Superheroes — and supervillains — have always been problematic. They are usually all but impossible to kill, but have a single vulnerability that everyone seems to know about, and to aim for, a tradition that goes all the way back to Achilles (who was invulnerable because he was dipped in the River Styx as a baby — except for the ankle by which his mother held him when doing the dipping). Even after death, they always seem to come back in some form or another; Superman, for instance, has been resurrected quite a few times (though losing him led nearly 20 years ago to one of the best graphic novels ever written, World Without a Superman). Because they are so superhumanly strong, they sometimes appear ludicrous, fighting off impossible task after incredible burden after outrageous situation. No wonder authors have sometimes taken their creations in odd directions, as Alan Moore did in Watchmen — another one of the best graphic novels out there.
In Masked, superheroes and supervillains move off the illustrated page and into the realm of pure prose. Sometimes this works beautifully, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, making this anthology uneven. The best stories are those in which the notion of super beings is taken with the utmost seriousness; the weakest are those that seem to mock the tradition.
One of the best stories in this anthology is “Where Their Worm Dieth Not” by James Maxey. Despite a beginning that makes various oddly-powered superheroes look rather silly, the story takes a deeply serious turn. The existential ending will make you shudder, and maybe even bring forth a tear or two. It somehow brings to mind Grant Morrison’s take on Animal Man, when that character realizes that he is fictional and confronts his maker. It’s amazing what a skilled writer can do with costumed men and women when he or she brings philosophy into the picture.
Another exceptional story is “Vacuum Lad,” by Stephen Baxter. This story takes a strict science fictional approach to the whole idea of superheroes, suggesting that perhaps the powers enjoyed by the titular character were deliberately developed in a laboratory, and not for that character alone. This picture of a world dealing with climate change through various scientific endeavors is nicely drawn. The particulars of Vacuum Lad’s abilities make sense in the context carefully developed by Baxter, who fully lives up to his reputation as a writer of hard science fiction.
Ian McDonald contributes “Tonight We Fly,” the story of a superhero grown old. What do you do with your powers when you’re retired and aging? When the public health nurse comes around and insists on giving you a flu shot despite the fact that you never get the flu — and that no needle can pierce your skin? When those kids next door just won’t be quiet, but insist on kicking a ball against your garage door over and over and over until your head is ringing — how do you get them to stop without hurting someone? It’s a beautiful picture of the impotence of old age, and the struggle to remain vital even as the years pile up.
“Head Cases,” by Peter and Kathleen David, is an example of one of the less successful stories. It attempts to be humorous by making fun of superheroes, but fails. The authors try to make their costumed characters appear to be mental and emotional teenagers playing dress-up in a way reminiscent of an Adam Sandler movie, full of attempts at cheap laughs and without any real point. This sort of knowing tone just doesn’t work. Nor does Daryl Gregory’s story, “Message from the Bubblegum Factory,” manage to entertain with a similar tone. Superheroes and supervillains are ludicrous on their face; pointing that out in prose is superfluous.
Still, the ratio of good stories to bad stories is high. Even so, the stories started to seem repetitive to me after I’d read 200 pages, and I was still only halfway through the book. There are only so many things you can say about these fictional beings, and most of them have already been said in comic form. It’s hard to see that this book of prose really adds anything to what one can find in illustrated form from DC or Marvel.