Face/Off

MaskIt hasn’t happened yet. But at some point, an author is going to sit down and bang out a big, whopping superhero novel. Something hefty like The Brothers Karamazov or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

And why not? Superhero prose fiction is no different than any other genre. It’s sturdy enough to support epic storytelling on a Robert Jordan-like scale. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised if someone was furiously working on a 1,000-page manuscript at this very moment. J’onn J’onzz: The Early Years, Vol. 1, perhaps?

Nobody’s written a superhero novel the size of Gone with the Wind, but authors have certainly embraced the short story format with gusto. Over the years, most of the superhero anthologies we’ve read have been pretty good. And occasionally they’ve been excellent like this one from editors Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson.

Says Richardson in the book’s introduction: “Behind the Mask is, partially, a prose nod to the comic world – the bombast, the larger-than-life, the save-the-worlds and the calls-to-adventure. But it’s also a spotlight on the more intimate side of the genre. The hopes and dreams of our cape-clad heroes. The regrets and longings of our cowled villains. That poignant, solitary view of the world that can only be experienced from behind the mask.”

He and Reeks have done a great job picking 20 stories that play to familiar strengths of the genre like transformation, self-identity, secret identities, and the responsibilities that come with extraordinary power.

The volume’s first story, for example (“Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut” by Cat Rambo), is about gender and self-identity issues shared by an all-female crimefighting team known as the Unidentified. “Pedestal” by Seanan McGuire underscores the importance of keeping a secret identity in the age of Twitter and Snapchat. And three of the stories examine the curse and privilege of family legacies (“Inheritance” by Michael Milne, “Madjack” by Nathan Crowder, and “The Fall of the Jade Sword” by Stephanie Lai). All of these stories are super terrific btw.

Easily the best contribution to the anthology comes from Kelly Link. “Origin Story” is a nihilistic tale about two childhood sweethearts stuck in their dreary hometown. Despite having superpowers, Bunnatine and Biscuit can’t figure out a way to overcome the crushing reality that surrounds them.

Link is a wonderful writer, and her story has been reprinted numerous times over the years. Any compilation, superhero or otherwise, would get a big boost from having it listed in the table of contents. But maybe, we think, it’s time to move forward. Let’s put “Origin Story” to rest and herald a new era of superhero prose fiction. Maybe now is the time for someone to write that sweeping three-volume J’onn J’onzz bio. It’s just a thought.

[Behind the Mask: An Anthology of Heroic Proportions / Edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson / First Printing: May 2017 / ISBN: 9780996626262]

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