Lou Anders’ anthology of original superhero-themed short fiction caught my eye not so much because I’m in love with the genre, but because I liked the idea of a contributor list including both writers from the comic book world (like Bill Willingham, Mike Baron, Peter David, Marjorie Liu, and Gail Simone) and prose sf authors (like Stephen Baxter and Ian McDonald).
And in fact, the prose authors delivered several of the high points. My favorite story was McDonald’s “Tonight We Fly” — brief, moving, unexpected, hard to discuss without risking spoilers. Baxter’s Daryl Gregory’s streamlined and action-packed “Message from the Bubblegum Factory” put his debut novel Pandemonium onto my to-read list. I also liked Stephen Baxter’s “Vacuum Lad.” Screenwriter Joseph Mallozzi makes his prose debut with the novella “Downfall,” a story about a reformed villain living undercover. I was gripped by the first three-quarters of it, but thought the dénouement sank into cliché. Chris Roberson’s “A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” deftly ties together a number of ’40s pulp elements with a few twists much more original than its heavily-used title.
Many of these stories opt for an approach that seems inspired by Alan Moore’s landmark Watchmen, emphasizing grit and emotional realism, with liberal amounts of violence and pseudo-realistic extrapolation. (One might get the impression that nanomachines are the millennial equivalent of hard radiation doses in Golden Age comics.) I found this a bit wearying en masse and I would have liked to see something in the outré vein of Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol, or some satire of comics’ overblown excesses. (Peter and Kathleen David’s “Head Cases” provided a welcome shift of mood, but although I found its setup promising, I didn’t think it followed through.)
One very positive note: the volume is largely free of in-jokes of the “figure out which trademarked character I’m slyly re-purposing” variety.
needs more demons? needs a smidge more variety