One-line summary? It's Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog for middle grade, without the singing or the penis jokes.
Our protagonist is Kyle Camden, playing the NPH Dr. Horrible part - formerly the most popular boy in school, Kyle was extra-smart even before being blasted by some kind of interstellar radiation that gave him supersmarts, flight, superstrength and invulnerability. Kyle is thoughtful and sensitive, not at all evil. The same interstellar blast that changed Kyle's life also delivers a stranger to Kyle's small town. "Mighty Mike" is our Nathan Fillion/Captain Hammer in this book, strong and self-assured, a callous do-goodnik who is more than a little deficient in the brain box.
This is a well-plotted book, with a lot of humor and believable characters. I wonder, though. Kyle starts out a pretty nice guy, a little superior, but that describes a lot of popular kids. And it's easy to be nice when everybody likes you. But as the book progresses, Kyle is frustrated at every turn, humiliated by his rival and misunderstood by the entire town, including Mairi. He becomes secretive and resentful, and is able to maintain a degree of optimism only because he believes that his massively superior intellect ensures his eventual triumph. (That's classic supervillain attitude, a nice touch.) He does not triumph at the end of this book though - we'll have to wait for the next one to see if things turn around for him.
Barry Lyga crafts the tragicomic evolution of his antihero in a fun way. The villain's backstory is always one of my favorite parts of any comic, and I suspect Barry Lyga has sucked up more than his fair share of stories about lightning strikes, chemical factory heists gone awry, pacts with ancient mutants, and men driven insane because Captain America accidentally glued their costume on (that's Baron Zemo. He was a Nazi, he deserved it).
"Ooo, Cap, I'm gonna get you! And then I'm gonna... glue... something... to you... maybe feathers... or... mittens..."
But it's a difficult trick. If your hero is going to become the bad guy, you have to first establish him as a sympathetic character and then kind of beat the snot out of him so that he has almost no choice but to take an oppositional role. Two possible pitfalls here: either your character is not sympathetic enough, and comes off as a whiny overreacting jerk (ANAKIN) or - and this is I think the case with Kyle Camden - your character is too easy to identify with. I fear that a sensitive reader may find the injustices suffered by Kyle so frustrating that he will be unable to enjoy the book.
Which is a shame, because it's a fun book, especially (obviously) fun for comics geeks. And this is why I'm going to encourage lots of kids to read it, and to tell me what they think. I won't have any trouble doing that - check that cover! EXCELLENT.
Bonus for you because I was looking up video of Anakin choosing the Dark Side, and then decided Hayden Christensen's acting is too grim even to link to:
Oh I am so getting my husband my sons stop-motion animation software for xmas!