Sunday, June 2, 2013

What do you think about Superhero Fiction?

Do you read books about superheroes?

I'm not talking about novelizations of Kingdom Come or The Dark Knight Returns, or collections of commentaries about comics, but actual prose books featuring original superheroes written by non-comic book writers.

Of late, as I have been helping my wife complete work on her first book (which is now available via Kindle Direct Publishing on Amazon), I have found myself delving into the world of self published novels which in turn has led me to discover a new wave of fiction featuring other peoples superheroes. (Some of which are pretty good, but more on that next week.)

I think there is a tendency among comic book readers to think of COMIC BOOKS to be the real source of super heroic stories and any BOOK featuring superheroes will be either too derivative or one dimensional to be given any serious thought. (At least that seems to be the impression I have gotten when discussing the topic with other comic book readers.)

What I think is a bit ironic about that notion is that in many ways, the reverse is true. First, many people feel the inspiration for modern heroes started with some of the early heroic fiction of the 1930's. Among the first and most cited is Phillip Wylie's Gladiator novel.

Gladiator presents the adventures of Hugo Danner, a man whose scientist father developed a serum that gave young Hugo the proportionate strength of a ant (sound familiar?), the ability to leap like a grasshopper, superhuman strength, speed and bulletproof skin.

Because of the era it was written, the story will probably be a bit off putting to modern comic fans, but has a lot of interesting ideas in it. In fact, while no direct evidence has ever been presented, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that this book was the inspiration for Superman.

A more famous inspiration for the superhero genre would have to be Doc Savage.

True, Doc didn't fire lasers from his eyes or have bulletproof skin, but it's easy to see how this man of tomorrow inspired the modern day hero, especially those of the Batman ilk.

Filled with some highly imaginative ideas, the Doc Savage series was quite popular during the 30's and 40's but sort of faded out during the 50's. In the 60's the series found a new market of readers when Bantam book reprinted the series with cover artwork by James Bama.

Of late, noted Doc historian and co-creator of The Destroyer series Will Murray has written new stories with Doc featuring concepts with more big-screen appeal like this one featuring Doc Savage on Skull Island

Within more recent history, George R.R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) edited a series of shared world anthologies featuring non-comic superheroes under the Wild Cards banner.

The Wild Cards series features a rather ingenious framework for a superhero world (heroes, villains and mutates are the rare survivors of a deadly alien virus) with such notable contributors as George R.R. Martin, Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shriner, Melinda Snodgrass, John Miller.

The first book starts in the 1940's and follows the world of heroes through the Red Scare 50's, Vietnam era 60's and 70's and ends in the modern era. Subsequent novels have all taken place in the modern era, with some spotlighting different areas of the globe.

Because of its modern take on the superhero genre against a historical backdrop, people have often compared Wild Cards to Watchmen (and while there are a number of shared ideas, but I think that is just zeitgeistian coincidence.) I tend to see Watchmen as a very deliberate story with many set goals while the Wild Card series is a more random exploration of the superhero genre with vetted science fiction writers extending Stan Lee's concept of real world superheroes to the next level.

The series started in 1985 and has continued over the years at different publishers and was even adapted into a graphic novel 4 issue prestige format limited series in the 90's on Marvel's Epic imprint which was later collected into a single book.*

The most current volume being Fort Freak which came out in 2011 As of 2011, there was talk that Universal Pictures would make a movie out of the series through their partnership with SyFy.

The most important thing about the Wild Cards series is that it successfully delivers on the promise of richer, deeper stories in a superhero setting. Writers are allowed to develop ideas with more complexity, verisimilitude, thematic depth and stylistic nuance than one would ever see in a comic from the big two.

Sadly, even though Wild Cards paved the way for a new era of Superhero fiction, no one seemed interested in traveling down that road.

Until recently. But that will be the subject of next weeks post. ;)

- Jim

*Thanks to Trey Causey for the correction on today's post. - JS


Trey said...

Good overview. One correction, Epic did a 4 issue prestige format limited series which they later collected into a single form.

Also, you didn't mention the influential Superfolks or original novels with Marvel or DC characters like Captain America: The Great Gold Steal or Elliot S. Maggin's Superman: Miracle Monday.

Jim Shelley said...

Good catch on the Epic thing Trey!

I thought about Superfolks, and even downloaded the picture to use in the post, but I'm really not very knowledgeable on the book and the notion that it's a parody of comics was a bit in the wrong direction for my post.

As to original novels using DC and Marvel characters, I'm only familiar with the Pocket book series from the 70's like Fantastic Four Doomsday or Hulk Stalker from the Stars. Never even heard of that The Great Gold Steal book. Seems to me there is an old Avengers novel floating around about that time from Otto Binder as well.

In retrospect, I think this post has a bit of an exclusionary slant to it because I see it as part of a larger post about off brand superhero novels.

