At this point, it seems unlikely that there’s any new ground to tread in the superhero genre. After an endless parade of reboots, spinoffs, and parodies, the prospect of reading about another city filled with super-powered beings is not exactly inspiring. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when The Supermarket added a new wrinkle to the genre. The setup is familiar enough. The town has its various criminal threats like Deuce, a cruel and ingenious figure who seems to rob banks as a provocation that will allow him to murder customers, police officers, or anyone else that might get in his way. That kind of brutality is counterbalanced with criminals like the Cucumber, an elusive figure (or perhaps collective) who leaves a single cucumber at the scene of their various crimes.
Of course, the city has protectors as well, and herein lies Supermarket’s most interesting idea. There are the super strong, gun toting, and/or speedster heroes (Tank, Barrage, and The Blur, to give you the sensibility of this branch of heroes) who fight off the various villains. Then, there’s also the underground group who takes a different approach to fighting crime. For this second group, there’s a rejection of the belief that powerful heroes bring powerful villains in favor of the belief that major consolidation of wealth brings ambitious villains. Large piles of money attract people who revel in daring, dangerous heists. Hence the second group’s plan: radically redistribute wealth. If the banks and ruling class don’t have that much money to rob, then the villains will head out to some other city.
Naturally, what follows is a meditation on the nature of justice and crime. I’ll leave the conclusion for readers to find, but the rivalry between the Avenger and Robin Hood factions does a good job of recognizing the dangerous conclusions of these philosophies. Without giving too much away, I can say that the book does an effective job of recognizing that the most vocal proponents of these approaches are also the most toxic or destructive. In the case of the super hero faction, this is comically shown through one of the main heroes’ penchant for blowing things up (in one case, a being made entirely of butter, leading to a variety of obscene but creative one-liners from his colleagues, though their confidence isn’t shaken enough for them to turn away from their cause). In the case of the Robin Hood faction, it’s more tragic. There’s a danger, there, in coming across as nihilistic, presenting a world in which no good can exist and every movement is going to result in disaster. Wisely, Supermarket avoids this trap by remembering to focus on side characters who suffer from the fighting more than the heroes (or villains, for that matter) do. In that way, the book is oddly realistic.
That’s also not to say that the novel argues for some terrible, Biden-esque reaching across the aisle. Instead, the conclusion seems to suggest that there needs to be a combination of action, careful thought, and, most importantly, empathy. In this sense, Supermarket does manage to cover the “bigger heroes bring bigger villains” territory in a new and interesting way, recognizing that it’s not just the bigness that’s the problem. The need for competition, for not just victory but victory against someone else. In that sense, if the Robin Hood faction had targeted a different part of the capitalist problem, they might have succeeded. In that case, though, the novel itself might have failed.
Zeke Jarvis is a Professor of English at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Moon City Review, Posit, and KNOCK, among other places. His books include, So Anyway..., In A Family Way, The Three of Them, and Antisocial Norms. Twitter: @zekjar