Debut novelist Bob Proehl doesn’t envy the constraints of his comics-world counterparts.
“The formal rules for comics writers are insanely complicated,” says Proehl, author of A Hundred Thousand Worlds, “and then there are narrative rules, a lot of which have to do with... returning to the status quo. I think every kid who reads comics had a story in mind where it’s like, I’m going to write the last Batman story!—where Superman dies!—and nobody gets to do that. You get to the end of your work on [a series], and you have to put the toys back in the box.”
Proehl is in complete control of A Hundred Thousand Worlds, the moving story of a mother and son undergirded by a critical, often comic look at comics culture. Valerie Torrey, who played agent Bethany Frazer on the hit TV sci-fi series Anomaly (think: Gillian Anderson, The X-Files), left Hollywood behind to raise her nine-year-old son, Alex, in Brooklyn.
“Alex has never been allowed to watch Anomaly, because his mom says it’s graphic,” Proehl writes in A Hundred Thousand Worlds. “But from his mom’s interpretations of the episodes, which Alex suspects she waters down a little for him, he understands that every episode falls into one of two categories: storyline or freak of the week.”
Alex hasn’t seen his father, Val’s ex-husband and Anomaly costar, Andrew Rhodes, in six years. So Val and Alex set off on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles—stopping along the way at comicons, to make appearances and sign autographs—with her retellings of Anomaly episodes marking time and building towards the change to come when the family reunites.
“A lot of [A Hundred Thousand Worlds] is about stories, story-making, and how we intersect with fiction—how it’s creating us, even as we’re creating it,” Proehl says. “The relationship between Val and Alex really became the vehicle for that and those moments of shared storytelling between the two of them, and his sort of slow realization that he wasn’t getting the real fake story of things.”
In real life, Proehl hails from Buffalo, New York. He is a former bookseller, author in the 33 1/3 book series, and contributor to PopMatters.com. He lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, baby daughter, and 13-year-old stepson, Alex, for whom the character was named (by request). Proehl drew directly from his experience of step-parenting Alex to inform the character—including his keen perceptiveness.
“[Alex] was incredibly savvy about things at five or six years old,” Proehl says. “It was amazing to see him, to see how much he perceived, and how smart he was in dealing with emotional stuff... I think we don’t give kids quite enough credit—we think of them as tiny adults, but there’s actually a completely other, specific mode of thinking at that age, that has some really amazing things going on.”
A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ Alex has amazing encounters at every stop: The Idea Man, Val’s former producer, shows him a seemingly infinite, indexed at-home comics collection. A cadre of latex-clad cosplay vixens serves as his protector (and a sort of feminist Greek chorus). His grandmother’s dog adventures with him in the Midwestern woods. And, as if by magic, a comics artist helps bring a story of his own devising to life.
Their stories—the ones they share and the ones they create together—add to Alex’s understanding of the one Val’s been trying to tell him all along.
“He knew when he asked that her ending would be different from the real one. The one that was on television, anyway,” Proehl writes. “You couldn’t say that one made-up story was more real than another. But driving away is always a good ending, because you can go anywhere. It’s way better than people standing somewhere. More than that, it’s a good ending because he knows she made it for him, to tell him things she can’t tell him any other way. He thinks back on all the other stories she’s told him and wonders how many are real and how many she made up for him. It’s like the masks the superheroes wear that become more important than the faces under them: the story hides something so it can reveal the thing more clearly.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.