” Bergen divulges, “there is no picture in the novel of The Brick. This is because he’s heavily modelled on Kirby’s design of The Thing from the Fantastic Four in the mid-’60s, and I couldn’t see any other artist capturing that. Better left alone, methinks.”
Blending elements from several genres and treading a fine line between snort-inducing nerdiness and noir mystery, Heropa is a quirky mix but it works. Most importantly, it deconstructs what it means to be a hero — a concept universal to any genre, super-powered characters or not. But don’t take it from me, here’s how Bergen describes Heropa. “The novel explores the nature of what is to be human, good and evil and the murkiness between the two, love, death, friendship, art-deco automobiles… and a lot more.” For a refreshing take on heroes, give Who is killing the great capes of Heropa? a shot.
Who is killing the great capes of Heropa? is available for pre-order on Amazon, and will be sold in select bookstores and comic shops on September 27, 2013.