Sunday, 19 July 2015
The cover doesn’t relate to any of the stories in the book, but it’s certainly eyecatching. It’s obviously an amalgam of various Marvel heroes – Spider-Man’s mask, Thor’s helmet and hair, and Captain America’s boots and shield. The rest of the costume appears to be modelled on the 1970s Captain Marvel, which seems an odd choice because it’s a lot less iconic than the other three. The globe symbol on the costume and shield is the logo of Sphere Books – one of the more downmarket British paperback imprints of the time, who published the anthology.
As to the stories themselves – the first half of the book is taken up with three pulp novelettes dating from the early 1940s, including one that first appeared in Martin Goodman’s Marvel Tales magazine (a sister publication to the original incarnation of Marvel Comics). These are followed by nine shorter and more recent stories – four reprints (including Keel’s contribution) from the 1960s and early 70s, and six stories original to this anthology. Most of the latter are by “authors” that have no other entries in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database – suggesting they may be pseudonyms of the editor himself. That’s a shame, because there were plenty of well-qualified authors around who would have contributed something if asked. Two names that come to mind are Ron Goulart (who was a historian of comic books as well as a prolific science fiction author) and Gerard F. Conway (better known as Marvel scripter Gerry Conway).
John A. Keel’s contribution is “Satyr-Man”. It isn’t a self-contained story but the first chapter of a novel, The Fickle Finger of Fate, which was originally published in 1966. The excerpt is very good, though – so much so that I sought out a copy of the novel on eBay and ordered it right away! Keel’s story is tongue-in-cheek satire, which is also true of many of the other stories in the book. This reinforces what I said at the beginning, that it’s rare to find a prose fiction story that deals with superheroes in exactly the same way as a comic book. There are a few “serious” stories in the collection – but although they deal with super-powered humans, they’re not superheroes in the sense of having costumes and secret identities etc. The only exception to this rule – and my second favourite story in the book, after Keel’s – is “The Awesome Menace of the Polarizer” by George Alec Effinger. Although it doesn’t take itself too seriously, Efffinger’s story is far from being an outright comedy, and it has a first-class plot featuring a real superhero and a real supervillain.
The other thing that’s worth mentioning is the shop where I bought the book. It’s in Putney (which is a bit out of my way, which is why I’d never been there before) and it’s called 30th Century Comics. That’s an excellent name for a shop, but it would be more accurate to call it “Mid-20th Century Comics”, because their entire stock seems to date from the 1940s to 1970s. It’s also unusual among comic shops in that it sells British back issues as well as American, and it has a large stock of pre-1960 American comics. The downside is that almost nothing is priced below £10! That’s why I restricted myself to buying paperbacks, which were a lot more affordable. Nevertheless, I was sorely tempted by their unique “Alan Class Printing Plate Sets” – which not only contain a 1960s-vintage Alan Class comic (often featuring Marvel reprints) but also the original lead plates that were used to print the cover of that comic!