Unknown said...

What about John Carter? He didn't age, and once on Mars he basically had superpowers. Sort of a mutant/alien mixture, except that the "alien" was from Earth.

Jim Shelley said...

@Brian - Ah! Good call Brian. John Carter definitely performs acts of superheroics. Thinking about it, the notion that his planet of origin had a different gravity than his current planet may have been in influence on Superman.

Britt Reid said...

Both Captain America: the Great Gold Steal by Ted White and Avengers vs the Earth-Wrecker by Otto Binder were published in 67-68 by Bantam Books.
It was a good time for prose superheroes.
At the same time, there were two Batman novels (one a novelization of the 1966 movie) and a Green Hornet novel.
Also in the 60s: Besides reprints of The Shadow by Bantam, Belmont did 10 new novels updating the character into the world of spies and secret agents.

Of interest to you would be the WEIRD HEROES paperback series of the 1970s-80s, edited by Byron Preiss. Subtitled "the New American Pulp", some volumes are anthologies, some are standalone novels.
Meant to be a revival of the hero-pulp concept, authors included Phillip Jose Farmer, Ron Goulart, Ben Bova, Ted White, and a host of comics writers including Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, and Elliot S! Maggin.
Plus they featured covers and interior illos by big names like Neal Adams, Steranko, Alex Nino, and Jeff Jones.

Crize2foi said...

There was also a novel giving a different take on the Superman story written by Tom de Haven and published by HarperCollins in 2006, and entitled "It's Superman". Probably not one to please the die-hard Superman fan.

Back in 1990 a Batman novel came out called "The Batman Murders" written by Craig Shaw Gardner, a fantasty/humour writer, published in the UK by Penguin. And in 1991 this was followed up by "Batman: To Stalk A Specter" published by ROC/Penguin and written by Simon Hawke, another fantasy author.

Prior to this, in 1989, there was a anthology of short prose stories brought together in the book "The Further Adventures of Batman", which was followed in 1992 with the unsurprisingly titled "The Further Adventures of Baman, Volume 2: Featuring The Penguin". Both were published by Bantam books and contained stories from the like of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, William F.Nolan, Mike Resnick, Stuart M.Kaminsky and rather surprisingly Isaac Asimov!

cash_gorman said...

Did a post on two superhero novels and touching on similar points.

The problem with most superhero fiction is the fact that the writers don't really understand the concept, that it's heroic fiction which means at its heart it's supposed to be action/adventure with heroic heroes and villainous bad guys.

Instead, they want to write ABOUT superheroes, to deconstruct the genre and treat it as writing literature. So, it's about the costumes being corny (look for a line that goes like "wearing a comicbook costume"); the ineffectiveness of superheroes; the bad guys being not so bad or at the least, they are true to themselves; and plenty of swearing and the sex lives/fetishness of heroes and costumes.

Or, it's going to make excuses, pairing it with science fiction, or steam punk concepts because such heroes don't work in straight-forward worlds. And, you'll still get a smattering of the above.

Such as the Wild Card novels. The first round were pretty good, but this was a time before Vertigo. But, the current one, Fort Freak is not a superhero novel. It's an alternate reality novel, where people have powers and such, but that's just window dressing. And, when you have the writers using the short stories to act out their own sexual fantasies ala, my current girlfriend has met and is seduced by my previous hooker/stripper girlfriend and we're now in a fulfilling threesome relationship (literally, that's one of the story arcs running through it).

Truthfully, the Harry Potter books, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Cussler's Dirk Pitt and Koontz' Odd Thomas novels are truer to the concepts of superhero fiction than most books that are more overt. But, that's because they understand the concept of it being about strong heroes vs dangerous and strong villains

Luke said...

I think the problem with superhero novels is along the lines of what Cash says. A lot of the things taken for granted in the visuals of comics sound fairly silly when you have to write them in prose. Electro is silly enough without having to explicitly talk about his skintight green outfit with the yellow zigzags and the blue lightning firing from his fingers.

If you ignore that and just play it straight, the reader might get pulled out anyway by the absurdity. If you hang a lampshade on it, you betray the medium that you're ostensibly promoting.

I think there's a certain level of descriptive wordplay a writer needs to cultivate in order to walk the necessary line between being ridiculous and acknowledging it. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to step to one side or the other. Sadly it happens in the comics themselves, usually under the guise of being "more realistic" or "self-aware".

Jim Shelley said...

@BrittReid - Avengers vs the Earth-Wrecker was the book I was trying to think of!
You listed so many other novels, I had not heard of, that I'm thinking of doing a follow up article. The WEIRD HEROES paperback sounds especially cool!

Jim Shelley said...

