Outsider Heroes: Supers in Prose Fiction
I’m a big fan of super heroics—no question there—but I’ve been ‘over’ the biggies for a long time now. Marvel, DC—they’ve turned out decades of amazing stories, for sure. But frankly I’m just a little tired of the… sameness of it all. Let’s be honest: read a classic Marvel title long enough and its basically Dynasty or Dallas in spandex. That feeling has kept me off of buying my monthlies for quite a while. I’ve become much more selective, and much more likely to buy something off the indie rack, than to buy something with a classic costumed hero in it. That said, I’ve had to scratch my supers craving somehow—and my somehow has been the thriving world of supers prose fiction.
Peek below the fold to find out what’s in my Kindle app…
I think one of the boldest challenges a genre author can take is to try and craft a compelling supers story that is 1) outside the twin monoliths of comicdom’s studio system, and 2) is in a less visual medium than the average consumer of supers content is accustomed to (i.e. a format that isn’t a comic or a film). Few authors have risen to the challenge and fewer still have done an especially good job at translating costumed heroes to prose fiction, but there is a growing body of content out there, and some of it is excellent.
To the best of my knowledge, the earliest example of super hero world building outside of the funny papers that I know of (in the contemporary sense—lets please not bring the Epic of Gilgamesh into this) is the now classic Wild Cards series. Edited by George Martin, Wild Cards is also an example of shared world building, as the books are more like tapestries of contributions by some greats, including my all time favorite, Roger Zelazny. Of course, I don’t think anyone ever accused George Martin of being an especially good editor (looking at you, A Feast for Crows…), and to say that Wild Cards is inconsistent is an understatement. However, it presents a supers-filled world that is every bit as gritty and real as its editor’s more reknowned works. All that said, Wild Cards is far from my favorite example of super heroes in prose, and it has been a long while since I deigned to take these off the shelf.
I recently enjoyed Blackjack: Villain. Ben Bequer’s first novel was inspired by a supers roleplaying game (ala Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles), and tells the story of Blackjack: a petty crook, turned big league super villain, turned anti-hero, who goes on a pan-dimensional adventure to… save the world? It’s actually quite a feat of world building: Bequer manages to create a familiar yet unique vision of a supers-infused world, with an interesting origin story and a large cast of proximal and background characters that make the world feel large and lived-in. While the book does suffer from some achingly frustrating first novelisms (occasionally purple prose, wild tangents, irrelevant conversations, etc.), as well as some self-publishing/editorial challenges (the editor was also novice, the book is easily 200 pages too long, the typos abound, etc.), it is inventive and seriously entertaining (as well as an extremely good value on the Kindle).
I have to make special mention of one thing: Bequer’s real strength as an author is in describing action sequences. I typically find battle scenes crushingly boring—especially if they’re written by an author who doesn’t have a clear picture of how combat should be described, falls into repetitive patterns of describing action, or otherwise fumbles through the “cinematography” of the scene. Blackjack is filled with super battles so clear and lovingly crafted that the only comparable example is the recent Man of Steel film (which objectively has the best super battles on film, because SCIENCE!) At times, I found myself glossing through plot to get to the next battle. That never happens.
The other book I’ve recently devoured is Peter Cline’s Ex-Heroes, a mash-up of supers and zombies in a way that puts that makes Marvel Zombies look like the hot pile of stupid that it was. Cline has a show don’t tell approach to storytelling that is really critical in making supers come to life (which may be my problem with Wild Cards, which reads like a game of telephone at times), and he clearly has some horror chops, which makes the zombie angle feel… not cheesy (because, lets face it, zombies are done—or they should be by now), which is no mean feat, given that two most easily cheesed-up concepts in fiction are costumed heroes and BRAAAAAINS eating zombies…
While the three books I’ve mentioned here are far from the entire corpus of super fiction, they are among the best I’ve encountered (though I have an admittedly long reading list of like books that I’m working through, as this is a subgenre I’d like to contribute to someday). In thinking through what I have read, I’ve composed some guidelines for writing prose fiction about costumed heroes.
1) Don’t be cheesy: When your subject matter are grown ups in tight pants throwing punches and sarcastic quips at each other, it’s easy to screw this one up. One of the benefits of transitioning out of the comics medium to tell super stories is that you aren’t prisoner to all of the conventions of the genre, and there is a lot more room for shades of grey in your storytelling, than if you’re writing for a pure comics audience.
2) Embrace the cliché: Despite what I said about cheesiness, there are tropes and patterns present in super hero comics that translate very well to prose. The stand off, the repartee, the rebound from certain doom, the quirks that make heroes and villains memorable—these are all genre signals that make connect the reader with source material, and their presence, absence, or elaboration will be felt!
3) Be visual: Regardless of the fact that this whole sub genre is about moving from highly visual mediums to pure prose, the fact remains that super stories need rich visualization. Whether you’re crafting a gritty, street level story or a clash of demigods, the only way to convey the difference between our world and a world of super beings is to show, not tell.
While I have about a half-dozen more books about costumed heroes in my reading list (not including the sequels of the above mentioned books that I also intend to read), I’m curious if anyone has some recommendations of books in this curious little sub genre that I just have to check out? Share your thoughts in the comments!