Review: In Hero Years… I’m Dead, by Michael Stackpole

This was an odd little superhero story where an aging hero comes back for one last shot at glory. The hero-narrator (a man with a dozen secret identities, going by the old hero title of Coyote) tells his tale of returning to his Capital City after twenty years of captivity in foreign lands, his will focused on taking revenge on those who betrayed him long ago. Alas, too much has changed. A whole new breed of heroes and villains have emerged, and not only is our aging hero a little off his game, but the nature of the game has changed. No longer are heroes fighting for justice against villains bent on wanton destruction. Instead, everyone is fighting for shares of the biggest game in town, betting on hero vs. villain matchups, the ultimate in sports/reality/crime events.

The back story of how the world changed during his absence is interesting and is delivered to us in appropriately sized chunks over the course of the novel, and we get to see what has become of all the great heroes and villains of old. Many are simply gone. A few hang on, lurking in the shadows. And then there’s the bad blood of the old sidekicks, forever deprived of their time in the spotlight.

Does our hero get his revenge? Will he bring the new system down? Will he restore us back to a world of proper heroes? Well, that’s actually my main complaint about the book. While the journey he took was an interesting one, our protagonist kept vacillating back and forth on what he wanted to do. After three cycles of “I must get revenge” to “no, I’m retired” and then back to “Revenge!” I stopped counting. At about that time, I lost sympathy for the protagonist. I was still interested in what happened to the world – because other characters had caught my interest – but I no longer really cared whether or not our protagonist got what he wanted or not.

What Genre Are Superhero Movies?

Let me start by saying I don’t have the answer to that question. Superman is an alien, so Sci-Fi, right? But Hellboy is a demon, so is it fantasy? Or do those two just fall into completely separate categories? But then there’s the Avengers, where the ultimate gadget man Tony Stark (a.k.a. “I am Iron Man”) is fighting alongside Thor, god of thunder from Norse mythology.

Or should I even bother? Maybe not. After all, superhero movies are usually the epitome of popcorn flicks, so apart from arguing whether the overdone effects can actually fit through the plot holes, maybe they’re not worthy of deep analysis. Then again, they put our human (and sometimes not-so-human) frailties into the crucible to extract something pure. Superman struggles against the ultimate limits of even his power. The Avengers put teamwork over individual ego. Batman faces his personal demons and decides to not be quite so grim after all.

But why care about the genre in particular? Because genres have rules, and those rules support a lot of story elements. That is, rather than limiting the story teller to the contents of this box, it cracks open the crate from the secret warehouse and dumps out all manner of things that work. I’m just trying to figure out which crates we’re opening up. Is time travel in the box? High technology? Godlike powers? How about magic? The ability to cheat death?

I’ll say that most superhero movies are relying on items from the science fiction crates. We have aliens, mutants, gamma ray overdoses, mysterious meteor showers, and so on. Even then, the leaps we make from these are far from what we allow in more traditional sci-fi fare. After all, in most SF, a lethal overdose of gamma radiation is, well… lethal. It’s not the source of anger-inspired super-strength.

But some of these heroes are clearly relying on stuff from the fantasy crates. The Mask used a magical artifact. The Ghost Rider has made a deal with the devil, and Hellboy is what… the devil’s own scion? These aren’t traditional fantasy tropes, or at least not from the epic Tolkien fantasy vein, but in the more modern genre of urban fantasy, these aren’t that strange.

Or maybe I’m trying to fit a triangular peg in either a round or square hole. Are superhero films really their own independent genre with its own crate of rules, tropes, and McGuffins? With both Marvel and DC mining their IP vaults, we might very well be headed there by volume alone. If we are, I’m not sure I know enough about superheroes to really say what those rules are.

What do you think?

Review: The Protectors, ed. Paige E. Ewing

This is a collection of superhero short stories set in a shared universe, with stories by a dozen authors and some artwork by others. It’s really a series of vignettes in the ongoing struggle between the Protectors and the Defilers. Of course, nothing is quite so black and white as they were in Superman’s days, so we have ethically challenged heroes, villains who are motivated by a higher purpose, and plenty of backstabbing team-switching to go around.

As a collection, it was a little hit-or-miss for me, but that’s almost to be expected in a multi-author anthology such as this. A few simply did not work for me, while others really shined. A couple of those standouts were “Pukeman” by “Crippen” and Going Solar by Williams, but my favorite was probably “Interview with a Supervillain”. It was an interesting little tale of what it would be like to actually interview the most notorious and evil villain around. Up close, he’s not quite so reprehensible as you’d expect. Frankly, I’d have like that story to have been longer, just to explore that a little further.

Now, as a disclaimer, I was given this book as an advanced reader copy by a friend, so I didn’t pay for it, but if sexy and morally ambiguous superheroes are your thing, give it a shot.