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Wearing the Cape is the first of a series of Superhero novels by Marion G. Harmon. Its world is our own until sometime in the late 90's, when the Event created an Alternate History. The Event was a worldwide sensory blackout that lasted 3.2 seconds; everyone experienced those brief seconds of sensory deprivation, and when the world came back they found that the Event had also triggered a temporary but worldwide loss of power (known as the Blackout). Most importantly, however, the Event changed The Rules.
In the aftermath of the Event and the Blackout, as stalled and out-of-control cars and powerless planes turned freeways and cities into death-zones, a small percentage of people reacted to the trauma and danger by exhibiting superhuman powers. Called "breakthroughs", many of them exhibited powers similar to those of traditional comic-book superheroes, though others were patterned after older myths and some were just plain weird. The first recorded breakthrough, a Superman-knockoff who took the codename "Atlas", put on a jumpsuit and cape to do good in the days and weeks following the Event, setting the pattern for public-minded breakthroughs who followed. Much of the plot is driven by the separation between expectations and super-heroic reality as the main character, Hope Corrigan, gains superpowers and deals with all the changes in her life. Through her eyes, the reader sees the difference between media-driven stereotypes and the truth about the superhero profession.
The story takes place ten years after the Event, and an entire generation has grown up in a world of "superheroes." Unlike the heroes of the comics, however, Post-Event superheroes are certified, licensed, and regulated by state and local governments; most active heroes are members of Crisis Intervention and Aid teams and act as civilian contractors to city governments. While they do aid local police in responding to superhuman threats, mostly they act as Emergency Response Personnel. They also milk their own media-value for everything it's worth, using costumes and codenames to market their images (and sometimes to cover true secret identities). The presence of breakthrough powers is the only fantastic element in the Post-Event world, which strives to be a socially realistic setting, in that the story explores the political, legal, social, and personal issues created by the reality of people with superpowers.
This book contains examples of:
- Anyone Can Die: Wearing the Cape begins with a terrorist attack that leaves bodies all over, the Sentinels are shown to have lost several members before the story begins, the murder of a street-level hero is casually alluded to, and finally, in the attack on Whittier Base no less than three Sentinels die--including two main characters.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Hope, who at the age of 18 stands less than 5 feet tall and is self-described as an "underdeveloped teenage Tinkerbell", is one of the strongest superheroes on the planet. Also, though she spends a good deal of time worrying about accidentally hurting anyone, she opens an alarming can of Whupass at the end of the story.
- Bittersweet Ending: Although the Sentinels beat the Big Bad, Wearing the Cape ends with a state funeral for close to half the team.
- Boxing Lessons for Superman: Hope gains the Atlas-type power set, enabling her to outfly jets, bench-press buses, and take direct hits from military ordinance. So the first thing she does is go into intensive, fight-club style training so she has a chance against all the other Atlas-types out there.
- The Cape (gently subverted): In the Post-Event world the more powerful and photogenic superheroes are major media celebrities, who often publicly play to the Golden Age Hero stereotype and have whole marketing campaigns and PR departments to back them up.
- Cape Busters: The Department of Superhuman Affairs is the federal agency tasked with assessing superhuman threats to national security and assisting local authorities who can't deal with their superhuman problems. The DSA, with ties to the Secret Service, FBI, and US Marshals Service, and run by former US President Kayle—the man who created it—has a shadowy reputation and is every conspiracy theorist's Holy Grail.
- The Chosen Many: Hope Corrigan gains Atlas-type powers, making her one of dozens (although she is A-class--in the top 10% and therefore a hot commodity). After trying to dissuade her from taking up a superhero career, Atlas offers to train her and she joins the Sentinels as a probationary member while working on her certification.
- Code Name: Most superheroes have codenames that are descriptive of their power or just cool-sounding. Atlas gives Hope the temporary codename "Astra", which he says is Latin for star. She keeps it, despite later finding out it's the plural form—star(s).
- Curb Stomp Battle: Astra nearly loses in her first hero/villain fight, against Brick, a superstrong gang-banger supervillain--partly due to inexperience, but also due to being handicapped by an intruding second supervillain. Later she gets a rematch and the fight is so one-sided Brick doesn't land a single hit, as a dramatic way of showing how much she's progressed.
- Domino Mask: Dominoes or their equivalent are often worn by superheroes who's civilian identities are already publicly known. It's an expected part of the costume, but is also useful for making them unrecognizable to anyone who doesn't know them personally, allowing them a measure of privacy in public--a humorous inversion of movie-stars tendency to don baseball caps and sunglasses to go to Starbucks.
