“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm. She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power. As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own. But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way. She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens. She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures…. The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of. If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes. They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”
The world seems rampant with films and shows of superheroes now. It can be hard to appreciate how interesting and awesome this kind of fiction can be. Superheroes are something that has influenced and engaged the popular culture since their inception, and with the influx in popularity of late thanks in no small part to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it can be a great feeling to sit down and read something original for a change, something that isn’t mired in brand recognition, product placement, or just outright sleazy business decisions as Marvel Studios tends to be. But we’re not here to bash Marvel Studios; that’s been done far better by other people. No, what we’re talking about is a story that gets back to what makes superheroes awesome, that examines the parts of ourselves that can be explored with this caped crusader backdrop. We’re talking about a little web serial by one John McCrae entitled “Worm”.
Released as a web serial from 2011 to late 2013, “Worm” is about a teenage girl, Taylor Hebert, living in a superpower-normalized world, with heroes and villains alike running rampant around the globe. Taylor herself has powers, and she quickly gets swept up into the "cape" political scene of how a hero's or villain's image can impact their reputation and how merely taking over the city or saving innocent lives might not be foremost on a super's mind. Taylor befriends a group of villains, and her world view changes and is challenged by circumstance and by the powered community at large. It is truly a remarkable story that becomes more enlivened and more complicated as it progresses. McCrae should be proud of what he's done. This man is also a writing machine; he never misses a deadline and he's currently on his third web serial following immediately after his second! He is also planning on reworking “Worm” to be released as a self-published book (likely an e-book), tentatively scheduled for release in late 2016. This serial has generated a lot of buzz, and it’s easy to see why once you start reading it.
And here are eight reasons why you should.
1. The Tone
There are a lot of sources from which "Worm" draws, the most obvious being a lovely nod and expansion of much of what DC had been doing in the late '90s and early '00s with a bit of modern Marvel thrown in. As such, many of the elements (the PRT, the villain groups, and the various "cape" legal systems that are in place) have a real-world feel to them. Taylor's life is pretty bleak, all things considered, and that sets the tone of the work well right from the start. It also makes many of the decisions and behaviors that the various players involved make striking and understandable. This work is bleak, but it isn't a "no hope" bleak. It's more of a "there's hope, but the price is pretty damn high" bleak, like a bleak that makes you realize that these people might not want to save humanity if it means giving up power, or if it means recognizing the worst aspects of yourself in order to do what's right. Those are great moral, personal, and ethical dilemmas, and the serial has no problem exploring and twisting those around as it progresses. The characters, especially Taylor, struggle with their lives and their minds when faced with these responsibilities and powers, and each does so in such a way that puts Peter Parker's struggle and Uncle Ben's infamous quote to shame. Not to say that Spider-Man is a bad character or anything, but in terms of just breaking out of that normalcy, "Worm" is a huge winner.
2. The World-Building
One of the staples of science fiction is world-building, creating a world and then doing stuff with it or in it. The world of "Worm" is complex, it's intricate, and it makes sense. Common sense, for sure, but also an internal logic that rivals many a comic book world. The world of the cape community is established and expanded upon in a believable way with internal politics and personal agendas being common-place amongst the heroes and villains. Many of the superhero teams are organized realistically, be it within government control, or operating more as units than as individual people mashed into a group for the sake of it. The nods to other superhero stories are great to see too; how people in this universe make their costumes or get their names to the reputations of the heroes and villains being as important if not more so than actually protecting civilians or robbing a bank is explored in this work and it offers a meta commentary on the tropes and clichés of traditional superhero stories. This makes the world feel like an established, lived-in place instead of a world that was being built as each chapter was being released.
3. The Battles
Undoubtedly, one of the things that superhero stories are going to have are big fights, and "Worm" has no shortage of those. The scope of battles do fluctuate thankfully between small skirmishes and huge fights with the Endbringers, essentially huge WMD monsters that periodically attack the Earth; there are three of them (at first) and they’re mega powerful. The dynamics of the powers within the teams of heroes and villains often work off of or with each other during a fight, and the different forms of combat, be it hand-to-hand, a firefight, or long-ranged power fighting, make every fight unique and interesting. The first large, multi-fronted fight we see is in Arc 8. The whole of the cape community of the fictional Brooklyn Bay, heroes and villains alike, must fight against the Endbringer Leviathan so as to stop him from destroying the city. This was the arc that made me go from liking the serial to absolutely loving it. It wasn't just that the fight itself was suitably epic and properly cinematic, but the fallout from this has repercussions throughout the rest of the story, from big to small, and it was awesome seeing how the cape politics worked regarding the Endbringers, again giving this world a lived-in and three-dimensional feel.
4. The Plots
"Worm" is full of twists and turns (or Wham Episodes, if you’re going by TVTropes jargon), and the plots become more complicated as the narrative moves along. From Cauldron's plan to take over the world so as to ostensibly protect humanity, to how the capes are going to deal with an Endbringer attack, all the way to how Taylor is going to be able to work around all these obstacles to meet her dad for lunch, everything is handled deftly here (for the most part). Because the plot moves almost always at a breakneck pace, the decisions that the characters make feel natural, and because the stakes not only get bigger but also deeper, the choices that the characters make are for the most part based on personal gain or loss. The characters themselves have to often times choose between doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or doing something noble but ultimately making a bad situation worse. You really feel like these people are making decisions in the spur of the moment rather than all of this being contrived by the author. The middle of "Worm" is thick with a bevy of concurrent plots running and intersecting with one another. This is widely considered to be the best portion of the serial, and with good reason. The characters’ actions become more extreme, the established lore is now examined by the characters themselves, and the twists become sharper. The ending is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of pacing, but where everyone ends up in the final few chapters makes it feel earned and worth an admittedly at-times-sluggish multiple-chapter battle finale.
