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Giving death its due

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Death of a Superhero

By Anthony McCarten

Alma Books, 2006

254 pages, 9.99 (U.K.)

Too much ado is made about death in western society. Dress up in costumes both spooky and ridiculous to try and scare the bejesus out of each other and instill the idea that death is horrifying, macabre and to be avoided. How about respecting or even honouring death?

If death be not proud, we as mortals, can at least give it its due, as does British author Anthony McCarten in his novel Death of a Superhero. Mostly novel, but also screenplay draft, McCarten can be forgiven his filmic presumptions for his sensitive and witty respectful rendering of a fading boy who nevertheless learns to dip himself in joy before flaming out.

Donald Delpe is an angry, frustrated 14 year old focused on skateboarding and drawing out his sexual frustrations in his ongoing illustrated comic book journal. Which would be typical if it weren’t for the fact that he is coat hanger thin, has no eyebrows or hair and is fuming over being stuck with leukemia. Yet he is also blessed with a typical teenage boy’s ferocious sexuality in which a lingerie model ad still manages to give him a semi.

Donald’s parents send him to psychologist Adrian King, a man with his own issues, one being his Hamletian approach to dealing with a haughty wife who wants her cake but wants her husband to pay for it while another man eats it. Not quite sure he has the energy to deal with uncommunicative but artistically and perceptively gifted Donald, King takes the teenager first to the London Art Gallery where they both get booted out after Donald decides one priceless piece should be interactive art, and then to King’s weekly nude drawing class. When the model turns out to be Don’s motivational lingerie model he furiously sketches a tailed supervixen, “a comic book, heavy metal, triple-D, semi-conducting, masturbatory fantasy” that prompts the doctor to chastise him at their post-class Burger King session.

ADRIAN: Can I give you some advice? (No invitation is forthcoming.) Girls are as nervous as you are. They are as nervous as you are.

DONALD: What’s that got to do with anything?

ADRIAN: You don’t have to turn them into demons, just because you like them. Don’t make them unreal. They’re approachable you know.

DONALD: I need a refill.

Donald gets up the nerve to approach the yellow cardigan girl he spied at church and attributing his hairlessness to karate discipline manages to charm her and himself. His leukemia goes into remission as he and Shelly get to know each other but then comes back and sends the doctor into an ethical quandary: should he risk his desultory career and take a chance to help Donald get laid before he dies? The answer comes in an outrageously clever sequence in which Donald surpasses his superhero alter ego in inventiveness and charm.

Death of a Superhero is a crisply-written novel that bows to the other contemporary arts with which it both contemplates and competes: comics, film, music, stage plays. Weaving script with narrative, bold case with stage directions, McCarten knows when to back off enough to let lyric sensibilities take front and centre. Don’t be surprised to see this book adapted to a film in short order. The story of a boy with no time left will surely be as lovely on screen as it is on the page.

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