3 Problems With Superhero Novels (And Why They’re Not Problems)

y648-64When I wrote Superheroes Anonymous, it didn’t occur to me that I was veering off the path. Superheroes- and Supervillains Anonymous and now How to Save the World, they’re all listed in the urban fantasy genre. They contain magic and powers, larger than life fight scenes, and grand old good vs. evil showdowns that you find in a lot of urban fantasy novels. But when people think of superheroes, they just don’t think novel.

At home, I have a cabinet full of superhero glasses, a DVD collection jam-packed with caped wonders, and an entire drawer set aside for comics. Slowly, a shelf of superhero books is creeping into that collection, showcasing books like Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age or C.B. Lee’s Not Your Sidekick. I have space set out for my own How to Save the World, which I think will be in tremendous company next to Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex. But of all of my collections, that shelf is the smallest one, and I think it’s because people have a hard time wrapping their heads around superheroes in novel form. I can see three reasons for that.

1. Superheroes are visual. What are these words doing there, clogging up the page?

Superheroes are by and large a visual medium. They lend themselves to awesome drawn and scripted fight scenes, cool special effects, and bright, candy-colored costumes. Translating that from the screen to the written word can be immensely difficult.

But it can also be incredibly fun.

While it’s true that the visual quality can be a difficult one to lose—I salivate every time production photos of a new costume are released—I think superhero novels make up the difference. A deft hand for description is required, obviously, but comic books rely on imagination of the reader to work, and so do novels. Novels have one advantage over other mediums: they can delve deep inside a character’s head in a way comic books don’t have time to do. With a novel, you can be inside every visceral punch, in the hero’s shoes as he or she flies to save the day, or experiencing the freak-out over new powers. See? I told you. Fun.

2. Superheroes rely either on grit or on candor and both can be hard to swallow.

Whether you’re a Watchmen fan or a Christopher Reeves Superman junkie doesn’t matter. My favorite superheroes trade on heartfelt optimism and the battles between good and evil. My best friend loves the Christian Bale Batman tales for how bleak they are.  Both of these tones can be difficult to nail in novel form! The Superheroes Anonymous trilogy trends to the positive. Even facing overwhelming odds like being wrongfully accused or squaring off against a telekinetic villain, my hero Gail Godwin finds reason to hope in the darkness and fight back. In movies, this is accompanied by swelling music, in comics the art gets brighter or darker to compensate. In books, these moments are reserved for the high fantasy genre a lot of the time. But I think with this new spate of superhero novels, we’re reclaiming our own. And the best solution for that is to write more of these novels to make this feel normal—and read more, of course. Which is great since I have a new book on sale today.

3. Superhero novels can be considered a little too “new” for nostalgia.

This isn’t a problem for me, but I can understand why it would trip people up. There’s a reason Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are so popular: many people grew up with them. And these superhero novels that are slowly hitting the shelves are either about new superheroes or they’re a new twist on an old favorite (check out Gwenda Bond’s amazing YA Lois Lane duology to see what I mean). That really messes with the nostalgia factor and trust me, as somebody who bounced in her seat when the Wonder Woman trailer played, I get that.

But I think that these novels are doing something to make up for it: they’re bringing new takes on superheroes to the table. Heroine Complex and Not Your Sidekick feature Asian-American superheroes that we don’t get to see on the silver screen as often. My Superheroes Anonymous series has a strong social media component, exploring what superheroes would be like in modern society. Even the Lois Lane books I mentioned above set Lois’s world in high school, super-sleuthing her way through homeroom and trig homework. I would argue that these books have a chance to step away from the nostalgia and into a new era.

And the best part? Look at my superhero collection that I talked about. We’re in a glut of superhero options right now. I can turn on my TV and watch Barry Allen or Daisy Johnson or even Legion, I can go to the movies and laugh at Ant-Man. And now, I think, I can go to my favorite place in the world—the bookstore—and read all about superheroes in the novels that I adore above all else.

You should pick up a superhero novel today. One of mine would be great! But there are so many good choices available now, and even more coming. And isn’t that awesome?

lexie-dunneLexie Dunne is a life-long winner of the coveted trophy for participation and author of the SUPERHEROES ANONYMOUS series. By day a mild-mannered technical writer and by night a writer of masked crusaders, she hails from St. Louis, home of the world’s largest croquet game piece. Follow her on Twitter @DunneWriting.




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