Genrely Speaking: Superhero Literature

This is a genre. Seriously.

Superheroes are big right now and writing novels about them has slowly started to gain ground as writers interested in telling their own superheroic stories have realized just how difficult it is to break into the comic publishing industries. The two big comic publishing houses are reluctant to throw resources behind unknown characters/authors and the process of printing comic books, which the American market expects to come in color, is very expensive for smaller/independent publishers so not many new titles get started that way, either.

That pretty much leaves writers wanting to dig into superheroes but with no artistic skill of their own two options – find an artist willing to work with them and pursue the webcomic route or write a novel. Artists willing to work on these kinds of independent projects are hard to come by so we’re seeing more and more superhero literature turning up. To be fair, novels are capable of many things comic books are not and authors may also be drawn to that. So what are the signifiers of superhero literature?

  1. Superheroes. Or at the very least people with the powers of superheroes, going the whole nine yards and including costumes, codenames and the like is optional although the best examples of the genre that I’ve seen find very good reasons to include both (particularly Marion G. Harmon’s excellent series Wearing the Cape). Note that these characters do not have to be at the center of the story, they just have to be present. Carrie Vaughn’s End of the Golden Age features a completely normal protagonist and is probably the best-written example of the genre I’ve read.
  2. A strong emphasis on physical conflict. A direct influence of the genre’s original incarnation, superheroes have always been a bit of a power fantasy and the ultimate fulfillment of that fantasy is being able to stand up to danger in the most direct way possible. Whether it’s stopping a tsunami or battling a supervillain expect superhero fiction to have the protagonist right there on the scene, facing the opposition with their bare hands and whatever powers at their disposal.
  3. Analysis of the emotional and long-term consequences of the conflicts the protagonist are caught up in. This is what really sets the genre apart from comic books. Producing comic panels that accurately convey subtler nuances of emotion is difficult, as is having enough text space to really delve into a character’s psyche. Raw text allows much more depth to be explored and is much cheaper to produce. This is not a license for satire, the story must take the superheroics of its characters absolutely seriously and show people reacting to them in authentic ways. When it does, superhero literature is at its best.

What are the weaknesses of superhero literature? Setting aside the inherent ridiculousness of the concept the genre has a strong emphasis on sensationalism and wish fulfillment that, when not handled well, can make it feel very juvenile. Of the three points listed above #3 is the most important in making the story work – if the emotional depth or realistic look at consequences is missing then the willing suspension of disbelief will quickly fall apart for all but the most hardcore audiences – who are probably all reading comic books and not that interested in pure text.

Which is the genre’s other weakness. Superhero literature is for those who like the abstract idea of superheroes but have never found that idea taken in a direction they care for by most comics publishers. It’s not likely to be a point of contact between book lovers and comic lovers and we’re not likely to ever see a series of novels focusing on big name properties like Superman or Iron Man simply because those characters’ stories are already being told in another medium that fans like better.

What are the strengths of superhero literature? There are a lot of serious questions the idea of superheroes would raise in any society. Few of those serious questions are addressed in comics and, when they are, the constraints of the medium (25-40 pages of story a month in most cases) can really cramp comics ability to answer them. While some titles, like Irredeemable, have tangled with the these ideas a little and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman promises some of the same the societal implications of superheroes that are a running subtheme in Wearing the Cape, no other medium can go as deep as a novel.

Also, while superheroes are often presented to audiences as role models what exactly that means for people when those role models come up short is rarely addressed in comics. Both End of the Golden Age and Alex Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible offer interesting insight into what trying to be a heroic role model might cost heroes shouldering the mantle of role model – and those who love them.

Superhero literature is a very young genre, the youngest we’ve tackled so far, and as such there’s a lot to be desired in it. That said it does show promise in taking a very popular kind of story of the era and making it something a little deeper and more challenging. All in all, well worth a look every now and then to see how it’s developing.

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