Whether they be encountered through comics or cinema, superheroes have earned a permanent place in our hearts. However, it should come as no surprise that when it comes to racial diversity, representation is less than super. Don’t get me wrong, we’re slowly making progress with works such as Ms. Marvel and Silk as well as the casting of non-white actors in bigger roles. But it’s not every day that we meet a fully fleshed out Asian/Asian American character busting baddies or swinging through a city on spider webs in novel form.
This is where Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex comes in to save the day.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
This fast-paced YA novel follows twenty-six year old Evie Tanaka as she unexpectedly finds herself doubling as her injured best friend Annie “Aveda Jupiter” Wang – a beloved local heroine. Not only is she forced to confront the demons threatening their hometown, but her own crippling self-doubt. In terms of premise, Heroine Complex doesn’t seem to bring anything new. But rest assured, the twists that take place near the end of the book were enough to bump my “good” impression up to a solid “DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?” Overall, the novel plays to the superhero genre quite well, making use of a classic “big bad” archetype and throwing the reader right in the middle of each fight. I also find the dynamic amid Aveda’s team – comprised of her assistant Evie, bodyguard Lucy, and brainiacs Nate and Scott – natural and fun to read. A good heroine is only as good as her backup after all.
But with so many ways to go about constructing a superhero story, which crowd is most likely to enjoy this book? Well, I mentioned Ms. Marvel and Silk earlier for a reason. Even though Evie is a young adult rather than your typical teenage protagonist, her narration manages to be both snarky and vulnerable. She brings a similar light-heartedness to that of Kamala Khan, Cindy Moon, and even the revamped Barbara Gordon, reminding us that the hero business is not all work and no play. On the downside, Kuhn’s language definitely threw me off for the first six or seven chapters. If I hadn’t been told Heroine Complex was a YA novel, I would have assumed it was aimed towards middle schoolers. But the sudden use of curse words and sexual innuendos – in addition to actual sex scenes – shifted me into a different mindset altogether. While I wasn’t a fan of the excessive “teen talk” being had (i.e curses, forced conversations, and hashtags galore), it bothered me less and less once I began picturing the novel as more of a comic with all of its larger-than-life qualities.
Depending on your read, this novel could come across as a satire of sorts. It isn’t afraid to be downright absurd when it’s called for, but also draws careful attention to the humanity behind the superheroes. They’re almost akin to real-life celebrities. They’re human beings who, behind the glamor, break down, get zits, and work for a living just like anyone else. In this respect, Heroine Complex also reminds me of the action/comedy anime Tiger & Bunny and One Punch Man – shows that delve into both the commercial and mundane aspects of the superhero life style. While I love that we get to spend time with two leading ladies of color as well as a bisexual/lesbian character in Lucy, these factors never dominate the plot. They’re certainly important, but not the only traits that define the women. Whenever said issues do come to the surface, they never feel forced unlike some of the more casual conversations. Evie often mentions how she and Annie became friends through a shared isolation, of growing up Japanese American and being ridiculed for it. More than one of these reflections addresses the teasing that comes with enjoying Asian food and the shame of not being able to speak for yourself – topics I believe hit home for many Asian Americans including myself.
As if this glimpse into the Asian American experience wasn’t enough, Evie gets straight to the point and even calls out the girl-on-girl fighting often utilized in YA fiction. In case you don’t know what I’m referring to, here’s the lowdown: if a protagonist happens to be female, the aforementioned genre has a tendency to pit her against other female characters either physically, mentally, or verbally so as to elevate herself to a standard that ends up being harmful to all women in the long run. Although she could care less for the nosy reporters constantly flocking “Aveda Jupiter,” Evie refrains from making offhand comments without evidence of their true nature. And let’s just say that she’s right to keep an eye out for them. But even among the despicable, I’d say that all of the female characters in the novel are well-written. Best friends Evie and Annie undergo tremendous personal growth, and that’s saying a lot considering how much I disliked the latter in the beginning. All of the characters get their share of flaws and strengths as well as some kind of resolution at the end. And yes, we even get a romance between Evie and a certain someone that didn’t instantly make me want to cringe.
As for my final thoughts, I found Heroine Complex to be an entertaining ride with its own share of flaws but plenty of heart to make up for them. Asian American or not, readers will be able to connect with Evie in her struggle to not necessarily become the greatest hero there ever was, but the best version of herself.