Book Review

Rocketing into speculative fiction territory, Behind the Mask, a strikingly entertaining anthology of short stories focused on the everyday lives of those in possession of superhuman abilities, sparkles with vibrant luminosity and star-spangled hipness. Leaning away from the cartoonish elements of the superhero genre, editors Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson have put together a smart and stimulating miscellany of humor and pathos, romance and adventure. The twenty contributors, ranging from bestselling authors to those with relatively few publishing credits, approach the “prose nod to the comic world” idea in a variety of interesting, imaginative ways.

In Cat Rambo’s “Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut,” you find an all-woman group of superheroes struggling with self-identity issues. They hang out in a bar and pizza parlor, binge eating, signing autographs, discussing gender roles, and “comparing stories and wishes and peeves.” The titular character, a cyborg who wears a red, white, and blue jumpsuit and has a long mane of frosted blonde hair, complains of being objectified by her creators. She has been engineered to “engage in enthusiastic, frequent sex” and “achieve orgasm in 3.2 seconds by saying a trigger phrase.” When a new member joins her team, she finds herself enamored by this “aloof and sexy” woman and begins questioning her own sexuality and wondering if she has evolved beyond her creators’ original design.

Rambo’s droll, contemplative tale, which fits ideally with the two editors’ concept of extraordinary individuals facing down-to-earth challenges, is one of four diverse, deftly written stories that have been reprinted in this collection. The remaining sixteen, which vary in style rather than quality, appear to have been composed specifically with this book in mind. Drawing inspiration chiefly from the abundance of vividly drawn DC and Marvel comic books, the contributors enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to present their own unique, colorful, larger-than-life characters bestowed with special powers. Names such as Whirlwind, Oblivion, Badger Girl, Professor Smart, Mister Fist, and Madam Glass jump off the page. Interestingly, many of the writers have adhered to superhero genre conventions, dreaming up a costume, an alter ego, a backstory, and, sometimes, a sidekick.

Enlivened by high drama, strong visual images, and a variety of fantasy elements, this fun anthology is made more absorbing by this notion of peeling off the mask. Many of the stories deal with issues everyone can relate to: aging, coping with injury and the recovery process, unexpected pregnancy, or maintaining relationships. Famous or not, we can empathize with the frustrated superhero in Seanan McGuire’s lighthearted “Pedestal,” who strives to lead a more normal life. Eager for anonymity but unable to escape the paparazzi, he loses his composure when pestered by a snooping blogger while out shopping:

“Please,” I said, and hated myself for the whine in my voice. “I’m just trying to do my grocery shopping. Can’t you leave me alone?”

“That explains how you’re dressed,” he said, taking in and rejecting my outfit with a quick up-and-down glance and sneer.

Equally amusing but perhaps more unusual is Matt Mikalatos’s “The Beard of Truth,” where people manifest super powers overnight and must, according to the Powers Act, report it to the government within twenty-four hours. Whether the protagonist really has developed “truth serum powers” hardly matters. You find yourself swept along by the pleasantly daft storyline and relishing the witty conversations as the insecure main character is torn from the loving embrace of his dreamy girlfriend and steered toward military boot camp.

Some of the contributors shift the focus from superhero to super villain to good effect. In Keith Rosson’s “Torch Songs,” the scorched, seared, melted carnival spectacle Madam Glass, with her “ruined river” of a face and a “body like half-melted plastic”—the result of being thrown into a vat of toxic waste by her nemesis Sergeant Liberty—ponders if evil is born or cultivated. Living out her days enslaved to the circus, the former leader of a gang of super villains is presented with an interesting choice: vengeance or a life of penitence? Rosson’s lyrical prose and beautifully imagined tormented freaks elevate the story into something much more powerful, while Carrie Vaughn’s enjoyable, action-packed romance, “Origin Story,” set in the violent Commerce City, where epic battles routinely take place between heroes who fly and villains with ray guns, is in the mold of science fiction pulp from the Golden Age, but with a slight twist. Accidentally caught up in a dramatic bank robbery, the main character recognizes the famous archvillain as her high school sweetheart and, still smarting from their breakup eight years earlier, longs to renew their affair.

Perhaps the most inspired story comes from Keith Frady, who discards the gaudy costume to expose the thick layers of cracked make-up his grizzled, jaded supervillain wears in the delightfully melodramatic “Fool.” While “orchestrating the apocalypse” from his lair beneath a dormant volcano on a “skull-shaped tropical island deep in the Atlantic,” the maniacal Dr. Entropy, haunted by regret and uncertainty, suddenly has second thoughts about destroying the human race. Amusingly, Frady’s sympathetic villain, desperately in need of a nemesis, finds a worthy opponent in the form of an android that has evolved beyond its original programming and no longer recognizes him as its master and creator.

Presenting a full range of strong, articulate, varied voices, distinctive troubled characters, and thought-provoking narratives, Behind the Mask stands out as a mighty collection of supremely imaginative and innovative tales.

About the Reviewer

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of six literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. His book reviews for the Lancashire Evening Post are syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.