Wednesday, 4 July 2012

On Samit Basu's "Turbulence" (Part 1)

In which the blogger discusses a novel which takes both a familiar and an unconventional look at the super-hero. Since a considerable number of other sites have already discussed "Turbulence" from a variety of other perspectives, it struck me that I ought to take a slightly different approach. After all, this is a blog for comics readers, so what might a comics reader, and in particular a superhero fan,  find for themselves in "Turbulence", and why might they want to invest in it, as I'm going to suggest that they should?

Some of the points which I've raised, and indeed not raised, below are touched upon in an interview with Mr Basu which will soon follow on the blog. Where the ideas discussed there overlap with what follows here - as where the matter of the role of India in "Turbulence" is concerned - I've edited accordingly so as avoid duplication. Which is to say, if an obvious topic isn't touched upon in what follows, it hopefully will be in the next post. I've done my best to avoid significant spoilers, and I hope you'll consider poping in for the interview in the near future;

A declaration of interest; Turbulence was sent to me for review purposes by Titan Books.
         
Obscurity's easy, and all that naval-gazing's a pitiful substitute for top-notch, populist storytelling. Yes, Samit Basu's novel Turbulence is as meta a text as any uber-superhero fan could want for, but what it's very much not is a story about the fascinations of the cape'n'chest-insignia genre and nothing else. Instead, Basu uses the traditions of the superhero to power a steamrolling page-turner designed to appeal to the broadest of smart-minded audiences who might otherwise never dream of picking up a copy of Action or Amazing. Ours is an age in which so much of the comics "mainstream" has abandoned the mass market and settled instead for pandering to the trainspotting obsessions of a tiny blokeish niche of readers. But Basu stands outside the counter-intuitive capacity of the likes of much of Marvel and DC to ignore the cross-cultural, trans-continental ubiquity of the superhero in film and TV, gaming and advertising. If there ever was a symbol of the 21st century, as Basu's noted, then the superhero has a particularly strong case for being it, and that's what Turbulence is concerned with. Its pleasures are sparked from a cracking, characterful tale of a small number of predominately Indian and Anglo-Asian women and men who by chance find themselves with the power to fulfil their deepest desires, no matter how trivial or substantial those might be. Yet in telling his character's tales, Basu uses the superhero genre just as its finest practitioners always have, to discuss the matter of, yes, just how great a responsibility it is that comes with the possession of great power.


One of Samit Basu's comic-book scripts, co-written with Mike Carey; Untouchable.
     
Given that we do live in an age in which the likes of Spider-Man and Heroes, the X-Men and Batman, are so globally omnipresent, it makes sense that Basu's characters often struggle not to define themselves in terms of the media stereotypes of how superhumans would supposedly behave. His cast find themselves constantly comparing their own behaviour with the only role models that they can think of, and part of the book's considerable charm is to be found in how they adapt, or not, to the claims of costumes and allegiances, world-threatening plots and secret identities. In that, Turbulence often focuses every bit as much upon the capacity of culture to frame our thoughts and direct our actions as it does upon the challenges faced by Basu's everywomen and men, who've suddenly found that the impossible has become commonplace. And yet, as the book's point-of-view character Aman Sen discovers as he tries to right the world's wrongs in a few days' exhausting and disastrously unsuccessful work, real life always proves endlessly more complex than the more simplistic of superhero tales might indicate. As Turbulence continues, Aman's dismay at the lack of a viable road map for the apparently simple business of how to at the very least avoid the causing of harm becomes more and more the moral centre of the book. In that, there's a considerable irony in how Basu surreptitiously uses the supposedly mined-out traditions of the superhero tale to explore how the impossibly complex and inter-connected 21st century demands anything but yesterday's inflexible, evidence-rejecting ways of seeing and behaving.


       
As such, Turbulence playfully continues the debate which has marked the costumed crimefighter book since the High Sixties and the pioneering work of the likes of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams on DC's Green Lantern/Green Arrow. (Basu clearly knows his Silver Age exemplars every bit as much as his modern era deconstructions.) Can we really assume that there's a cadre of fundamentally decent types who can be trusted with implausibly mighty powers and the fate of the world, or will the superhuman and hero inevitably turn out to be a tyrant? Superman or Marvelman? Marshall Law or Captain America? Wonder Woman or Phoenix? Yet in Turbulence, people turn out to be far more complicated than any such simplistic binary models might suggest. Power can and does corrupt here, as it does with the imperialist-supreme Jai Mathur, but that process isn't a deterministic one. Human nature is anything but predisposed towards heaven or hell, but it is constantly constrained by the ways in which things ought to be done. The pages of Turbulence are saturated with dangerously redundant world views which clash with the unique challenges posed by the newly-arrived elite of often exceptionally powerful super-folks. The Modern is here, it seems, and yet the modern way of thinking is still waiting to be born. There's the religious fundamentalists who try to turn the new super-humans to their own ends, and the suicidally patriotic and xenophobic tendency who believe that nuclear war between India and Pakistan might just be a catastrophe worth suffering in the pursuit of some kind of ultimate victory. There's the habitual criminals who simply can't stop conceiving of events as opportunities for exploitation, and the liberal minded who view the world in terms of a simple them/bad vs us/good equation. In the middle of this stands the paradigm-shredding absurdity that's the newly-transformed super-people, unquantifiable variables bearing the values of a world which they themselves have suddenly defined as obsolete.


