Masked, Edited by Lou Anders – Available Now
by Aaron Einhorn
Here is a terrible, dirty little secret for the editor and lead writer of a superhero news site to have. I don’t really love comic books.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like comics plenty. I am a fierce advocate for the validation of comics as a medium, and I think that there are legitimately many things you can do with sequential art stories that you can’t do in any other medium. But while I’ll defend that statement, the truth is I don’t read a lot of comics that aren’t superhero comics – and that’s because while I like comics, what I really love are superheroes. And given a choice? I’ll read a superhero novel over a comic book or graphic novel any day.
As a result, I was thrilled beyond words to get my hands on Masked, edited by Lou Anders. Masked is a new anthology collection of superhero stories – most of which are written by some of the best writers in comics today. Among the creative minds who contributed to this collection, you’ll find Paul Cornell, Gail Simone, Peter David, Marjorie Liu and Bill Willingham, along with other writers whose names you may not be familiar with now, but who you will probably want to look up after completing this collection.
All of the heroes and villains featured in Masked are original creations, although in most cases, you can squint and figure out the inspiration behind the character – but then, that’s true with almost any new superhero anymore, isn’t it? But what makes Masked different from a lot of other original prose fiction is that the entries written here are neither pastiches nor parodies. Every story contained in the nearly 400 pages of the anthology reads with the same authenticity you would see in any comic printed by any of the major publishers. Is it easy to imagine Joseph Mallozzi’s Downfall running around the streets of Metropolis, or to picture Stephen Baxter’s Vacuum Lad in a Guardians of the Galaxy-style story, but in some ways, it’s refreshing that I don’t have to.
Superhero prose fiction has long received a mixed reception. Despite the success of superheroes in films, television and animation, it seems that contemporary audiences struggle to accept our spandex and battle armor-clad defenders in any non-visual medium. It isn’t that superheroes are absent from the racks of the fiction section – licensed novels featuring Spider-Man, Batman, and the X-Men can be found in most bookstores, but original superhero fiction is harder to find. The only notable exceptions that come to mind are the long-running Wild Cards series, which is experiencing a renaissance after vanishing for much of the nineties. Other superhero novels surface from time to time (you can read Tom’s review of Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge’s original superhero novel Black and White here), but they’re still few and far between.
Hopefully, Masked will be the beginning of a trend that reverses that. Having the names of some of the best writers in comics attached to this book will hopefully bring some of their fans over from the comics they write, but beyond that, the stories contained herein are just really good. They range from the somewhat humorous to the darkly tragic, with stories told in first person perspective as well as traditional third person narration. Some of the stories follow heroes, others follow villains, while others focus on characters who are stuck in the middle.
Readers will empathize with Gail Simone’s Thug, even while they realize that he is a menace to those around him. They will understand that the heroic Wild Card of Matthew Sturges Cleansed and Set in Gold is every bit the hero his world needs, even as those around him react with revulsion. Long-time comic fans will enjoy the meta-contextuality of Daryl Gregory’s Message From the Bubblegum Factory, and the unconventional encyclopedic nature of Bill Willingham’s A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company (Villains Too).
As with any anthology, some stories work better than others. Personally, being the most removed from conventional superheroic stories, Vacuum Lad was a little lacking for me. But the nice thing is that only one story breaks the fifty-page mark, with most running at closer to thirty, so if one story doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to endure it for long.