The Cuckoo Cage is a collection that reimagines British folk heroes into new everyday superheroes, fighting against modern evils with the spirit of older community action. The short stories from a range of writers take the idea of the superhero and combine it with direct action and some of the mot pressing issues in Britain today, like food poverty, racism, and inequality. Each story is followed by an afterword that goes into the historical figures that inspired each story, offering context to the stories but also introductory history to some of the key action taken in the past against injustice and tyranny.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the collection, but its distinctive conceit drew me in, and I liked the near-future setting of the stories, which all seem to be set in the same universe (adding to the comparisons with more traditional superhero comics and films). There’s a lot of creativity in the kinds of powers the new superheroes have and the ways in which the original folk figure comes through, particularly through ideas like being able to topple statues using portals or create political memes through mind reading politicians, and the stories are gripping and fun, showing the heroes in action rather than just describing what they might do.
One of the real highlights of the book is the sense of timeless protest that comes from the conversation between the short stories and the afterwords, giving readers the chance to think about how history is told and how we might view figures that the establishment didn’t want to give credit to, whether real people or folk figures symbolic of a larger movement. The only one of the figures I already knew about was Martin Marprelate, and I enjoyed the way that the pamphlet culture of the 16th century was turned into online memes of the modern day in the story ‘The M & Ms’, showing how there’s always more ephemeral forms that can move faster than the pace of established stories and news.
Unlike a lot of superhero stories, which feel like an attempt to tell you that the world is okay and will be saved without action, The Cuckoo Cage reimagines superheroes as direct action whilst paying tribute to the history of this action in Britain. I think its combination of history and social realism with fantasy will appeal to a lot of people, and I liked the way that it felt like the stories came together by the end, as people might expect from superhero narratives these days that are part of the same universe. Clever and insightful, this book might inspire people to look deeper into alternative narratives and think about how, even without superpowers, action can be taken.