Dan Sumner, 13, and Nate Templeton, 12, have been best friends since elementary school and their two favorite things in the world are playing baseball for the Mira Giants and comic books, but not just any comic books. They are devoted readers of Captain Nexus. In fact, each month, on the day the newest issue hits the stands, Dan, Nate, and the rest of their team gather in the Templeton basement along with Nate’s younger brother Ollie and Ollie’s new friend Courtney, the only girl.
But one afternoon, when Nate takes a fly ball to the head during a game, he suffers a traumatic brain injury, and ends up being put into a medically induced coma. Dan and Ollie are suddenly at odds ends with themselves and each other, sharing a sense of helplessness that at times feels overwhelming. Dan blames himself for what happened to Nate. They had been talking about how Captain Nexus might escape the Nexus Zone where he was stuck with his arch enemy the Hollow and get back to his family in New Mexico when the ball hit Nate.
Then Dan discovers that Ollie and Courtney are working on a fan-fiction Captain Nexus comic to surprise Nate for his upcoming birthday, hoping he’ll be awake by then. Dan has been invited to join them because of his excellent printing skills. Ollie isn’t athletic like his brother but he is already an accomplished artist, and Courtney is the talent behind the storyline. Dan begins to really get into the comic’s creation, impressed by Ollie’s art. Soon, though, Dan convinces himself that if Captain Nexus can escape the Nexus Zone, it would show him the way to help Nate come back from his coma. It may be magical thinking, but it’s all he has and Dan is desperate for answers. When he hears about a fan art contest sponsored by Tall Ship Comics, publisher of Captain Nexus, Dan talks Courtney into submitting Ollie’s work, sure it will lead them to a meeting with comic’s creator George Sanderson and the answer to Captain Nexus’s escape.
As if Captain Nexus magical thinking weren’t enough, Dan is convinced that if the Mira Giants win the championship that will also help bring Nate back. And he actually manages to convince the team that winning is the thing to do.
No one is more surprised that Ollie when he wins the fan art contest and George Sanderson, who was blown away by Ollie’s art, delivers the news in person. But as they get to know him and he gets to know them, some very painful secrets and truths are revealed. In addition, old relationships are renewed and new ones begin. But will any of this help Nate?
The combination of baseball and comic books in Dan Unmasked is sure to please young readers. And Dan, Ollie, Courtney, and even George Sanderson are very individualized and fleshed out characters, but I found the other characters are somewhat nebulous, including Nate, the reason everyone is pulling together, though we do learn more about him as the story goes on. I have to admit it did take me a while to warm up to Dan. In the beginning, I found him to be obnoxious and selfish, so it was nice to see him change over the course of the novel. I did think it was interesting that Sanderson only planned on publishing 16 Captain Nexus issues and stuck to that. Usually, a comic needs a little more that one and a half years to catch on. And I did like the way he incorporated his own life story in his comic, producing an exciting work, but without much cathartic benefit for him.
I’m not a baseball fan, and there was a lot of baseball talk in Dan Unmasked, but I suspect I’m in the minority on this point. Also, I took a hard ball on a fly hit by a grown man when I was ten and it left me with permanent damage to the right side of my head and ear. As a result, I have a real fear of speeding baseballs. Naturally, I could feel Nate’s pain and wondered he would have baseballphobia, too, when he woke up. I am more of a fan of comics, having grown up on a diet of Archie,Superman, and Little Lulu, so I did like that aspect of Dan’s story.
Dan Unmasked is an excellent story about hope, friendship, family, and learning to come to terms with the things we cannot change. Ultimately, what really got me was the strength of Dan’s magical thinking, which was as strong as his feelings for his best friend.
Chris Negron grew up outside Buffalo, NY, where he spent a huge chunk of his childhood collecting Comic books and loving sports. But it was the hours playing Dungeons and Dragons in friends’ basements that first gave him the dream of one day writing his own stories. That dream kept him company through college at Yale University and years of programming computers for big companies. Dan Unmasked is his debut novel, and he now lives outside Atlanta with his wife, Mary. Visit him at www.chrisnegron.com