It’s an old cartoon and serial-adventure cliché: The villain gets the hero at a disadvantage and cackles “Prepare to die!” It’s a meaningless phrase, a stalling tactic designed to heighten the drama and draw out a potentially scary moment for the audience, and give the hero time to turn the tables. Not so in Paul Tobin’s enjoyably pulpy debut novel, Prepare To Die!, where a superhero named Reaver takes it at face value. Having lost his hero friends, his latest battle, and his will to keep fighting the good fight on his own, he capitulates to the inevitable. When his nemesis, Octagon, defeats him, holds a weapon to his head, and tosses the hoary old phrase at him, Reaver agrees, and asks for a month to do exactly that—to put his affairs in order before surrendering for execution. Octagon, taken off balance, offers him two weeks.
The rest of the novel unfolds from there, as Tobin alternates between following Reaver—a.k.a. Steve Clarke, reluctant government agent and accidental superhero—as he tries to tie up his loose ends, and flashing back to cover the history that made him so tired of life and ready to let it go. Tobin is an established comics writer; among many other titles, he’s scripted Falling Skies and Predators for Dark Horse, worked extensively on the Marvel Adventures line, and collaborated with his wife, Colleen Coover, on the strikingly original graphic novel Gingerbread Girl. Tobin knows hero tropes well—case in point, the titular gimmick that drives the plot. He clearly expects that his audience does, too; much like Austin Grossman with Soon I Will Be Invincible, or A. Lee Martinez with Emperor Mollusk Versus The Sinister Brain, he builds an expansive world of super-powered conflict via a handful of entertaining details, trusting that his readers will find the outlines familiar and will fill in the blanks themselves, which leaves him free to keep things moving quickly. (It helps that the book is set in a familiar modern world where the existence of superheroes is the only major twist; naturally, their lives are captured on YouTube, explored on talk shows, and exploited in unlicensed porn.) Prepare To Die! is a fleet page-turner, whether Tobin is describing action or exploring Reaver’s thoroughly damaged inner landscape.
His head often isn’t a pleasant place to be. Reaver isn’t the brightest or noblest character in his heroic pantheon; preternatural toughness, massive strength, and rapid healing have turned him into a living hammer that sees every problem as a nail that deserves smashing. And the fact that his punches literally take a year off people’s lives means he has to seriously consider the weight and potential moral compromise of every blow. He’s come to fitfully accept how people see him, and he embraces the role of the vicious, barely controlled thug. And he’s well aware of his shortcomings, particularly his lack of wisdom or empathy by comparison with Paladin, his former friend and the greatest of Earth’s heroes.
The trend toward superhero novels in pop literature has mostly led to rewarding places; authors working in prose have more room to deconstruct their genre, build their characters inside and out, and delve into more adult material than is necessarily welcome in mainstream comics. Prepare To Die! is no exception, though its take on sex is often juvenile compared to the rest of its content. Reaver is so adult in his experiences and outlook in other arenas, it’s embarrassing how often he uses the word “pussy” when recalling his many conquests, superpowered and otherwise, and how trying to actually talk to a woman he cares about turns him into a sheepish, ineffectual dope. The book overall has similar attitude problems with women; far too many of its female characters, major and minor, are characterized largely in terms of exaggerated sexual characteristics, behaviors, powers, or obsessions. In this case, Tobin may have too thoroughly absorbed superhero comics’ biggest flaws along with their strengths.
But even at its grimmest or most graphic (and it’s both in heaping helpings, since big, dramatic character anguish can be as satisfying a wish-fulfillment fantasy trope as superpowered battles) the book is too much of a slick adventure to take to heart. And the book’s central thrust—Reaver’s attempts to redeem himself before death, and reconcile the hero he wants to be with the flawed man he’s become—makes it easy and natural to excuse his problematic aspects. Like the bulk of the superhero comics it emulates, this isn’t undying literature, but it’s a thrilling ride, the beach-blanket-book equivalent of a summer cinema blockbuster.