From a time before it was common to encounter superheroes in prose fiction comes this intriguing anthology of superhero-themed short stories. Editor Michel Parry introduces the book, and he does seem to know his stuff: he’s dedicated it to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman) and Stan Lee (of whom I’m pretty sure you’ll have heard before).
Published as an original paperback by Sphere in the UK in 1978 — for context: that was the year Superman the Movie was released — this was a must-buy for me the moment I stumbled across it, which would have been in the early 1980s, I think. And it wasn’t just the topic or the very nice cover by acclaimed artist Melvyn Grant that piqued my interest: I was already familiar with most of the contributors.
As you can see, on my copy some of the prices have been scratched out (by a second-hand book dealer who, if there’s any justice, is probably now cringing every time they think about how much more their books would be worth if they hadn’t done that), but I have it on good authority that it originally cost 85p in the UK and 93½p in Eire (or Ireland, as most Irish people call it).
The stories within are a mixed bag, but thankfully more good than bad. All of the 1978 stories are “original to this collection” and — a little surprisingly — overall they fare better than their older counterparts.
Stuporman by Robert Bloch (1943)
A silly but fun tale about a meek man who’s granted superhuman abilities that only work when he’s asleep. Packed with plentiful puns, clever constructs, idiosyncratic idioms and amusing alliteration from the brilliant but perennially underrated author of Psycho. While this story isn’t one of Bloch’s best works (and I’m definitely biased because he’s one of my favourite writers) this one is a highlight of the collection. Originally published in the June 1943 issue of Fantastic Adventures.
The Evil Super-Man by George E. Clark (1940)
Originally published in Marvel Tales magazine in May 1940 under the title “The Test-Tube Monster,” which combined with the new title tells you all you really need to know. Evil scientist Professor Thorndile creates a superhuman in his lab with the idea that he will be the spearhead of a new, better human race. Naturally, since this is a story, it all goes horribly wrong. It’s hard to be sure with this one whether it was written as a spoof or in all earnestness, but the latter seems more likely given the era: Superman was only a couple of years old when this was published (although Doc Savage had been around for seven years… not a lot of people know that The Man of Bronze predates The Man of Steel!)
The Golden Amazon Returns by John Russell Fearn (1940)
Back in the early days of science fiction it wasn’t uncommon for writers to create a series of linked stories with the idea of later compiling them into a novel… this story is the third tale that comprised what would eventually become the first Golden Amazon novel in a series of twenty-seven published between 1940 and 2006 (the series continued under the pen of Howard Hopkins who published a further seven books, all in 2018). The title character is Violet Ray, who as a baby survived a space-ship crash on Venus and subsequently gained superhuman abilities. Proper pulp-fiction stuff, this, originally published in Fantastic Adventures in January 1940… beating Wonder Woman to the page by two years.
Origin of a Superhero by Donald F. Glut (1978)
Superhero-obsessed genius rich person Bertram Starr wants a new, powerful body so he can become a superhero himself. He approaches Viktor, a Bavarian scientist, who agrees to help because he wants to clear the family name of the negative connotations surrounding the work of an ancestor of the same name who also liked to make bodies. Who could that be, I wonder? This is one of my favourites in the book, written by noted polymath Glut, who’s probably best known for the novelisation of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Captain Amazing by Stephen Hitchcock (1978)
Written in a deliberately over-the-top and breathless style, this very short story is another favourite. Like a certain Kryptonian who shall remain Superman, Captain Amazing is an alien living among humans. He spends his time foiling gold bullion robberies and the like, but would much rather be able to relax in his human disguise. The story features a nice little twist at the end that makes it all the more delicious.
The Awesome Menace of The Polarizer by George Alec Effinger (1971)
The prolific Effinger provides the most Marvel-like tale of the anthology. High-school student Rod Marquand is secretly the teenage superhero The Iguana, and in this adventure he must battle The Polarizer, AKA Dr Bertram Waters, who figures out his identity and really screws things up for him. Effinger had a tendency to give his ongoing characters cameo appearances in each others’ stories, and that was one of the reasons I fell in love with his work. This one was originally published in Fantastic Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, December 1971.
Satyr-Man by John A. Keel (1966)
A superhero lampoon that reads as though it had been carved with a rubber chicken from the pages of Mad magazine in its heyday. It’s not a story so much as a chunk of Keel’s proto-novel The Fickle Finger of Fate, — all naughty innuendos and plenty of slap-and-tickle… and thanks to all that, this one doesn’t stand up on its own and has aged less well than some of its older siblings in this collection. Satyr-Man saves a woman from some muggers and she gratefully “beds” him. And that’s really all I remember, even though I’ve read it three times. Not great, but intriguing enough to make me want to track down the full version of the book, which I might well do one day. But I might not.
