Who Can Save Us Now? by Owen King and John McNally (Free Press, 2008)

When I sat down to try and describe this anthology, I found myself at a loss for words. I tried to be witty, but nothing was working. I tried to be ironic, but that failed. I even tried to be dry and boring, but nothing came to mind. In the end, I decided, I might as well go for honesty. Who Can Save Us Now? is a collection of superhero stories, as written by what some might call “literary” writers, and by that, I mean that very few of them are what I’d consider to be household names. Looking at a list of over 20 names, I recognize a mere handful, including Graham Joyce, Jennifer Weiner, and David Yoo. None of them are known for tackling science fiction and fantasy, nor for comic books, and yet here they are, offering up their takes on superheroes and supervillains, aiming to create modern myths for a much more ambiguous, conflicted era. And the results are … well, I’m not going to leave you hanging in suspense. The results are mixed, and unusual. For those looking for four-color action and adventure, or bigscreen excitement, prepare to be disappointed. For those looking for literary entertainment, you’ll find plenty here to consider. But let’s look at some of the stories, shall we?

Stephanie Harrell looks at one particular superhero through the eyes of an outsider, in “Girl Reporter.” Like the quantum particles in the Heisenberg Principle, her hero is changed through the act of being observed, changing to fit expectations and losing his original identity in the process. There’s clearly some sort of Superman/Lois Lane commentary going on here, but it comes off as a bit dry and disassociated to really connect with the reader.

Sam Weller’s “The Quick Stop 5″ is a tongue-in-cheek tale, one of the closest this book comes to actual superheroics, and even then it falls a little short. When five employees at a convenience store/truck stop in Iowa are bathed in iodisel fumes, they gain amazing abilities based upon the common items they just happened to be holding, which range from chewing tobacco to beef jerky to a Slushie to a box of condoms, to marijuana. Unlikely heroes, or corporate tools? Sadly, this is just their origin, and we may never know what adventures await them. It’s a safe bet you’ll never see these guys in a mainstream comic.

John McNally’s “Remains of the Night” is told from the viewpoint of one superhero’s butler. Unfortunately, that superhero is the Silverfish, one of the creepiest heroes around, and the butler may just be losing his grip on reality. In the end, I’m not sure how much of the story is real, and how much is hallucination. Is there even a Silverfish, and if so, how much is true? It’s an oddly unsettling psychological piece, where the hero’s influence is felt more than the hero himself.

In “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children,” Will Clark postulates that one promiscuous superhero might have had a number of children, all inheriting his ability to fly. Will his freewheeling nature also hold true, or will their religious, strait-laced upbringing prove dominant? It’s a classic nature versus nurture, with one small town feeling the brunt of things. Again, interesting, but the superhero is merely a backdrop for the effect he’s had on the world.

“The Thirteenth Egg,” by Scott Snyder, is about a former soldier, returned home a changed man after witnessing an atomic explosion during World War 2. While he might be superpowered, he’s no hero, not by the way we commonly define such things.

In “Roe #5,” by Richard Dooling, one woman learns, many years after the fact, that someone may have kept her unborn baby after an abortion, subjecting it to experiments. How will she react to the possible existence of her unknown superhuman children? And what’s the point of revealing it now? Again, there’s a certain unsatisfying lack of superheroes in this story.

Noria Jablonski’s “The Snipper” follows one young man, the scion of a family of Sea Monkeys (remember those ads?) who spends time as a nursing home for superheroes. There’s a serious problem in town: someone’s cutting up superhero costumes, and everyone lives in fear of The Snipper… You know, this story’s too strange to be described in any more depth. It’s interesting, but a little too clever for my liking.

“My Interview With The Avenger,” by Tom Bissell, is intriguing because it comes the closest to examining what a real-life superhero would be like, and indeed invokes some of the people who’ve donned masks to patrol the streets in the real world. Down-to-earth, logical, grounded in reality, practical, it’s refreshing for its straightforwardness.

In Sean Doolittle’s “Mr. Big Deal,” we come as close as this anthology ever gets to action heroes, as he focuses upon a cop with the unique ability to negate the superhiuman gifts of other people. There’s a lot of backstory, internal mythology and setting hinted at here, and of all the stories in the collection, this is the one I’d like to see expanded the most.

David Yoo looks at people whose powers are less than impressive, barely enough to qualify for super in the first place, in “The Somewhat Super.” When a frustrated writer is invited to write a book about the members of a support group for minor-league superhumans, he discovers just how normal, and abnormal they are … and learns about the hazards facing them should they ever go public. One of the more interesting concepts in the collection, its downbeat ending leaves something to be desired.

David Haynes’ “The Lives of Ordinary Superheroes” examines the power one man can have to influence his surroundings, as he follows the career of a quiet, well-spoken man dedicated to improving the world one person at a time. But again, is he a hero, or just a man doing the right thing?

There are plenty of other stories in this book, ranging from the utterly bizarre (Jim Shephard’s “In Cretaceous Seas”) to those that just didn’t grab me in the first place (Jennifer Weiner’s “League of Justice (Philadelphia Division)) but in the end, I read enough to get a good feel for Who Can Save Us Now? Ultimately, I was disappointed by what I found here. While it’s billed as a collection of short stories about superheroes, it seems as though half the time, the heroes don’t even make more than a guest appearance, with the author choosing to examine some aspect of their exietence or influence upon the world, or to tell a story only remotely related to the basic theme. When superheroes do appear, more often than not they’re muddled, ineffective, neurotic messes, or joke characters. This honestly strikes me as superheroes as viewed through a Woody Allen lens. Marvel Comics may have perfected the hero with feet of clay, but these stories take it a few steps further.
If these are the heroes for the 21st century, then I’ll stick with the old-fashioned 20th century heroes anyday.

If you’re looking for stories about honest-to-goodness superheroes, I can think of a number of more appropriate books, and that’s without getting into the Marvel and DC licensed novels. Perry Moore’s Hero, for young adult. Jennifer Estep’s Karma Girl or Hot Mama, if you want romance. The John Varley-edited anthology, Superheroes, remains one of the best original collections of superhero fiction I’ve ever run across. David J. Schwartz’s Superpowers is an honestly-engaging look at would-be heroes. Vicki Pettersson’s Signs of the Zodiac series is urban fantasy meets comic books. The Wild Cards series has been doing amazing things with superpowered characters for decades. That’s just off the top of my head.

The stories in this collection are well-written, and quality work, definitely. I even enjoyed reading some of them, and there’re a few authors I may check out in more depth later on. But I can’t help but feel a little betrayed; I picked up this book expecting four-color action and adventure, and what I found was something very different. Literary, yes. Thoughtful, perhaps. But these weren’t the superheroes I was expecting. Who Can Save Us Now? Not these guys, they can’t even save themselves. For all that this is an interesting, well-done anthology, it just wasn’t what the cover copy suggested, and I’m going to have to shake my fist angrily as a result. Not recommended to those seeking traditional superheroes and villains.

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