We don’t know Sarah Kuhn at all, but according to her author bio we live in the same city. That means we might have bumped into each other unknowingly at the Westfield San Francisco Centre, or attended the same 4-Star Theatre matinee, or stood in line together one weekend for a scoop of Humphry Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast ice cream.
It’s true that we’ve never met. But we’ve read Kuhn’s novel Heroine Complex, and that means we have a pretty good idea of what kind of person she is. Undoubtedly she’s funny and clever and a sparkling dinner companion. She’s probably a little bit of a rude girl, but that’s okay with us. She’s equal parts Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ali Wong, and as a result, her novel contains a big jolt of Captain Marvel super power and Baby Cobra super spunk.
Kuhn is probably a great friend too. So it’s no surprise that friendship plays a big part in her novel. Heroine Complex is a big smashing superhero story about Annie Chang and Evelyn “Evie” Tanaka, two women who’ve been best friends since kindergarten.
But as we all know, friendships are complicated things. Especially life-long friendships. Mostly you get along great. But there are times when you want to strangle the other person. And one thing is certain: Friendships can get particularly sticky when one person is a superhero.
Case in point: Eight years ago Annie reinvented herself as Aveda Jupiter (great name btw), the self-appointed protector of San Francisco. “I am a beacon of hope for this city,” she proclaims. She fought otherworldly demons with the ferocity of Taz, the Tasmanian devil, combined with the tenacity of Ms. Pac-Man. She was loud, self-absorbed, image-obsessed, and bossy. When she showed up in public she inevitably looked like an intergalactic cheerleader.
Aveda Jupiter took care of San Francisco, but her best friend Evie took care of her. She was her babysitter, confidante, and therapist. “As Aveda’s personal assistant,” explains Evie, “it was my duty to fulfill her every need and cater to her every whim.”
The pair’s personal dynamic gets turned upside down when Aveda is sidelined due to an unexpected injury. Despite her misgivings, Evie agrees to temporarily masquerade as her super friend until she recuperates. “Of all the people in all the world,” she says with a sigh, “I was probably least equipped to be a superhero. Or even impersonate one.”
Once Evie starts parading around town as a superhero, Heroine Complex takes off like a supersonic invisible jet. Not only does Kuhn have a lot to say about friendships and how they change over the years, but she also addresses familial obligations, and the perils of fame. She even pokes fun at her hometown to great comic affect. Anyone who’s lived in San Francisco for any length of time knows the city has an “astronomical quirk factor” and is ripe for gentle teasing.
Kuhn also has a lot to say about Asian identity and cultural role models. For example, when Evie agrees to become Aveda Jupiter for a brief time, there’s never any doubt that the friends’ ruse won’t work. All Asian women look alike, right? “We’re both Asian,” says Aveda dismissively. “That’s enough for most people.” Never mind that their “Asian-ness” didn’t match (Annie was Chinese and Evie was Japanese). Even in San Francisco, the overriding homoplasy often renders ethnic identity invisible and indistinct.
From start to finish, Heroine Complex is pretty much a perfect novel. It succeeds at being funny and serious at the same time. Plus it’s the first novel in an ongoing series and you can’t beat that. If we had to nitpick, however, we’d have to say that Evie is a little bit of a Mary Sue-type character. But whatever. That simply means the book’s insights are unfiltered and the author’s personal agenda isn’t cloaked in layers of fiction. We’re already looking forward to the further adventures of Annie Chang and Evelyn Tanaka, the Heroic Duo (aka Galactic Warrior Princess and her best friend Rude Fire Girl). Asian lady superheroes to the rescue!
[Heroine Complex / By Sarah Kuhn / First Printing: July 2016 / ISBN: 9780756410841]