Saturday, May 21, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Masked

Masked is a collection of superhero fiction, mainly by people who write comic books. It's got everything—powered heroes, unpowered heroes, young heroes, old heroes, heroes branded as villains, villains branded as heroes, climactic battles, internal battles, crazy inventions, postmodern deconstruction, straight-up entertainment. Granted, not all of that's in the same story, but it's all in the book. Some of the stories I liked less than others, but in a short story collection, that's always the case.

Most reviews of anthologies do mini-reviews of each story. I'm not, and since this isn't exactly a review, I feel justified in doing so. Instead, I've got some general thoughts I want to share.

Many stories in this book are set in worlds with a plethora of superpowered people. The existence of the powers may or may not be explained, but superheroes and supervillains are everywhere. I saw this in Soon I Will Be Invincible too, and it's an allusion to the comic book universes of Marvel and DC, where people get powers all the time through a variety of methods, and have done so for years. The Wild Cards universe is another example of this. There's often a lot of mad science in these worlds—death rays, killer robots, secret lairs with bubbling chemistry sets. It's good fun, though the over-the-top nature of these worlds can get a little wearing.* Do writers choose those worlds because that's what we're conditioned to think of, after 70-odd years of comic book history? Do they choose them to comment on that 70-year-old tradition? Do they feel that's the only way to get a bunch of superpowered characters?

The stories without whole social classes of heroes and villains tend to give people powers through medical experiments. There's one case of mystical energy, and another case of teenage black belt. For all my complaining in the previous paragraph, I liked these stories least. Fun and compelling they were, yes,  but at the same time, I felt the writers were trying too hard and missing the mark on superheroes. So … apparently I need those crazy universes to feel at home?

I enjoyed the deconstruction in this anthology, as well. The writers aren't afraid to play with the nastier sides of superheroism or have bad guys for protagonists. One of the stories breaks the fourth wall. Several stories deal with various aspects of retirement. And there seems to be more of an attempt to make the characters into real people rather than leaving them as archetypes, even when the archetypes are being played off, for the sake of the story. There's one story with a reporter girlfriend as a side character, and she acts like a Reporter Girlfriend, but feels real all the same.

The main thing I remember, several weeks after closing the book for the last time, is the way a lot of the stories clicked with me. For me, this is what superhero prose should be like. The stories are, by and large, not about superheroes and not about defeating a villain. They're about people who are people first, heroes second, and if a villain is defeated, the battle sums up the other, equally important struggles that have run the course of the story. That's what I'm trying to do with my novel (please may it work) and I'll likely be mentioning Masked as a read-alike, unless I find something better.

So my verdict? Really good anthology, with great stories. Definitely read it, if you're into superheroes, but don't be like me and blitz the book in a week. It's to be sipped between other stories, not gulped.

* Note: I am reading an omnibus of Amazing Spider-Man issues right now, and this is affecting my judgement on these matters. The pulpiness of those is really wearing at times.

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