The Super-Human Anthology Review
By Ray Tate
Dan Membiela was the writer of London Night's only really interesting book--Poizon. His handle on the super-hero concept and comic book writing is without question strong, but what happens when you take away the pictures?
Mr. Membiela's anthology does not break new ground. Not counting pulp adventurers such as those partaken by the Shadow and Doc Savage, as early as the forties, comic book companies and comic strip producers began translating what was on the colorful pages into more adult-accessable prose. The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil for instance appeared in gently illustrated novels as did the Phantom. In the fifties as well as the eighties and nineties, Superman soared. The Avengers appeared in the sixties, and both Batman and Wonder Woman fought the good fight in thick as brick anthologies during the early nineties. Outside of what we normally think of the super-hero world, the late great Isaac Asimov and editor extraordinaire Martin Greenberg pulled several super-heroes out of the annals of science fiction for a rewarding anthology. In this history, where does Mr. Membiela's anthology fit? At the progressive end, in another step of evolution bringing the super-hero sub-genre of science fiction to widespread and critical acceptance.
Mr. Membiela begins his anthology appropriately with "First Step" a story that captures a moment particularly intrinsic to the world of the super-hero. It's a more literate vignette than to what most comic book readers have grown accustomed. The conflict arises not from a villain or disaster but from the courage of the narrator. The story also shows the power of the media in which Mr. Membiela works. Were the short to be shown in the comic book, it would seem far too brief and not quite as powerful as the written word description. The volume of words captures the emotion better than a simple drawing--no matter how skilful the artist.
In "A Brief History of Super Heroics," Mr. Membiela details a short history of one hero with a prolonged lifespan within the recognizable eras of our world. The story's goal is ambitious, and the ambitions of the author are well met. The twists in what we've seen are ingenious, and because the narrator is so inviting and friendly in voice, actions which some may consider decidedly unheroic become acceptable. As you read the story, the plot in fact enhances the characterization, and Iron Jack outgrows his archetype to become original.
The next story is the kind of comic book story most have seen. I happen to know that Mr. Membiela was set to write a new comic book version of Sheena, the legendary jungle woman on par with Tarzan. These plans for some reason or other fell by the wayside. Instead, Mr. Membiela gives us in "Soothe the Savage Beast" Keera. What this story shows is how a new character can be grown from the inspiration of an old one. Keera really does not come out of the story looking to be a sub-par Sheena. Indeed, her voice sounds nothing like Geena Lee Nolin's memorable portrayal of the character or the original Sheena Irish McCalla. Again, the strength of the author's writing makes Keera into an original creation whose superficial attributes fit the archetype both she and Sheena represent. Keera's story begins slowly. It quietly introduces the reader to this hero in a robustly described setting then tangles her into a pulpy story featuring a true nut bar of a villain and action galore. While the plot is indeed from a cliffhanger, the dialogue and the certainty in describing the action raises it far above cheap serial fare.
"It Came From Between Space" would have benefited from artwork. Those unfamiliar with the concept of parallel earths may have trouble visualizing the scope of the Wing Men. I don't believe Mr. Membiela's words are sufficient to bring the idea of this multiverse across. This is not to say it's a bad story. Rather it seems more like a draft bereft of supporting character depth which accompanying artwork could have fleshed out. A story should be able to stand on its own, and in order to imagine this particular story I had to recall events in DC's Crisis of Infinite Earths.
"The Return of the Hyena" is a creepy take on the hero/villain schism. The characterization in the story is thin, but actually, the more referable nature of the heroes works in the story's favor. This tale deconstructs Batman and Robin, and what it says would have worked nicely as a DC Elseworld which places recognizable heroes in different time-periods or situations. Artwork isn't needed to describe the narrator's descent into darkness, and the consistent onomatopoeia gets under the reader's skin and accents the eerie atmosphere of what is a psychological thriller in miniature. While I certainly do not agree with the central point. It did make me think. It also warns against the idea of sending the wrong message through storytelling.
"Memoranda" is an interesting experiment, but I've seen this type of experiment before. The story unfolds at a good pace, and the ending nicely examines the question what makes a hero. "Bastard" I have no use for since it takes the villain's point of view without any heroic release. It's still well written if you like that sort of thing. Finally, "The Last Laugh" takes a decidedly morose look at the thankless world of the super-hero, but toward the end, you realize the somber mood and purposely dejected character sets up a splendid joke. Super-Human: an Anthology is recommended for readers who look for strong characterization and character study.
The book can be ordered from Barnes & Noble and will later be available at Amazon.com, ISBN #1591290023.
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