Masked and Anonymous

Masked, edited by Lou Anders

It’s generally been kinda hard for me to take prose superhero fiction seriously — which is kinda funny, ’cause I’ve been known to actually write some prose superhero fiction. And it’s not like I haven’t previously reviewed superhero fiction that I liked a lot. But it used to be, if you had a book with superhero prose in it, the stories were mostly going to focus on either making the heroes into inhuman serial killers in spandex or turning them into contemptible buffoons.

Superhero prose has definitely come around since comics began to be seen as a more respectable art form. This book, “Masked,” came out in 2010, edited by Lou Anders, and most of its focus is on twists on the superhero genre that still come across as (mostly) respectful of the cape-and-cowl set, with a lot of the stories written by people who are best known for writing actual comic books.

The stories include:

  • “Cleansed and Set in Gold” by Matthew Sturges, about a hero whose powers rely on a secret just as terrifying as the plague of monsters afflicting the countryside;
  • “Where Their Worm Dieth Not” by James Maxey, which focuses on the question of why superheroes and supervillains die and are reborn so often;
  • “Secret Identity” by Paul Cornell, a wonderful and very funny story about a hero whose secret identity has its own secret identity;
  • “The Non-Event” by Mike Carey, a heist-gone-wrong tale told from the POV of a low-level supercrook;
  • the absolutely outstanding “Thug” by Gail Simone, in which we get the heartbreaking life story of a superstrong but dimwitted super-lackey;
  • “Vacuum Lad” by Stephen Baxter, a sci-fi tale about a guy whose power lets him survive in outer space;
  • “A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Chris Roberson, which focuses on a magic-using pulp-era hero battling demons in L.A.;
  • “Downfall” by Joseph Mallozzi, a mystery in which a reformed villain tries to find out who killed Earth’s most powerful hero;
  • “A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (and Villains Too)” by Bill Willingham, which is pretty much exactly what the title says — a complete superhero universe, wrapped around a big summer crossover and alphabetized for easy reference;
  • and plenty of other stories besides.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Any sort of anthology like this is going to have some good stories and some not-so-good stories, and I’m glad to say that most of these fall on the good side of the equation. Far and away, my favorite stories were the ones by Gail Simone, Bill Willingham, and Paul Cornell, but the majority of the stories in this book are just plain great.

My two least favorite stories were Peter David and Kathleen David’s “Head Cases,” which was basically a bunch of people with superpowers hanging out in a bar and doing nothing, and Mike Baron’s “Avatar,” which really just meandered about while a kid with martial arts skills beat up random lowlifes — and even with those two, I still found elements of the stories that I enjoyed.

Not a perfect anthology, but certainly one of the better ones of this type I’ve seen. if you’re a superhero fan, this is definitely something you’ll want to pick up.

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