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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Satirical Superheroes

Michel Parry produced a number of science fiction anthologies in the 1970s, including the one pictured above – Superheroes, dating from 1978. When I saw it in a second-hand shop a few weeks ago I decided to buy it for two reasons – the intriguing cover, and the fact that the back cover blurb (the book was bagged, so I couldn’t look inside) mentioned that one of the contributing authors was the famous Fortean writer John A. Keel (who popularized Mothman and the Men in Black, as well as the “ultraterrestrial” theory of UFOs). I didn’t have high hopes of the book (for some reason superheroes don’t translate well from comics to prose fiction) – but it turned out to be better than I’d expected.

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!


Tom Ruffles said...

I don't think it's fair to characterise Sphere as 'downmarket'; after all, they did publish the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult:

Andrew May said...

Sorry Tom! Sometimes when I write something I just know in the back of my mind that someone is going to disagree with it! That was the case with the "downmarket" jibe about Sphere! But I wasn't referring to their catalogue so much as what I perceived as the "cheap" physical feel of their books. I just didn't like them as much as, say, Pan paperbacks of the same period. But that's a silly personal prejudice dating from when I was a teenager!

Kid said...

I remember reading a superhero book in 1981 (forget the name), which also featured a gay Peter Pan. I remember being quite shocked by the ending, where the hero (and the reader) thinks his girlfriend is performing a certain act on him, only to open his eyes when it's finished to find that it's Peter Pan, not his girlfriend. The book had been all right up 'til then - I threw it away in disgust. Incidentally, Peter David wrote a Hulk novel that was very good.

Andrew May said...

I don't think I'd be able to read ANY novel in which Peter Pan made an appearance (gay or otherwise) without throwing it at the wall, Kid!

I know there have been several novels based on Marvel superheroes, but I've never got round to reading one. Perhaps I ought to check out that Peter David book, though.

About 5 years ago at a book fair in London I saw a copy of a 1960s novel by Otto Binder called "The Avengers Battle the Earth Wrecker". It was only a pound or two, but for some reason I didn't buy it even though it crossed my mind to do so. I wish I had - I bet the price has gone up tenfold in the wake of the Avengers movies.

Andrew May said...

I think this must be the book you were talking about, Kid - It sounds absolutely dire - I will definitely give it a miss!

Kid said...

Thanks for that, Andrew. I have no plans (or desire) to re-read it 'though - once was more than enough.