Review: Phenomenons: Every Human Creature

Phenomenons: Every Human Creature by Michael Jan Friedman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if you took Wild Cards and started off from a more modern place than the 1980s. What would you have? Well, for one thing, less gay slurs and stereotypes. For another, starting with a less sleazy, more modern NYC. I Kickstarted (at the level to get a Tuckerization) because I was a big fan of Mary Fan’s writing. As I mention below, during the Red Sky in Mourning review, my only real criticism of this shared world anthology is that the stories seem too short. Maybe it’s something about the way these authors write compared to the Wild Cards authors, but I feel like I’m just getting into the grooves of the stories in this anthology before they’re over. They’re currently working on a second anthology and I’m hoping things can expand a bit the second time out. I also think it would be neat to have them maybe have tighter intertwined stories like Wilds Cards 2 and 3. Or maybe a full-length story like later Wild Cards volumes. If you’re a fan of superhero comics, but wouldn’t mind experiencing it as prose, this is a good anthology for you.

Now, my per-story thoughts:

Salvaged (Michael Jan Friedman) – Introduces us to the shared world of Phenomenons and their version of the Justice League. (Or at least one such team) A Captain America-like character has disappeared and there is an auction for his shield. I enjoyed all the narrative, but there didn’t really seem to be an arc to the story. Perhaps the stories will end up somewhat connecting as they do in Wild Cards.

Salt for Gold (Mary Fan) – I think Mary Fan has a lot of potential with this character. First of all, the story was great – shifting our expectations the entire time. Second, a Peter Parker-like conflicted teen character helps round out the superhero universe of Phenomenons. Bonus points that we get a teenage female-bodied, Asian superhero. There isn’t a complete lack of them in the Big Two superhero universes, but they’re a relatively rare type. Also, unlike Parker she’s potentially considered cool by at least some of her peers for being in a band. If this series continues beyond the second, current Kickstarter, I hope the authors can also play with each others’ characters as in Wild Cards.

Light Shines in the Darkness (Keith R.A. DeCandido) – We meet Luminostity, a hero who can do stuff with light. Also confirms that the stories in this anthology are connected. It’s yet to be seen whether there’s one coherent story as in later Wild Cards books or if they’re just confirming events that happened in previous stories; more akin to the first Wild Cards book. This story touches a bit on gentrification and earlier red-lining issues in NYC.

Red Sky in Mourning (Micharel Burstein) – This story continues to tie together all the stories. We return to Luminosity and we once again see the Grey Guardsman on a mission that we haven’t learned yet. When it comes to the meat of this story, it’s great to see this anthology embracing diversity. Sure, there are lots of Jewish mainstream superheroes – Ben Grim (the Thing) for one – but this character is REALLY Jewish. It’s a great different perspective. The Phenomenons world is filling in with lots of characters that really reflect the diversity of NYC. I think at this point in the anthology if I have one complaint (compared to Wild Cards – the nearest similar story structure) it’s that the stories feel a little TOO short. I’d like to have something slightly closer to novella length. Or maybe it just seems to me that the Wild Cards stories are longer and they really aren’t? These stories all seem to be done too quickly.

Stealing Home (Aaron Rosenberg) – Clearly a setup for a future story. Question is whether that’s for the second volume that was Kickstarted June 2022 or for another story in this anthology. Additionally, our hero finds others snooping around Roxel on the same night. Again, it seems to be a setup for a future story. A couple unique things with this story. First of all, it’s the first story so far that doesn’t take place in NYC. Second, our hero has tech that they don’t understand – seems somewhat in line with at least one of the Green Lantern origin stories where they get the ring from a dying alien so they have to figure out on their own how it works.

First Op (Robert Greenberger) – The paired story to the previous one. We get the backstory behind the folks that Stealing Home’s hero encounters. Once again, for how complex of a world they’re building up, I wish either these stories or the anthology as a whole were larger. (Or came out more often?)

NULL (Glenn Hauman) – Third in what appears to be a trilogy of short stories, we find out about the mysterious entity that was a bit of an enabler in the prior two stories. This one was most mysterious about who the protagonist truly was, but it was nevertheless pretty interesting.

The Primacy of Gravity (Paul Kupperberg) – One of the most serious stories so far, involves mention of physical and sexual violence. I’m sure if I spent time thinking, I could come up with a list of some superheroes who came from terrible backgrounds, but most of them have pretty mundane problems, like Peter Parker being a nerd. This story is much more directly about someone getting powers for whom things were not mostly fine. The story contains an important moment for the character and may be a good setup for the next time they appear.

Taking Charge (Heather E Hutsell) – I’ve seen reluctant heroes before, but the protagonist here makes all the others seem anxious to be heroes. Still, it’s a good exploration of the type of person who would reject the call to power as well as the associated fame.

Tiny Lives Writ Large (Dan Hernandez) – A creative take on the ant-man trope, we have a pair of sisters – one that can grow and one that can shrink. There’s good personal and interpersonal growth. It makes a good short story. But once again, it leaves me wanting to see more with these characters. I really hope this year’s anthology can feature slightly longer stories.

The Jungle (Ron Marz) – If this is the same Ron Marz who writes comic books, then the feel of this short story goes along with the pulp-style comics he’s written for Dynamite – Red Sonja and John Carter, for example. The main character seems to have gotten some kind of “powers” in “Darkest Africa” as they used to call it back in that pulpy era. He’s currently using it as some kind of social justice warrior (in the literal sense, not as it’s used on the Internet nowadays). Again, this story cuts off too quickly compared to the short stories I read in Clarkesworld, Apex, etc and we only just barely get introduced to the character. I really hope the next volume (which I also supported via Kickstarter) either features longer stories or has a more cohesive story (as in Wilds Cards and ).

Going for the Gold (Peter David) – WOW! Of all the stories in this anthology, I think this one was the most unpredictable. I’ll be very excited to see where Professor Peracelus ends up in the next anthology.

Lipstick Lilly vs Electric Lady in the ‘Land (Marie Vibbert) – Another one that doesn’t take place in NYC – it’s in Cleveland! I enjoyed this new hero and also that things took a delightfully unexpected turn at the end. I’ve read other short stories with a similar plot and I’d love to see where this one goes within the world of Phenomenons.

Dheeb (Ilsa J Bick) – My least favorite story so far. It’s not a bad one, just my least favorite. Some animals are given the ability to speak to each other even though they are different species. And maybe also have their intelligence boosted? To say anything else would give away the plot.

ROI Part 1: Pigs in a Blankcet (Russ Colchamiro and Hildy Silverman) – the beginnings of a heist plot. Not sure why it needs to be in 2 parts if it’s not a story that’s told throughout the anthology. Seems like the editor set a strict word count, which is why many of these stories felt too short.

ROI Part 2: Feint of Heart (Russ Colchamiro and Hildy Silverman) – Continuation of the previous story. Not much is resolved, but we do have the beginnings of a two-person team.

The Last Rambler (Geoffrey Thorne) – This has the feel of an unfinished story. It’s got a great setup, but just leaves too much unsaid at the end (at least for my taste). Setup for the next anthology or is it just left at this? I guess we’ll see.

The Return (Jan Michael Friedman) – Set up from the first story, time to see how the Grey Guardsman fits into it all.

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