Monday, February 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: Who Can Save Us Now?

Who Can Save Us Now?
edited by Owen King and John McNally

One the great merits of this book is that it’s not straightforward. It’s an anthology of twenty-two prose short stories about super-heroes; but the genres and tones cover such a broad range that this statement means less than it seems. Some of the pieces here use the super-hero as an image or symbol to inform a highly literary fiction; others aim at direct parody; some are effectively unusual science-fiction stories; very occasionally a story plays it straight, but even then, usually in a way you don’t expect — Tom Bissell’s “My Interview With the Avenger,” for example, has a reporter interviewing a real-life super-hero, but there’s nothing science-fictional or fantastic in the story as such. Many of the stories cross genres, presenting literary fiction with a satiric tone, like Elizabeth Crane’s “Nate Pinckney-Alderson, Superhero”, or starting as an unconventional parody that becomes a sweetly mythic parable, as Will Clarke’s “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children”. Impressively, it seems that every story in the anthology works, on at least some level.

It’s difficult to pick a story that stands out as the best of the bunch; none really merits being tabbed as the worst. If I had to pick a few top stories, I’d go with Cary Holladay’s “The Horses Are Loose”, a splendidly-written tale about a girl who believes that she has the power to change her life — once; Scott Snyder’s “The Thirteenth Egg”, a taut story about war and what it does to men; Michael Czyzniejewski’s “When the Heroes Came to Town”, a disturbing and evocative short-short story without a misplaced word; and “The Somewhat Super,” by David Yoo, a story of gentle mockery with an ending both downbeat and entirely right.

Are there any common themes in the book? It seems like a number of them have to do with the limitations of power. A lot of them are concerned with loss — loss of a loved one, loss of youth and innocence, loss of ideals and illusions. Many of them have to do with infidelity or suspected infidelity, with thwarted love. Now, powerlessness, loss, and infidelity are good super-hero comics themes, going back to the dawn of the genre — think of Bruce Wayne losing his parents, or the almighty Superman unable to do anything to save his exploded home planet. With infidelity we might have to go as late as early Marvel comics to find examples, but they’re certainly around. (Reed, Sue, Namor? Matt, Karen, Foggy? Peter, Betty, Ned?)

What isn’t in these stories? Generally, they don’t pound their points home. They leave you thinking; putting the pieces together, or meditating on a resonant image. There are surprisingly few fight scenes — some, but not the required regular diet of fisticuffs of even the more sophisticated hero comics. There’s an avoidance of pat moralism, of simplicity; there are moral viewpoints expressed, of course, but with an awareness of complexity. Some stories, like Bissell’s piece, have more thought about right and wrong than an entire year’s worth of certain super-hero comics I could mention.

Personally, I find it interesting that in a number of stories — Snyder’s, Czyzniejewski’s, Jim Shepard’s “In Cretaceous Seas” — the hero tales turn into something resembling horror. It’s always seemed to me that the super-hero story is the daylight form of the gothic; the same focus on out-sized personality, on forces beyond the ken of man, on good and evil made manifest — but slightly different costumes, slightly different narrative strategies. Consider Victor Frankenstein and Victor Von Doom; different in many ways, yes, but with a certain genetic similarity, I think. I suppose it’s one of the marks of success of Who Can Save Us Now? that it seems to capture the nature of super-hero stories while at the same time so many of its tales push the boundaries of the form. 

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