Monday, November 9, 2020

Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

Will Supervillains Be on the Final?
by Naomi Novik
Illustrated by Yishan Li

Until now, I've loved every book by Naomi Novik that I've read. I've enjoyed several books about schools for young superheroes. I've even had positive experiences with graphic novels. But the most positive thing I have to say about this graphic novel by Novik, illustrated in the style of shōjo manga by Shanghai-based comic book artist Yishan Li, is that I was able to get through it quickly.

I've always considered myself more of a book booster than a book critic, so I don't want to belabor it. Since I (relatively recently) discovered Naomi Novik's work, I've been thrilled and delighted by every encounter and I have learned to hold her in the highest respect. While I don't at all understand what happened in this book, I must accept the possibility that the fault lies somehow with me. But I did not feel that her storytelling gifts, the scope and originality of her vision, the richness of her skill with description and dialogue, the depth of her literary power shone through these pages as well as they did, for instance, in Uprooted and the Temeraire books I have read so far.

Will Supervillains etc. follows a 16-year-old prodigy – an atom manipulator, to be exact – named Leah Taymore through her rocky start at a prestigious college for tomorrow's superheroes called Liberty Vocational. A transfer student from a lower-level institution, she has trouble adjusting to life on the big campus, especially because a supervillain (whose secret identity is a professor of ethics) and his dreamboat son are messing with her. Every mistake she makes seems to bring Leah closer to getting expelled before she's even gotten started, and she's stressed by the pressure to perform, the coldness of some of her peers, the strictness of the dean and the indifference of her advisor. Plus, she has a bit of a crush on a guy named Paul, who has issues of his own.

While Professor Locke, a.k.a. Bane, sneakily sows an antiheroic worldview in Liberty's student body, we see Leah joining in a study group, struggling to grasp the principles of caped hero costume design, causing a couple of disasters with misjudged uses of her power, and somehow, despite it all, making some friends and surviving the first semester. However, in my opinion, the story flies by too quickly, resolves too simply and is paced in a jerky, confusing way. Also, I find the contrasts between relatively realistic character panels and very stylized, cartoonish ones to be too abrupt and extreme.

Art carries the storyline as much as the dialogue, and as for narrative – well, there isn't any; it's a graphic novel. For what it is, maybe it's all right – though again, I was sometimes by confused when the plot jumped forward – but it just doesn't show Naomi Novik's talent to its best advantage, I feel. I kept wishing the comic panels would alternate with paragraphs of prose.

As far as the slimness of the book goes – how fast one gets through it, how simple the plot structure is, and ultimately how inconclusive the ending is – I guess you can put all that down to the fact that this was intended to be the first issue of a series of "Liberty Vocational" comics, or graphic novellas, or whatever. Perhaps there's a conclusion to be drawn from the fact that, after almost a decade, the series hasn't progressed beyond Volume 1. I wish Naomi Novik (and Yishan Li, too) every success. But I don't think this series is one.

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