The Indifference League
by Richard Scarsbrook
Dundurn Press, 2014; 272 pp; $19.99
Employing comic book tropes to wry effect, Richard Scarsbrook’s The Indifference League is a deceptively layered critique of identities—secret, assumed, and manufactured. The novel is centred around a powerless superhero team for the Millennial Generation: there’s The Statistician, his younger brother The Drifter, Miss Demeanor, Hippie Avenger, the overzealous “perfect pair” of SuperKen and SuperBarbie, Psycho Superstar, and last but not least, Mr. Nice Guy, the protagonist-cum-doormat responsible for setting the narrative’s events in motion.
Twelve years prior to the start, the eight core members of The Indifference League, comprising students at the alliterative Tom Thomson High, first assumed their chosen identities, vowing to return once a year to the Hall of Indifference—Mr. Nice Guy’s parents’ cottage. But as with most promises made in high school, the members of the League failed in their pact and eventually drifted apart. It’s only at the invitation of Mr. Nice Guy that they decide to reunite as adults, though still somewhat cloaked in the identities of their former selves. What bubbles to the surface upon their reunion, via conversations ranging from past members of the group and new additions to dreams left behind and changing belief structures, is a lightly metaphoric glance at expectations versus reality, and the resulting internal shifts that occur when forced to compare the person you were—or hoped you’d be—with the person you’ve become.
The novel’s structure is comic in both tone and nature. Each member of The Indifference League is introduced independently before being pulled together Avengers-style for the weekend at the cottage. Many chapters are even prefaced with profiles for the various league members, presented as collectible cards—twenty in all—noting the physical stats of each individual as well as certain personality odds and ends (such as their favourite Star Wars characters, temperaments, and number of sexual partners).
These varying aesthetic details service the light-hearted tone, bolstered by the fact that characters are rarely addressed by anything but their superhero nom de plume. The decision to keep their real names hidden provides the novel with unexpected heft; one by one over the course of the narrative their true selves are revealed when and only when their assumed identities—flaccid and out of style, like garments long outgrown—are stripped away, revealing the secrets and insecurities of their adult realities.
Surprisingly, there are echoes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen in the DNA of The Indifference League; as Moore’s work held a mirror to the anxieties of the 1980s by critiquing the outmoded concept of the Golden Age superhero, The Indifference League presents a lost generation—a generation without a World War II or a Vietnam to unite them—standing still and ineffectual in the shadows of greater generations now past. Their chosen identities, at once arrogant and self-effacing, are in actuality the antithesis of heroic.
More than critique, the novel’s guiding ethos is honesty, and through honesty, acceptance and catharsis. The Indifference League is a boiling pot of personalities that at one time maintained a tenuous equilibrium. But time apart has amplified their more divergent traits, jeopardizing their ability to function as a group. It’s in how these differences are addressed, however, and in the shifting allegiances and friendships that develop as a result, that The Indifference League reveals its greatest strength: its ability to shed its heroic ambitions for something ultimately human and quite vulnerable. »