thoughts on superhero prose

What with the book being done and all, one of two things will happen.

1) All the thoughts that have been piling up in the back corners of my head will finally come spilling out in a bunch of posts on topics I didn’t have the energy for while noveling.

2) I will sit here like a zombie, clicking “refresh” on various webpages, being terribly disappointed by the lack of updating to entertain me, while all those thoughts die on the vine.

I’m aiming for #1, so here’s a step in that direction.

First up: superhero fiction.

I posted a while ago on Fangs, Fur, Fey (the urban fantasy community) about the notion of superheroes and urban fantasy: why don’t we see more superhero prose fiction? If we had more of it, would it be classed as urban fantasy? Or are superheroes more inherently science-fictional? Could you do a more fantastical spin on them instead? Etc.

The concept hasn’t left my head entirely, and after a month or two of gestation, here’s where I stand.

To me, a superbeing (hero or villain) has the following qualities: he/she/it/bisex/whatever is a sentient being with abilities far beyond human capacity, who uses those abilities in the service of a particular cause or goal, and who does so in the context of a “brand identity.”

Sentient being: because a whole lot of non-sentient animals have abilities humans don’t.

Superhuman abilities: this is a fuzzy line. Is Bond superhumanly skilled? There are a decent number of comics that get ID’d as “super” that feature characters who are more super-dedicated than truly super-human.

Cause or goal: it isn’t enough to have the powers, if you just sit on the couch and play video games.

Brand identity: this, for me, is an important point. It doesn’t have to be a secret identity, or a split between a “normal” and “super” identity, but until you reach this point, there’s a lot of stuff in fantasy that could be superheroic, but doesn’t feel that way. Why? Because there are lots of vampires, but only one Superman. (Etc.) James Bond comes close to this line, as does Anita Blake; it would be easy to tip them over into something that would clearly look superheroic.

The “brand identity” point leads to my next thought, which is on the visual nature of the superhero genre. We’re used to comics, movies and TV, video games, or other highly visual media. Which means that in practice, the brand identity often means a name, a schtick, and a costume. Villains see a figure appear atop a nearby building, and know instantly that it’s [fill-in-the-blank]. Plus, a lot of superhero stories are built on spectacle, in the literal sense: spectare is the Latin verb for “to watch.” They’re visually flashy, in a way that might be very hard to translate to prose.

This, to me, is the point at which superhero fiction would need to do its own thing — do something the visual media can’t do — rather than trying to be a poor copy of the existing approach. And this is the point that interests me, too, because to a large extent my interest in the notion of superheroes grows out of the very aspect visual media are least suited for: the inner lives of the characters. Written prose is structurally very well-suited for interiority, for getting directly into the heads of characters and showing you their psychological workings. Which isn’t to say, of course, that you can’t do such things at all in visual media; obviously you can. But a lot of it ends up being externalized in some fashion (using the villain to represent the hero’s internal struggle, or whatever), or else you get narrative caption boxes telling you things, which usually feels very clunky to me.

When I think of superhero fiction, what I imagine isn’t an attempt to render all those flashy visuals on the page; I imagine character-driven stories that really dig into the screwed-up psychological consequences of being so different. Alienation’s the obvious one. But what does it feel like, being able to regenerate your body back from a hideously mangled state? (I mean, think about what it would do to your head, the first time that happened. Especially if you were aware during the whole process.) How hard is it to hold onto your sense of identity, if you can shapechange to look like other people? (I played with this in the Aberrant game, especially after reading some work on identity breakdown among undercover agents. It’s worst for those who underwent some kind of physical change, like dying their hair. Now apply that to shapechanging.) How about if you can’t safely touch anybody, a la Rogue?

You could run with it forever. And while a lot of that ground has already been gone over in comics, tackling it via fiction offers two things: a fresh mode of approach, and a new audience. Because there are a lot of people out there who would never pick up a superhero comic, who might try a novel.

And that’s another point, really. There’s an endless catfight going on in the comics industry right now; an increasing (and increasingly vocal) number of fans are trying to drag their beloved medium kicking and screaming out of its bad habits, specifically regarding the treatment of female characters (visually, psychologically, and narratively). Tackling superheroes in prose wouldn’t fix anything in the comics industry, necessarily, but it would offer an opportunity to try and jettison decades’ worth of baggage and start fresh. It might well be easier to experiment with different ways of imagining superhuman-hood in a totally different medium, where the weight of fandom’s expectations is lighter.

