A Fast-Paced, Rewarding Superhero Parody
School for Sidekicks
by Kelly McCullough
Publication Date: August 4, 2015
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly
“Evan Quick, Hero’s Log, May the 25th… and darn it — I just can’t do this. I’m never going to be a Mask. Get over it Evan.”
Evan Quick has spent his whole life dreaming of becoming a hero. Every morning he wakes up and runs through a checklist of test to see if he’s developed powers over night, and every day it is the same thing — nothing. No flying, no super strength, no heat rays or cold beams. No invulnerability — that always hurt to check — no telepathy, no magic. Not even the ability to light a light bulb without flipping a switch. And now, he’s finally ready to give up.
But then, the class field trip to the Mask Museum is interrupted by a super villain attack, and Evan somehow manages to survive a death ray. Even better, Evan’s favorite Mask, Captain Commanding, shows up to save them all — and when things go very wrong, it’s Evan who finds the strength to come to Captain Commanding’s rescue.
Yet the hero’s reception Evan is expecting never happens. Before he even gets the chance to say hello, Evan is bundled away to The Academy, an institution derisively called The School for Sidekicks by its students. Forced to take classes like Banter Basics and Combat with Dinnerware, while being assigned as an ‘apprentice’ to Foxman — a Mask widely considered a has-been — Evan starts to worry that he’ll never be able to save the day…
This is the book that should teach middle grade readers the word parody. That is, if they can stop turning pages long enough to think about what they’re reading. It might also enlighten them as to the meaning of the old cautionary expression, “Be careful what you wish for…” Our narrator and wanna-be superhero, Evan Quick, learns that lesson the day he gets his superhero powers. After that, everything he ever wanted to be seems a far cry from what he has become. And when the plot thickens (and seldom has a plot thickened to such a degree), the consequences of Evan’s new identity deepen as our budding hero is thrust into the middle of a complicated and deadly secret.
But back to the parody: In its early chapters especially, School for Sidekicks apes to humorous effect superhero movies and comic books. The heroic (?) names alone usually bring a chuckle: Captain Commanding (and his Commanding Car), the Fluffinator, Mr. Implausible, HeartBurn, Hotflash, and so it goes, right up until we meet Evan’s mentor, Foxman, and take a ride in his Foxmobile. Actually, the parody never really stops — one can almost see KAPOW! BANG! and OOOF! splashing across the page during the fight scenes. Indeed, near the end we’re treated to an explosive “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!“
All this is fun, and often funny, but the problem with any parody is letting the reader know when something should be taken seriously. For instance, we are still smiling from “scabwebs” and “Dorkman” as Evan tells us about the half million people who were killed when the “Hero Bomb”, which created the Masks and Hoods, detonated. There are other moments where lives are lost or hang in the balance, but McCullough, for the most part, manages to switch between goofy and serious without jarring the reader. To be sure, I initially felt the wackiness had taken too strong a hold on the science in the book, and for many chapters was grinding my jaw about the impossibility of certain things: instant communication with a distant planet, the location and design of the Academy, the method of transport between the Academy and Evan’s home, and so forth. But when the big reveal is made, much of what bothered me no longer did. Allow your suspension of disbelief a more than usual elasticity and you should be fine.
Kelly McCullough has a long resumé as a writer, notably in the adult science fiction and fantasy fields. It’s not surprising then that he can spin a yarn and keep the reader engaged. Generally, his prose in Sidekicks is efficient, and we aren’t taken on poetic larks that, while they have a home in other types of fiction, would be uncomfortable as part of this novel. My lone complaint is the numerous unnecessary commas placed after sentence-leading ‘ands’, ‘buts’, ‘thens’, etc. But I read an uncorrected galley, and in other, similar instances, the punctuation was correct, so one hopes those errors were fixed.
It’s clear that the author is either a fan of the superhero genre or did extensive research in the field. Anyone familiar with the DC Comics/Marvel Comics movies and comic books will recognize bits and pieces of characters in McCullough’s cast (Iron Man and Batman in particular), as well as superhero tools of the trade. There are also moments that have the feel of old-time pulp sci-fi, and there’s even a nod to Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in the giant cannon used to send personnel across vast distances of space.
For those who want more, a free short story is available: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman. (Interestingly, according to the author’s website the original subtitle for School for Sidekicks was The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr. — Evan’s rejected superhero name.)
— Jennifer Michelle
School for Sidekicks is a lively ride and should be entertaining fare for any kid who dreams of being a superhero, or for those adults who grew up watching the “real” Batman, Adam West, and Burt Ward, his Boy Wonder sidekick — who, like Evan Quick, had to learn his trade on the job.
Click on the cover below to read the free short story:
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Feiwel & Friends and NetGalley for providing me a copy of this title. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”