     
What a relief it is, and how thoroughly invigorating as well, to see the superhero presented not just as a long-since codified type, or even as an optimistic if vague representation of the world that's to come, but rather as an entirely modern means of discussing matters far more interesting than whether the Hulk or Thor really are stronger than each other. Yet, if we're being entirely honest with ourselves, the question of whether it's the Hulk or Thor who really can outstomp all-comers is of no little interest in itself. Perhaps the greatest strength of the superhero genre has always been its capacity to discuss the self-evidently important in the context of the explicitly absurd, and the superhero tale which isn't both playfully enjoyable and thought-provokingly challenging surely isn't using the genre to its best advantage. And so, Turbulence is carefully and ably constructed around a series of ridiculously ambitious set-pieces in which the super-folks of Earth-Basu attempt to thin out the ranks of their super-heroic competitors. With a crisply-driving thriller plot that's the opposite of worthy or ponderous, Turbulence presents us with a cast of pre-pubescent girls with the powers of Manga heroines, illusion-casters with a profoundly out-of-date grasp of modern culture, earth-movers, giants, swordslingers, crowd-rousers, and India's very own Superman, the charming and yet not entirely imaginative Vir Singh. Neither embarrassed by the genre nor bent on a four-colour zealot's proselytising, Basu succeeds in consistently playing off the reader's expectations of what a superhero tale must involve with the demands of how a compelling and satisfying novel might best function. It's a balancing act which is worth the price of admission in itself, and even when the tight-rope wobbles just a touch, as in a few slightly stretched-out punch-ups and what feels like a somewhat elongated final scene, the strengths of Turbulence far outrun the occasional hints of the slightest of narrative stumbles. 


     
The challenges of presenting the superhero in prose have undone a great many able writers. Some of them have seemed determined to sidestep the most entertaining and yet idiosyncratic aspects of the genre, for fear perhaps of seeming silly, while others appear to have found it impossible not to create the campist of Holy-Shark-Repellent atmospheres. More inventive, and yet on occasion self-defeatingly ambitious, are those authors who've attempted to use a heightened and even pseudo-poetical style to express the wonderment which a successful fusion of art and text in a superhero comic can create. Sadly, it's an approach which can result in a great mass of impressions and juxtapositions which congeal into a story-slowing overload of information and, quite frankly, pretension. Thankfully Basu, as we've touched upon, has no reservations or pretensions, let alone shame, when it comes to the source material that he's drawing off. And so, when he's describing scenes such as Turbulence's closing super-brawl in London, his terse and transparent style is put to use in breaking down each apparently ludicrous super-feat into a sequence of moments which compel the reader to imagine each subsequent step of the events at hand. It's a technique which makes a collaborator of the reader who's willing to leave their genre snobberies at the door, causing as it does the audience to regard a super-hero-filled set-piece as an ever-moving sequence of individual and inter-connected events rather than one great single splash of childish impossibilities.

       
Grounding those city-flattening water-cooler moments in Turbulence are the relatively unimpressive and yet entirely endearing "Combat-Useless Powers Brigade", a cadre of characters whose new abilities are conspicuously underwhleming when it comes to the business of saving planet Earth from the worst of the new breed. Here Basu carves out an exceptionally good case for the novel being as valid a medium for the superhero tale as any other. Characters whose profoundly unspectacular and yet intriguing abilities would leave them sitting on the substitute's bench with the likes of Doug Ramsey and Matter-Eating Lad in the American big leagues are here brought to life in a way that only prose can. Uzma's power of super-charisma, for example, would prove difficult if not impossible to make consistently visually exciting on the comic-book page, but here she's a compelling individual whose abilities are both fascinating in themselves and intriguing for what they tell us about both her and the cultures through which she moves. The resistance of the also-rans in Turbulence to the scheming of the worst of their fellow super-people places the reader in the company of characters who are far more recognisably typical than they are spectacularly powerful. When one of a super-team's main responsibilities is keeping Balaji "Bob" Bataodekar full of ice-cream so that his internal body temperature might continue to cool the heat of the Mumbai summer for a sleep-permitting hour or two, the reader knows that they've not been dropped into a world in which nothing matters but the powers, the posing and the punch-ups of it all.

