Monday, January 27, 2020

LIVER BEWARE! You're in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #25: ATTACK OF THE MUTANT

Sometimes, you read a book that you loved as a kid and you're like "yeah, that holds up pretty well." Maybe it's rough around the edges, and maybe there are some things you missed the first time through because you were like twelve. But you reread it and you don't hate yourself for being that little kid whole genuinely loved this book that you've now returned to. Readers, Attack of the Mutant is not that book. And I did genuinely love this one when I was little. It's the first time I remember refusing to go to bed until I had finished the story. And...okay, this might be a bumpy ride.

First, though, the booze (I'm going to need A LOT). I'm drinking a Vanilla Wafer Porter from Mob Craft Beer, which comes as a full pint and is delicious and does not disappoint, quite unlike this book. So yeah, let's dive right in!

Skipper Matthews is a chubby comic book nerd. And me, with my collection of 90s X-Men comics, could not have identified harder with him when I was a smol. Except now, reading the description the book gives him, I can't tell if the book is making a mockery of toxic comic book bros or is uncomplicated in casting its hero as a complete asshole. Because Skipper is...well, not exactly a sterling example of humanity at its best. It's not that he's terrible at school. He is, but that's kinda beside the point. It's more that he's one of those comic book nerds that you really want to just punch in the face. And I'll break this down in a few points I will title...

Why Skipper Matthews is Just the Fucking Worst:

1. He "loves" comic books but only reads one title. Yup, he only actually reads the one book, The Masked Mutant, which seems to be a title that centers the villain with a rotating cast of heroes? Whatever. The main thing here is that he's obsessed not with the stories the comic books tell, or their art, or anything. He barely reads them. Instead...

2. He's a collector who's obsessed with the monetary value of comic books as investments. He puts them directly into sleeves and then goes on endlessly about how much money they're worth. Readers, as a kid who kinda did this, it's the worst. The speculative market of comic books is just not there. You're not going to get a comic that will someday be worth millions when you're buying 90s comics. It's just...I mean, come on.

3. He hates other comics for no reason. When confronted with what is essentially Archie comics, he has to make sure to put them down. High School Harry and Beanhead are worse than Hitler to our Skipper. Because ugh, girls, amirite? But he's already said he doesn't even read comics. So how the fuck does he know? No, he hates them because of who likes those comic books. To Skipper they aren't real. They don't count. Skipper is just the fucking worst.

Okay okay, but let me get to the actual plot, which mostly involves the fact that Skipper is peek latchkey kid. Seriously, the most we see of his parents is his dad not liking his comic book habit and his little sister tattling on him. But appropriately, the defining part of his family is that they're not really around much. So Skipper escapes into thinking about comic books and occasionally reading them. And riding the bus. Seriously, this book is a huge proponent of unaccompanied minors taking the bus wherever they need to go. Skipper has an orthodontist and just...goes. Which hey, if you have good public transportation, cool. Though suburbs-raised me is all sorts of weirded out that he wasn't driven around. It's even more weird if you look at the television show of the book, which does a pretty faithful translation except the parents. The dad in the show is a nerdy businessman who just wants Skipper to be more serious, while his mom is always reading romances. Like, comicly so. They are ridiculous in the show, where in the book they're much more realistically absent. But in the show the mom stays at home, so it's a little odd that Skipper would be off to appointments all by himself.

Still, whatever. On the bus, though, he meets Libby, a girl who likes the aforementioned High School Harry comics, and Skipper completely fails to be anything less than an ass toward her, telling her those comics are bad and generally being a toxic nerd stereotype. And really, this is where I had hopes that I had stumbled once more into a very sharp critique of toxic masculinity, like was found in You Can't Scare Me! Once more we have this walking exemplar of how a lot of masculine stereotypes are just the worst and center posturing over actual enthusiasm. Skipper likes the Mutant comics not really because he loves the stories. Or, at least, that's not how he frames his love. Instead, it's about trivia and power. He likes knowing everything about the Mutant. Which, it turns out, brings him to the attention of someone...

First, though, his talk with Libby makes him miss his stop, and so he gets off the bus and finds...a building that looks exactly like the headquarters of the Masked Mutant! Still, he doesn't have much time to investigate because, well, orthodontist appointment. Which he does make only a little late. But seeing the building IRL sends his little heart into overdrive. He wants to find out what's going on!

Oh, which brings me to Skipper's foil. Not Libby, who will be showing up more later. But Wilson, Skipper's only friend. Wilson's not really into comics. Wilson is into stamps. Not postage, but rather the ones that you use with ink. And Skipper could not be more of a dick about it. Wilson wants to bond over not a shared interest but both of them having interests. In the show, stamps are replaced with rocks, but the spirit is still the same. Wilson just has this open enjoyment of stamps. Of using them. Collecting them. His more innocent and genuine enjoyment is something Skipper shits on almost constantly. But the stamps aren't valuable. And they're boring. Despite the fact that Skipper's comic book collection is unread and also not valuable. Skipper demands a sort of submission to his interests in order to think of someone well, and in practice this means he's an arrogant jerk who isolates himself.

All of this is to say that what should happen to Skipper is Something Bad. Does it? Well, first he needs to head back to that building. So he takes the bus again's gone! Oh noes! Was it a dream? He's pretty bummed about it until he gets the latest Mutant comic and finds that in the comic, the Mutant has made his base invisible! Well of course that makes sense in a comic book. But in the real world, does it still? So back to the building site he goes, and finds Libby there as well. He convinces her to accompany him to see if the building is invisible. So they walk forward, and pass through the invisibility field, revealing the still-very-much-present building. Win!

