Worm

Worm is an long story set in a world with superpowers, and those superpowers are probably the best thing about it. They’re inventive, they vary wildly without seeming like a mush of several different universes (no blend of magic artifact, alien technology and random mutation here), and the way the characters wring all the use possible out of their powers is even cleverer than the powers themselves.

The rest of it isn’t so hot.

If you’re a fan of a good character being endlessly treated terribly and unfairly with everyone assuming the worst of her even when she’s the real hero, you’ll love this. If that’s nails on chalkboard for you, avoid.
The first thing that I noticed, relatively early on, is that this is a trauma congo story. It starts off with intense bullying and goes very rapidly downhill from here. Sometimes it’s because the main character seems to react in the way best suited to keeping this going, but any time when she tries to explain herself everyone suddenly pulls out a master’s degree in twisting words. And sometimes things are misinterpreted, which starts to get annoying when it’s how things always, always go, but what’s really noticeable is that the many times other people know there’s incomplete information and they immediately fill in the gaps with the idea the main character was kicking puppies and eating babies. Always. It does serve to make it believable that the main character always assumes explaining herself is pointless, but only because the world appears to be set up so that indeed, explaining herself is pointless because the universe itself wants to torture her. There are a couple of legitimate moments for the mistrust and where actual coincidence makes it understandable people would misinterpret. Almost everything else seems just there for suffer’s sake.

I get the impression this was originally going on the idea that heroes and popular kids getting away with murder has a lot of overlap, but that’s ruined when we end up with the heroes ranging from psychotic murderers to people who seem nice until they encounter the main character and leap on her like starving tigers. We’re told early on that there’s a sort of understanding between heroes and villains to not go all out on either, then later we get some actual justification that there’s horrible godzilla monsters the two team up to fight back that lead to official truce that everyone’s terrified of jeopardizing because they need every bit of force they can muster. Of course, when it’s the main character, that means when she goes to the hospital during this ceasefire, they handcuff her broken arm to the bed and refuse to treat her or answer her questions, then she’s threatened by the heroes, then when she tries to make a break for it she’s threatened worse, then they reveal the good guy actually attempted to kill her for personal glory, then a few chapters later it’s gone through the grapevine to be she attempted to kill him for personal glory. At the current point, her team rushed off to warn the city’s superheroes that a baby godzilla threat was coming, were treated like scum, then in order to work together to stop it they had to accept a kill order + bounty on their head if anything goes wrong, which, given all the previous events establish they’re always blamed in the aftermath no matter what happens is even worse than it sounds.

This is, incidentally, after they did the lion’s share of defeating an eight-person team of unstoppable serial killers, forcing the few survivors to flee and figuring out a major weakness of the most unstoppable one, followed by successfully fighting off the seven robot suits that had just been designed specifically to counter the unstoppable serial killers. They not only don’t get accolades for saving the city, they don’t even get people backing off on the basis they’re dangerous after defeating both unstoppable forces. Did I mention this is a world that easily allows useful villains to jump ship to the heroes team out of practicality? Because we learn one character who specializes in rescuing supervillains who are so evil they’re sent to special supervillain prison is allowed to not only switch sides the moment he’s defeated, but gets to name his terms, which incidentally turn out to be sexually harassing the (significantly younger) female superhero who beat him after dedicating her life to the job! But the main character is the special exception to this, where as soon as she does anything, she marks herself as the worst criminal ever known.

What’s especially frustrating is that sections of the story seem like they’re meant to be asking what’s right and wrong – the main character and her friends can be quite brutal, and one has a power that’s basically evil and is a sociopath on top of it. She tends to default to dealing with things with excessive threats and shows of force because she thinks it’s the best way of doing things, which at some points seems like it’s her own damage getting rationalized, but it’s impossible to pay any attention to that. There’s what could’ve been a sobering moment when, after all the time we see her establishing her territory in part of the ruined city as being a safe place and how she’s protecting people, we see that the leaflets handed out to people define her area as a danger zone because she’s unpredictable and volatile, with displays of kindness but incredible violence when she’s crossed. Except that five seconds later she’s being blamed for the fact a good guy went crazy and accidentally killed someone and we learn the hero team sees her group and the serial killers they almost died stopping as being probably equally culpable in each and every disaster. It’s impossible to just consider her actions in a vacuum with that going on, let alone take anyone else’s objections to her actions seriously. Even if there’s somehow an eleventh-hour reveal that no, she really did do horrible things, it’d just feel like the narrative itself was getting in on using her as a punching bag the way the rest of the characters do. (No, I haven’t finished it yet. It’s that exhausting.)

