Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book review: Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories

This book came over the transom a few months ago, and I'm just catching up to reviewing it. This review should also appear in print in the International Journal of Comic Art's 11:1 issue in the late Spring.

Owen King and John McNally, editors. Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. Free Press, 2008. 432 pages. $16.00. ISBN-10: 1416566449; ISBN-13: 978-1416566441.

Superhero novels have been published off and on since George Lowther’s 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman. Most times these books are based directly on existing comic book superheroes, frequently due to a media tie-in, as in the novel and the radio show in which Lowther wrote for both. The 1960s saw Batman novels due to the television show, and Marvel Comics had a series of novels based on their superheroes in the 1970s. In recent years, many of these types of books, frequently labeled ‘media tie-in’ have been produced, but this book hearkens back to a different trend. In the 1970s, some superhero novels such as Robert Mayers’ 1977 Superfolks attempted to be ‘serious fiction.’ This trend continued with infrequent novels such as 1994’s What They Did to Princess Paragon by Robert Rodi until the recent success of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem inspired new attempts.

Of the twenty-two stories in the book, six have previously appeared, and of that six, three of them were in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Although the author notes at the end list each one’s favorite superhero, judging from their answers, it appears that few of them are serious superhero comic book readers and none are comic book writers. This lack of familiarity with the genre can lead to some awkward or uninteresting writing at times.

The book starts off strongly with Stephanie Harrell’s “Girl Reporter,” a strong take on an alternative Superman – Lois Lane type of relationship, told from the reporter’s point of view. “The Quick Stop 5®” by Sam Weller is a good example of a story that would not work well in a comic book, but partly because Weller mocks the genre. The characters gain their powers in a typical freak accident, but the powers are not necessarily ones that would be desired. Prophylactic Girl, with rubber powers, also has a condom tip on her head while Dip is a walking wad of chewing tobacco in the mold of Swamp Thing or Man-Thing. The story is a satire, and is amusing though. John McNally’s “Remains of the Night” is another satire in which the narrator appears to work for a hero named the Silverfish – one can only go in one direction with a premise like that although McNally’s writing is competent. “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children” by Will Clarke takes the premise of the X-Men, mutant children in a special school, and turns it on its side. Clarke wrote, “Unfortunately, the Redbird didn’t possess the necessary might to be a major-league superhero. In the world of superpowers, flight was pretty much table stakes. … So the Redbird was relegated to working in the superhero farm leagues. … However as the years passed, it became apparent that the Redbird had moved to Shreveport for less-than-savory reasons. Turns out the Redbird came to our town not just for the easy work, but for our chronically bored housewives, our prodigal daughters, and our all-too-easily seduced Baptist Ladies Prayer Circle.” (p. 110) The children of his liaisons end up becoming a problem for the whole town.

Another story that alters a typical superhero tale is “Mr. Big Deal” by Sean Doolittle, in which a police officer’s superpower is that he can disable other peoples powers permanently. His father, a superhero called The Hard Bargain, never felt comfortable around him because his son could take away his powers at any time, but now the father lies in a coma in a hospital bed because “For Four decades, in the service of the common good, he absorbed gunshots, stabbings, conflagrations, falls from great heights, and the kind of damage that would spread a natural over a country mile like so much fertilizer. And then, finally, little by little, my father’s jungle of internal scar tissue began to strangle his won organs, shutting him down one function at a time.” (p. 298) The story ends with a twist that O. Henry might have tried.

Some of the stories, especially the shortest ones do not work quite as well, but the collection as a whole is worth reading especially if you have an interest in the superhero genre. I am not sure if this type of fiction is sustainable in the long run, but one might as well enjoy it while it appears. The book is capably illustrated throughout by Chris Burnham who has worked for Image Comics. The cover photograph and design is well done too.

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