@Crize2foi - While I don't recall The Batman Murders or To Stalk a Spectre, I do remember those Batman anthologies you mentioned. I got one that was based on the Joker that was pretty good (with an exceptional story by Joe R. Lansdale IIRC)

Jim Shelley said...

@cash_gorman and Luke -
While I am willing there are certain conceits one has to contend with within the superhero genre, I don't know if those are really the obstacles some writers make them.

I agree, any writer can make the mention of Electro's Ditkoriffic costume sound silly, but I think it's possible to also do it and make it work. After all, based on what we see in the movies, some of the characters in Harry Potter dress a bit odd, but no one questions it. I think it's a matter of how it's presented in the context of the book.

I will say, that in many of the more modern works of superhero fiction, the costumes don't really get mentioned that much, which makes sense. It's really not that necessary when dealing with fiction. A prose retelling of Amazing Spider-man 9 could easily never tell us what Electro looks like and still tell the same tale.

On the flipside, like Luke says, with sufficient wordplay, a writer could find a way to tell readers what Electro looked like in an interesting way.

The main issue I think is motivation - how do you explain someone dressing up like that effectively.

MattComix said...

I find it hard to get into novels in general let alone superhero novels. I don't really know why but it seems that if the prose is on a non-fiction subject I do pretty well but for fiction and fantasy I want the visual. Not pretending that makes sense, it just seems to be how I'm wired. I can read a book about the early days of Marvel Comics sooner than I could read a Spider-Man novel.

People always say that with the written word you can use your imagination but with comics or tv or movies my imagination is engaged anyway. Maybe this is why something like monsters clearly made of bubblewrap in an old Doctor Who episode don't bother me. I'm using imagination to make that monster work.

Comics as a medium is ideally the perfect middle ground between the written word and movies or tv. Superheroes as we know them are a genre born from comics so maybe part of my deal with that is superheroes without the visual component just feels wrong to me.

Jim Shelley said...

@MattComix - I gotta say, I find your comment about finding it hard to get into novels a little ironic considering your profession. ;)

--- But I understand. In my younger days, before the internet and streaming television, I read a LOT more than I do now. It seems I start a lot of books, but never finish them. Most recently, I've found that I have better luck reading collections of short stories.

There is another option you should consider - Audio Books. This weekend, I'll talk about some you might want to give a try.

cash_gorman said...

I don't think you really need to concern yourself too much with the motivation of the costume unless you are trying to somehow subvert, comment on or transform the genre. It's part of the genre and is thus an accepted norm. If you're writing a fantasy novel, you don't have to set out to explain the evolution behind dragons, elves, and such. Those that do, do so because otherwise they cannot quite take such concepts seriously.

Just as you don't have to get too specific with the costume description, especially if the costume is fairly well known or on the cover. Let imagination play a part.

It ultimately all comes down to the attitude and tone the writer wishes to impart (or is subconsciously guiding him).

"He was wearing a green costume with yellow trim and a lightning motif. Arcs of electricity crawled down his arms and danced over his finger tips. He slowly clenched his fist and the electricity gathered there into a living, throbbing ball. A swing of the arm and he threw it. When it hit the cop, it exploded with electrical force and threw the man backwards. He lay on the ground twitching as the arcs of electricity gleefully danced over his body.

'Electro,' thought Spider-man. It was going to take all his speed and agility to dodge his lightning blasts to get close enough to take him out."

"He sat there on his throne. It was intricately carved so that it looked entirely made up of writhing, wriggling serpents. His hands rested on armrests done as upright hooded king-cobras, poised as if ready to strike.

The man was no less striking and horrifyingly regal. He was covered head to toe in golden scales, a human serpent. Over the scales was a green sash that ran across his chest and then around his waist, echoing his Far East origins. A snakish devil in human form, a terrifying god to his worshipers. They called him Naga-naga. To the West, he was the cult leader and terrorist known as Kobra."


"His laugh foolishly announced his presence. The crook spun and spied a man standing by the window. The crook blinked, the man was dressed operatically like something out of the yellow dime-novels read in his youth.

He had an over-sized black hat with a wide brim that had never really been in fashion. The suit and cape were black too. However, there was the touch of flamboyance: a large gaudy red ring from a costume jeweler on one finger, red lining on the cape (outlining the body perfectly) and a red scarf hiding the mouth. The cape closed tightly under the chin, so that between that and the scarf one would almost wonder how the man breathed.

Except that the feature that really grabbed attention was the rather pronounced nose. It was a nose of noses, a prince of probiscises. One that would make Cyrano hide his head in shame over his diminutive member.

'He should have a large mustache to twirl while tying girls to train tracks,' thought the crook. 'Maybe he can't grow one and that's why he has the scarf.'

'The man in black laughed again. That was the part that bothered the crook the most. The man in black was obviously an escaped lunatic and who knew what they were capable of or were liable to do next."

It's all in the attitude.


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