Review: The Regional Office is Under Attack!

regionaloffice

In a publishing world where we authors of a certain stripe are frequently told that there’s just no market for superheroic prose, it’s both heartening and frustrating when a work like this one manages to wend its way through the traditional distribution channels. Heartening because, like Soon I Will Be Invincible or The Violent Centuryit’s another testament to the fact that using a superpowered comic book backdrop is not only resonant to audiences well-versed in these tropes, it’s actually marketable! Frustrating because, well, most of us who write this kind of stuff would love to be in Manuel Gonzalez’ shoes, receiving legit literary attention for our exercises in subgenre. Hell, Gonzalez already has a movie deal, with Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland renown signed on to helm a bigscreen version.

Personal bitterness aside, though, I have to admit this one hit me in my sweet spot. Whatever its merits as capital L Literature, it’s a rollicking ride that’s equal parts thrilling, grim and hilarious. It contains homages to and elements of everything from Die Hard to Minority Report to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as sharp, glancing references to the many science fictional, magickal and fantastical devices familiar to comics readers from the Silver Age through the Dark Age and right up to whatever Age we’re in currently.

If the title isn’t a dead giveaway, Gonzalez’ novel concerns itself with the events surrounding an all-out assault on the headquarters of a mysterious organization dedicated to combatting the Dark Forces that are Amassing to Threaten our World. But the shadowy Regional Office is not a top secret governmental branch or an ancient order that’s been operating since the dawn of time; rather it’s a privately funded operation fronting as a high-end travel agency, and founded by a couple of lifelong friends–Mr. Niles and his superpowered crush object Oyemi–involving future-predicting Oracles and a vast network of mainly gorgeous badass female assassins, recruited–and sometimes abducted–from trailer parks, shopping malls, and high schools all over the country.

Bouncing between past and present, and far-flung locations from Texas to New York to a neighboring dimension, we learn the story of a couple of such recruits: Rose, a smalltown girl with a go-nowhere life and an inherent knack for mayhem; and Sarah, a fairly ordinary if high-strung woman with a tragic backstory and a mechanical arm. Their destinies are set on a collision course when a couple of disgruntled Regional Office employees decide to repay disappointment and betrayal with the titular attack.

Whether you’re into the superpowered subgenre or not, The Regional Office is just a really fun, page-turning read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, brimming with a drily sarcastic millennial wit that offsets the sometimes shocking moments of intrigue, danger and violence. But neither is it a constantly campy jokefest or all satire and no substance. Gonzalez gives us just enough, at least with a few of his characters, to raise the stakes and shape them into human beings to be fascinated with (if never to quite root for). Many things are sketched in or unexplained–i.e., we never learn why the Office recruits only women to their cause–and in a few cases that’s frustrating (we never discover one character’s actual fate, despite a few suggestive hints), and  I can’t help wonder if Gonzalez wanted to leave things open-ended enough for a sequel or three. But the narrative filigree he uses to sketch out his world is right in my wheelhouse–warlocks in Kansas, interdimensional field ops, nanotech with a mind of its own. In my own superhero prose, I take great pleasure in dropping those kinds of high concept notions into casual conversation or interior monologue, the suggestion of a wider, wilder world often more tantalizing than a fully committed plunge into all of its depths.

Gonzalez is a terrifically entertaining writer, his one notable weakness for me an over-reliance on a singular snark-drenched voice; whether he’s in Rose’s head or Sarah’s, crafting long passages of a fictitious academic research paper on the attack and its aftermath, or putting us in the heads of hapless hostages during the siege, the point of view and offhandedly chatty tone remain almost too consistent. But despite these quibbles and a couple of narrative dead ends and unrealized ideas, The Regional Office is Under Attack passes this reader’s ultimate litmus test: I kinda wish I’d written it myself.

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Shameless Self-Promotion Tour 2015

It’s been nearly two years since I first published The Villain’s Sidekick, and while I’d much rather be pushing the sequel by now, it’s been a bit more of an undertaking than I anticipated, so for purposes of trying to keep interest alive for the stuff that’s already out in the world, I’m throwing a little 2nd anniversary party for Villain’s. As such, for anyone out there who hasn’t read it, the Kindle Edition will be on sale for the mere pittance of .99c starting Friday Sept. 4th and continuing through Sept. 11.

As such, I did a little promotional interview with the e-reader targeted online publication, Book Reader Magazine and figured what the hell? Why not share it here and fill up some blogspace in the bargain?

http://bookreadermagazine.com/featured-author-stephen-t-brophy/

Featured Author Stephen T. Brophy

IMG_2501Featured Interview With Stephen T. Brophy

Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you raised? Where do you live now?
I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, which I ended up choosing as the setting for my first novella, The Villain’s Sidekick, even though I haven’t lived there in years. I left Texas after college and settled for a good long while in San Francisco, where I landed my first paid writing gig after many years working below my abilities in restaurants and cafes and the like. Once bitten, I couldn’t go back to those day jobs, so my girlfriend (now wife) and I relocated to Los Angeles a few years back. We now have a pretty amazing son and two wonderful, tragically aging dogs, a neurotic Lab mix and a pit bull/boxer.

At what age did you realize your fascination with books? When did you start writing?
I was born to two voracious readers, so the love of reading was instilled from about as early as I can remember. I actually had a little difficulty learning to read but once I got it, I took to it like a Great White shark to a helpless sea lion, and within very short order I was bored with kiddie lit and moving on to grown-up books. I remember reading “Jaws” when I was 8 years old (hence the shark reference) after being so enthralled by the movie. So, fittingly enough, when I started writing, my first book was entitled “Jaws,” and involved a shark who could walk on land (SNL had just started airing around that time, too, so dual influences at work). I wrote a lot of derivative stuff until I found my own “voice.” Which is really probably just a mash-up of all the authors and stories I’ve encountered and loved ever since.

