Ever since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' complex and literate, Watchmen, came out there have been more intelligent examinations of the world of superheroes. Deeper explorations of the personal angst and separation experienced by these heroes, moral confusion, unavoidable inconsistencies, and the overpowering weight of responsibility have provided great fodder for smarter tales. Joseph Mallozzi's contribution in this collection called Downfall captures this succinctly with the line, "Always playing to the media, their public acts of altruism little more than a patina glossing over the ugly truths - alcoholism, malignant narcissism, anger management issues."
It seems we have created a sub-cottage industry to the original super hero comic book trade. This has meant more original efforts that move the genre forward. Take into consideration the movies Hancock, Unbreakable and The Incredibles, Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, and one will see that characters in bright tights and capes have evolved.
And to my surprise, while reading this collection, I read a story in the February 26, 2011 edition of The Wall Street Journal called, Bam! Pow! Superhero Groups Clash In an Epic Battle of Good vs. Good. It covers the true story of individuals dressing up as superheroes in the Seattle area (among them Phoenix Jones - Guardian of Seattle, Zetaman, Knight Owl, Dark Guardian, and Mr. Raven Blade). And like the stories in Masked these real-life characters are revealed to have conflicts amongst themselves. Life imitating art indeed.
This collection has a dark and deep tone that appeals. The stories are all highly original and cover a range of subjects that add reality to the unreal. It begins with Cleansed and Set in Gold by Matthew Sturges which introduces a mash-up of epic proportions including "plausible" superheroes as conflicted individuals. It is a great kick-off story with fun lines given the genre like "I don't have a fascinating origin story" and "His conclusion was that the Ghouls are a gift from the seventy-second century, sent back in time by some enterprising villain to plague the twenty-first".
"Atomahawk", "Retaliator", "She-Devil" are members of "The Law Legion" waging a never-ending battle against "Prime Mover". How awesome are those names? This tale, Where Worms Dieth Not, explores the challenges of crime fighting and the dark abysses it can send even the most noble. Another story in the collection called, Secret Identity, explores homophobia (yes homophobia). I will not be a spoiler here as the story is ingenious.
And how about a story from the villain's perspective? The Non-Event by Mike Carey covers two-bit hoods who benefit from an occurrence which gave one in ten people various super powers. This line explains it, "I don't mean supervillains, you understand: I mean good, old fashioned burglars, bank robbers, and stick-up merchants who just happen to have picked up powers during the endoclasm. We're not interested in ruling the world, or destroying it, or having a big pointless punch-up with a bunch of twats in tights. We just ply our trade, when we're allowed it, do the job, and then clock off."
The collection is wildly entertaining exploring emotions, situations, and relationships in the super hero universe with humor and intelligence.