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Posted by -Slamel- On Thursday, August 05, 2010

We know Lou Anders, and we know his style and what he is capable of. So when we picked up MASKED, a superhero story anthology, we already knew we were going to have to reevaluate our appreciation for the genre. Superheroes, to us, have only ever been as interesting as their villains. Villains, in actuality, are the driving force behind the superhero tale. The reasons for this can be boiled down to the fact that the Heroes are almost always reactionary, waiting around for something bad to happen, and the Villains are the ones who have the grand plan or scheme.

It's because of this that neither of us are big comic book gurus, or even fans. Did the two of us, a couple of hard-sells in the genre, enjoy the anthology? You bet your Bat-Mobile!

It's par for course for anthologies that not all the short stories will shine, and MASKED is no exception, there were a few of the 15 that just didn't strike home with us. The majority of them were fantastic though.

To start off, we would like to address the introduction written by Lou Anders. As we read it, we knew that he was taking this project very seriously. It wasn't a joke to him, or the authors involved. Through the intro, and knowing a bit about Lou in the first place, we could really tell he has a passion for the subject matter and wouldn't settle in the compilation of this anthology. He was looking for the best. It's safe to say he largely succeeded. To do so, many of the authors Lou grabbed are comic book writers. They know their stuff, and it shows in the stories they tell. And here are our thoughts on some of them:

The Non-Event - Mike Carey
This is easily one of our favorites. The focus on the "mundane" superheroes/supervillains, and their goals was refreshing. Not every Hero is out to save the world, and not every Villain is out to destroy or rule it, and not every plan goes smoothly. The short story is told as a confession from a villainous lock-pick after a job going awry...which was a neat touch. The part that really hit this story out of the ballpark for us is that in its climax it showcases what it is to be human and how those threads tie us--Villains and Heroes alike--together.

Downfall - Joseph Mallozzi

This entry is quite possibly the shining star in the anthology. In what might seem, at first, to be standard reformed Villain fare, we are given an amazing tale about identity. With plenty of twists and surprises, this story turns its seemingly vanilla-flavored premise into a deep and engaging tale. We were both surprised by the depth we found here and agreed this was easily a contender for the best entry in the anthology.

Cleansed and Set in Gold - Matthew Sturges

One of the darker stories, and (predictably) another of our favorites. It's more difficult to talk about why we liked this story so much without including spoilers. Let's suffice it to say that the theme explored here is sacrifice, and what it truly takes to be heroic. A bonus point to this story is that its exploration of morals asks the question of whether what happens in the story is actually heroic at all. It was a bit surprising that the anthology started off with this story, but it certainly kicked everything off with a bang.

Message from the Bubblegum Factory - Daryl Gregory

If you have been following EBR you know that Daryl is one of those authors that we have only recently discovered and really liked. Upon finding he had an entry in MASKED, excitement to read his take on superheroes is an understatement. In true Daryl Gregory style he takes the tale for a spin. The narrator is insane. Off to a good start here, and it only gets better!

Thug - Gail Simone
A comic book heavyweight delivers the story with the emotional impact of a freight train. At first the writing is distracting, as it is full of misspelled words, bad grammar, punctuation issues, etc. All of this is done on purpose of course, and after the first page or so becomes less of a distraction as the emotional weight of the story starts to get noticed.

Secret Identity - Paul Cornell
The reason we didn't like this story was that it just felt so rough. It was more like a brainstorm session, chalking up the important points in a vague semblance of order, to remember for later. It bounced back and forth, and in the end we were just left shrugging our shoulders with a "Meh!" as we turned the page to the next entry. We will give him credit for an extremely unique idea, and something that could have been very cool had it not been for the presentation. As it is the metaphor we think he was going for here about identities, and hiding yourself, is almost lost in translation.

Vacuum Lad - Stephen Baxter
Is this really a superhero story? By far this is the weakest entry in the anthology. There is a lot of discussion of science, and not much else going on here. While the rest of the authors are reveling in the opportunity to tell a superhero tale, Baxter seems to only have the vaguest sense of willingness to participate.

"Where Their Worm Dieth Not" by James Maxey, "Tonight We Fly" by Ian McDonald, and "By My Works Shall You Know Me" by Mark Chadbourn were all easily worth mentioning as fantastic entries, each bringing a different emotional vibe to it and dealing with various human experiences. They explored death and punishment, remembering the past, and friendship and betrayal respectively.

What you may have noticed from our comments was the common theme of the stories. Heroes or Villains were used to tell a story that goes underneath, or perhaps beyond, the "superhuman", and is strikingly--sometimes hauntingly--human.

This is the greatest strength of MASKED. All the authors brought their A-game to tell us stories that, in the end, strike home so forcefully in their theme and presentation it is impossible not to be impressed by their work, entertained by the stories, or enthusiastic about the genre. The "Redemption Arc" is one of the most typical superhero/supervillain story arcs in the business. For us, MASKED itself was a redemption for the entire genre.

Recommended Age: 18 and up.
Language: Yep, there is cursing.
Violence: Well of course. There is plenty of fighting and gore, but in such short prose there isn't a lot of time to dwell on it, so the descriptions of it come and go quickly.
Sex: It is included in a couple stories, alluded to in others. Nothing to be too terribly concerned about.


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