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A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl

Published by Viking on June 28, 2016

A Hundred Thousand Worlds takes place inside the comic book industry. That doesn’t make this novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, gushing blurbs notwithstanding, but it is nevertheless an interesting setting.

Valerie Torrey is an actress who once starred in a time travel series. She lives with her son, Alex, in New York, where she acts in off-Broadway plays when she gets a chance. Alex’s father is an actor in a current television show that Alex is probably too young to watch, but Valerie can’t bear to stop him. He was also Valerie’s co-star in the time travel show.

Valerie earns pocket money by appearing at comic book conventions. At a convention in Cleveland, she meets Gail Pope, who has achieved token popularity as the only female writer for a major publisher. Part of the novel deals with the difficulty of being a female writer in a medium that is dominated by males. The story also addresses Gail’s professional jealousy as another writer is selected to revive an iconic title that has gone unpublished for 20 years. Similar jealousies afflict an independent artist (Brett) and writer (Fred) who work as a team until their professional relationship is threatened.

Comic book fans will appreciate the critical examination the industry. Gail and other writers discuss the relative merits of the various companies (a thinly disguised DC has embraced change for the sake of change, even when the changes are bad; a thinly disguised Marvel is incapable of change because it has sold the movie rights to its characters). Women who attend conventions dressed as female comic book characters add humor to the story.

But the world of comics is only the background for Alex’s story. Growing up with an absent father, Alex befriends Brett, who draws the stories that Alex narrates. When Alex’s father comes back into his life, Valerie frets about whether it would be wise to allow Alex to live with him in LA. She also frets about her own future if Alex goes to live with his father. Alex, on the other hand, is more mature than any adult in the story. His resilience allows him to handle change even if he doesn’t look forward to any disturbance of a life he loves. As Alex makes up his own comic book story, the reader quickly understands that it is the story of the life Alex wants to have.

While the story and its background are interesting, I’m not sure the twin plot threads (one involving Alex and his parents, the other involving comic book writers and artists) mesh together very well. Alex’s story resolves a bit predictably, while the other thread fizzles out.

Alex might be the sweetest kid who ever lived, which makes his character difficult to believe. Much of the story is a family drama, but it generates little dramatic tension. Notwithstanding those observations, I was consistently entertained by A Hundred Thousand Worlds. Bob Proehl’s prose is lively, the setting is colorful, and the gentle humor sprinkled through the story kept me smiling.


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