Thoughts on Reading/Writing Superhero Novels

I'm writing a superhero novel. Which means I'm also reading a lot of superhero novels. And while many of them are very good, they all have some troubling flaws… many of which, I think, come back to one thing:


They're all trying to be comic books.


We first encountered superheros in the pages of comic books, so it makes sense to, when novelizing them, give props to our inspirations. Except… it doesn't. There are only so many times I can read about a thinly-veiled version of Superman kind of being a lawful good dickface before I want to roll my eyes and turn the page/put the book down/etc. I get it, he's the consumate god-powered do-gooder of the comic universe, so to keep the archetype intact you make him just as much of a powerful do-gooder, but you also make him a jerk. And Batman. Jesus H. Christ. Batman. You know why Batman is cool? Because he's got a wicked backstory, badass villains, and a toolbelt. He is NOT cool because he's some martial arts genius that can hang with the super crowd. Batman characters (and Superman characters) are, by nature, dull because they're so familiar. Same goes for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto… pretty much every popular character you can list off the top of your head should absolutely be off-limits to you. You're not going to do them better than they've been done, so why do them?


Let that be the first in a list of things I will NOT do as I'm writing this book/these books. Here are the rest:


2. No comic book panels/art. They almost always look like the kind of crap you see in "How to Draw Comics" books. They're stilted, lifeless, derivative. AND YOU'RE WRITING A NOVEL NOT A COMIC BOOK. In the past I've thought about using comic book styling for fight scenes… but every time I see comic book art in a novel, it looks like garbage. Maybe if I have the money and can front it for a great artist. I dunno. So far, from what I've seen, it just doesn't work.


3. No origin stories. You know what other novels don't do? Origin stories. Because it's novel inertia. It works in comics because it's flashy and melodramatic and short… but in a novel, dedicating thousands of words to something that happened so you can justify how/why something is about to happen is just book murder. Stop it already. 


4. Stupid powers. In a world with super powers, there must be people with stupid powers, fundamentally useless and absolutely pointless powers. Stupid powers are more fun than regular powers anyway, so nanner nanner boo boo. 


5. Weaknesses. You don't see this much in comic books, because weaknesses are reserved for people who would otherwise be invincible. This works because you can have people who have powers fighting people who also have powers–it's then about the "good" guy overcoming the bad guy's super powers. It's cool. Again, it's flashy. In novels you have exposition about eating a sandwhich and how that reminds the hero of a childhood picnic gone awry via Godzilla and Mothra hosting an orgy in the hero's backyard. That is also cool, but it is a different kind of cool. To make up for the disparity, every hero in my story will have a weakness. And not some "shard of a home planet" weakness. We're talking nutmeg or ice water here, people. If that doesn't make sense to you, neither should shooting lasers out of your eyes.


6. Less population density. In fake book "City Brawls, Suburban Sprawls" there'll be a study of how suburbia has soaked up most city populations because so many cities are devastated by regular villain/hero battles. Having population-dense cities invites the kind of chaos heroes purport to stop. Sure, there will of course be a New York, a Chicago, a Los Angeles, etc. But middle America will also be a bit denser in the middle.


7. Because of big-city battles, insurance will be very expensive.


8. Some villains have won. You read comic because you want to see heroes overcome villains. You don't have that moral simplicity in novels. Evil has to win sometimes, half the time, most of the time.


9. "Why do you hate me? I've never helped you." ~ people aren't always so happy to be saved. And many view heros/villains as one side of the same coin. A problematic coin.


10. Politics. As much as comics want to hedge around politics, or allegorize them, politics exist. And since people can be wielded–even super heroes–it's important that heroes too are entrenched in politics.


So there you have it. I'll be writing this novel for the next couple of months, and will update with more stuff as I come across it. The gist still remains the same: novels aren't comic books, so cut the camp and write something serious already!


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  • Question: is it absolutely impermissable to write a novel about heroes whom already exist in the comic books, but giving them a more adult/nuanced treatment, as would befit a novel? I’ve been messing around with a fanfic as a writing exercise, but I’d kind of like to convert it into an actual novel that explores what I think certain superheroes would be like if they existed in the “Real World”. Love this blog!

    • I think you can write whatever you want… however, if your novel about established superheroes doesn’t first have an approved proposal from a publishing house, I think you’re limited to the realm of fanfiction and fanfiction sites. (Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality come to mind.)

      That being said, you always have the Cassandra Clare route, who basically borrowed the world of Hogwarts, added in some dark lore and expanded upon the muggle/non-human racism, and managed to propel a fanfiction love story between Hermoine and Draco into an international bestselling franchise. (I’m referring to the “Mortal Instruments” series.)

      And I think there’s something to be said about “Watchmen” here too; namely that, while those characters are clearly derived from other characters in DC’s pantheon, what Alan Moore created instead was a riveting and deeply nuance/adult tale.

      So while I don’t think you could take Superman and embed him in the “Real World” and expect that story to sell (due to rights, infringement, pitching, etc.), I think you could use the Superman archetype and do the same thing/write the same novel. You lose the built-in world building of the DC universe, but in some senses that frees you up even more to do what you want. (And your question seems more interested in this, I think.) Carrie Vaughn’s “End of the Golden Age” has a Superman archetype in it, for example, as does as does Austin Grossman’s “Soon I Will Be Invincible” and Tom King’s “A Once Crowded Sky.”

      Good question!

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