"THE ASTONISHING SECRET OF AWESOME MAN: A PICTURE BOOK." By Michael Chabon, with illustrations by Jake Parker. HarperCollins. $17.99. Age 4-8.
Faster than a 1,000-gigabyte word processor. More literary than the Oxford English Dictionary. Able to accrue writerly accolades in a single bound.
Look! Over there, on the children's bookshelf!
It's an author.
It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Yes, it's Michael Chabon -- and his first picture book for the mac-and-cheese crowd, "The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man."
In his newest ode to classic comic books, Chabon tweaks the tried-and-true genre with the cheekily entertaining tale of a vain superhero. Awesome Man is his name, and, as he plainly states on Page 4 with arms akimbo, "I'm just basically awesome."
It's hard not to agree when confronted with an overblown character whose Colgate smile has a slight underbite, whose pompadoured hair is cowlicked like Cool Whip on a fresh-baked apple pie. But appearances can be deceiving. What really makes Awesome Man special are his powers.
He can fly as straight as an arrow, he boasts, and shoot positronic rays out of his eyeballs. Sometimes, at least.
The beauty of Chabon's latest is that it's written so relatably. The vast majority of picture books, clever or humorous as they may be, are written from an adult's point of view. Their stories and pictures speak to the reader without speaking in the language of the reader, which for picture books is usually for those youngsters between ages 2 and 5.
But Awesome Man? He is so awesome that he really comes across like one of the kids. Despite his square jaw, barrel chest and epic battles with his archnemesis, the Flaming Eyeball, Awesome Man occasionally gets so over-his-head in trouble that even his caped sidekick, Moskowitz the Awesome Dog, can't help. Sometimes Awesome Man just wants to call his mom.
Lucky for readers, he doesn't. When in doubt, he retreats to his Fortress of Awesome at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and puts himself in an Awesome Power Grip to calm himself down.
"See, the thing is, I'm superstrong," he rationalizes, with typical superhero egomania. "I can't start hitting stuff or kicking stuff or throwing stuff around, even though that's what I want to do so badly. I might hurt somebody, or destroy a city or something."
All of those imagined activities are drawn vividly by Jake Parker, an illustrator best-known for his work on "The Incredibles."
Like the Pixar film, there's a retro sensibility to the pictures, which are in primary colors with pixelated backgrounds and hazy edges. Combined, the techniques have the effect of softening images that might seem too bright or harsh for the book's young audience.
Similar to Chabon's better-known works for adults, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," "The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man" is clearly inspired by classic superheroes. It is not, however, drawn in panels like an actual comic book. The action is presented in more traditional, full-color drawings that sometimes employ a two-page spread to underscore the action -- when Awesome Man is battling Professor Von Evil in his Antimatter Slimebot, for example -- or with a collage of action imagery.
Like its title character, "The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man" kicks "a little bad-guy behind."
-- Susan Carpenter
Los Angeles Times