Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sleestak reviews: Who Can Save Us Now?

Like many comic book bloggers I receive about once a week or so an offer to review a book, comic or DVD in return for a free copy of the product. I usually decline the offer since until recently, I just did not have time to read or devote the energy to doing a review. One offer a few months back made my ethics-sense tingle. In return for a link and write-up (presumably favorable) the blogger would receive a free copy of the item from the promotional company. Even though I was gagging for what they offered, I politely declined since it seemed sleazy. I wouldn't promote something I haven't seen beforehand (unless I was getting paid for it). Even though I later purchased my own copy and can heartily recommend it now, I replied then that I couldn't in good conscience do as they asked. I didn't receive a response thanking me, which would have been professional, but I knew it was too much to expect from marketing shills. Other sites, I noticed, in their eagerness to receive some free goodies before it hit the stores did not hesitate in promoting their goods. To each their own.

I mention this because from reading a number of reviews of the new superhero anthology book Who Can Save Us Now? attention seems to be focused only on the first story in the book, Girl Reporter by Stephanie Harrell. From the various sources I'm reading I speculate that a few of the many amateur reviewers (And I consider myself a complete amateur) are taking advantage of the offer of a free book by giving a perfunctory read of the first story and pounding out a paragraph of why they liked or disliked the collection as a whole. I understand the business model behind it, and the promise of a little free booty gets a lot of people all drool-y but it would be nice if the company chose their recipients a little more carefully. If a little publicity is all that the publisher expects or wants for handing out a promotional copy then, fine. Most of us are not journalists or professionals and our readership is low enough that I seriously wonder about the cost-effectiveness of handing out umpteen copies of a book or DVD.

The most obvious comparison to Who Can Save Us Now? is to an older anthology collection, Superheroes. Some comic books fans are familiar with the 1991 re-issue of this 80s collection. I first read this collection of short stories deconstructing the world of superheroes in the early 1980s. It had a great amalgam superhero cover and contained short stories printed in various magazines from as far back as the 1960s. In Superheroes there is a story similar in theme to Girl Reporter, as both stories feature a Lois Lane and Superman archetype. The former story is about an obsessed woman who tracks down the hero in his secret identity to fulfill her fantasies only to discover he really is a "strange visitor", who only looks human and has nothing in common with humanity. Girl Reporter diverges from this idea in which the character doesn't discover a monster but instead creates one. One of the amusing ideas about this story is that I think Stephanie Harrell completely and accurately nails Lois Lane's character as a selfish, sex-addicted manipulator.

Who Can Save Us Now? is not Mayhem In Manhattan. Much of the anthology will appeal not to comic book fans looking for text adventures of their favorite heroes but rather those readers that enjoy the work of Chabon, Lapham and Grossman. These authors have found a niche in the neo-geek market and this book ably fills it. Several of the stories are not so much about heroics as they are about hope and even delusion. They carry the theme that there is a little hero in everyone. The emo Oversoul and Nate Pickney-Anderson, Super-Hero are two examples.

The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children is like Peyton Place on a dose of Marvel 616. One of the things that is difficult to do in these stories is get away from the mythology of Marvel or DC. Both of those companies have been around forever and there are very few original ideas left for creators to mine. Still, there are plenty of evil geniuses and superheroes to read about and several of the stories are fun, creepy and even scary.

One common theme in any modern story about superheroes is the new habit of creators making the characters act just like real people. Not in the sense of hopes and dreams and drama but in the style of such fare as The Boys by Garth Ennis. Kevin Smith penned a funny bit in Mallrats where a character was obsessed about the details of superhero anatomy and the physics of sex and the toilet, but that's all it was, a comedy bit. Sooner or later all the fanboys wonder about it and even, in some cases, probably fantasize about it. I know there are entire websites devoted to the idea and featuring superheroes like the Fantastic Four having sex. Again, to each their own. I'm just not interested in Kitty porn.

Many modern writers have run with the idea and made it seem to be a central theme of their work. Okay, yes, we get it. Superman gets erections and Wonder Woman has a menstrual cycle. Unless it is an Harlan Ellison story or Wild Cards character please let the tawdry biological descriptions rest. It makes the eyes roll when every single story you read has a passage devoted to Ultra-Defecation, Hyper-Sex or the Super-Penis. Once upon a time it was edgy, new and humanized a character but now it seems trite, like the amateur fiction of a stereotypical fanboy.

Still, other than the occasional melancholy ending there is much to like in this collection. My Interview With the Avenger and the League of Justice (Philadelphia Division) tweaks some of the conceits of the Batman and the unfairly dismissed Detroit Justice League of America era.

If you enjoyed Fortress of Solitude and Soon I Will be Invincible then don't hesitate to get this book. If you don't care for those entries then it is still worthwhile as several of the stories are a modern take of the Silver and Modern Age of comic books. Basically, if I didn't receive this book free I'd still buy it. I enjoyed most of the stories as they added a bit not only to the continuing legitimacy of the superhero as an art form but also to the canonical, what one writer, Devon Sanders at Second Printing!!, is calling the "New Mythology".

You can order the book here.

4 comments:

  1. Nice cover art. It immediately put me in mind of the last few issues of Miracleman, when Dicky had to cope with being superpowered but not all that unusual, in a world that he could barely understand. When you can do almost anything, what WOULD you do, and what SHOULD you do?

    Like, if you had the power to travel at amazing speeds, transporting resources across continents, or communicate instantaneously across the planet to coordinate relief efforts, would you be morally obligated to use those powers? Or not to? If two factions somewhere got in a fight, would it be worse to stay on the sidelines or support one faction?

    I really miss Mark Gruenwald.

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  2. I've recently read this too and I thought there was an interesting split in the book between stories about superheroes and stories about people with powers. The latter were pretty much just magical realism and personally I found them a little dull compared to the ones that examined the superhero tropes. That's despite the fact that many of the latter were a bit clumsy. Still, the first and last stories are quite good and there are a few high points in between so it's worth borrowing from the library at any rate.

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  3. Thanks for the shout-out, Sleestak!

    The more I think about it, I really am starting to believe, we comics fans are truly privy to the incredible.

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