Greg Levin’s Dying Heroes
Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes, especially since the mainstreaming of comic book culture, primarily through Hollywood, in the last couple of decades or so. While many of the classic superheroes are borderline gods with impossible powers, the later we explore the genre the more we begin to encounter flawed heroes with lesser powers. I’m certain many would agree giving their heroes a certain amount of vulnerability greatly enhances the excitement and uncertainty factors in their stories, which is why the concept has been driven further and further to the limit, giving us characters more grounded in reality than ever before. Greg Levin seems to have taken it upon himself to usher in the next step of this evolution in his rather original dark humour thriller titled Sick to Death.
The story begins by presenting us with Gage Adder, a man who finds out he has inoperable pancreatic cancer and not a very long time left to live. While most people would be devastated, Gage takes it in good stride and finds the opportunity to quit the job he hates all too much, replacing it with a very kind support group as well as a new profession: vigilantism. His friends in the support group, Jenna and Ellison, aren’t exactly one hundred percent approving of his activities. The former, for instance, believes he is wrong in using violence and would be much better served if he used poison instead. It doesn’t take long for the three of them to band together and clean up the streets from all the scum marauding through it, but of course, things go too far as they always do. Suddenly, the lives of hundreds of people are at risk, and the trio’s vigilante ways are really put into question.
To start things off with the most obvious, it’s definitely not in every superhero story you’ll be getting a trio of terminally-ill heroes whose superpowers amount to having nothing left to lose. It’s definitely an interesting concept which was the primary reason I felt drawn to this novel, and in my opinion it is developed in a very satisfying way, starting with the characters themselves. Though they are all dying, Levin doesn’t dwell on it too much nor does he seek to constantly remind us of the fact. Instead, he treats it in a more nonchalant matter, and while there are of course some reflections on the topic of impending death, they never really feel tragic. In my opinion, it takes an incredible amount of skill as an author to make the omnipresence of death into something casual rather than miserable.
Our main trio of characters definitely isn’t hard to root for, especially considering their can-do attitude in the face of their own demise. Levin takes all the necessary steps in getting us acquainted with them, mostly through dialogue, and carefully builds a chemistry between the vigilante friends. Their interactions with each other are a fantastic source of humour as they poke fun at their predicaments and discuss the lesser-known aspects of their conditions. They’re all flawed in their own lovable ways, and by the time they hit the streets together I already found myself attached to them all equally, as if I myself was a fourth member in the gang. In other words, I’ve seldom seen a group of characters easier to root for.
The Fun of Dying
As you might imagine, the bulk of the story is about the three friends going out to do their superhero vigilante business, and so far as the plot is concerned I would venture to say it’s paced as perfectly as can be. There aren’t any lulls in the story I can think of, no superfluous side ventures to drag it down or scenes which lead to nowhere. On the contrary, I would liken this to a cut of meat with all the fat trimmed off; everything is relevant and digestible. Whether we are witnessing further character development or the vigilante activities themselves, we always get a sense of the story moving forward in one way or another. Additionally, in case you are concerned about it, there is no real graphic brutality to speak of either.
The dark humour throughout the book is very welcome considering the grim reality of the subject matter being treated and its somewhat disturbing implications at times. As was mentioned before, there are some reflections in this book on heavier topics (most obviously terminal illness), and while they are definitely thought-provoking they also manage to feel lighthearted in a certain sense… could our relation to the concept of death be merely a matter of perspective? While thankfully I personally do not have experience in this domain, it did seem to me like Greg spent a lot of time researching the subject of terminal cancer, ultimately attempting to depict it in as real a way as possible. It never felt to me like he used the topic for his own gains, but rather tried to weave a very unusual story around it… and of course succeeded.
The Final Verdict
All in all, Sick to Death by Greg Levin is one of the more unusual and original superhero stories out there, a fantastic dark humour thriller in equal parts fascinating, thought-provoking and comical. This is one of those books I would actually recommend to any fans of the vigilante genre for its unique nature is definitely reason enough to give it a shot; even if you won’t share my opinion of it, I guarantee you will have at the very least read something completely different than what you’re used to.
Greg Levin is an American author hailing from New York with a few books under his belt, as well as being the recipient of the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award for Best Adult Fiction E-Book for his novel The Exit Man. He is also the author behind the Sick to Death and In Wolves’ Clothing.