Tales to Astonish

Astonishing HeroesThe official title of Gary Phillips’ latest book is Astonishing Heroes: Shades of Justice. But a better title would have been: Ten the Hard Way.

That’s because this collection of ten short stories features a riotous mix of tough guys, tough ladies, eccentric villains, Satanists, strippers, dominatrices, samurai, deposed Communist leaders, superheroes, robots, gadgets, clones, weird science, jazz, funk, drugs, kung fu, Fu Manchu mustaches, platform boots, afros, and sex. It’s a book for anyone who remains nostalgic for the golden age of Toei films, blaxploitation movies, and lusty grindhouse cinema.

Like many of the iconic films starring Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, Pam Grier, Sonny Chiba and Charles Bronson, Astonishing Heroes is a titillating confluence of sex and violence. It’s like watching a weekend movie marathon of Shaft, Slaughter, Hammer, The Street Fighter, Death Wish and Cleopatra Jones. And like all those great movies, the stories in this book empower marginalized, underserved, and disenfranchised groups like African-Americans, Native Americans, Vietnam War veterans, and women. Forget about The Expendables, it’s time for T.N.T. Jackson and John Shaft to make their explosive comebacks.

Of all of Phillips’ reoccurring characters, our favorite is Andronicus “Ange” Edwards (he’s the guy with the cocked fist on the book’s front cover, btw). He pays his bills working as an orderly at the Willow Manor Extended Care Facility. But when he’s not attending to the infirmed, he’s on the streets busting heads as a superhero named Kidd Vee. Edwards is a 19-year-old homeboy who grew up watching booty-shaking rap videos on BET, but his career as a crimefighter began the day he unwittingly inherited the Founder’s Stone, a magical talisman once possessed by Gilgamesh, Ogun, and Joan of Arc. “Fate,” he is told, “is always throwing us curveballs.”

We like Edwards because he’s navigating the superhero learning curve the best he can. He values counsel from his girlfriend (and manager), but he’s basically gaining experience on the (super) fly. All in all, he’s a good kid. The Founder’s Stone gave him increased strength, quick reflexes, and enduring stamina. But he really needs a Batmobile or “one of those flying sports cars like Nick Fury uses.” His role models are T’Challa (the Black Panther) and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Funny. Those are our role models too.

For readers who want more hardcore action, the stories featuring Booker “Book” Essex are more in sync with blaxploitation movies like Black Gunn and That Man Bolt. Essex is a Vietnam War veteran and an alpha male who fights crime as the Silencer. In between assignments, he enjoys a little recreational sex with the ladies. Unlike Kidd Vee, Essex knows exactly what it takes to be a superhero.

The author brings a handful of his characters together in the book’s final story, “The Bells of Doom.” The story itself is rather silly. But so what? Seeing Edwards, Essex, Perry Decaine (American Black), Roarke (the Reclaimer), Gerald Getze (Terror Flame, the super Nazi), Clara Rundgren (the Blonde Ghost), and Onyx Adams together under the same roof is a clever (and fun) way to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion. If you think the Justice League of America is a whiter shade of pale, this Astonishing Heroes team-up was written just for you.

[Astonishing Heroes: Shades of Justice / By Gary Phillips / First Printing: July 2014 / ISBN: 9781500424923]

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