Marco Mancassola: La vita erotica dei superuomini (Erotic Lives of the Superheroes)
When I first saw this book, I assumed it was going to be a pastiche or a light-hearted comedy. However, it is quite a serious book, though not without some humour, which has a conventional love/sex story, problems of ageing and something of a mystery. It just so happens that the main characters are a superheroes. The first is Red Richards, Mister Fantastic, Rubber Man. His superpower is that he can stretch his body and shape it as he wishes. His most famous stunt was to stretch his body for several miles when a dock collapsed as a result of a hurricane and a boat could not dock, thereby saving the boat, which had several children on board. But he is getting old – sixty-two – and his doctor has advised him to ease off. He still stretches and shapes his body. For example, he wakes up one morning after a bad dream and finds his arm stretching out three metres. He had been part of a league of superheroes but that has dissolved. He and his wife have divorced – she was The Invisible Woman – while Batman has been recently murdered. He now has a foundation, which is essentially run by him and his secretary, the efficient but very thin Annabel. They have two floors in an office tower in Manhattan, where he has his own luxury apartment. They used to have the whole building, with all the superheroes having their own apartments there and all sorts of equipment, but that has all gone.
Red no longer performs superhero stunts but he is still active. His foundation is devoted to space exploration and Red gives talks, teaches and even occasionally invents things, which keeps him busy and rich. However, the publicity he used to get has shrunk and his son, Franklin, gets much more. Franklin had inherited some superpowers from his parents but these disappeared when he was a teenager. As the son of two superpowers, he did appear in the press a lot but his fame shot up when he was kidnapped. He was rescued and, as a result, became very famous. He has since taken up the international environmental cause, travelling round the world to protect the environment, and receives pop star treatment from the media.
At the start of the novel, Red is going to teach a class to a group of trainee astronauts. The director of the institute, a woman known as the Woman with the Eye, partially because the building looks like a giant eye staring into the sky but also because she has a glass eye, approaches him and asks him to do some extra classes the following week. He is going to decline but tells her that he will phone her later. At the end of the class, one of the women astronauts approaches him with a copy of his autobiography, a book that has been out of print for fifteen years. He talks to her and agrees to sign it but, while he is considering how to dedicate it to her, one of her male colleagues comes and takes her away. She tells Red that she will see him at the class the next week. He therefore agrees to do the class and, indeed, sees her at the class and returns her book. Since his divorce, his sexual activity had been limited to high-class prostitutes. However, though she is thirty-five years younger than him, Red is attracted to this woman, Elaine Ryan. He invites her out, they go to restaurants and, eventually, land up in bed. Initially, all is well but Red gets jealous and seems too demanding so they break it off, only to get back together again.
Meanwhile, Red has received two notes, one in his locker at the sauna and one by post. Both say Goodbye, Dear Mister Fantastic. A visit from a police officer, concerned about superheroes as a result of Batman’s murder, does not encourage Red to mention these notes. Red seems to struggle with his relationship with Elaine. As she says, he is not in love with her but obsessed with her. More importantly, it seems to give him a strange pain. Because of his superhero status and rubber body, he has always been fully in control of his body, with one important exception. His penis reacts the same way as that of any normal male, generally out of his control. But now other body parts are reacting badly. Is this old age? Psychosomatic? Or something else? When he is appointed to a commission to evaluate who should be selected for a space shuttle mission and Elaine’s name appears on the list, things get difficult. And then tragedy strikes.
But, just as we are wondering what is going to happen to Red, the story changes and we move on to Batman’s story. We already know that Batman has been murdered. Here we meet him, about the same age as Red, and with more or less the same sexual desires, though he is happy to change partners regularly. Bruce Wayne has long since come out as Batman so, when he is dating, he can show off to his companion of the evening, who he really is, which, of course, does impress the women. We learn something of his early life. He used to be gay and had a succession of young male friends – he prefers both his men and women young – till he met Robin. Robin became both his professional and romantic companion. However, eventually, he grew tired of Robin. He dated other men and humiliated Robin not only with these dates but in public. Eventually, Batman gave up fighting crime but Robin continued and is eventually found with his throat slit in Central Park. As he has got older, Batman has become heterosexual rather than homosexual. At the start of the section on him, we see his dating technique but we also learn that he has received notes saying Goodbye, Dear Batman.
The next section deals primarily with Bruce de Villa (he is of Italian origin but his father named him after Bruce Wayne, i.e. Batman). We have already met Dennis de Villa, Bruce’s brother, as he is the police officer investigating the murder of superheroes and he met both Red Richards and Bruce Wayne in the previous sections. Bruce and Dennis’ parents immigrated from Italy and the boys grew up in New Jersey. It turns out that their mother has superpowers and, as with the others, she dies an untimely death and her sex life is a key issue. The penultimate story concerns another superhero, Mystique. She is somewhat different from the others, in that she was not part of the of the League of Superheroes but had been on the fringes of a group of mutants, that engaged in urban terrorism. Though she took no part in their activities, she knew about them and was arrested and spent sixteen years in prison. Her superpower is her ability to change shape and she now has a successful TV show where she changes into and mocks people like Putin, Madonna and Oprah Winfrey. Unlike the others, her sex life is minimal (though not non-existent). However, she receives the warning notes as well. The book concludes with Bruce de Villa visiting an ageing and infirm Superman, who runs a training centre for would-be superheroes and, as Bruce has developed a couple of superpowers, Superman invites him to join.
This book could have been silly, mildly amusing or one long joke but it is none of these. Though there is an element of humour in it, it is a serious novel. Topics such as ageing, dealing with celebrity status and, of course, sex are key to the novel. However, it treats the superheroes as real people with real problems, such as how to cope with diminishing powers, sex with ordinary humans, celebrity status and ageing. In all cases, while they appreciate the gift of their powers, the powers bring their own problems. In short, it is not always easy being a superhero. It has a rich cast of characters. Various other superheroes make appearances as do a famous artist who has made a famous and very realistic statue of a woman having sex with both Hitler and Stalin, a philosophising chauffeur from Ecuador and the various interesting friends of the superheroes. I found this book to be a totally originally book and, despite my initial reservations, one well worth reading.
First published 2008 by Rizzoli
First English translation by Salammbo Press in 2013
Translated by Antony Shugaar