Bystander 27

By Rik Hoskin

Bystander 27, a novel by Rik Hoskin
Book details

The past twenty years or so has seen a massive increase in the visibility of Superheroes. The likes of Superman, Batman and Spiderman have been around for decades, but the market is so rich that many niche properties are having their time in the sun. The boom has not only promoted Superheroes, but the genre as a whole. Writers can now play with the fabric of comic books themselves. Forget the hero, who are all the people standing around watching or running away screaming? Isn’t it about time they had their story told?

Jon Hayes is living a happy if unremarkable life. He is a former Navy SEAL, works in a factory, is married, and has a child on the way. He is a lot like us, but where he lives is different. This New York is home to Supers, a breed of men and women that fight the forces of evil with their powers. During one battle Jon witnesses a helicopter fall from the sky that kills his wife and unborn child. As Captain Light soars away in victory with the cheers of thousands behind him, who thinks of Jon and his grief, a bit part player in his own life?

As a card-carrying superhero fan ever since Tim Burton’s Batman, I have been in clover. I enjoy a traditional hero versus villain tale, but the recent popularity of the Marvel films in particular have allowed the likes of Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin to exist. My niche hobby is now a juggernaut of a genre in its own right. A sandpit that can be played in. Hoskin is aware of this. Bystander is a book that relies on the reader understanding the vocabulary of the comic book scene and then chooses to write using a different language.

This is not a tale told from the point of view of a hero or even a super villain. Instead, it is that bloke you may see in the corner of the frame. Hoskin plays the book very straight. This is an alternative reality that includes Supers, but Hayes’ grief is real. There is a darkness in tone you would expect – the man lost his wife and unborn child. Hayes’ despair, coupled with his ex-SEAL training, means that he decides to do something, thus giving the book its drive.

Hayes sets out to discover who these Supers are. He discovers patterns; locations that are popular, match ups that are more common than others. With patience and skill, he starts to stalk the heroes. He realises that the lesser villains are easier to catch and interrogate. In this way be starts to build up some understanding and his own arsenal of villainous weaponry. Is this a book about grief or an origin story of some kind? Hoskin keeps you guessing throughout. The key to the book is that it is played very straight. Hayes’ situation may seem unreal to us, but he has known no other.

Bystander is a book that slowly comes to the boil. A large portion of the book deals with Hayes’ grief as it evolves into anger. During a pivotal moment in the narrative, everything changes. In a world in which Supers regularly trap their enemies in parallel plains, almost anything can happen. I am in two minds how this element plays out in the story as witnessing an everyman (who is military trained) interacting in a Super world was enough for me. The final section alters how you can interpret events.

By the conclusion, I think it was necessary as Hoskin plays with the form in this way and it leaves events in an intriguing place. Like so many genre fiction properties things start off small with a close-knit collection of characters only to end with endless possibilities. If Hoskin decides to return to the character of Hayes, you can imagine an even more interesting dissection of what makes the superhero genre tick. It all works because Hayes is such a serious-minded character who methodically goes about his business of finding the truth behind the Supers. Rigid fans of high octane and simple form superhero fiction will suggest there is a reason why stories usually concentrate on the powerful, but they will be missing out on how Hoskin’s stretches the form itself and then plays with it.      

Written on 11th August 2020 by .

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