I love stories about superpowered characters and am forever on the lookout for good ones. Our recent track record has not been positive, though, but I carry on! As such, it was a case of “when” and not of “if” that my ongoing quest to find good superhero fiction would inevitably lead me to read Superheroes, an anthology with 16 short stories edited by Rich Horton. 

I am glad to report that on the whole, Superheroes is a good anthology with solid stories. Best of all, unlike some of my previous forays reading superheroes stories, reading this was thankfully (mostly) free of Vein-Popping Moments of Deep Distress. By that, I mean: Taken as a whole, the stories were not sexist, managing to skirt writing stereotypically hyper-sexualized female characters, for example. Also good: There are several stories featuring PoC and the anthology has a great balance between female and male authors. Those points already make this a successful anthology in principle—which is kind of sad that this is even something I need to take into consideration at all, as this ought to be the default rather than the exception. But I digress.

Superheroes offers a varied diet: stories where characters are not really superheroes; stories featuring superheroes as incidental to the plot as well as stories with superheroes and/or supervillains as the main characters and driving force; there are stories in the past, present and future—some of them with a more realistic contemporary bend, others with a science fictional twist and alternate/parallel timeline and there is even one with a crime procedural/noir feel (“Downfall” by Joseph Mallozzi). There are origin stories but also farewell stories and ones that are sad and thoughtful as well as those that are funny, light and entertaining (like the superfun “The Strange Desserts of Professor Natalie Doom” by Kat Beyer, featuring a mad scientist feminist genius).

There isn’t one single theme (well apart from “superheroes,” of course) that connect the stories. Instead, different motifs abound. The question of accountability (“who watches the Watchmen”) is at the centre of the futuristic/dystopian “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald, for instance, and the topic of how regular, common folks are affected by the destruction caused by the strenuous fights between supervillains and superheroes is central to “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory.

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Some stories feature elderly superheroes and what happens to them either when they quit their jobs protecting the world, like the bittersweet and excellent “Tonight We Fly” by Ian McDonald, or what happens to them when they’re so old but still can’t die, like in the equally bittersweet story “Heroic Measures” by Matthew Johnson (featuring a trio of unnamed characters whose identities are easily guessed by superhero connoisseurs).     

Among my favorites are the excellent “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link, in which superheroes are basically secondary to the story of a young girl who meets an older guy online and what happens when they finally attempt to meet. It is a very interesting story portraying the scary mixture of potent hope, knowledge and naivete that teenagers have. And the fun “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is about a group of FBI agents investigating superpowered crime-committing. It’s kinda like The X-Files with a nerdy fun twist and from what I understand, this story is part of an ongoing online series written by several authors and published on Shadow Unit.

Another great story is Peter S. Beagle’s “Dirae.” Its excellence lies in the way that its narrative is structurally built as a stream of consciousness and how the story progresses as its narrator grows from unconsciousness to self-awareness. It is a beautiful story that is also beautifully written—a perfect package.

It’s not all ponies and rainbows, though, as three stories gave me cause to pause. I questioned the main theme of “Super. Family.” by Ian Donald Keeling, in which a superhero struggles with family life as his teenaged daughter shows the first signs of possessing superpowers. The main point of this story, though, is how the hero and his wife have been fighting and there is so much anger and resentment coming from her, stemming from the fact that she got pregnant again and had to quit being one of the most powerful superbeings to be a stay-at-home mom. She clearly did not want another child, the pregnancy was not only not wanted but also forced on her by her husband and it strikes me as odd that there is no mention of abortion whatsoever, either way. Was that not an option? Why not? Inquiring minds want to know. That the story is mostly from HIS point of view makes it all the more aggravating. 

I had an extremely strong negative reaction to “Dr. Death vs. the Vampire” by Aaron Schutz, about a nurse with empathic superpowers who enjoys killing terminal patients far too much—the nurse is traveling on a bus when he realises there is one dying old lady he needs to take care of. He used to be a member of The League of Almost Superheroes (one of its members, Plastic Girl, is one of the most tragic superheroines ever—every time she uses her elasticity powers, she can’t quite go back to what she used to be) but was kicked out of it. Despite the interesting premise of the story, there was a strange overwhelming element of fat-shaming in the narrative and although I understand the fact that the narrator was not a good person, I thought the narrative did not question at all how the narrator thought about another character as this fat, idiot and easy prey kid.

Finally, “Wonjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is a story set in Korea, with a Korean narrator about an international group of superheroes working for a corporation who ends up caving to pressure and helping North Korea. This is probably the most ostensibly political story and it could have been an interesting piece but ended up being extremely forced anti North Korean propaganda to me. This is also, interestingly, the one story that fits the more stereotypical storyline, complete with a traditional male gaze narrative when describing female characters (and ending up by equating “angelic” with “good” and “too strong” with “bad”). 

Overall, I really enjoyed this anthology and highly recommend it to superheroes enthusiasts with one caveat: All the stories in the anthology are reprints (I had only read the contribution by Peter S. Beagle previously but I suggest that readers who regularly seek short stories check the table of contents).

In Book Smugglerish, a super-relieved 7 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.