As you may gather from the descriptions of events, the scale of things ramps continually up. Every single challenge has to be a bigger deal than the last, and as she’s helping with admittedly very cool Godzilla idea relatively early on, the scale of the story breaks fast. There’s not much downtime and we can’t pass much time with interteam dynamics because of the problem of everyone always twisting things so life sucks for the main character. The bits with her own group are nice, but they’re basically walled off from how we’re told the rest of the world’s supposed to work. The elements that don’t touch her hint at a beautiful interplay of various organizations and personalities, but we barely see that because everything is making sure everyone hates her forever, so we’re left with just bigger and bigger fights. It might be for the best – there’s a bunch of big gaps in it, primarily that powers tend to form from going through some horrible experience and so you’re more likely to get villains, yet no one seems to think that they should be prioritizing therapy and rehabilitation, even as the good guys are getting fatalistic about how increasingly outnumbered they are.

And while her power scales up semi-believably, in that it involves enough moving parts it’s hard to tell if a given thing will work and the story has room to say it did, some of her teammates just flat out get power upgrades which are hugely broken, which ruins what the story is really best at, innovative power uses. (And as a very minor niggle that nevertheless annoyed me, the girl who has dog powers and dog behavior gets a wolf and it turns out her powers work better on wolves, despite the fact wolves and dogs don’t have anywhere near the same mindset. Wolves aren’t purer, better dogs and it’s particularly bizarre when her powers specifically triggered to save the dog that was her only friend and so should be fine-tuned for the companionship canines rather than the high strung human haters.)

Overall, I’m left with the impression this story is way, way too long. Like a superhero comic, it just keeps lurching from event to event, with themes that tie things together rather than a clear arc of a story. This is only reinforced by the fact that where I am right now, about two-thirds in, by far the best sections are the extra posts dealing with other characters not directly connected to the main story and often taking place at different times.

I think it might have worked if it was broken into much shorter, discrete books, where the author has to show her having victories at more regular intervals. The biggest problem is that the story arcs are incredibly drawn out and contain people hating her the whole time, then there’s a moment of victory that may or may not go with the good guy group temporarily not hating her, then seconds later they hate her extra much for some other unfair reason.

As a final thing, the story is much better about diversity than most books and all comics, but still runs into the usual problems. The author actually thought of a really cool bit about how, because powers are stress based, there’s more women than men, more in third world countries than first.

But racially, the story still takes place in America and the only other country that’s popping up with regularity is the UK – no word on how the higher proportion of third-world capes is handling godzilla attacks there, or if they usually leave for the greener pastures of America, or if anyone’s exploited this for wars. A major player in the beginning of the story is a white supremacist group and their pack of superpowered whiteys, despite the fact those groups should have died out quick between the fact the nonwhites have way more guys with superpowers and the fact the average white superpowered cape should be used to working interracially. It’s a story where racism is a bad thing more than a story where there are plenty of black heroes.

And genderwise… Well, it was a good attempt. But let’s look at the cast page and just check the very top of the list. Bold is male.

Über – A thinker who pairs up with Leet, can master any skill as long as he concentrates. His costume varies from appearance to appearance, in keeping with the pair’s video game theme.

Accord – A thinker of short (five foot) stature, with an ornate metal mask. Hails from Boston. Gets smarter as scenarios get more complicated. Likes order.

Aegis – A young hero with a rust red and silver costume, with a shield emblem. Leads the Wards in his first appearance, has a biology filled with redundancies and safeguards, rendering him able to function no matter how damaged he is.

Alabaster – A white skinned (literally) young man who restores himself to pristine condition at set intervals (every 4.3 seconds). Initially seen as a member of Empire Eighty-Eight.

Alexandria – An internationally known cape, she flies, is durable and has super strength, as well as some mental augmentations from her powers. Member of the Triumvirate and runs the Protectorate branch in Los Angeles. Wears a black costume with a helmet and heavy cape, with long, straight black hair.

Angelica – One of Bitch’s dogs, a terrier of indeterminate breed, was abused before Bitch acquired it, losing one ear and one eye.

Armsmaster – Head of the Brockton Bay Protectorate branch, a tinker capable of combining, interweaving and condensing technology. Wears a midnight blue and silver costume with a visor, carries a hi-tech halberd packed with weapons and features.

Assault – Member of the Brockton Bay Protectorate, a heavy hitter capable of manipulating kinetic energy. Wears red body armor with a visor covering the top half of his face.

Aster – A baby, daughter of Kaiser and Purity.

Atlas – A giant beetle.

On top of this, look at who’s identified as leader. We’ve got Aegis leading the kid heroes and Armsmaster head of the local adult heroes. Then there’s Alexandria, who’s leading a team in a different city. The same is true for the villain groups they come across.

Strengthwise, you may notice that at least Alexandria, although far more minor storywise than Armsmaster, is one of the three most powerful heroes! The other two are both male and stronger. And that’s only the superheroes who are in the group, as the first and most powerful one isn’t part of it. He’s also a guy.

Honestly, it does far better at this than usual, and without the mention that apparently women are more likely to get powers and should be the majority, it’d seem like a pretty equal cast. But the riders it has that the powers are more likely to go to people who aren’t white males makes it frustrating that all this apparently accomplished is an almost balanced world that still tilts white male.

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