Rauch and Frank are two down-on-their-luck roommates who just want better lives – Rauch for the two of them, Frank for other people. It’s why, when Frank isn’t working at the local comic shop, he prowls the streets as the costumed hero Lambda Man, using homemade tools to do whatever small good he can around his rough Philadelphia neighborhood, whether chasing purse snatchers or driving pimps out of town. It’s why Rauch runs small errands for the mob, using those desperate acts to pull himself out of an even more desperate situation – but when he accidentally bungles a hit, he finds himself desperate to escape that world, too.
Both get their chance when a mysterious woman named Keira shows up with an offer: Join Heroes2B, Inc. Train to become a real hero. Complete one job at Las Vegas Comic Con. After that, they’ll have all they need to get out. The offer may not be what it seems – Rauch suspects it, even if Frank doesn’t – but it’s their one good chance to disappear, and neither wants to let it pass.
J.L. Delozier’s Con Me Once combines the fun of Marvel with the darkness of DC and the mafia drama of Scorsese. It’s a strange, unexpected combination (especially in light of Scorsese’s recent comments), but Delozier pulls it off in a similarly unexpected manner.
First, one should know going in that it’s not a comic book story so much as a colorful drama set in the trappings of several different cons, comic and otherwise. Keira, we learn, has the financial resources to support a truly awesome training ground for her heroes, complete with her own tech guru and local convention celebrity, Pinball – a Samuel L. Jackson lookalike whose inventions are as wildly inspired as the comics that did inspire them. Keira’s other recruits are similarly colorful. Ruletka, the unofficial leader of the group, is as serious a hero as the Russian Roulette from which his name derives, but is also really into baking and general hospitality, and the final member, Deliverance, is a hyperactive gunslinger on a mission from God who looks like a combination of Howdy Doody and Chucky.
Despite the motley setup, lighthearted comedy this is not. Comic trappings aside, the novel takes an unexpectedly down-to-earth approach to the heroism, motivations, and psychology of its heroes-to-be and the woman who assembles them. One of Frank’s formative traumas, for example, gave him a perpetual terror of movie theaters that borders on PTSD – which becomes a problem when a spontaneous movie theater crisis requires his heroism. For Ruletka, costumed heroism is a way to overcome the darkness of his past, but in the specific case of Heroes2B – and its incentives – it’s also a way for him to complete his physical transition to male. Frank is gay and Rauch is bi, but in addition to the typical stresses of working for the mafia, Rauch in particular has to put up with harassment about his sexuality from the soldiers above him – this in addition to worrying about Frank, who is not as cautious as Rauch himself, and is so eager to join up with Keira and do some good through Heroes2B that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that the opportunity might not be what he thinks it is. Then there’s Deliverance, who might actually be insane, though as yet untreated, and when one considers that Keira is a psychologist pitching Heroes2B as a study for her doctoral degree – and thus, you know, someone who should be concerned about that – suddenly her offer looks a lot less like the stuff of comic con….and much more the stuff of an actual con.
It’s still more comic book action than psychological thriller, though. The book starts with a wrenching murder and, though it takes short breaks to set up its vivid characters and setting, its momentum carries right through to a blockbuster ending that wouldn’t be out of place in any comic shop offerings. Even so, it’s more likely to be enjoyed by thriller fans who like comics, as opposed to comics fans in general. The novel name-drops a lot of fan-favorite references, and comic culture is central to the novel’s characters and conflicts, but it’s not a novel about comics culture, which means that if you go in expecting a love letter to comic cons, you’re going to be disappointed. (Even the climactic comic con is only a small part of the climax.)
References aside, the book’s true comic book spirit is found in its fast pacing, colorful characters and scenarios, and high action. That it was able to fit all this into a mostly believable situation and balance it with realistic drama makes it that much more entertaining.
If I were to fault it for anything, it would be that it doesn’t lean hard enough into its psychological aspects. Granted, the book wasn’t meant to be a hard-hitting psychoanalysis of its characters, but the story sets up the potential for truly intriguing backstories and then only goes into a few of them. I would have particularly liked to see what shaped Ruletka and Deliverance into the people they became before the story started – but then again, this was Frank and Rauch’s story, not theirs. And when it comes down to it, Keira’s own psychology background is just a door she opens to reach a different, completely unrelated goal. My only other complaint is that the actual conclusion comes so quickly relative to the action-packed climax that reading it feels like whiplash, and because of that speed, certain elements of the end (avoiding spoilers) don’t really have time to settle in.
Overall, though, Con Me Once is a fun, fast-paced, and unexpected blend of comic book mayhem and criminal drama.
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Also Note: I received an ARC copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.