Dispensing Justice by Fritz Freiheit
It’s been a while since we got to review any comics-related fiction around here, so let’s get to it with “Dispensing Justice” by Fritz Freiheit.
This particular story is set in an alternate version of the 1980s — lots of movies and TV shows are similar, but technology has advanced a lot faster — for example, the Internet is fully functional and widely used — and humanity has had contact with an alien civilization. In 1947, a supernova bathed the Earth in radiation, causing widespread illness and death, but an interstellar civilization intervened and saved the planet. Soon afterwards, the cosmic radiation started giving certain people superpowers, and those people started styling themselves as superheroes and supervillains.
Our main character is Michael Gurick, a genius teenager who recently watched his father, a superhero called the Dispenser, get killed on national TV by a bunch of cyborg supervillains called the Demolition Squad. He’s surprised, however, when his dad then shows up to take him home from school — the government has assigned a lookalike agent to his family so no one will realize there’s a connection between the Dispenser and the rest of his family.
Michael’s mother isn’t reacting well to the crisis, so the Dispenser’s fellow superheroes in the Nova League take it upon themselves to help her adjust mentally and emotionally, leaving Michael with more time to spend with his friends, Kimball Kinnison, a normal kid who’s started to develop psionic powers, and Penny Riggs-Armstrong, daughter of another couple of superheroes, with her own high levels of associated kickassery. Added into this mix are Cleo Fox, blind daughter of Michael’s martial arts instructor, and Achilles and Andy Riggs-Armstrong, Penny’s twin siblings, who love to spend time finding new ways to torture Michael.
And complicating all of this even more? Michael has decided to use his own superpowered intelligence and his father’s old equipment to avenge his father’s death. Can he handle a task that his father couldn’t? Will his friends be able to help? Or is this all going to end really, really badly for everyone?
Verdict: Thumbs up. Now lemme warn you, the first thing you’re going to think when you look at this book is: “Holy hamsters, that thing’s over 375 pages long! And it’s got over 100 chapters!” But whoa, whoa, calm down, cowboy, most of those chapters are only a couple pages long, which helps the story and the action move along at a nice, brisk pace. It’s real easy to sit down at lunch, plan to read only a few pages while you eat your sandwich, and end up burning through 50 or more pages and completely forgetting about your olive-loaf-on-rye.
The characters are entirely grand — Michael, Kim, and Penny seem like fairly realistic teenagers, Achilles and Andy are quite funny every time they appear, and the banter and rivalries among the superheroes in the Nova League are handled very well.
The setting is also a huge amount of fun. While it’s somewhat familiar, the differences that crop up — “Karate Kid” as a movie about learning how to use superpowers, a home with a flat-screen TV in the mid-1980s, “Ghostbusters” being made with computer-generated special effects, and a vast number of geek-friendly board games that I wish we’d had when I was a kid — give you plenty of moments to be surprised by how the setting has been changed from the world we lived in.
And while the action takes a while to get started — Michael and his friends are pretty formidable, but they realize that they can’t go out and start fighting crime without getting some level of training, along with something that’ll bounce bullets, first — once the superheroes and the supervillains get down to fighting, the action is fast, furious, and entirely excellent.
There is a lot going on in this novel, and there’s no way to cover all the material in a fairly short review. There’s plenty of mystery about Cleo Fox as well as an incident with a visit to Congress and some mind-controlling federal agents, too. And lots more besides that. There’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s all pretty fun to read. Even better, there’s a whole series of novels planned in this world, so expect some sequels coming out before too long…
“Dispensing Justice” by Fritz Freiheit. If you like superhero fiction, I think you’re going to like this. Go pick it up.