Title: Behind the Mask: A Superhero Anthology
Editors: Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson
Authors: Kelly Link, Cat Rambo, Seanan McGuire, Lavie Tidhar, Carrie Vaughn, Sarah Pinsker, Kate Marshall, Michael Milne, Aimee Ogden, Nathan Crowder, Keith Rosson, Stuart Suffel, Jennifer Pullen, Matt Mikalatos, Patrick Flanagan, Ziggy Schutz, Keith Frady, Stephanie Lai, Chris Large, and Adam R. Shannon
Genre/Category: Superheroes, Slice of Life, Supervillains, Anthology
Release Date: May 16, 2017
Publisher: Meerkat Press
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in review are my own. Additionally, the spoilers in this review range from mild to kind of major.
Behind the Mask is a multi-author collection with stories by award-winning authors Kelly Link, Cat Rambo, Carrie Vaughn, Seanan McGuire, Lavie Tidhar, Sarah Pinsker, Keith Rosson, Kate Marshall, Chris Large and others. It is partially, a prose nod to the comic world—the bombast, the larger-than-life, the save-the-worlds and the calls-to-adventure. But it’s also a spotlight on the more intimate side of the genre. The hopes and dreams of our cape-clad heroes. The regrets and longings of our cowled villains. That poignant, solitary view of the world that can only be experienced from behind the mask.
The authors in this collection, both established and new, are all dexterous and wonderfully imaginative, each deserving of their own form-fitting uniforms and capes. Some of the stories pulse with social commentary, like Cat Rambo’s whimsical and deft “Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut” and Keith Rosson’s haunting “Torch Songs.” Others twist the genre into strange and new territories, like Stuart Suffel’s atmospheric “Birthright,” Kate Marhsall’s moving “Destroy the City with Me Tonight,” and Adam Shannon’s reality-bending “Over an Embattled City.” Some punch with heart and humor, like Matt Mikalatos’s satisfying “The Beard of Truth” and Chris Large’s adventurous “Salt City Blue,” while others punch with bite and grit, such as Michael Milne’s evocative “Inheritance,” Aimee Ogden’s poignant “As I Fall Asleep,” and Jennifer Pullen’s heartfelt “Meeting Someone in the 22nd Century.” Some of the stories feature characters who might not be superheroes in the traditional sense, yet are heroic nonetheless, such as Sarah Pinsker’s imaginative “The Smoke Means It’s Working” and Stephanie Lai’s majestic “The Fall of the Jade Sword.” Some shine a unique, captivating spotlight on supervillains, like Keith Frady’s dramatic “Fool” and Carrie Vaughn’s romantic “Origin Story.” Some are somber, ponderous works, where our heroes consider their impact on the world, like Lavie Tidhar’s regret-tinged “Heroes” and Nathan Crowder’s resonant “Madjack.” Others tread more light-hearted waters, with heroes adjusting to the sometimes-comical, sometimes-stressful life in the public eye, like Seanan McGuire’s entertaining “Pedestal” and Patrick Flanagan’s lively “Quintessential Justice.” And then there are the softer, quieter moments between heroes, as they navigate their extraordinary lives in their own unique ways, such as Ziggy Schutz’s tender “Eggshells” and, of course, Kelly Link’s captivating “Origin Story.”
I have so many positive feelings about Behind the Mask.
When I first glanced at the blurb, this superhero anthology seemed like it’d be entirely MY THING. I mean, I am honestly always talking about how much I love original superhero stories that have nothing to do with the Big Two’s stable of overpowered and inconsistently characterized heavy-hitters.
It wound up being like…80-90% MY THING (which is still good).
While Behind the Mask had a couple of stories that missed the mark for me (largely in minor ways), it had a LOT more stories that had the kind of interesting ideas that I look for in superhero stories and plenty of “hits”.
While I want to be fair to all of the authors in this anthology because, for the most part they were all innovative or interesting even if some of them weren’t my thing, if I were to sit here and write a review for every single story here, we’d be here a while. So I’m going to focus on some of the stories that stood out the most to me and some of the stories that couldn’t hold me.
My favorite story in this anthology is Seanan McGuire’s “Pedestal” because it is actually everything I’ve ever wanted from this sort of anthology. Part of that is because I fan-Stitch over Seanan as often as possible, but okay “Pedestal” is a look at an aspect of superheroics that folks tend to overlook: the misogyny that lady-adjacent superheroes would face.
