There are moments in Bob Proehl’s debut novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds that will affect readers even after finishing the book. These are bighearted yet subtle moments that stick with you, like when one of the book’s main characters, young and mildly depressed comic book artist Brett—struggling to emerge from the dissolution of a long-term relationship—describes a new woman he’s currently falling for as possessing an “impossible beauty.” It’s the kind of beauty that’s so striking Brett can hardly believe it’s even possible. It’s the sort of thought that develops in your head when a powerful attraction to someone first takes hold of you. This woman is continually surprising Brett with her relaxed and playful attitude towards their burgeoning romance—it’s as much her inner goodness as her physical beauty that Brett finds attractive. Following these two as they slow dance around each other and their growing mutual attraction is one of several of the novel’s more charming threads. Through this sort of emotional honesty in his writing, Proehl makes it easy to care for the characters and become invested in their various misadventures.
A Hundred Thousand Worlds follows a collection of earnest geeks and lovable misfits as they travel from New York to Los Angeles on the comic convention circuit, with stops at cons in Cleveland and Chicago along the way. Val is an actress, best known for her starring role years ago on Anomaly, an X-Files type of show, the kind that’s beloved by the sort of geeks who attend these cons. Val’s traveling partner is also her constant companion, her precocious nine-year old son Alex. Brett is a mid-level indie comic book artist—a step up from the bottom rung of those trying to get gigs like his, but not yet at the level of those working on the big two publishers’ mainstream superhero books He and his sardonic writing partner Fred are attempting to finish their magnum opus, Lady Stardust, while selling copies and doing commissions at the cons. Gail is one of the rare female comic book writers working on mainstream capes and tights books, and her position in the industry is contrasted with those of her male friends and fellow writers Ed and Geoff. There’s also a large group of female cosplayers, hired by the cons, who begin to form relationships with Val, Brett, and Gail as they run into each other at each stop in their journeys. These women serve as a sort of Greek chorus throughout, allowing Proehl to discuss important issues in today’s comic book industry, including gender bias and the mistreatment of female writers, fans, and characters by the old boy network that dominates the industry, and how dressing up in a sexy costume can be liberating and empowering when the cosplayer takes ownership of it away from the leering eye of the male gaze.
Proehl’s characters are experiencing different types of emotional turmoil, but in each other they find similarities and support. Together, all of these characters begin to create bonds and before long they’ve become the main support systems for one another. They attend each other’s panels, meet up for drinks at the bar at the end of the day, and provide shoulders to lean on through difficult times. As a huge Anomaly fan, Gail overcomes initial feelings of being starstruck to become Val’s closest confidant during the trip. Gail’s sense of humor, sweetly tinged cynicism, and slightly skewed worldview help the more reserved and less bold Val in ways she never expected. She also learns more about this alien concept of fandom from Gail, something Val’s never really been able to wrap her head around before. She actually envies fans like Gail who can feel so passionately about something, anything. She’s really only experienced that feeling towards Alex. In turn, Alex is a kid who knows he’s loved dearly by his mother and returns that love to her equally. They’re adorably in sync with one another, in the way that only a single parent and child can be. They have been each other’s world for all these years. At the first con in Cleveland, Alex realizes he needs an artist to bring to life the epic fantasy tale he’s been creating, so he enlists total stranger Brett and the two strike up an unexpected friendship. As one con turns into another, Brett starts setting aside his work and instead sketching out scenes for Alex’s story or spending evenings with Ferret Lass, the cosplayer who has stolen his heart. It’s these relationships that add meaning to the novel’s title—the creative and imaginative world these characters inhabit consists of a hundred thousand different worlds within it, each tightly packed with seemingly endless and overwhelming possibilities. This makes it all the more special when connections are formed between people just trying to navigate these myriad worlds. As Val traverses the country, she inches closer to giving up sole custody of Alex to her ex and former costar, and it’s as this drama intensifies that the novel really comes to life. Gail and Brett and the gaggle of hilarious cosplayers come to Val’s and each other’s rescue, time after time. At the start of this trip, none of them knew each other, but partway into the odyssey tentative friendships began to bloom, later flowering into full-fledged relationships that will last beyond the final con of the trip.
Proehl creates an exciting mashup of various forms of geekery, including the con scene, allusions to television shows like Doctor Who, companies like Marvel and DC, and various analogs to famous characters from across the geek spectrum. Comic book fans especially will delight in the book’s numerous analogies to real-life comics industry professionals, including Gail, seemingly inspired by Gail Simone—Gail in the book ran a website like Simone’s own Women in Refrigerators, which similarly helped her break into the industry. There’s an amusingly eccentric and arrogant Alan Moore parallel nicknamed the “Mad Brit,” who Gail takes to task for writing so many rape scenes in his comics over the years. It’s a glorious moment, one where Proehl allows Gail to voice concerns critics and fans alike have articulated in recent years about this troubling aspect of Moore’s typically brilliant work. Geoff and Ed share both first names and professional and creative similarities to Geoff Johns and Ed Brubaker. Geoff in particular provides an interesting contrast to Gail—he’s sweet and kind, but as the ultimate fanboy who wound up writing his favorite characters he’s sometimes blinded to the industry’s gender imbalance and how it prohibits his friend Gail from ascending to similar heights.
In A Hundred Thousand Worlds, Proehl has created a cast of characters that readers will want to spend time with because he does a magnificent job of drawing the reader into the worlds of the novel. His characters are refreshingly good and kind people who aren’t actively try to hurt anyone, but are simply trying to get through life any way they can while pursuing their dreams, taking care of their children, and seeking fulfillment along the way. In each other they find reflections of their better selves, inspiring one another to keep going even in the face of long odds. Proehl’s elegant prose while bringing the characters to life is insightful and heartfelt. Through these characters he explores how our emotions, fears, and anxieties can be crippling but can also lead to finding a measure of salvation in friends who simply won’t give up on us. A Hundred Thousand Worlds is a deeply moving love letter to fandom, friendship, and love, each of which can help us forge intense connections with people and bring us back from despair while renewing our ability to hope.