2019 brought no shortage of onscreen not-so-superheroes, from Amazon Prime’s televised interpretation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic The Boys to Thanos just wanting to save the Marvel Comic Universe in Avengers: Endgame.
Into this fray, O’Brian Gunn brings us the Alpha-Omegas—human-types with previously dormant superhuman genes that begin to unexpectedly spring into action. Not all A-Os are thrilled with their new abilities, and not all “normal” folks are happy to suddenly be surrounded by folks with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or read their thoughts.
The A-Os at the center of Gunn’s story are in various states of acceptance regarding their newfound abilities. They include a scientist who can’t use science to explain the force field he can now generate, a woman being spoken to by an angel and a demon (or is she?), a vigilante who can co-opt other A-Os’ abilities, a party boy who wakes up dead, and a conservative Christian convinced his powers are a gift from and to be used for the glory of God. We also meet a detective trying to figure out just what the heck is happening to his city.
This motley crew must come together to figure out what really happened to a prominent A-O family that was murdered. And, like so many other motley crews who find themselves thrust together in adverse circumstances, these diverse characters must learn how to work together despite their differences in backgrounds and morals. It’s a familiar trope, but Gunn, a confessed lover of “geek culture,” has taken these recognizable landmarks and put them on the map of a whole new world.
I have a hard time reading graphic novels. While a picture may say a thousand words, my brain hates being slowed down to process that picture versus inhaling words. So I was happily impressed by how Gunn tells a story that feels like a comic—or, even further, a movie.
This isn’t just because he’s writing about people with supernatural abilities fighting crime. Rather, it’s in how he writes. As he introduces each character, the scene ends with “the [type of character that was just discussed]’s name is [x].” The approach hooked me from the start as I wanted to match up the person I just met with the description on the back cover. While the technique could have felt stilted and cliched, the protagonist being introduced wasn’t always obvious from the start of the scene, so it felt like a mystery to solve: whose story are we in and which power do they have?
In addition, each sentence Gunn writes is peppered with a wealth of descriptive information. One example is, “The black truck stops with a slight shriek of bad brakes, rolls back a foot in reverse.” Whereas many writers would have said something like “the truck’s aging brakes complained slightly,” and a reader could easily imagine that sound in their mind, Gunn goes for something even more concrete, with the added interesting dichotomy of “slight” and “shriek.”
Gunn’s artistic wordplay skills are on display just as much as his factual ones. For instance, “The light from inside gilds her exposed back, accentuating curves, lustrous skin, and the blood red silk of her gown. She smiles and a star is set aglow beneath her cheeks.”
One of the main A-Os we meet goes by the name Noir, as he has an affinity for that genre characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity—and he embraces all three. It’s clear that Gunn is a fan as well and of those “just the facts” gumshoe protagonists who perhaps don’t want to admit how much of a romantic they are.
The highly stylized writing even holds through the violent scenes—and, like most superhero action tales, there is plenty of violence. One particularly Gunn line: “…[he] hears the snap of bones sing out in harmony with the man’s cries of agony.” Snapped bones singing are just as much an incongruous treat as the previous “slight screech” of brakes.
Another way Gunn embraces his “word wrangler” side—as described in his author bio—is in his use of African-American Vernacular English and other types of speech. When asked about this tactic, Gunn says, “I love language and the different ways it can be used to express oneself and learn more about a person’s character, or learn more about characters in a book without needless exposition or backstory.”
Gunn says he bases his characters on visual inspiration—be it an actor, an acquaintance, or just a picture he’s seen. That vision “helps me root the character’s mannerisms, speech patterns, facial expressions and the like on the page,” he says. He wants his characters to not just sound real, but to feel real, and to do that, he thought of how some characters of color—and even non-POC with accents—would talk in real life. Says Gunn, himself African-American, “I think it’s vital that minority readers not only read about characters who look like them, but also sound like them.”
A fun add-on to this book is that it opens with a list of songs for each “episode.” Only after my reading did I realize Gunn had created a Spotify playlist of these songs. I read with streaming stations based on each of the listed songs; it was a neat addition that helped me listen outside of my norm while reading outside of it. Each song mentioned is worked into the text, as well, providing insight into the characters, such as when the vigilante Noir and by-the-book scientist Leo find they both appreciate Chase & Status, an English electronic duo. This soundtrack also adds to the immersive movie feel of Gunn’s text.
Gunn strikes an all-too realistic chord when describing how others are reacting to the A-Os. One chapter includes a transcript of a news show featuring a psychologist, an A-O advocate, and the leader of an anti-A-O group called Common Sense. The way that Frank, the Common Sense leader, speaks to dehumanize the A-Os (literally, “they aren’t people”) and shut down their supporter and the non-partisan doctor sounds all too much like the way marginalized groups are often spoken about on talk radio, any hope of a constructive conversation being eclipsed by those who yell the loudest: “It’s your right to idiotically idealize them just as it’s my right to justifiably persecute them.”
In another uncomfortably familiar moment, the conservative Christian A-O, who believes he is God’s sovereign, has a real “come to Jesus” talking to from a female friend who reveals she is in a relationship with another woman. Adam’s “hate the sin/love the sinner” and “homosexuality is a choice” beliefs are an obvious parallel to what others, like Frank, the Common Sense leader are saying about A-Os. Suzie calls out his white/straight/cis bias saying “you and people who look like you don’t have a history of needing to hide who you are, of having to wall off an entire part of yourself when you’re out in public out of fear for your life”—as, ironically, so many non-powered people are calling for ways to regulate those with different genetics when it comes to power.
Gunn is a first-time novelist but long-time writer about and appreciator of all things speculative and superhuman. This debut book proves his interest in humans of all kinds. He is a true fan whose years of dedication come through as he walks the reader through Dominion City and introduces these “reluctant champions,” showing us we are not so different, after all.
Furies: Thus Spoke, by O’Brian Gunn. Denver, Colorado: Spaceboy Books, March 2019. 370 pages. $14.95, paper.
Ann Davis-Rowe loves stories and organization. Both of these are most evident in the fact that she holds a master’s degree in Library Science, but she’s better known as a frequent performer, sometimes writer, and darn good secretary. When not at a theatre, she can usually be found trying to find the perfect hair color, pretending to exercise, and avoiding cilantro. The rest of the time she’s watching TV and/or eating, cooking, or researching (cilantro-free) recipes with her husband, Hampton, and their helpful four-legged tastetesters, George and Val.