The book centers mainly around Jack, whose alter ego is Southern Cross, a young and idealistic superhero who’s basically an Australian version of Captain America. He arrives to fight crime and perform feats of heroism in the city of Heropa alongside a seven-foot living anime character named Pretty Amazonia and a rough-talking pile of human masonry named The Brick, as well as other heroes or Capes living in the city.
Heropa, we soon find out, is actually a Matrix-style computer simulation in Melbourne, and all of the Capes we meet are actually ordinary people jacked into a mainframe. You’d think that, with the knowledge that none of this is real, even for the already-fictional characters, that it would be difficult to care about what actually happens to anybody in this story. But, Bergen manages to keep the stakes high throughout, whether characters are pursuing case leads, battling for their lives, or trying to find love.
As the title implies, someone has been killing off the Capes living in Heropa. Up until recently, the computer program’s safeguards prevented anyone jacked in from dying, but things have gone awry and now people are dropping like flies—both heroes and villains. And, it would seem that dying in Heropa also means dying in the real world.
Outside of the computer program, the story is set in the post-apocalyptic world of Bergen’s first novel, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. Those without at least a passing familiarity with that story may find it hard to follow along in parts. Suffice it to say that Melbourne is now the only city left on the planet, and it’s a dystopian nightmare run by a corrupt government. You can see why so many people are anxious to give their lives to an unreliable computer program instead.
Much like a lot of Bergen’s previous work, Heropa is peppered with fun references to movies, music, and other obscure bits of pop culture. The title itself is a reference to a very underrated comedy called Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? Also, being that Bergen is Australian, there are a number of cultural references, idioms, and general slang that American audiences might not recognize. Fortunately, for all of these things, there’s a glossary in the back. And, even without it, there’s not much you can’t guess from context. It just serves to make things more interesting.
But, the main source of reference material in this one is, of course, comic books. Though the characters are all original creations, all of them have at least a passing familiarity with the Marvel and DC comics of our world, which prove an ever-present influence on them and on Heropa as a whole.
The book is, in general, a lot of fun. It has action, adventure, mystery, romance, and a fair bit of humor thrown in. It also has a number of interesting characters, most notable of which is the aforementioned Brick, who is loud, crass, vulgar, and completely lovable. What drives the story as much as the action does is the arguments that these characters frequently have amongst themselves. Not only are they often amusing to read, they’re one of the things that makes the book work on a deeper level than just a superhero adventure story. Their constant bickering is a reminder that, although these characters have the picture-perfect look and demeanor of moral and upright superheroes like we know from the comics, they’re actually regular human beings, with human flaws and human weaknesses. They weren’t born great. They haven’t even really achieved greatness. They’ve simply had greatness thrust upon them.
The text is supplemented by a variety of illustrations, by a variety of different artists. Many of them are of characters, but there are also pictures of logos, the city, and other important story elements. Though maybe we don’t need quite so many pictures of Southern Cross bursting through a newspaper, in general, the illustrations add flavor to the story. I’ve heard several people lament lately that the illustrated novel is going the way of the dodo. They’ll be gratified to hear that Mr. Bergen is one of the ones keeping it alive and well.
All-in-all, for anyone who’s interested in comics, superheroes, noir mysteries, or good action and adventure, Who Is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? is worth a read. And, if you also happen to be interested in deeper moral and philosophical issues . . . well, then, you might get even more out of this book.