In a four color comic or on a movie screen, a superhero story can, if it wishes, go heavy on the combat sequences. It isn’t always the right choice, but the visual media lend themselves nicely to spaceship crashes, after all, to demonically force-grown Empire State buildings and Godzilla out for a mid-evening rampage. They’re made for the sight of multiple Santa, all fifty thousand of him, flowing like a river towards The City.
There is a moment in The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again when the team and its allies stare into a vast pit filled with invading hordes. This moment is informed by and usefully echoes many of the visuals we’ve all seen repeatedly, on screens big and small, since the age of the numberless CGI army truly came into its own. The creatures in this instance could have been orcs, or a whole Hellmouth full of Turok-Han vampires, or a million and one artificially intelligent but genuinely disaffected James Spaders.
Instead, they are giant ladybugs. Which is, I hope you’ll agree, pretty damned fabulous in and of itself.
When we take this genre away from its early hand-drawn roots, the splendor of even an epic battle isn’t going to be sufficient to hold our attention. Writing superhero fiction using only words is something like wading into an apocalyptic (ladybug!) battle wearing nothing more than your underwear. This idea—of going naked into the fray—is an idea that A.C. Wise grapples with wholeheartedly in this remarkable collection.
I’m not saying superhero comics and film don’t do character development. Don’t get me wrong. I am saying a graphic novel or a film can occasionally serve up a truly fight-tastic installment and if it’s glorious enough, sufficiently well-paced and exciting, we’ll take the thrills and, sometimes, forgive any other deficiencies. But for prose, you need to lean on the other pillars of the genre, too. Perhaps the most central of these is investigating the question of who heroes are, deep down, and what drives them to their particular, peculiar mixture of self-sacrifice and vigilantism.
In The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, the story starts with Bunny.
Bunny is tall, blonde, and beautiful. She walks gracefully in high heels and she carries a mighty spear. Her name at birth was Phillip, but Phillip isn’t someone who can face down tentacled sea creatures, alien invasions, and the bioengineered armies of mad scientist wannabes. Bunny finds her true self in a fabulous up do and a tiara with rabbit ears… and she never looks back.
Better yet, she recruits.
Each story in this novel-length A.C. Wise story cycle belongs to a different member of the Squadron. They’re like gems strung together in a necklace. We get so many delicious origin stories! There’s one for Ruby, for example, a plus-sized, unemployed waitress who tries out for the job of strongwoman at a local circus. When that doesn’t work out, she inadvertently unleashes a monster, like you do, and in the process she forms a lifelong bond with her best friend, Sapphire. Then there’s Penny. Her girlhood BFF is now President of the US, and she’s the only member of the Squadron who has actually been to war, as an actual soldier. Even within the glittering circle of her peers, she finds herself struggling against male privilege and the forces of a government cover-up. Or check out the drag king, CeCe, whose shot at true love almost ends up on the rocks due to demonic intervention and some major intimacy issues.
The pure heart of the team, though, may be roller girl Starlight, my personal favorite. I want to tell you everything about Starlight, but to spoil it would be criminal.
What Wise does in this book is build a deeply unconventional—though not unfamiliar, at least to those of us who are queer—chosen family. She pits them against a range of monsters disguised as comic and film tropes… or perhaps they’re tropes disguised as monsters. There are times when the storytelling veers ever so slightly into metafiction. Like its unabashedly long title, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again gives the reader so many things. It’s your basic superhero-drag show-family drama-Fifties monster movie-bittersweet coming out story-archaeology adventure-political thriller-alien invasion-mash-up.
Does this mean there are no battles? No! Is this simply a series of navel-gazing personal reflections with excellent nail polish and no action? Not at all! The villains may seem familiar, at times, but the fighting—perhaps especially Penny’s take-no-prisoners throwdown with a brace of actual harpies—is real and bloody. It is also somewhat elegantly understated. Wise highlights one of the things about superhero fiction that can easily be lost in all the banging around. The heart of any adventure story is about whether the good guys are ready to face the thing that’s coming for them, for the Earth, and by extension for us all. The actual fight, if it’s done right, is frosting. Seeing whether the hero has adequately prepared themselves for meeting it—that’s the cake.
Wise understands this, and she argues that preparation is, ultimately, about knowing who you are and then being that thing, whatever it is, to the absolute best of your ability.
Also, this book has cocktail recipes.
The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is available now from Lethe Press.
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.