Now it's time to investigate! They go inside, and Skipper feels a weird scan thing happen to him (this will be Important later, so pay attention). And they they press into the building, finding that's it's weird and empty. They get separated briefly, and during that time Skipper finds comic book pages and artwork, implying that his favorite comic book might be created right in his hometown. Neat. There's not much more to it, though, so Libby finds him and they leave. Now is when the weird is dialed up. Soon after, Skipper gets the latest Mutant comic, and finds that there's a new character--him! He's right in there, inside the Mutant's base, where a fellow hero is also being kept. And only Skipper can help him escape. It seems too weird to be true, but Skipper remembers the whole invisible thing and decides it's legit. So. Back on the bus. To save the Galloping Gazelle.

Now, in the show the Gazelle is played by none other than Adam West, which is pretty hilarious. It's a great corny part for him to play, and the Mutant himself does a good job of being completely ridiculous. In the book, it's still a rather cute exchange, where Skipper rescues the Gazelle and together they go to confront the Mutant. Only the Gazelle is rather terrible and runs away, leaving Skipper on his own. Kind of. With the Mutant closing in and Skipper almost pooing himself in fear, Libby shows up and blasts the villain, destroying him. Only to reveal...that she was the real Masked Mutant all along! What a twist! Turns out she was looking for just that asshole who was obsessed with him, something he's encouraged by, yes you got it, write and producing a comic book about himself. Skipper is probably his only fan because I can't imagine distribution is easy when you're also a supervillain trying (and failing) to destroy the world on the regular. But maybe MM makes the mad moneys on indie comic books. Though...I doubt it.

The Mutant then reveals that Skipper isn't even real anymore. He's been scanning into a comic book, and everything after that, well, isn't exactly real. Only the intersection between "real" and "comic book" is blurry, because obviously the Masked Mutant existed outside of the comics, too, as Libby. But we'll get to that.

Anyway, so the Mutant wants Skipper to be a character in the comic that, I guess, the Mutant is also writing. Though he's not above killing Skipper off in his first outing. Luckily for ol' Skips, he has useless comic book knowledge! Which, it turns out, isn't so useless inside a comic book. He manages to trick the Mutant into turning liquid which, I guess, means that the Mutant can't turn back solid. Skipper calls it a win and, as an added bonus, realizes that he's still inside a comic book! And that he's still receiving comic books that, I guess, star him now? It's kinda messed up and if that's as far as you want to read into what happens it's really disappointing, because it's just wish fulfillment at that point. Skipper wins, and his bullshit trivia allowed him to do it. But I think there's another level, and it brings us to...CONSPIRACY TIME!

Okay so what we know is that Libby turns out to the the Mutant. And that the Mutant was writing the comics that Skipper likes. And that the Mutant is "killed" inside that comic. However, the comic book keeps arriving at Skipper's house. Plus, he's still inside the comic book at the end. A comic that he doesn't seem to be writing. So who is? The answer, of course, is Libby. Because as I read it, the only time the Masked Mutant actually shows up, it's inside the comic world after Skipper has been scanned in. Which feels an awful lot like an imprisonment to me. But why? The answer, for me, is obvious--he's an asshole, and Libby is actually making a rather meta point, which is that Skipper is the real villain in all of this. He is the successor to the Mutant, not the Mutant's true enemy. Because, like the Mutant, all he has is an obsession with comic books and a pervasive selfishness.

I thought it was weird that the comic book inside this book starred the villain, rather than the hero. It might seem like a very 90s move, but I also think that it nods to the fact that the protagonist of the book is, that's right, also the villain of the story. One who people with their edgy 90s mentality, want to root for. But who is, ultimately, flat and awful and ruining comics for everyone. That's right, people. The true villain is toxic masculinity in nerd spaces!

And this might be giving this book a bit too much credit. It's a mess. And without this skewed reading of it, it's about a toxic nerd who gets exactly what he wants and nothing bad happens to him. But I do want to think that this book can share some spiritual space with You Can't Scare Me! I don't think it pulls it off nearly so well, because the ending really flubs things, but I do think there is a reading of this that finds something worth seeing. You might have to be a little drunk to see it, though. Anyway, that's about it, so let's break this down by the ratings!

On the "Would I write fanfiction scale of greatness": 2/5 (despite it being a comic-based book, which seems like it should lend itself to fic, I really didn't care much about any of the characters enough to really deal with it. The only thing that really got me thinking was imagining the Mutant trying to hustle his own indie comic around town. Like, going to conventions where people think it's all a gimmick and then shit going down on artist's alley. Skipper I don't care about. Maybe some extra Wilson content where one of his stamps turns out to be worth a TON of money and he shrugs and just keeps using it because it's of a cow and though he has five of those it's still fun? Yeah)

On the "Is this actually good scale of more trying to be objective": 2/5 (I admit that I like my reading of this book, but the ending really holds it back from being the masterpiece that _You Can't Scare Me!_ was. It's playing with some serious stereotypes and if you squint you can see simply a story about a poor nerd who finally got his due, which is a bullshit message. I want to think the book does more in the opposite direction, critiquing the ignorant and posturing lionizing of certain comic books because they're "cool." But it doesn't do enough to really close the deal for me, which is a rather huge problem)

On the "Yeah but this is Goosebumps scale of relative wonderment": 3/5 (as a Goosebumps book, it does some things that are pretty all right. I think we have hit a stride in the series where it's weird and interesting, and this one definitely keeps with that, building up a somewhat ridiculous narrative that still mostly works. Bringing comic book tropes into it pulls the story away from other horror elements but seeing as how in any reading Skipper is basically erased from reality and put into a fictional world, there's enough darkness here, and I like how the piece embraces the goofiness of comics)

There you have it! A mixed entry, to be sure. Join me next month for a look at the next book, Goosebumps #26: MY HAIRIEST ADVENTURE


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