         
To the Western reader who's substantially and shamefully unfamiliar with modern-day India beyond the stage-sets of Bollywood and the IPL and the newsrooms of satellite TV, as I am, Turbulence carries the fascination which comes with seeing a wellworn genre recast in the context of a vibrantly different, convincingly-realised setting.(*1)  And if Turbulence was nothing but a largely lifeless superhero tale set within such an intriguing and dynamic series of cultural and geographical situations, then it would still be worth the reader investigating. It would, after all, put a lie to the still all-too-persistent myth that the superhero tale only really works in an American context. Thankfully, Turbulence is very much more than that. As unpretentious as it's entertaining, as compelling as it's thought-provoking, it not only establishes once and for all that the novel is as much a home for the superhero tale as film, tv and comics. It also suggests, as do the likes of this summer's popcorn superhero movies, that Siegel and Shuster's many super-powered children can be used to reach out to a far broader audience than the superhero comics industry often dares to dream of. In that, Turbulence is not just a novel to enjoy as both as an entertainment and a debate with the super-hero genre's conventions. It's also yet another hopeful and inspiring example to an industry which at times seems to have lost faith in its own product where the comicbook's concerned. The superhero story is anything but a tradition doomed on the panel-filled page to speak only of itself and the associated obsessions of a small coterie of fans. Turbulence helps to prove that. Consequently, it's not just an astute and captivating read, but an important one too.

Not "important" as in flag-waving and tub-thumping and thesis-writing. But "important" as in the fact that it's a reader-welcoming novel which you can lend to a friend without a second thought when there's one book too few for the beach or the car journey or the Sunday afternoon idyll.  It's a superhero tale as superhero tales have often best functioned, as fantastical fun informed by playful and purposeful thinking. Why do we ever settle for less?

*1:- It's a matter which Mr Basu and I discussed in the interview that's soon to be printed here, so I won't touch upon it in any depth now.

Turbulence by Samit Basu is available from Titan Books from 7th July.

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8 comments:

  1. I own the book and I think it's a damn good read. That says it all, doesn't it? :)

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    1. Hello Sue:- It is indeed a damn good read. If I could've got away with such brevity, I would've done :) Because what you say is entirely true.

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    2. Dear Colin,
      It may seem like an oddly arbitrary place to leave this comment but here goes - I've been reading and enjoying your work for some time (even if I have occasionally vociferously disagreed with it!)thusd it seems only just and proper that I register my appreciation for one of the Good Guys. In truth my wracked and deflated heart sometimes worries that you might wear yourself down with your striving to be even! You may too often comment on your supposed insignificance but you speak truth unto nation, and your essential *decency* is truly a light against the dark (ahem) which is something to be proud of. If only your insistence on humanity, imagination, and storytelling could be found in more superhero titles rather the tired sloppy Product mentality tht holds sway. Well done, Mr Smith.
      Yours, Robert

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    3. Hello Robert:- Thank you for such generous thoughts, and that's especially appreciated given, as you say, those occasional vociferous disagreements :) Given that I can hardly trust myself to hold the same opinion for two days in a row, I can hardly expect to be able to convince anyone else of a particular point of view. But luckily this blogging lark has cured me of any residual desire to set the terms and conclusions of any debate. It's more than enough to get to work things through as best as I can while having the privilege of the company of folks such as yourself, who are civil even when, on occasion, thinking quite different thoughts. Thanks :)

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  2. "It's also yet another hopeful and inspiring example to an industry which at times seems to have lost faith in its own product where the comicbook's concerned." - Nailed it!

    I held off reading your review until I'd read the book, but having finished it last night I can now wholeheartedly agree with you. A very smart, outward-looking superhero book when much of mainstream comics seems to have turned in on itself.

    Great review. Thanks Colin. Thoroughly looking forward to speaking to Samit in person, so thanks for directing me to him, too!

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    1. Hello Mark;- Thank you! I'm glad - indeed, very glad - that my recommendation hadn't led you astray.

      I hope you're investigating a huge amount of money in producing feature-quality film and audio for your part of the Morley Literature Festival. Those of us who can't be there are relying on you. (We're even looking forward to the behind-the-scenes extras on the DVD.)

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    2. Split-screen and digital print, Mark. Quad sound.

      With a lovely 32 page programme.

      I am SO looking forward to it ....

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