San Diego Comic-Con is approaching, like a tidal wave of comic books and movie trailers. There's also a book that you should look up, one that captures the Comic-Con culture perfectly: Bob Proehl’s debut novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds. The book is a delight to read: a literary road trip across the United States that dips into the world of regional comic book conventions, television celebrity, and independent comics, but tackles some of the pressing issues that the comic book world has been facing.
Proehl’s novel follows Valerie Torrey and her son Alex. Once an actress on a Fringe-like television show called Anomaly, she fled to New York City after her marriage disintegrated, returning to her theatrical roots. Now, on the 10 year anniversary of the cult hit, she is thrust back into the world of science fiction celebrity as she’s given an ultimatum: allow Andrew Rhodes, her ex-husband and former Anomaly co-star, to reunite with his son, or risk losing him forever.
On the road, Valerie and Alex cross paths with a varied cast of characters. There’s Brett Kazan and Fred Marin, two indie comic artists looking to strike it big with their comic; Gail, an artist unhappily stuck on the lower rungs of the comic creation ladder and a troupe of superhero models hired by the conventions they stop along their trip across the country.
Proehl's alternate world is completely recognizable and relatable
What’s fun about this book is the imagined alternate world that’s constructed here: there’s no Marvel or DC Comics, no Superman or X-Men. There’s National Comics, allusions to a Doctor Who-style show, and of course, Anomaly. Despite the minor differences between this fictional world and our own, everything is acutely recognizable.
That’s good, because Proehl uses this book to shine a light on some of the larger, systemic problems within the real-world comic book industry. Gail points out her precarious position in the industry as the sole female artist in a major publisher, while industry insiders talk about the limiting affect a billion dollar movie has on their comic book line: they can’t innovate or do anything with the characters while the films are hot. The comics industry has many entrenched habits when it comes to hiring new artists and authors, and how it has historically portrayed its characters and how it's changing to appeal to a wide audience.
Proehl’s story is like an onion: it has plenty of layers to unwrap he explores the pair of moments that tore Valerie’s family apart, revealing just why she’s so reluctant introduce her son to his father. For his part, Alex is on a journey of his own, using an elaborate story and the assistance from Brett to help make sense of the turbulence in his world, while Gail and Fred contend with their own drastic changes to their lives. There’s a meta-like quality to this novel: it’s a story about stories, and the stories we tell ourselves to cope with the world around us.
There’s an Homeric Odyssey-like quality to A Hundred Thousand Worlds: a journey that takes place after a long separation, populated by strange characters along the trip. What makes Proehl’s novel so compelling is how he blends each of the stories together: the road trip becomes a kaleidoscope of characters trying to come to grips with some of the consequences of their decisions in their career, lives or on this particular swing across the United States.
This book nails the comic book world perfectly
What’s also appealing about this novel is the sense of authenticity which Proehl brings to the table: he worked as a bookseller and in a comic book store. A Hundred Thousand Worlds captures the surreal environment of a comic book convention and the strange interactions that they contain. This book nails the subculture perfectly, from the wizened old professionals at the bar to the writers and artists holding down tables to the actresses and cosplayers who are brought in as attractions.
Each of these components come together to form a wonderfully vibrant background that supports a very normal familial story running in the background. This is a novel that sits comfortably alongside other great genre books such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and especially Michael Chabon’s fantastic novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
The payoff for A Hundred Thousand Worlds is its fantastic character journey, which pulls everyone from their safe starting point of New York and reshuffles everything by the time they all arrive in Los Angeles. The ending might not be the result that each of its characters envisioned, but they end up in a place where they’re comfortable taking their next step in their lives. As one story closes, another one is just starting.