Friday, November 05, 2010

MASKED Review Part 3

And now a look at the final stories collected in MASKED

Downfall by Joseph Mallozzi is probably my favorite story in this collection - a look at an ex-villain dragged into a final assignment, who learns more about his past than he ever wanted to. Straightforward, smart and snappy, Mallozzi knows how to give us just enough information to make us put together the puzzle by ourselves, and yet hold back enough to let the final reveal be a surprising treat.

Mark Chadobourn offers a novel tale of power, redemption, and betrayal in By My Works You Shall Know Me. While fans of the genre may not find much new here, the plot works along fine, even if only the protagonist is ever fleshed out as a character. However, given the nature of the protagonist and the narration, I believe that was a necessary conceit to make the story work.

Fans of alternate histories, particularly those of a steampunk bent, will find a lot to enjoy in Call Her Savage by Marjorie M. Liu. Liu offers what (to me at least) is a clever twist on a cliche - a reluctant old warrior called back to duty for a last desperate battle. Of course, in this case, neither the old warrior nor the battle are entirely as first advertised. For me at least, my own familiarity with the genre conventions ended up tripping me at least a couple times here, and it's to Liu's credit that it was clearly laid out to mislead jaded fans such as myself.

A bit overly sentimental and threadbare at times, Ian McDonald manages to pull off a nice little story about old age and superpowers and the bond between old foes in Tonight We Fly. While there are few surprises here, it's still a very competent effort that helps ground the fantastical elements in the real world.

This brings us to the final story in this collection, A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too) by Bill Willingham. Now, Willingham has garned a reputation among comics fan for some of his political beliefs and for some other online comments he has made to fans. Now, I tried to read this story without thinking about those comments, because I think that a work and the personal beliefs of the writer should be separated to give an unbiased opinion of the work itself. In that light, this was a lighthearted, exceptional clever (giving the sub-chapters alphabetical names was a cute and innovative way of helping to give the necessary background on some of the multitude of characters) bit of work that shows that Willingham has an imagination for world-building and new characters that hasn't had a chance to shine in the current climate (at the very least, not since his Elementals days). It's a very successful effort on his part that clearly illuminates his talent.

Unfortunately, it also highlights a couple of his quirks that were not to my taste. While his knowledge of things mythological and fairy tale are prodigious (as one should expect of the co-creator of Fables and the creator of the Elementals) there is something of an over-reliance on the supernatural evident in this work, like all of it. In his defense, this is a minor quibble of mine, but it was one that reminded me why I'm not a regular fan of his. The other item of annoyance is more significant - while it's very clear (particularly in the online comments he's put above) that he's no fan of current "Superhero Decadence" (and I for one, would like to thank him for coining this term), he's not really interested in promoting the more traditional "Silver Age" moral codes either, preferring his own hybrid of the two. While there's nothing wrong with this, it would have been nicer if he had not created such obvious strawmen from both of these camps to deflate in the story. It would have been far better for him to actually offer up his philosophy for the genre's moral core unhindered by comparison, so it could stand on its own merits. That said, I did enjoy this story, as evidenced by the fact that I've spent so long talking about it.

Overall, while there were a few flubs and non-starters, this is an excellent anthology that I would recommend to any genre enthusiasts looking for some more innovation from the superhero genre.

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