There are a few superhero novels out there these days. Not a lot, and I haven’t heard terribly great things about most of them. But it seems like it’s worth playing around with. I don’t see why it couldn’t be made to work.

0 Responses to “thoughts on superhero prose”

  1. danielmc

    Clearbrook Icon!

    • Marie Brennan

      <g> Yeah, I’ve had the image for ages (literally over ten years), but only made it an icon recently.

      It seemed appropriate for a comics-related post, even if Elfquest wasn’t a supers title. It was the only comic book I read for a very, very long time.

      • danielmc

        i just re-read the original series again last spring.
        damn its good. The series is very dear to me and i even got to howl with the Pinis about 10 years ago up at Wolf Park.

        haven’t kept up…i think there are new stories by Wendy now?

  2. sarcastibich

    I highly, highly, HIGHLY suggest you read the “Wild Cards” anthologies. Edited by George RR Martin, the first few books in the series are collections of short stories. Most of the rest of the series are novels about the world/characters. I think there are seventeen or so books in the original series, but new books are coming out through TOR in 2008.

    The basic background of the “Wild Cards” series is that Martin and a bunch of his author buddies were playing a tabletop super-hero RPG, world-building as they went, and they started to write stories about the world, their characters, and then other characters they designed to flesh out the world. It started out just being for fun, sharing short/long-short stories with each other and enjoying the world they created together. Then they got the idea of putting them together as an anthology and publishing. Some of the stories are amazingly good, some are not quite as good but still enjoyable.

    The point is that this series provides an example of Super Hero prose fiction, and its GOOD super hero prose fiction. I own the first two books in the series, and if you are interested in reading them I can dig through our bookshelves to locate them. If you wanna read them, toss me an email at megan(dot)werle(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll find them for you.

    • Marie Brennan

      We’ve got a couple of those anthos, which I’ve been meaning to sit down with. I’ve heard good things about them from several people.

    • mindstalk

      Ooh, good suggestion I’d have forgotten.

      I was going to mention Kavalier and Klay, and Astro City which isn’t prose but is kind of reconstructionist and more characterey.

  3. kendokamel

    You bring up some really good points. I’ve been toying around with the idea of this, for some time, but haven’t gotten past how to present it so it doesn’t seem trite or cliched.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s where I think fiction would have to find its own tack: if you just try to verbally represent what happens in the comic books, it will seem silly, because it was never meant to be experienced in that fashion.

  4. ninja_turbo

    My next novel is going to be fantasy superheroes, so I’ve been thinking and will be thinking about this in a big big way.

    Since the tide of history has moved in interesting ways and now getting novels published is easier than breaking into comics as a writer, doing work to bring the supers genre into 21st century aesthetics for me is going to come in prose.

    Prose describes action pretty well, and can do lots of description. The inferiority of prose is/will be really good for the hero’s monologue/thought boxes, ala Dark Knight Returns.

    When I get back to B-town, we will talk superhero prose. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      I think you mean “interiority”?

      • ninja_turbo


        *Supervillain voice*

        No, fools! The form of prose is a weak and outdated medium! Digital media is the mode of the future, which will bring our self-righteous ape species into its true inheritance!

        */Supervillain voice*

        I was tired. So sue me 🙂

  5. unforth

    I actually have written the (albeit kind of crappy) start of a super hero novel that I intend to finish at some point – it’s still an idea that I like. If you are bored enough that you are in risk of number 2, then I suppose I’m willing to share it – it’s been in my LJ, hiding in the archive, since I wrote it well over two years ago now. If I decided to write the story again, I would certainly start over from the beginning. 🙂 I should also probably mention that it doesn’t really conform to what you suggest above….at least, not exactly…
    Page 1
    Page 2
    Page 3
    Page 4
    Page 5
    Page 6
    Page 7
    Page 8
    Page 9
    Page 10
    Page 11

    The real problem this story has had is that I can’t figure out where it’s going – I’ve already started it over twice! 🙂

  6. bluetyson

    There are more than you might think, actually. You can see my LJ which will give you a link to my Super Reader blog with a massive list of the stuff, in various flavours.

  7. frankbyrns

    I would second that. There is more out there than you think — you just have to know where to look. But if you’d allow me a shameless plug — start with A Thousand Faces (, the brand new Quarterly Journal of Superhuman Fiction.

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