5. The Powers
Taylor controls bugs; Lisa has superhuman intuition; there's a minor character whose power is superhuman singing. In any other story, or even in the real world, we would throw these powers out there as jokes. But here, these powers are used to brilliant effect. Watching Taylor learn about and expand and experiment with her power, seeing her power develop over time in line with her personal situation and mental development as a super-villain is such an engaging experience. The beginnings of the serial take a page from “Batman Begins” in that we get to see Taylor use trial-and-error to see what's most effective on opponents. And many of her opponents are more powerful, both physically and superpower-wise, and so that makes all of her victories all the stronger. She is forced to compensate for a power whose premise is rather weak by relying on her wicked sharp intellect as well, and this is used to deadly effect. There is also a power classification system in this world, and it’s probably one of the most thought out and logical systems that anyone, fans and authors alike, has come up with. Having the various capes get thrown into categories according to their powers is something that I can see happening in the real world if capes were to ever show up, and it's used nicely here. Again, this lends an element of realism and believability to the piece that meshed very well with the story. Powers are often used outside of fighting too: Taylor has her costume made out of spider silk, for example. The story behind the powers is also one that makes sense for this universe, and the way the powers themselves work is logical and innovative: for every advantage that a character has with a power, there's a clear line that that power can't (or more specifically is designed not to) cross. It is a good writing decision to have every power come with a limit. It explains away a number of general questions concerning superheroes in comics past. This also had the added benefit of making the powers themselves have interesting consequences. The story seems to imply (and later verifies) that the more powerful you are, the less human you become, and that's such an interesting position to put these characters in, because it means that these people are constantly having to keep their powers in check. This is another element of the serial that grabbed me early on, and thankfully, most of the powers don't get stale over time.
6. The People
Taylor is not the only character who is engaging. Tattletale, Armsmaster, Dragon, and virtually the entire Brooklyn Bay Wards team were all really memorable characters. While "Worm" is mainly plot-driven, that doesn't mean that characters are vacuous. Many of the characters, particularly the non-powered people in charge, were generally not good people. Armsmaster himself isn't a nice guy in the beginning despite being a superhero (some would argue that he never did become one at all). The main foursome of Taylor, Lisa, Brian, and Rachel work well as a unit and play off of each other nicely. There's a real spark and bond between the group, even as Taylor is introduced to all of them at first, and besides that, there's also plenty of inner-group conflict going on which leads to some great conversations. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments of the serial to me were the quiet moments, the ones where characters got to sit back and regroup and talk to each other. The other teams of heroes and villains are distinct and each member is given their fair share of development. At times, their power tends to overshadow their personalities, but the fact of the matter is that the cast for this story is so huge, that if one character doesn’t work for you, odds are there’s another one who knocks it out of the park.
7. The Pace
It's definitely not perfect; the latter half of the middle and especially the end fight are both wrought with weird and unfortunate pacing issues, but when "Worm" is on its game, man, does it fly! There's such a great feeling to reading this. Because the conflicts are multi-faceted and multi-layered, rarely is there a dull moment even if we're not witnessing a giant battle. There's always something going on in Taylor's head that is intriguing on its own, and seeing her work out her various plans and wrestle with her moral center is just as engaging if not more so than any Endbringer attack ever is. The story moves, and the plot, characters, and themes develop and move with it at a fast and appreciable pace. This does hit a huge wall with a time jump late in the story, and even McCrae himself admits that he isn’t happy with this section. (Luckily, he is working on another draft of the story that he’s planning to self-publish, and he says that there is going to be an expansion of that in the final version.) Also of note is the finale. Without giving away spoilers, the finale is protracted and it drags. Both this and the time jump work to only slam the breaks down on a story that is built on its moment-to-moment narrative. Those two issues aside, though, the pace is excellent! The web serial format helps with the feeling of constantly moving, too, though having this be a published book raises no complaints at all either.
8. The Voice of Taylor Hebert
One of the first things that struck me about the serial, and thankfully only strengthened as it went on, was the narrative voice. “Worm” is written in the first-person, and Taylor's voice is one of the smartest and most engaging main character narrations that I've read, certainly in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Every decision she makes is calculated and worked through, and seeing the wheels turn in her head as she assesses her situation and then make the appropriate call is engaging as hell, whether she be operating in combat or just talking to her friends. Taylor's journey is the principle one, obviously, and much of that entails her descent from mild-mannered teenager into hardened tactician and villain, and her voice, tone, and how events and people are described to the reader reflects that, particularly at the end of the book. Reading her brain in action is a good chunk of what you’re getting into with this work. Her views of the world change throughout the story, and this makes the movement of the work and the in-universe journey tremendously satisfying. This represents some truly effective writing skills, and Taylor's transformation is one of the most well put together character developments I've ever read. If nothing else, give "Worm" a read for this experience alone.
“Worm” is one of the most unique experiences I’ve had reading anything in the superhero genre. This is a lengthy work, numbering over 1.6 million words and spanning 30 arcs each with roughly eight to ten chapters each, but if you’re a fan of superheroes, you owe it to yourself to check this out. This is a great book, a wonderful take on the world of superheroes, and serves as proof that this genre is not dead, no matter what you might read from anti-Marvel Cinematic Universe fans.