This book could teach Hollywood to do superheroes rightS

You might think superheroes are played out as heroic archetypes or sources of fresh stories. But you'd be wrong, and a new anthology, Masked, proves it. Anybody who writes superhero comics or movies, or just loves superheroes, should read it.

Spoiler warning!

Masked, edited by Lou Anders, is a really strong collection of stories that play with the idea of superheroes in clever, often fascinating ways. There's a fair bit of metafictional commentary on the tropes of superhero stories, like costumes and secret identities and sidekicks — but it doesn't ever become too self-referential or navel-gazey about it. The stories get dark, especially the first few outings in the book, but they're dark in a thought-provoking way, not just angsty or "grim and gritty," as dark superhero stories are prone to be.

I'm not always a fan of themed anthologies, because stories sometimes feel shoehorned in to fit the theme. The danger is that you'll get a bunch of well-known authors who didn't really have a Haunted Tree story they were dying to tell. But there's a Haunted Tree anthology that wants them to contribute, so they'll give it their best shot. And the result, often as not, is hit or miss.

The good thing about Masked, then, is that Anders gets stories from people who have a lot of experience with superheroes, or who obviously had a superhero story they wanted to write. The contributors include Secret Six writer Gail Simone, Incredible Hulk mastermind Peter David, X-Men: Dark Mirror author Marjorie Liu and comics veterans Bill Willingham and Mike Carey - as well as Paul Cornell, a regular Doctor Who writer and the new writer of Action Comics, which, by the way, just featured a rather striking David Tennant cameo:

This book could teach Hollywood to do superheroes rightS

The rest of the list of contributors is also impressive, and everybody seems to have a neat new spin on superheroes. (The only person who does seem a bit grudging about writing a superhero tale, though, is Stephen Baxter, whose story really has almost nothing to do with superheroes, except for a silly hero name tossed in for somewhat flimsy reasons.)

The best stories in this book really do have something to say about power and about identities, two great strands of superhero fiction. A half dozen of the tales in this book actually stuck in my head afterwards. Willingham's "A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)" just bursts with ideas and with love of comic-book storytelling — it's got a few dozen heroes and villains, many of whom are clearly analogs of DC and Marvel characters but some of whom seem pretty original. Heroes live, heroes die, defining decisions are made and it feels like you're reading one of those bloated intra-company crossovers on fast forward.

A lot of the better stories deal with the costs of power, or what can happen to you if you don't use power well enough. The first story in the book, Matthew Sturges' "Cleansed and Set in Gold," has the concept that's the cleverest but also the most horrifying — there's a central mystery about where David Caulfield, the Wildcard, gets his superpowers — and it's totally not what you think it's going to be. Caulfield turns out to be making a huge sacrifice every time he powers up, and he's both the most monstrous and the noblest of all the heroes when his secret is finally revealed.

Gail Simone's "Thug" is one of those stories that totally stuck in my mind for a few days after I read it. The main character is a mentally challenged giant with super-strength, and he tries to fight injustice in his own way. But of course, injustice doesn't always get punished, or even perceived by the outside world — and just because you have the power to do something about evil doesn't mean you should, or that it'll make things better, in the end. Especially if your power is like a blunt instrument. You get a similar vibe from Mike Baron's "Avatar," which is sort of the flipside of Kick-Ass — a different sort of cautionary tale about what would happen if someone really tried to be a superhero.

And then there are the stories that deal with secret identities and the ways in which they're like other types of identities. Like Paul Cornell's "Secret Identity," which has a spin on the idea that I'm pretty sure nobody's ever thought of before. Ian McDonald's "Tonight We Fly" has a reunion between a superhero and his greatest adversary, who have realized at last that — as Alan Moore could have told you — they're the only ones who really understand each other.

And then there's "Downfall" by longtime Stargate producer Joseph Mallozzi, which starts out as one of those stories about a criminal who's gone straight but agrees to go back into the underworld to help the Feds with an investigation. But as the former supervillain known as Downfall returns to his former comrades in villainy, he doesn't just face the choice you expect him to face — between betraying his former friends, versus returning to super-crime — he also discovers the answers to who he really is, and how the mask he used to wear was always a clue to his true identity.

Oh, and here are the original versions of the book's cover art by designer Richard Yoo and artist Trevor Hairsine, with its original title, which had to be changed because of legal threats from You Know Who:

This book could teach Hollywood to do superheroes rightS

So anybody who is interested in superheroes will find enough new ideas in this book to make the already over-exposed spandex centurions seem like they could have a new lease on life, all over again. I especially want to mail a copy of this book to everyone in Hollywood who's working on the next generation of superhero blockbusters, because in the end, this book makes me think that superheroes aren't just rigidly attached to the Origin Story, the Misunderstood Hero Story, the Hero Almost Quits Story and the handful of others we keep seeing. You can use superheroes to tell any kind of story you want. And superheroes naturally tend to flourish in an environment with lots of worldbuilding, where they're surrounded by lots of other superheroes and tons of villains.

Most of all, superheroes don't just allow us to ask the tough questions about whether just having power means we have to use it, and whether the identity we present to the world is who we really are — they demand it.

So yeah, not bad for one wee anthology. You should check it out. Masked comes out July 20 (just in time for Comic Con) from Gallery Books.