(Welcome to the Friday Afternoon Serial, a new feature on IFB. Over the next 15 weeks, IFB will publish a chapter a week of Subhuman: Volume One, a novel by Bob Hill. The version you are about to read is raw and unvarnished. We hope you enjoy it.)
SUBHUMAN: VOLUME ONE
When I was 22 years old, I wrote the great American novel.
Well, it was great in the sense that it sold two million copies. And it was really more of a graphic novel than it was a classic work of fiction. But it was definitely American … that much I can assure you. And it made me rich enough to live the American dream, or – at the very least – some horribly pedestrian version of it.
In fact, it would be completely accurate to say I haven’t worked an honest day in my life since the moment my great American novel was born.
Now what could be more American than that?
Wait. I’ll tell you.
I have a wife. I have two kids. We live in a house on a hill in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. There are long rows of oak trees along both sides of our street. The branches bend and stretch like arthritic wooden arms, forming a perfect bridge from which the leaves and acorns fall like embers.
There is a six-foot stone wall surrounding our property. My wife, Laura, insisted we put it up to keep the undesirables out. Most undesirables – by definition – cannot afford to live in our neighborhood. But there’s no accounting for the occasional drifter or dreg, Laura says. And we simply cannot risk exposing our children to people like that.
Rosemont is part of Philadelphia’s Main Line region – so called for the northwest regional rail line that once ran through the center of town. Rosemont also provided the inspiration for Pine Valley, the fictional setting of ABC’s All My Children.
All My Children was cancelled in April of 2011. While that could mean the end of Pine Valley as we know it, it has no direct bearing on the real-life borough of Rosemont, Pennsylvania.
TV is all make believe, you see.
Fiction is a funny thing.
My wife Laura is a certified public accountant. She rents an office in the center of town. She refers to the months between January and May as her busy time of year.
“You know this is my busy time of year,” she’ll say.
Laura is six feet tall (to my five-foot-eleven). She has deep, green eyes and a billboard-perfect smile. Laura is witty and fashionable and wholly unimpressed. Laura was a cotillion queen. She was president of her sorority. She once ran a marathon to raise money for the preservation of grasslands in South Africa.
Laura knows absolutely nothing about the preservation of grasslands in South Africa. But she does know a great deal about the not-so-subtle art of self-promotion, which explains how she ended up gracing the cover of Main Line Today Magazine, wearing a $400 sweat suit, her elbow resting on the shoulder of a 71-year old Masai tribesman named Samson.
The central message of the cover story was this: Philanthropy = the gateway to power.
Samson was not interviewed for the piece.
Laura never would have married me had it not been for my great American novel.
She never would have married me if I was still driving that penis-purple Pinto I owned back in college, or living in that shitbox studio downtown. I mean, sure, Laura may have kissed me, and perhaps even fucked me. But she never would have married me, if not for my ability to help her live the American dream, or – at the very least – some horribly pedestrian version of it.
I knew this from the day Laura and I first met. I knew it and I simply chose to ignore it. I was far too consumed with the idea of Laura to do otherwise. I was consumed with the instant credibility that came along with dating someone far more attractive and ambitious than I could ever hope to be. I was consumed with the fact that absolute strangers would see us walking arm-in-arm and wonder, “How the fuck did he pull that off?”
I was consumed with the image our relationship projected – that I was either rich like Rockefeller or hung like Dillinger. I was attractive by association, you see. Touched by an angel, you might say.
Only Laura Lee was no angel, and I was most certainly no Rockefeller.
Well, maybe Winthrop Rockefeller.
Regardless, you get the point.
Like most newlyweds, Laura and I spent the first three or four years of our marriage focusing on how we could effectively live the lie, rather than confronting the truth. Day by day, we stood idly by, watching as tiny pieces of ourselves began to disappear – buried deep beneath the weight of cable bills and PTA meetings and waking up so exhausted the only thing worth looking forward to was sleep.
The reality is, these days I feel a whole lot more like a fading shadow than I do a famous author.
I do not work in an office, nor do I report to a supervisor. I do not research, develop, market, produce or sell anything. I do not invest my money wisely. I do not invest my money at all. My life (and livelihood) consists of collecting royalty checks for something I originally wrote way back when I was still in college.
I spend my afternoons reading what’s left of the New York Times and watching Judge Mathis. I play the numbers (more for the thrill than the money). I knock away at crossword puzzles, then leave the finished product face up on the dining room table so my wife and kids will see what a wiz their father/husband is when they get home.
I eat TV dinners for lunch. I toss bread crusts to the birds in our backyard.
I stop just short of clipping coupons.
I have no great passion or consequence in my life, save for my children. I have very little left to play for, in a manner of speaking. And lately, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that something – or perhaps everything – inside of me is dead as the dog dirt, my friend.
“I am Bobby Lee, and this is what it’s like to be me.”
This is how I sign copies of my great American novel, Subhuman: Volume One.
I cannot recall the first time I autographed a copy of my book that way, nor do I remember why it seemed to make sense at the time … only that it did. Over the years I have signed thousands of items that way. I have signed photos and action figures and collectibles that way. I have signed dollar bills and playbills and t-shirts that way.
I once signed a speeding ticket that way.