Transmuto, the Metamorphic Myrmidon by Adrian Cole (1978)
I looked it up so you don’t have to: In Homer’s Iliad, Myrmidons were the soldiers under Achilles’ command, so there’s one in the eye for anyone who says comic-books promote ilittrasy. In this tale, not set in ancient Greece but modernish-day Cosmopolis, Lucian ‘Lucky’ P. Sludge is a garbageman who is secretly Transmuto, a superhero who uses a serum to transform himself into other forms. Down in the sewers he battles The Lord of Vermin, commander of the city’s rather enormous rat population. It’s all knowingly silly stuff but rather enjoyable for all that.
Easy Way Out by Marion Pitman (1978)
At only two-and-two-thirds pages long, this is easily the shortest story in this collection, and one of the most fun (although its very plain prose takes a page to get used to). It’s so short that anything but this most basic summary would spoil things: a crowded New York street: all the most powerful superheroes (from Marvel and DC) are gathered to face a new villain known as Supercreep. Definitely worth a read!
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! by Norman Spinrad (1967)
I’m never sure where I stand with Mr Spinrad: is he a literary genius, or a pulp-meister? I’ve enjoyed most of his books, and certainly some of his work is ground-breaking — Bug Jack Barron, one of his more famous novels, was years ahead of its time in so many respects — but some are… not so much ground-breaking as they are land-salting. A couple are so unsettling that I know I will never be able to read them again (I’m looking at you in particular, The Men in the Jungle). Anyway, this story focuses on psychiatrist Felix Funck who treats patients who believe they are Clark Kent, secretly Superman, and it’s solid Spinrad fare: a very inventive twist but it’s not clear whether the joke is on the characters or the readers. Originally published in Gent, December 1967 (yes, one of those magazines).
Up, Up and Away by Allan C. Kimball (1978)
The Avenger is a mightily powerful superhero who has grown to despise his life, particularly his mild-mannered alter-ego Herman Glimpshire. He puts himself at risk to save the world an average of once a week. Everyone around him is cashing in on his exploits with their comic-books and merchandise, but he doesn’t even get a slice of that action. And he knows that his girlfriend Sally only stays with him for the attention she receives for being with him: if he lost his powers, she’d be gone in a heartbeat. Then one day yet another cry for help comes in from Sally, but this time The Avenger doesn’t just race to the rescue… A pretty dark story, this one, but I like it a lot.
Alternative Ending by Frank Adey (1978)
On a dying planet a scientist conspires to send his only son out into space — to a primitive planet called Earth — in the hope of giving him a chance to live. This one is the darkest tale in the collection by some distance, one of those stories that’ll stay with you no matter how hard you try to shake it.
Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex by Larry Niven (1971)
This final entry isn’t a story but an essay in which Niven “proves” that Superman and a human woman could never be physically intimate because of Superman’s alien biology. Though it was originally published in 1969 (in Knight magazine — yes, another adult mag — in the December of that year), this version has been slightly updated. But it’s all a bit too smug, snide and sneery for my tastes, with Mr Niven clearly looking down on such childish superhero stories. Pity for him, then, that more people know his name from this essay and a Star Trek cartoon than from his science fiction novels (some of which are absolute classics).
On the whole, this is a pretty good collection, but it works even better as an introduction to some classic pulp-fiction writers whose work is mostly forgotten now. I’ve seen copies listed for over a hundred dollars on Ebay, but ignore those: you can usually pick up a copy for less than a tenth of that.
According to a reviewer on Amazon there’s a second edition of the Superheroes anthology, a 112-page “digest” format that omits six of the thirteen stories, leaving the following:
Stuporman by Robert Bloch
Origin of a Superhero by Donald F. Glut
The Golden Amazon Returns by John Russell Fearn
Captain Amazing by Stephen Hitchcock
The Awesome Menace of The Polarizer by George Alec Effinger
Alternative Ending by Frank Adey
Easy Way Out by Marion Pitman
Editor Michel Parry sadly passed away in 2014 at the age of 67. Alongside the thirty-plus anthologies he edited, he was also the author of four novels and one work of non-fiction.
Bonus #1: Back in the day, paperbacks of this nature frequently had a list of similar titles in the back in the hope of enticing further sales. Just as a curiosity, here’s the list from this edition of Superheroes:
Bonus #2: Sticking with classic science fiction writers, Melvyn Grant’s excellent cover was later re-used — with the Sphere logo removed — on Wächter der Zeiten (“Guardian of the Times”), a German collection of short stories by Edmond Hamilton.