In a world where superheroes are public figures on par with pop stars, entitlement runs rampant among “fans” and shit gets real awful, real fast. This story features a wannabe-paparazzo, a tentacle monster from another dimension, and a superhero that just wants to get her ice-cream in peace. (Also, while the summary calls it light-hearted it’s basically about fan entitlement and invasions of privacy so… Your mileage may vary on that.)
Speaking of favorite stories, Stephanie Lai’s “The Fall of the Jade Sword” is a very close second for me because it feels like one of those old-time radio plays that I’ve been obsessed with for the past few years. Seriously, the language that Lai uses is so vivid that I had absolutely NO trouble picturing Mok-Seung as she starts to follow in the Jade Sword’s footsteps.
“The Fall of the Jade Sword” has familiar elements that I always find fun in superhero media (i.e., superheroes in training, the sort of secret identity), but it’s also unlike most of the work I’ve read in the genre.
Mok-Seung is an awesome protagonist and I would totally kill for another longer work focused on her adventures working alongside the Jade Sword and learning to adapt together.
I also largely enjoyed the first story in Behind the Mask, Cat Rambo’s “Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut” because it sort of serves as a commentary on superheroes, gender, and being who you say you are (as opposed to what/who other people say you are). It was largely a hit for me aside from some dialogue at the start about “porn star superheroes” where I couldn’t tell if the characters were criticizing these oversexualized superheroes or the culture that created them. I loved this story because it felt a lot like reading Warren Ellis’ work on Stormwatch and The Authority (but with you know… more queer ladies).
I also thought that this was a good story to start the anthology with because of the tone it sets and how, right off the bat, we’re shown this absolutely atypical superhero narrative.
“Meeting Someone in the 22nd Century or Until the Gears Quit Turning” legitimately shook me. Author Jennifer Pullen got me to let my guard down with this super sweet rom-com vibe with quaint couple Sandra and Greg. Only to rip my heart out at the halfway point.
Here I am at the halfway point and I’m busy pondering the nature of cyborgs and then WHAM, I get hit right in the feels.
Because this story deals with miscarriages in a realistic and utterly heart-breaking way. Look, I’m not saying I ugly cried a bit but well… I kind of did.
(That being said, if your triggers include pregnancy and miscarriages, this is a story you might want to skip.)
Honorable mentions for awesomeness go to Carrie Vaughn’s “Origin Story”, Kate Marshall’s “Destroy the City with Me Tonight”, and Aimee Ogden’s “As I Fall Asleep”.
Now I’m not going to linger too long on the stories that I didn’t like, but well… there are a few and I am a complainer at heart.
First, Keith Frady’s “Fool” was… not my cup of tea.
His villain Dr. Entropy felt like a grimmer, darker Gru from Despicable Me (not an insult, I love those fricking moves) and the whole “tired villain decides to destroy the world rather than conquer it” plot is one that has never appealed to me.
I get that it doesn’t end the way you’d expect, and the use of an intuitive android as a hero in the story is novel, but yeah… despite the fact that Frady is a talented writer, his story is just not my thing.
But hey, it might be yours!
Chris Large’s “Salt City Blue” wasn’t bad, but I honestly could not get why Skyball was so awful about Helen’s ~little surprise~ and the tone of the story was a little too VH1 reality television series for me. But if you liked the nonstop drama of Grace Randolph’s Supurbia, you might like this story.
Other stories that didn’t work for me include Matt Mikalatos’s “The Beard of Truth” (which felt a bit like something I’d see on Adult Swim’s programming block) and Kelly Link’s “Origin Story” (which has so many – too many – Wizard of Oz references for my liking and couldn’t get me invested in the characters on top of that).
Meerkat Press absolutely deserves props for Behind the Mask‘s high percentage of lady writers (I think that when I counted, it was like… at least half the authors on the book). I also genuinely appreciate the perspectives that these authors bring to the table because these aren’t stories being told in comics. Many of them look at “the everyday”, domesticity, and the relationships that these heroes have to maneuver through.
As with many other anthologies I’ve read, I have some general comments: Behind the Mask could (and should) have had more on-page queerness and stories centered on characters of color. If there’s ever another Behind the Mask anthology collection or another superhero anthology from Meerkat Press, that’s something I’m going to be looking for.
And boy do I want there to be another collection like this from Meerkat Press!