A Hundred Thousand Worlds, Bob Proehl (Viking 978-03-99562-21-1, $26.00, 362pp, hc) June 2016.Beause I can be an idiot, I thought I knew what Bob Proehl’s A Hundred Thousand Worlds would be about before I even cracked the spine. It’s about comic book conventions, the blurbs on the back said, and follows small group of loosely intertwined comics-industry-adjacent characters as they travel across the country from one con to the next. I already know this plot, I thought. It’ll be all spandex and boobs and man-boys.
Yes, it is that – but 100% not in the way that I was anticipating. Instead, Proehl’s book is full of gentle wit and whip-smart commentary, while still telling an emotionally resonant story about a mother and her son that feels grounded and real, despite the larger-than-life setting. Val, a middle-aged actress who once starred in a cult TV classic, is on the road with her 11-year-old son Alex, who must be delivered to LA for reasons that will become clear. And, no, no science fictional/fantasy elements are direct plot devices; this is a story grounded in realism, even though a few of the characters wear tights. While the book itself isn’t genre, the world in which Proehl is playing is.
Proehl’s love for this world comes through in every word – and the moments in which he points out how alienating the comic scene can be for anyone who isn’t straight, white, and/or male clearly come from a desire for everyone to be able to find a place in his beloved community. There’s a chorus of costumed booth babes whose dressing room chatter reads like a treatise on gender dynamics. There’s Gail, a writer who knows exactly how mostly male-driven comic book stories come together and why, even though she wants to break that pattern:
‘‘That’s just not how it works,’’ says Gail. ‘‘We work in tropes. Broad, familiar strokes. Women are in the story to get the men where they need to be. Dead lovers and mothers, mostly.’’
But, mostly, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is about why we need stories, even imperfect ones, and how we discover them in order to make sense of the world. It’s about messy relationships and humans doing stupid things, sometimes, and redeeming themselves when they are able.