Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Where are the Superheroes?

Do you have a favorite superhero?

Sometimes my favorite is Superman, but that's probably because Lois and Clark was one of the only TV shows I watched when I was younger. (I even had two teddy bears named Clark and Kent.)

My actual favorites are the X-Men. I think it's because I love how all the different mutant powers are like puzzle pieces, and in order to solve a conflict they all have to fit together.

My husband and I went to see the latest X-Men movie a week and a half ago and I thought it was fantastic. Now granted, I'm an action movie girl. I like watching things blow up. (A fact I finally realized when watching Live Free or Die Hard, a movie epitomized by the quote: “You just killed a helicopter with a car!” “I was out of bullets.” It's completely over-the-top, and I love it.) But I think X-Men: First Class is a good movie, not just a good action movie.

Well anyway, watching that and watching The Invisible Man as I mentioned on Monday got me thinking about superpowers and superheroes. And I got to wondering... are there really any superheroes in books?

I keep going over and over this, and I can't seem to think of any. (And I'm not talking about random people with mysterious powers. I mean full-scale, masked, caped superheroes.) They seem to be confined to comic books and television. Why not books?

Now maybe I just blanked on novel-form superheroes, or maybe I haven't read any and you guys know of some? If you do, I'd love to hear what you come up with. But if I'm right and there are no superheroes in novels, I'm curious as to why. Is there a reason comic book superheroes don't work well in novels?

Maybe there is. Maybe certain superpowers are more impressive in a visual context. Maybe there's a different expectation of how much suspension of reality is too much in books versus comic books. Maybe the kinds of conflicts typical in superhero stories just don't fit in a standard novel-length book. Or maybe it's something else altogether.

What do you think?


  1. I think part of it is down to the fact that superheroes require the writer and audience to ignore certain rules of physics and how the world works in order to function. Otherwise Superman can't lift a car with one hand, or it'll rip apart. Simple masks won't hide secret identities. Costumes won't act skin-tight yet tear and fray like cloth. Batman couldn't fight crime night after night without suffering permanent long-term injuries.

    In books, writers are more inclined to explain how things work, and readers are more inclined to expect that. We expect a more consistent level of versimilitude in our books than our comics. As a result, it's harder for many readers to suspend their disbelief.

  2. I'll buy that. So I wonder, then, if it's possible to create a more realistic superhero that would work in a book. I don't know that I'd want to write one, but I'd be interested in reading one.

  3. It's certainly possible. The types of superheroes available would be very different than your typical X-Men or Justice League types.

    There are all sorts of questions to be raised, like can anybody fly? If so, how do they deal with flying through clouds of insects at high speed?

  4. It's the colorful underwear. It's a fashion choice you can't really justify in the context of a novel. Or at least I can't.

    Or on a more serious note--superheroes tend to do patrolling vigilante-style or get called on by presidents and whatnot, right? Hard to set that up IRL, even if you could fly. Like, you could fly around the city looking all day and night without necessarily seeing a crime in progress. As for working with the police--well, there are all kinds of laws you'd have to deal with. I doubt you'd get to use your powers as often or as freely as you'd like. You'd be a glorified police officer with some snazzy skills.

    Or say you went to a conflict-ridden place, like maybe you'd go try to stop battles in a warzone. How do you decide who is right or wrong? Do you topple dictatorships? Who sets up the government that follows if you do? You? You can't just arbitrarily draw international boundaries when two countries disagree. Worldbuilding in fiction just involves too many shades of grey, I think, that comic books can avoid by using bright colors and having a never-ending gallery of supervillains. And silly physics.

    In a realistic depiction, you might be able to be a pretty rad firefighter, or something along those lines, and that would come close. Or you could be a super awesome rescue worker. But it would be pretty hard to pull the kind of big picture stuff Superman does, I think, because so many superheroes are independent and work by their own moral codes irrespective of the law--and reality just isn't that easy. Real life vigilantism is freaky, no matter how well-intentioned. And... yeah.

    Basically, what Paul said, but from a more socio-political perspective. Novels tend to have more shades of grey, and superheroes tend to be inked in black and white (with, um... lots of colors, too, destroying my analogy, but you get the idea)

    Or something. :P

  5. I do think there's room for superhero-esque fiction, but if you're trying to write for a YA or adult audience, you would need to craft a specific way for this world to work, and remain consistent, choosing which superhero tropes to retain, which to change, which to leave aside, and making sure that you can justify your choices within the context of your setting.

  6. At one of the panels I attended at last year's Armadillocon there was a woman (on the panel) who was co-writing a superhero book with her writing partners. I can't remember the panel, her name or the name of the book, lol, but I know that they exist. Super hero books, that is. ;)

  7. I figured they had to... thanks, Kendra!

    Great thoughts you guys. You've put a lot of clarity to the nebulous ideas rattling around in my head. I kind of had a vague understanding of why superheroes in general might not work, but you've done a much better analysis than I was ready to do.

    The two main take-aways for me are 1) the superhero's power has to make actual sense and not just be random hand-waving, hey presto, and 2) the superhero has to have a logical relationship with society.

    So... who wants to write me a superhero book now? ;)

  8. I'm sure I could work out something down the line ;-)

  9. Well if you ever do, let me know! I'll read it.

  10. I wrote a story for the anthology Kendra mentioned (called "The Protectors"). I'm given to understand there's a publisher nibbling, but I've heard nothing definite yet.

  11. Oh yeah? Let me know if it happens!