What Blows Up
What Blows Up
In Dimly [Manitoba] there wasn’t a lot to do at four in the morning, even with telekinesis, and especially if your parents didn’t know you were up.
Kristen was the only one who knew his secret. The family had been told Gary had made “a promising neuro-psychokinetic adaptive transference breakthrough,” whatever that meant, and that he’d be invited to “gifted camp.” Grandparents were excited. Kirsten, though, had caught him playing no-hands Gang of Greats one night.
What Blows Up is the second book of four in “The Almost Epic Squad” series: all four books open in comic form with the origin story of the series’ four protagonists being exposed in infancy to “reidium”, a rare and volatile element. The mad scientist, his wife (Nurse Nussbaum) and their talking lab mice try to cultivate the babies’ powers, but the babies each only absorb a small amount—thus making them “almost epic” in their superpowers. This book focuses on the second baby, Gary, who eventually discovers he has telekinetic powers that are active only between 2am and 7am. Hijinks ensue…sort of.
The opening of the book works well as a graphic novel but transitions into a typical chapter book when Gary’s narrative commences, probably to get reluctant readers hooked in each volume in the series. Throughout the narrative, there are a couple of comic frames thrown in at random that do little to add to the action. I’m always disappointed when these “hybrid” junior books – which mix text and pictures/comic frames à la Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Geronimo Stilton – don’t reach a symbiotic balance between text and image that adds to the narrative progression. What Blows Up is another unfortunate case of how not to mix the two storytelling modes. Overall, What Blows Up would have worked better as a comic as there are many sight gags.
The narrative finds Gary honing his powers as a teen in a small town in Manitoba. You think you are going to read about a teen growing up with part-time superpowers in a rural Canadian town; however, in an odd twist, the narrative drifts into Gary’s being recruited by the CIA and shipped to a fictional foreign land to prevent our antagonist – the wife of the mad scientist who is deserted by him – to obtain the secret “reidium”. The bizarre inclusion of American characters, like Tex, the CIA agent, and description of Gary’s being the United States “secret weapon” in the mission debriefing, gives credence to the notion that most literature consumed by Canadian youth is American or American-influenced. As such, the story stinks of an American exploitation of Canadian “assets” for their imperial gain. Gary is a person of colour – a great inclusion that normalizes his presence – but that diversity is compromised when he is used as an American war asset who, as a weapons commodity, is trying to obtain more weapon commodities. Egregiously, this all falls flat as a story and has perturbing cultural implications: this is sadly a reminder of the colonial history of Western children’s literature.
The villains in the story are much more lighthearted than the CIA good guys. There is
Malevia, a young woman who always wanted to be a villain and tries her best to be quirky and funny while executing her dastardly plans. There is also Nurse Nussbaum who wants revenge after the mad scientist leaves her because “there isn’t enough money in the grant for two people”. She changes disguises every time she appears in comic frame – from Darth Vader to a not-so-subtle SpongeBob Square Pants – which works well but whose incentive seems counter to Malevia’s more compelling motivation. The most successful villain is Claude, the “reidium” mouse who escapes the mad scientist and joins Nussbaum because he wants to get picked up in a reality show and become famous. His narrative ends with him joining the moles underground for what hopes to be a triumphant return in the next book in the series. I was rooting for the funny villains to win over the CIA; clearly this book miscalculated who the bad guys were.
Lonnie Freedman is a Youth Services Librarian at Vaughan (Ontario) Public Libraries.