No equivocation. Editor Rich Horton has assembled an excellent anthology of superhero prose fiction. And we wholeheartedly recommend everyone pick it up. But don’t be confused. It’s not the only book of short stories titled Superheroes in the Library of Congress. Another compilation with the exact same name was published way back in 1996. And like this one, the stories were uniformly very fine to near mint.
But what we remember most about the earlier book was editor John Varley’s confession in his introduction. As a child, he never caught the comic book bug, superhero or otherwise. Instead, he collected stamps or belt buckles or some other boring thing. Varley, an award-winning science fiction author, probably didn’t know the difference between Wally West and Barry Allen. And he probably couldn’t name one member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. He was not part of our comic klatch.
But that isn’t the case with Horton. Not only is he familiar with comic books, but he’s also a well-read guy who pays attention when superheroes make the transition from graphic novels to prose novels. Every story in this collection was pinched from a previous publication and, if nothing else, Superheroes (version 2.0) proves that Horton is a great aggregator. He knows a good story when he reads one.
The authors in Superheroes examine how “super” powers illuminate life in general. Fiction, super or otherwise, is more interesting when it deals with human scale problems. “The superhero trope,” writes Horton in his own brief introduction, “is fruitful material for the imagination of all good writers.” And that trope, he says, can be twisted in any number of ways to create good stories.
As such, most of the stories here feature superheroes dealing with intensely personal issues in their lives. Sure, the book contains a few tales of Kirby-tastic bombast (our favorite being “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar), and there is plenty of humor and nerdery too, especially from Kelly Link, Leah Bobet, Kat Beyer, and Elana Fortin. But mostly, the collection is defined by its reflective nature.
This contemplative nature is best exemplified by “Tonight We Fly” by Ian McDonald, “Heroic Measures” by Matthew Johnson, “Superhero Girl” by Jei D. Marcade, and “Dirae” by Peter S. Beagle. The stories by McDonald and Johnson (along with another one called “Grandma” by Carol Emshwiller) give readers a rare peek into the sunset of a superhero’s career. Hint: not everybody goes out in a blaze of glory.
The collection even features a few stories with surprising supervillain twists. In “Heroic Measures,” for example, Lois Lane struggles to find a way to euthanize her dying husband. To the rescue comes Lex Luthor with a pocketful of Kryptonite. “Tell them I won,” he says with a weary shrug. His victory over his lifelong nemesis is bittersweet (to say the least). As it turns out, winning can sometimes feel like losing. That’s a lesson every superhero and supervillain must learn eventually.
[Superheroes / Edited by Rich Horton / First Printing: February 2013 / ISBN: 9781607013808]