Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why so few superhero novels?

    I love superhero fiction. Unfortunately, there just isn't very much on the market these days. In fact, there's very little superhero fiction on the market period. Sure, you can occasionally see a badly written novel about the X-men or Spiderman but very rarely does an author take the time to actually create a genuine superhero novel. The exceptions, George R.R Martin's Wild Cards and breakout hits like Soon I Will Be Invincible, are rare.

    I think part of this reason is superheroes are an inherently visual medium. Those who want to write about superheroes tend to gravitate towards comics since they've dominated the medium since the Comic Book Authority was first instituted. It takes a risk to go outside of well-trodden genres and not only must an author do it but a publisher.

    The age of Amazon publishing has opened up new doors to nontraditional genres with one of the better examples being Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon. Marion managed to create a surprisingly deep and nuanced setting in terms of everything from characters to laws relating to superhumans. Which, honestly, comes to where I think the real problem with superheroes in fiction comes from.

    The worldbuilding.

    Comic books benefit from a massive continuity which has come to be expected by a lot of fans of the genre. It's certainly possible to tell origin stories, which is the route movies usually take, but portraying the kind of post-human world of superheroes where they can interact is difficult. You have to create whole collections of heroes and either write or imply their backstory.

    Then there's the issue of what sort of genre your superheroes are going to exist in. How did everyone get their powers? Is everyone a mutant? Are there multiple sources of superhuman abilities? Does everyone wear a costume but not possess superpowers? All of these are questions you have to ask when creating a superhero novel.

    Answering these questions is, to me, a key part of making your superheroic novel work. It's also one of the reasons why I think the novels aren't more common. Suspension of disbelief when you pick up a comic book is instantly off. Not so much in movies or books. The reason Galactus was a gigantic cloud in Fantastic Four 2 was because the producers didn't have confidence audiences could accept a 100ft tall man in a giant purple helmet.

    In short, you need to believe a man can fly when you introduce audiences to a superheroic world and a lot of the assumptions they will forgive you for in comic books go out the window when you go to text. You also can't write novels the same way people write comic books. A picture may be worth a thousand words but no one wants to read 10 chapters of Spiderman fighting Doctor Octopus. You have to get deeper into the heads of your protagonists and give them a story arc. Batman will never give up being Batman, marry, die, or have children outside of easily retconned stories or Elseworlds but your protagonists should grow as people.

     Despite this, I think superheroes are going to be the next big thing in fiction. It's a largely untapped genre and we've been steadily building up audiences tolerance with mystical superheroines like Mercy Thompson or wizard-heroes like Harry Dresden. The only thing which separates Harry from Spiderman is he wears a duster rather than a spandex outfit. Just take note this is a genre which needs careful handling--something too many authors forget when they jump into untested waters.

1 comment:

  1. Charles, you've definitely got a handle on this, and I agree with you: superhero novels are going to become huge. If you look at the evolution of comics over the decades, one of the trends you'll see is that readers are becoming tired of the same old thing. So we've had offshoots that actually treat the stories differently, in a more mature fashion. This will translate fine into the non-visual medium of novels.

    My own offering begins in September with the release of the first book in a trilogy titled The Many Deaths of Dynamistress. The world building was, as you implied, critical. But the real focus of the story is the protagonist as a human being, rather than a costume and powers. And that's really at the core of all great fiction. I think that's what comic fans are desperate for and why superhero novels will be so successful.

    Vincent M. Wales