Who are your favorite authors to read? What is your favorite genre to read. Who Inspires you in your writings?
My favorite genres are science fiction (Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, John Brunner, Ramez Naam), crime fiction (James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard), and the literature of the dissolute (Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, Don Delillo). They’ve all equally inspired what I do now. But the biggest influence over the last few years–and at my age maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this but I’m so not–has been a rekindled love of comics, from weird indies to straight up mainstream superhero fare. I’d read them off and on since adolescence, but when a friend introduced me to Sleeper by Ed Brubaker, and I went on to read his Captain America stuff, I became more immersed than I’d ever been. In fact, I’d been kind of stuck on a science fiction story I was telling and it was only when I got the inspiration that I could include superpowered characters and take it to a more interesting, liberating place. Since then, I’ve read a LOT of superhero prose fiction–basically comic books without the pictures, I guess, but so much more, too–like Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible,” Jim Bernheimer’s “Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, Rafael Chandler’s “The Astounding Antagonists,” Blake Northcott’s “Arena Mode” series and on and on. It’s really a whole terrific genre just waiting to be discovered by the mainstream. And with the current popularity of superheroes in film, it seems just a matter of when.

Tell us a little about your latest book?
I’ve written two novellas featuring my alter-ego, Duke “HandCannon” LaRue, a supervillain’s henchman with a machine gun arm, a steel jaw, an ex-wife who used to do crimes with him before the birth of their adorable precocious daughter, and all the troubles that go with being a semi-reformed bad guy in a 12-step program who may be harboring a hero beneath his frightening exterior. He’s basically the distillation of all that Bukowski, Jim Thompson and William Gibson I mentioned up top. There’s The Villain’s Sidekick and it’s short prequel, The Eternity Conundrum, and I’m currently working on a full-length sequel, Citizen Skin. The sequel alternates POVs from chapter to chapter between HandCannon and his badass best friend Trista Brooks, also known as Nightguard. She’s a supporting character in Villain’s who steps large on the stage in the follow up.

If You Enjoyed “The Villain’s Sidekick”…

When I first started writing my novella (which I seriously thought was just going to be short story) I was naive enough to think I was doing something at least vaguely original. I mean, I knew there’d been a hefty handful of comic stories told from the villain’s POV and/or stories in which a bad guy went good. Hell, half The Avengers started out as bad guys, or at least in the deep gray on the moral scale.

Of course, I’d only started reading superhero prose–funnybooks without the pictograms, in layman’s terms–shortly before embarking on my fictional experiment, but I was already aware of a couple of terrific novels that were in the subgenre I was working in. The first is probably still one of the most popular and widely read of these books, Austin Grossman’s terrific Soon I Will Be Invincible.

SIWBI

The story of Dr. Impossible, recently released from prison and ready to get back to doing evil, this is one of those stories where the bad guy would be 100% more sympathetic than the heroes if it weren’t for the fact that the POV alternates from chapter to chapter between the bad doctor and a female cyborg superhero named Fatale. This was the first book I read that let me get inside the narrative heads of its antagonistic protagonists in a way that even the most literate graphic novels and comics sagas sometimes struggle to achieve. And while I already owe a huge debt to Grossman just for demonstrating that it can be done, and with an edge of satire tempered with genuine human emotions, I also owe him a debt for that narrator-swapping gimmick because I’ve shamelessly borrowed it for the follow-up to “Villain’s” that I’m hammering away at now.

Much like “Invincible,” when I first plucked Jim Bernheimer’s Confessions of a D-List Supervillain from Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library, I assumed it would be maybe good for a laugh, a jokey riff on supervillainy, based on the title alone. And considering it was an obscure offering available for a low price, I had low expectations in regards to its potential quality. Boy, was I wrong.

D-List

Like “Villain’s” and “Invincible,” Bernheimer’s book is a first-person shooter in storytelling terms, from the point of view of Cal Stringel, a low-rent supervillain in Tony Stark armor who’s forced to help save the world when most of the population, including the heroes, are overtaken by alien parasites launching a full-scale invasion. When we first meet him, he hasn’t been out of his armor in days, and his descriptions of how sweaty and putrid that can get are the perfect kind of “never-thought-of-that” moments that give the story it’s realistic edge.

Of course, I’ve stayed on the prowl for superhero fiction ever since getting my first book out into the world, and in the process stumbled across the work of Casey Glanders and his Gailsone series. Glanders is one prolific motherfucker. I don’t know if he holds down a day job, but if so, I want to know his secret because I don’t think I have enough writing hours left in my life to pump out the amount of work he’s produced just in the last two years.

Big In Japan

Glanders created his villain-turned-hero, Alice “Dyspell” Gailsone, because he’s got daughters, and he looked around and felt there weren’t enough female heroes on the market. So his books are all led, and well-populated, by strong females (all with their share of baggage, as any good villain-turned-hero should have). After a lifetime on the dark side, Alice is taking a second shot at life seeing how the hero half lives, and while she’s not afraid to get dirty, she’s frequently better at it than the heroes who’ve recruited her.

Last but not least, there’s Rafael Chandler’s The Astounding Antagonists

AA

Don’t let the cover art fool you: this Anti-Avengers type tale makes for one solid book. It’s a wildly entertaining story about what happens when the “good guys” become nothing more than abusive authority figures who are as morally compromised as the so-called villains, and frequently worse. If anything, Chandler might weight things a little too heavily on the side of the heroes being just outright awful, while imbuing his Antagonists with far more complexity, weight and moral authority. But if you enjoy rooting for the outsider, if you’re the type to always bet on the underdog, or if you just want to identify with the bad guy’s POV sometimes, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these.