Review and interview – iBoy

30 November 2010

Modern day super hero story reflects dark times in British slums

“Goodbye normality. It was nice knowing you.”

Sixteen year old Tom Harvey becomes a victim of a vicious gang of youths terrorising the fictional housing estate of Crow Town. He’s on his way up to the thirtieth floor of his apartment building to visit his “girl next door” Lucy, but unbeknownst to him, she is being attacked by thugs. He never gets the chance to save her. Before he can even enter the building, one of the attackers hurls an iPhone out of the window, which cracks open his skull.

iBoy is not your average foray into young adult fiction, where angsty teenagers lament about how their parents don’t understand them. This is nightmare stuff, the type of stone cold reality most people don’t like to think about, let alone read about. The book is rooted firmly in reality. Since housing estates started popping up in the 1990’s to meet the need for low cost housing in England, so the Chav found a place to multiply, and multiply they did. Living on the dole has accelerated this.

In 2008, a summit was held in London’s City Hall to discuss the rise of violent crime committed by youth. In that week, Police Commissioner Ian Blair revealed that 200 knives were seized and 200 young people were arrested during stop and search operations across London. Today, it is believed that young people are responsible for 40% of crimes such as theft, burglary, robbery and violence. According to a survey undertaken by the WHO, 85% of people aged between 10 and 25 in England and Wales who carried knives, said they did so for self-protection.

Author Kevin Brooks is brutal in his depiction of chav-ridden England. Like Mark Millar’s New York in Kick-Ass, Crow Town is at the mercy of rival gangs, who brutally exercise their dominance on the hapless residents, who are afraid to go to the police, or fight back at all. These kids are ruthless dug dealers, rapists, thieves and killers who don’t discriminate about who they terrorise. The setting was necessary to create a world for a character as downtrodden as Tom Harvey, but Brooks didn’t need to use much imagination to create the location. “Crow Town is fictional, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of estates like Crow Town throughout the UK, from London to Manchester to Glasgow,” he says.

“I tried telling myself that it was no big deal, that people get stabbed around here all the time…that you cant do anything about it, its just how it is…”

It’s a tough situation for a wimpy kid like Tom, whose greatest desire is to protect his gran and his girl, even if she doesn’t know he exists. But our hapless hero’s luck is about to change. Seventeen days after the accident he wakes up to discover that parts of the iPhone have melded to his brain, giving him the powers of the device, such as the ability to track people’s cellphones in his head, free WiFi internet access at the blink of an eye, and the power to shoot electric jolts from his hands. He becomes iBoy.

Brooks says the idea for the character first arose during a dinner party where guests were discussing what a contemporary British superhero might be like. “Polite Man, was one suggestion,” says the author. “Don’t-Mind-Me Man another. Also in the running were Post Man, Milk Man, and Coal Man. Back in my hotel room after the dinner, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea, and I wondered if perhaps there might be a novel in it.”
He decided that instead of a comic or graphic novel, he wanted to create a serious, thoughtful, realistic, no-holds-barred, 21st century, teenage superhero novel. And what could be more contemporary than the powers of an iPhone?

This is all very well and good, except for one tiny detail. A real-life iPhone can offer a faster processor, 3G Internet and even GPS, but it certainly wasn’t designed to hack into bank accounts, or even double as a tazer. Tom doesn’t give much thought to the subject himself. “I’d pretty much given up on explanations…Spider Man never bothered much with explanations, did he? He just got bitten by a genetically engineered spider, acquired his super powers, frowned about them for a minute or two, and that was pretty much it. He didn’t spend hours and hours trying to understand them, did he?” What’s really important to Tom, is that he finally has the means to fight back against the gangs, to seek revenge for Lucy, who has refused to name her attackers.

Vigilantism is not a new idea. In fact, what is a superhero if not a vigilante? The desire to seek revenge after being wronged is a trait almost all of humanity shares. Teenagers, with their large imaginations fueled by their hopes and dreams, and who have no concept of their own mortality, feel this more than most. It’s been fodder for the comic world for ages: look at Batman’s Robin, Kick-Ass’s Dave Lizewski, or Simon Dark, to name a few.

iBoy is a classic zero to hero story, but without the happy ending. Because as evidenced in Kick-Ass, a teenager can’t just don a spandex suit and take on a bunch of gangsters. Real life doesn’t work like that. The novel has an underlying maturity that sets it apart from the average teen fare. With his new powers, Tom may get the better of his foes, but at what cost? The book switches to the omnipresent, highlighting just how removed Tom is feeling from himself. “…iBoy at night, patrolling Crow Town with his iSkin on. He’s breaking up drug deals and fights. He’s burning cars and melting bikes and scaring the shit out of little Crow kids. He’s mugging the muggers, stealing their guns and their knives and machetes…”

But there are also more devastating results. The girl he sets out to protect becomes victimized a second time when it becomes apparent that she’s his weak spot. None of his loved ones are safe. Deep down, everyone wishes they had super powers to fight their battles, but fighting crime is a grizzly business. Tom is filled with horror after seeing what his powers can do to the human body. It has possibly earned him a lifetime of nightmares.

“He was a mess. There was blood everywhere. Bits of blackened flesh were scattered on the ground, and I could see the tip of a broken bone showing through the scorched and bloody crater in his backside.”

Brooks says he never set out to write a book for younger readers. “As far as I’m concerned, anything goes”, he says. “ I don’t write for any particular age group. I just write the story. When you’re young, everything means something. Every emotion, every feeling, everything that happens … it all means so much to you. And, for an author, that’s a wonderful thing to write about. My books are about life. I’m a writer, not a teacher or a preacher. The only responsibility I have is to write the best possible story I can.”

The award-winning author has crafted an engaging, thoughtful, and in many cases ironic tale about a modern day super hero. He even takes a leaf out of Alan Moore’s book, including lots of neat extras, like newspaper reports, Wikipedia articles and cellphone specifications, keeping with its comic-book theme. Sadly, Tom Harvey learns the hard way that he’s not going to save the world. The moral of this story seems to be that fighting crime should be left to the grown ups.

“I wasn’t a hero. I was never a hero.”

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