Hopefuls #2: Who’s Afraid of Amy Sinclair?
(Also check out my review of Hopefuls #1: The Private Life of Jane Maxwell)
After dying in a car wreck in her ordinary home universe, Amy Sinclair (“Clair” to her friends) has been resurrected in the body of her comic book universe doppelganger and reunited with her wife, Jane. Now she’s a mind-reading superhero on a team that Jane runs, and the two of them are surrounded by versions of people and places that are almost like the ones they remember, but not quite.
It’s all a lot better than being dead, but as Clair works to reconcile two sets of memories, as well as adjust to her invasive new superpowers, she begins having visions of her alternate self and wonders just how “back” her real self actually is.
Meanwhile, the team’s traitorous ex-member, Cal, has resurfaced as a political candidate running on an anti-superhero platform, and Clair’s erased doppleganger’s supervillainous ex-lover is back in force and bent on revenge.
Before delving into nitty-gritty analysis, I want to stress how much I continue to love this series, including the amount of analysis it invites. Unfortunately, this is the seemingly obligatory installment in a superhero series where the necessity, ethics, and legalities of superheroes are called into question, and as usual, the internal logic of the universe suffers for it.
Given how thoughtfully and incisively Gott handles Jane and Clair’s romance, and the challenges they face simply being themselves in the world, I think it’s a safe bet that her intentions are very different from those behind the best-known stories about the debatable need for superheroes, like Civil War (a vehicle for an anti-gun control message in its original comics form) or The Incredibles (a Randian rant against accountability for the rich and powerful). In fact, one of the oft-repeated messages of Who’s Afraid of Amy Sinclair? is one of responsibility and nonviolence. Killing isn’t the answer. Never escalate. Find another way. Yet one of the key scenes that ought to drive this point home only leaves the reader (or at least this reader) distractedly wondering how one of these no-kill superheroes made it this far in her career with a pair of twin pistols as her signature weapons in the first place, without ever having to grapple with the moral and emotional ramifications of pulling the trigger before this one defining moment.
Everything to do with the election plotline and its vigilante controversies feels adrift in this twilight zone of being too connected and yet not connected enough with reality, with rule-of-cool comic book concepts buckling under real world weights they aren’t cut out to bear. As a character, Cal’s portrayal is so spectacularly, uncomfortably realistic, particularly in his methods of exerting social control, that it’s hard not to look for timely parallels in everything remotely connected with him, yet his anti-superhero agenda seems to be a simple betrayal of his friends, our heroes, rather than any kind of cohesive metaphor.
Bottom line, it’s just really, really hard to craft a story around this theoretical comics-universe issue without getting bogged down in the reality that — as much as we may love fantasizing about having awesome abilities that would allow us to help people and solve problems single-handedly without having to deal with slow, flawed, official systems — superheroes do wield ridiculous amounts of power with no qualifications, often irresponsibly, and bystanders in their worlds have fair reason to be nervous. It’s a big ask, and I’ve yet to see any version of this story that 100% works.
This installment is, first and foremost, the story of Clair's rebirth, and in that respect, it's a complete and resounding success.
Like Jane in the first book, Clair has been dropped into a world where her life turned out very differently for the version of her who grew up there. Unlike Jane, if Clair digs deep enough, she has access to the memories and feelings that will allow her to piece together how exactly that happened. But does she even want to understand her alternate self? The Amy Sinclair of this world is a much darker and more complicated figure than the glimpse Jane got of her in book one. The thought that Clair could just as easily have been this other woman, that this other woman in fact has a stronger claim on her life than she does herself, is terrifying. Yet as painful as it is, Clair is compelled to look, to acknowledge her dark potential and all the strokes of luck that gave her the life she knows.
This is also the obligatory sequel to a romantic series opener in which the couple are required to fight a lot, but their conflict is much better realized than many. While some of the instigating moments that push Jane and Clair apart don’t feel quite as well motivated as they could be, once the distance begins to grow between them, Gott does an achingly fantastic job of capturing the snowballing misery of two people who love each other, but whose lines of communication have failed. That distance doesn’t feel like drama for the sake of drama either, clumsily extending a courtship story that’s already finished. It’s an integral part of Clair’s war with, and struggle to understand, herself.
The points of divergence between Clair and her counterpart are closely linked with the different versions of Jane each one had in her life, and how they made her sexual orientation and identity easier or harder to embrace. Alternate Jane, aside from being a supervillain, is cold, closed-off, and mired in deep denial about herself that manifests as callous homophobia. Instead of coming out alongside her version of Amy Sinclair in high school, alternate Jane pushed her away, deeper into the closet, and ultimately into the arms of emotionally unavailable women she could more easily keep separate from her “real” life.
Even the different names of the two versions of Amy Sinclair are emblematic of the crucial departure between them. Clair, our heroine, renamed herself early in life by shortening her last name, because she didn’t click with her given name. Amy, her erased comics universe doppelganger, tried to do the same but was eventually browbeaten into calling herself Amy again, cramming herself into the confining box she’d been assigned to, after those around her (led by Jane) refused to accept her gesture of self-definition.
Under all the masks and car chases and superpowered punch fights (which are still great fun and as awesomely cinematic as ever), this is a story about conquering everything from gender expectations to moral crises to imposter syndrome, in order to truly know yourself. It’s a worthy continuation of the Hopefuls series, and I look forward to seeing where these heroes are headed next.
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