“I am Bobby Lee and this is what it’s like to be me” has become the tagline of choice for every blog post, book review, punch line and press clipping ever written about me. It was the title of a low-budget documentary about my life, produced by the Haverford High School Audio Visual Club. It was the theme of my 30th – and 35th – birthday parties, both of which required attendees to come dressed up as me. And, in an unexpected twist, it also served as the inspiration for a Statler Brothers’ song about the homosexual tendencies of General Robert E. Lee.
Despite all of this, the irony is, I still haven’t the foggiest fucking clue what any of it is supposed to mean.
Subhuman: Volume One is a story about heroes and villains and second chances.
It’s true. It’s says so right on the first-edition jacket. Unfortunately, very few
people have ever seen that jacket due to the fact that Subhuman: Volume One only sold 8,000 copies during its initial run.
First-time author. Limited distribution.
It’s a wonder Subhuman: Volume One ever saw the wood of a bookshelf.
But it did. And shortly after it did, I mailed a copy to a creative director at
DC Comics. I attached a Post-it note to the front cover.
The Post-it note had one word written on it.
“Thoughts?” it read.
It turned out that particular creative director had several thoughts, the most relevant of which was to develop Subhuman: Volume One into a graphic novel, and eventually build an entire comic-book franchise around the main character.
I thought that thought was an absolutely delightful thought.
So we struck a deal. DC Comics obtained the rights to my novel and all of its central characters and I obtained the right to sit on my ass and collect four percent of every pulp-happy profit the franchise generated.
Here is what you need to know about Subhuman, the fictional superhero who made me rich enough to live the American dream.
Subhuman was the eventual alter ego of a highly-trained CIA operative named Michael Mitchell. Mitchell had gone undercover to infiltrate a shadow crime syndicate, which was operating under the watchful eye of the city’s police commissioner. The city’s police commissioner was crooked as a barrel full of bait hooks, you see. And once Michael Mitchell’s true identity was revealed, the commissioner ordered his henchman to “make that asshole disappear.”
Mitchell was beaten, then shackled along with his fiancé, Molly Maguire. Both were thrown off a bridge into the river, where they were essentially left for dead.
Only Michael Mitchell wasn’t dead, which – from a writer’s perspective – is the entire point of leaving your characters for dead in the first place.
Mitchell drifted along the river’s edge, clawing the mud and rocks until he came upon a dried-out sewage drain. He crawled inside the drain and followed it to its source – the catacombs of a 19th-century prison which had been shut down for more than 40 years.
Michael Mitchell spent several months hiding out in those catacombs. He convalesced. He developed a grueling physical fitness regimen. He sharpened his hand-to-hand combat skills. He designed a jet-black suit with jet-black goggles that covered him from head to toe. He used trusted CIA contacts to purchase state-of-the-art weapons. He emerged in the dead of night to rob drug dealers at gunpoint. He altered his appearance to the point where he’d be unrecognizable to his captors (and just about anyone else). He transformed the catacombs beneath the penitentiary into a lair. He assumed a new identity – Mitch Masters, a shadowy Samaritan who started out as a volunteer at East End Penitentiary and slowly worked his way up to full-time curator.
Two years after the fact, Mitch Masters emerged from the sewers beneath New London as Subhuman – a fierce vigilante who looked and moved like a panther in the night. He used the city’s subterranean tunnels, waterways, drainage systems and railways to avoid detection and capture. Whereas most super heroes came swooping in from above, Subhuman literally opted to go underground.
Do you know what ensued? Mayhem, that’s what.
More on that in a bit.
Critics hated Subhuman: Volume One. I mean like no-stars-out-of-four hated it.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it “prepubescent crap, where the clichés fly fast as Frisbees and the dialogue reeks like a dry dock in August.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Gil Gothner wrote, “Subhuman: Volume One is a publishing miracle … No, seriously, it’s a miracle this shit ever got published.”
One critic from the LA Times actually took the time to phone me personally.
“Is this Bobby Lee?” he asked.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“It is?” he asked, apparently shocked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Bobby Lee, the author of Subhuman: Volume One?” he asked.
“The same,” I said.
“Wow,” he said. “You’ll have to forgive me. I was under the impression you were an 11-year old boy.”
He included that exchange in his review.
Now I’m not so sure he isn’t an 11-year old boy.
The point is, a lot of critics questioned my ability to write on a third-grade level. And that hurt … a lot. So I drank … a lot. I drank through my engagement and the first few years of my marriage. I drank through the birth of both of my children. I drank while Subhuman: Volume One was being developed into a major motion picture and eventual theme park attraction. I drank as the character I created evolved into a pop culture phenomenon.
I drank because my great American novel was really nothing more than a glorified comic strip. I drank because that glorified comic strip was much more marketable than the manuscript I spent years of my life poring over. I drank because I was considered a literary laughing stock by the people whose opinions I valued most.
I drank until I cried one night in a moonlit corner of our bedroom, watching Laura as she slept. I drank because the mutual respect we once shared had faded into resentment. I drank because I knew the two of us were not built to go the distance. I drank because our children, Tommy and Sara, deserved much better. I drank because we lived in a house on a hill removed from all the undesirables, when the undesirables were the only people I felt like I could actually relate to. I drank because I’d spent the past 10 years of my life trapped inside a Jackson Browne song.
I drank because the American dream was really nothing more than a bubbling crock of shit, and I was wading dick deep in the muck.