The Year of the Superhero continues at The Book Smugglers with two stories that combine a nice sense of fun with more touching and serious messages about age, choice, trauma, and hope. One of the stories acts a bit like a meta-narrative about how superheroes and origin stories and sidekicks don't quite translate out of comic books into the real world. How giving young people powers and telling them to fight crime isn't exactly the most responsible of things. And there's some saying about power and responsibility in comic books that…well, you get the idea. And the other bridges the gap between two novels with a heartwarming story about falling from the sky...and getting back up again. To the reviews!
|Art by Jade Liebes|
"Kid Dark Against The Machine" by Tansy Rayner Roberts (10,331 words)
This story is actually something of a sequel to "Cookie Cutter Superhero," which, luckily, I have read and quite enjoyed. It's a story about superheroes but also about age and about trauma and about prospects. It features Griff, a young man hiding a great deal of his past as he works doing odd jobs at a boys home. Despite his best efforts, superheroes seem to have a way to creeping into his life. Or back into his life. As the plot rolls forward, Griff finds himself pulled into the scene, forced by way of one of the boys at the home who seems to know much more than he should. About heroes and about villains, and where the supervillains that plague the country might be coming from. And it takes superheroing and draws a line between what you read in comic books and how it might work in real life, with the stress and expectations heaped onto the shoulders of people who might be no more than children. It's equal parts heartbreaking and affirming, showing how fucked up it all can be but that there's hope for recovery. For growing up and moving on. And maybe for still beating up some criminals every once in a while.
[SPOILERS!!!] This story is quite different than its predecessor but in many ways that's fitting. It's not a sequel so much as it's set in the same world and expands on the themes of the previous installment. Whereas "Cookie Cutter Superhero" focuses on powers and disability, this one takes up the ideas of legacy and youth and runs with them. Griff, as Kid Dark, was the youngest hero on record, and that much power in the hands of one so young is…well, it throws into question much more the role of the machine in making superheroes. Asking who's in charge and why. It also looks at balance. Griff, or Jay, was a kid who grew up with a rough life and admits himself that it's odd that the hero machine chose him instead of the villain one. So much about the situation, that he was allowed to keep his powers, that he was called back, that he's so messed up because of it, speak to something about the process being off. Not entirely responsible. But perhaps aware of it. In some ways it feels to me that the machine is in love with the idea of superheroes, creating them because it wants to see them without really thinking what it would do to real people. That, like real superhero comics, it needs to come of age through making mistakes. Comic books now do better than they have historically with regards to representation and message, and I feel that the machine reflects that, shows a maturing understanding of what superpowers mean to people, both to readers and to the superheroes themselves.
And I just love so much about this story. Most of the story is building and character-driven. Even the action scenes don't delve too much into fisticuffs and powers fights. Instead this is looking at the people behind the masks. The way they are damaged and the way they can start to heal. For Griff it's particularly bad because of how young he was. There's this sense of betrayal and hurt and fear that he has because the machine decided he didn't need any preparation. It's comics, right? And that gets so wonderfully complicated. I want more stories in this setting. I want to read more about Solar and Griff and the rest of the team. I want! So yeah, especially if you read the other story in the world, definitely read this one. And if you haven't read that story, read this one anyway. It's excellent!
"Falling" by Susan Jane Bigelow (3378 words)
Oh fudge! Proving that it's a good thing to check back in places, I nearly missed this story entirely because I'm used to Book Smugglers releasing a story a month. But this is something of a special case, a short story that bridges the gap between two superhero novels. New readers don't really have to worry (I'm a new reader and everything was crystal clear to me), and there's enough here that makes me curious to pick up the first book. And for returning readers (I'd think) there's some new wrinkles and enough forward momentum to recap what's happened and set up the next chapter in the adventure. It's like this was all coordinated or some such… The story is full of small moments, though, and big ideas. Oppression, tyranny, superheroes, and whole new worlds—the action centers on Alice, an older woman, and Sky Ranger, a legacy superhero on the run for trying to fight against an oppressive regime.
For a story that centers on superheroes, I love that the action of the piece is relatively laid back, showing a much narrower focus. While some might want to see the action leading up to Sky Ranger's appearance in the story, what's more important is what happens after, how Alice manages to show him something he wasn't expecting, how they manage to show each other something that they thought was gone from their lives. There's a great dynamic between them, her age and cynicism matching his exhaustion and disillusionment but also her hope rekindling his own, her resolve inspiring him when things seem bleak. Matched with that is the situation in Alice's town, one that sees her in increasingly dire circumstances but unable to do much about it. The core is there—what use is there in trying in the face of systemic injustice? And the story answers. That justice is always worth fighting for. It's an uplifting story and with a nice voice in Alice and a feeling of flying. A fine read!