Okay, so earlier this month I recieved a review copy of "Who Can Save Us Now?" This is a book featuring short stories about superheroes. I actually owed this review a long time ago but there were some chaotic events that kept me from reading it until now.
It's hard for me to review this book for the basic fact that, having read it, I don't think I'm actually the target audience for this book. For one thing, I don't much care for short stories in general, I prefer novels to sink my teeth into, but also, well, I don't think these are superhero stories so much as they are general fiction stories using vague superpower trappings as a medium.
Let me see if I can explain what I mean.
A few years ago, I took a fiction writing class. I thought it would be neat to learn to write stories. I had high hopes of learning to write in various genres: adventure stories, science fiction, fantasy, history, romance...
Actually, as it turns out we didn't write in ANY of these genres. See, apparently there's a difference between writing fiction and writing genre fiction. I learned this the hard way when my teacher made me redo one of my assignments where we had to build a story around this very weird bit of dialogue about a guy claiming to be a plumber talking to some woman. She said that my story had "too much plot" and was "like a tv show." Me, I said "Well, does it sound like an entertaining tv show?" She said, "I suppose, but you need to rewrite it."
I don't remember what my original story was, I think I'd decided the dialogue sounded very ominous, so I decided to make it some sort of coded spy dialogue that was a warning that someone was about to kill the other person. I'm not going to claim it was a good story, but I would have been happy to get graded on its merits. My second story ended up being some conversation between two old people who reunited after a very long period of time.
I can't fairly evaluate the quality of the first story. But I do know that the second was hackneyed, contrived crap deliberately meant to play on cloying sentimentalism. It was terrible. But worse, it was boring
And I got an A. That's when I realized the professor and I were simply working with two different concepts of what made good writing. Her criteria included things like craft and workmanship, subtext and subversion and deeper underlying themes and meanings. Mine ultimately is simply that it entertain or capture the imagination of the reader. I can't imagine anything more thankless than writing fiction that DOESN'T do those things. But that's why I'll never write the next Great American Novel or Short Story. And I'm okay with that.
For the record, I ended up with a B in the class. Though I did have to rewrite a few more stories.
But anyway, that entire digression does have a point. The stories in Who Can Save Us Now?
often make lip service to Captain America, the Avengers, Kirby, Kane, Shuster, and so on, but I don't really get the impression that most of the writers truly love superhero comics. Heck, some of these stories are not even superheroic at ALL, and bear more resemblance to Kafka than Superman.
This is not to say the stories are bad, though personally I found more than a few to be over-enamored with their own cleverness. The best example of this, I think, is the story "Girl Reporter" which takes a Superman-Lois Lane type relationship but paints the superhero as an image conscious, immature meathead. Not only is that sort of warping of the dynamic not even remotely a new idea...personally, I'd say Wally West and Linda Park did that much better...but the biggest impression I got from the story was smugness.
A lot of the writers did have very interesting character examination pieces here. Some interesting themes. But...they're not superhero themes. Like the one with the little girl who can use her powers once and only once in a futile child's plan to help her mother's life improve and regrets it for the rest of her life. It's not a bad story. But it's not a superhero story.
Many of the stories have miserable endings, which wouldn't be bad necessarily, but I got the impression (though to be fair I didn't go back and count) that they were the majority of the endings. Characters were dislikeable or sellouts. Self-absorbed or just annoying.
I suspect that many of these writers are straightforward fiction writers attempting to "subvert" the superhero concept for a clever themed fiction story. I think that a lot of them succeeded. But that's not what I was looking for. I wanted people who were altruistic and genuinely liked to and wanted to help other people. I wanted teamwork and friendship and strength of character. Essentially, I was looking for a celebration
not a subversion
of what superheroism means.
And honestly, I found some of the stories simply dull. But that's a problem I tend to have with short stories a lot. They need to grab me from the get go to catch and keep my interest. A novel is different. I can give a novel time to slowly build my interest, because I know that even if it takes 20 pages or so to get interesting, there's still about 300 pages left. But too many short stories only JUST manage to get interesting when woosh, done.
However, there were some stories in the book that I did truly think were absolute gems.
"Nate Pinckney-Alderson, Superhero" which stars a six-year old would-be superhero and his idolization of his jackass neighbor, a normal guy who had saved a baby, is adorable.
"Remains of the Night" succeeds, for me, where "Girl Reporter" fails. It's something of a subversion of the Batman-and-Alfred relationship in which the Batman-esque character is the downright grotesque Silverfish. It wins on a number of levels. First, there's something of an actual plot. Second, though not the viewpoint character, I get the impression that the Silverfish, though disgusting, is a man who likes to be a hero and help people. And in the end, the right characters got their just desserts.
"Pentecostal Home for Flying Children" isn't really a superhero story, I think. But the concept intrigued me and there were parts that genuinely made me laugh.
And finally I would totally read a comic book about either "the Meerkat" or "the Rememberer". Those were the stories that really evoked, for me, the fun of the superhero genre. The characters were fully realized and three-dimensional. I wanted to see what would happen to them. I wanted them to succeed and I felt regret when the story ended.
So that's pretty much my take on the book. If you're a fan of general fiction as well as superhero comics, I think you'll probably like the book. If you're like me and spent most of your English classes sneakily reading a Star Trek book carefully hidden under your desk, it might not be for you.