Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd

Comic Book Review: The Best of Judge Dredd edited by Tharg

It is the dark future of the 22nd Century.  Nuclear war and environmental devastation have made large portions of Earth’s surface barely inhabitable, and the majority of the remaining population is crowded into sprawling urban areas called Mega-Cities.  Overpopulation, high unemployment, and a general social despair have caused crime to skyrocket.  To combat this, most law enforcement has been turned over to an elite force of Judges, who act as police, the judicial system and the prison system all in one.  It takes a special breed of human to become a Judge, and the most legendary of these is Judge Dredd.

The Best of Judge Dredd

Judge Dredd first appeared in the second issue of the British comic weekly 2000 AD in 1977, but quickly became the magazine’s flagship character.  The strip combined dystopian science fiction with dark humor and Dirty Harry style violence.  Over the course of the first few years, the Judges went from an adjunct to the regular police force to the only viable government of Mega-City One due to repeated disasters.  As a literal police state, the Judges tackled any problem by criminalizing it, the flaws in this becoming more obvious with time.

Dredd himself is an antihero, an incorruptible man who is trying his best to make the system work, but the system is so oppressive that it crushes the people beneath it, even when properly applied.  And one of the recurring themes is that the Judge system lends itself to corruption and abuse, and fails even at its most basic purpose of reducing crime.  Judge Dredd may be fair, but he’s harsh.

The first story in this volume is the first Judge Dredd story, and contains only the seeds of these themes.  “Meet Judge Dredd” by John Wagner (writer droid) and Carlos Ezquerra  (art droid) introduces Dredd as he avenges the death of a fellow Judge.  The criminals are holed up in the old Empire State Building, now a dwarf building compared to the mile-high construction around it.  The Judges’ advanced crimefighting motorcycles and firearms are introduced, but it is the prison the head criminal Whitey is put in that shows the most imagination.  “Devil’s Island” is a traffic island, surrounded by mega-freeways constantly flowing with high-speed traffic.  There’s no wall or fence, but just try crossing to safety!

There are several fine single stories, including the first appearance of Rico, Joe Dredd’s corrupt and vengeful clone-brother.  While he dies at the end of that chapter, Rico’s legacy affects Dredd for decades.  This volume also has bits of several of the epic stories that ran for months in the strip, including the Cursed Earth saga and the Judge Child storyline.  If there is one flaw in this volume, it’s that they only have those fragments.

However, all of “America”, which was the first storyline in the Judge Dredd Megazine monthly magazine, is included, in full color.  This hits the dystopian elements hard, as the child of immigrants is named after their dream of a better life, but the America they’re thinking of is long dead, and eventually so is the title character when she tries fighting for her ideals.  The story is told from the perspective of her childhood friend, with a bizarre science fiction twist at the end.  It’s a hard-hitting story, and perhaps the best in this book.

The weakest story for me is “Mrs. Gunderson’s Big Adventure.”  A profoundly deaf and legally blind senior citizen is embroiled in the escape of a crime boss who has unfortunately for him attracted the attention of Judge Dredd.  The “humor” stems from Mrs. Gunderson being almost completely unaware of what’s going on around her due to her sensory handicaps, and swiftly grows tedious.

Also of note are the first two appearances by serial killer P.J. Maybe who is only thirteen years old at that point.  It feels like the second story was created first, and the first story written to make sure the reader realizes that Maybe is not the good guy here.  In the first story, he kills two random people and their pet vulture, just to establish that he can.  In the second, Maybe wipes out the obnoxious relatives that stand between his family and a fortune in manufacturing.  (It took a long time for Judge Dredd to figure out that there was a serial killer, let alone that P.J. Maybe was him.  Years later, Maybe was the best mayor Mega-City One ever had, while remaining a remorseless serial killer.)

In addition to the expected ultra-violence, there’s some nudity and sexual situations.

This volume is a good choice for an introduction to Judge Dredd and his setting, with a variety of his writers and artists (including Brian Bolland) represented.  Recommended to fans of dystopian science fiction and dark humor.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

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