- Heroic Build: Atlas, the setting's Superman character, wears a sculpted muscle-suit that mimics a Mister Atlas body. Elsewhere, Hope notes that not all superheroes can get away with spandex, and the Hollywood Knights are chosen not just for their powers but also for their physiques (often the result of personal trainers and plastic surgeons).
- Kid Sidekick: Hope (18 years old) becomes Atlas' sidekick in order to learn the butt-kicking ways of Atlas-type heroes. The whole mentor/sidekick angle is played up for the media (her costume is even color-coordinated to match his), but it's clearly understood to be a temporary arrangement, more like an apprenticeship.
- Living Lie Detector: A government agent with the code-name Veritas is noted to be able to know if anything (spoken, written, recorded etc) is true or not. This proves invaluable when Hope has to determine if she can afford to trust a certain person.
- Mass Super-Empowering Event
- Military Superhero: Blackstone, a superhero/stage-magician, is a former US Marine; he mustered out and began his stage-magic career some time after a battlefield injury rendered him incapable of field operations. He appears to have worked in military intelligence, and is the security/intelligence specialist of the Sentinels.
- Most Common Superpower (Averted): Hope/Astra, a Flying Brick, has a stuffed bra built into her costume to make her look older and much more well-endowed. Elsewhere she comments that the practice of incorporating wonderbras into superheroine's costumes is almost universal.
- Reality Ensues: Hope/Astra is given a lesson in momentum and force and why it's a good idea to know how tough something is before you fly yourself into it like a missile. The book is actually full of little reality-checks, like superheroes getting warrants before going after supervillains, villains who's lawyers get the charges dropped, and strangers committing random acts of badness.
- Reed Richards Is Useless: Verne-types (gadgeteers) are superhumans whose power is the ability to create Weird Science stuff--like powersuits and antigravity pods--but only for themselves; nothing can be mass-produced from the designs and formulas they create.
- Regular Caller: Crisis Aid and Intervention heroes (the setting's city superteams) aren't patrolling freelance crimefighters. Instead they are special services contractors tied into a city's emergency-response department, and most of Hope/Astra's action-scenes start with a summons from Dispatch.
- Secret Identity: Secret identities are optional and a lot of superheroes in Wearing The Cape don't bother with them. Some have undergone physical transformations that make secret identities impossible, but many also had public breakthroughs that "outed" them from the start. Others just find them too much of a pain in the butt to maintain for the few benefits they give. One variation on traditional secret identities is a legal second identity, established with the help of the government, much like that of witnesses in the Witness Protection Program.
- Spandex, Latex, or Leather: Post-Event superheroes use all three plus other materials. Choice depends on body-type (latex and leather can "hold in" bulges spandex can't), gender, attitude, and superhero personae. Many male heroes wear cotton or leather bodysuits much like race-car driver's outfits, for example. One female character wears a spandex catsuit under a tailored kevlar vest-skirt.
- Superheroes Wear Tights (averted): Post-Event superheroes consciously model themselves after comic-book heroes, and this extends to their wardrobes so tights are common among heroes with the physiques to wear them. But in the Sentinels alone, Astra starts with a shorts-and-vest costume and then moves to a skirt, Atlas wears a leather jumpsuit, Blackstone wears a tuxedo, Chakra wears a tribal dancer outfit, Ajax wears body-armor, etc. The only Sentinel in tights is The Harlequin, because that's part of a traditional harlequin costume.
- Thou Shalt Not Kill (subverted): Hope's expectation is that superheroes follow the Golden Age superhero code, and this is strengthened by Ajax' statement that "heroes don't use guns." But in her first fight she discovers that Atlas is perfectly willing to let the bad guys kill each other, and in the surprise-attack on Whittier Base half the team breaks out automatic pistols, the better to cap their attackers. In the same attack, Hope herself kills an unspecified number of terrorists along with the Big Bad in the heat of combat, then kills two heroes in the Dark Anarchist's secret base.
- With Great Power Comes Great Perks: Most superhumans who can make a career out of their powers, and even the superheroes are working for big paychecks. The more successful ones are idolized, with their own merchandise lines, fan-clubs, and even TV shows fictionalizing their adventures. This doesn't mean they're all in it for the perks—just that a superhero career can be financially rewarding.