For this #nerdyninth, I’ve decided to expound at length about something you’re probably aware of. Besides reading funnybooks and watching superheroics on TV and movies, I also happily consume superhero prose. And by “superhero,” I don’t mean people with powers. I expect the tropes to be honored, or at the very least subverted in an entertaining manner. So, no “Heroes” fiction, for instance. Also, most of “Wild Cards.” Don’t get me wrong, I love “Wild Cards,” but until the few most recent books, it’s primarily been about people with powers and their impact on society. Superheroing was what the deluded few attempted, usually to their grave misfortune.
While I can look on my shelves and find superhero fiction dating back to the 70s, most of what we’ve had until recently was either the aforementioned “Wild Cards” or licensed novels from Marvel or DC. Of these, I’ve read a scant handful, and enjoyed fewer (I’ll talk about a couple I like later on).
Oddly enough, it seems the real breakthrough (such as it is) for superhero fiction came from Urban Fantasy writers. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising: Urban Fantasy is mostly people with unusual abilities dealing with unpleasant people with unusual abilities. The unusual abilities just focus on the supernatural and the genre doesn’t play with other superhero tropes. It’s almost like Urban Fantasy was a way for authors to write superhero stories in an acceptable manner.
(Breakthrough really is overstating. Superhero fiction is a tiny little corner of a subgenre. A lot of this stuff is self-published in ebook-only formats, but we’re starting to see some changes on that front.)
What follows is Theron’s Survey of Superhero Prose He’s Read (Or Tried To Read), In Roughly Chronological Order:
SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE, by Austin Grossman
This was the one that kind of kicked things off for me. It got a fair bit of hoopla when it came out in 2007, lots of “Amazing first novel” buzz. Truth is, it’s a lot of fun. Grossman totally groks comics. He gets that superhero stories are about (as Alan Moore put it) “Mad, beautiful ideas.” This was the first superhero novel I recall reading that wasn’t a licensed product. Not a parody. Not a treacle-coated tribute to lost childhood memories. It’s smart and full of mad, beautiful ideas. Sure, it’s got its warts and the first-novel lack of polish shows through in places. The internal continuity is all over the map. But it also features passages like this:
"...I'm looking for a piece of a private collection, brought to America and broken up after World War II. Luckily, I know my way around the archives. It's right where the catalog said it would be. Tactical Climatology, 1927 edition in two volumes, Neptune Press, copious illustrations, fair condition. Officially proscribed by a wartime council of generals, senators, and scientists, only four people alive know it even exists, which makes it one of the better-known works of Ernest Kleinfeld, aka Lianne Stekleferd, aka Lester Lankenfried. Better known as Baron Ether."
DEVIL’S CAPE, by Rob Rogers
I really need to dig this out and reacquaint myself with it. I picked it up back in 2008 and read it in a few days. Looking at my notes from the time, I found it more openly superhero-y than Wild Cards, and much less tongue-in-cheek than Soon I Will Be Invincible. Though written by a gamer, it didn’t read like gaming fiction (see below). Dark, grim, and violent. I remember the big superhero fights were over in seconds and relied on the element of surprise. Lots of good characterization. Yeah, I definitely need to re-read this one.
KINGDOM COME, by Elliot S! Maggin
A licensed adaptation of the graphic novel by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. Maggin was the go-to Superman writer in the 70s, and also wrote a pair of Superman novels back in the day that I really need to read. I don’t remember much about reading this except that he had a real knack for translating the visual idiom into prose that absolutely soared.
IT’S SUPERMAN, by Tom DeHaven
Set in the Depression, De Haven tells the story of Clark Kent's journey from Smallville to New York, and his journey from misfit youth to budding superhero. And a remarkable journey it is, with stops in Texas and California along the way. Accompanying him is Willi Berg, a would-be photographer on the lam after being framed by Lex Luthor.
Yes, Luthor's in this. And Lois Lane. And scads of minor and major real-life figures. De Haven populates the novel with so much authentic detail and popular culture references that it's impossible not to be dragged into his just slightly larger than life take on the Man of Steel.
(There's even a Doc Savage reference. It made me grin.)
The book's cover is illustrated with a cel from the Fleischer Studio Superman animated shorts. It's a perfect pairing with the novel. The world of the Fleischer Superman is a dark, Art Deco place, and their hero is a mysterious and shadowy figure. De Haven chooses a terse prose style, and while it's not as crisp and sharp as James Ellroy, it beautifully maintains a pulp sensibility throughout.
Perhaps the best thing, in my opinion, is that De Haven approaches the topic of a cultural icon like Superman not with ironic disdain, nor with sacrosanct reverence. The novel begins with, “Our version of the story opens on the last Saturday of May 1935 with the arrival of Sheriff Bill Dutcher at the police station in Smallville, Kansas.”
Our version of the story. Knowing full well this isn't definitive. That this is just his take on the character, just one of many in a lengthy procession. At the end, he gives his cast of characters a figurative curtain call, where he acknowledges that this story now joins all the others. For a mainstream novel about a character of near-mythic importance, it's a deft, respectful touch, and as a fan of the so-called "lesser medium," I appreciated it.
CAPTAIN FREEDOM, by G. Xavier Robillard.
From my original review, from 4/19/2009: Continuing the current run of superhero-themed books, I turned to G. Xavier Robillard's Captain Freedom. Mr. Robillard is a web humorist who writes for McSweeney's and Comedy Central. Captain Freedom, subtitled "A Superhero's Quest For Truth, Justice, And The Celebrity He So Richly Deserves" is his first novel.
Despite a glowing cover blurb by Christopher Moore, this is not a very good novel. Nor is it a very good work of humor or satire. The plot, such as it is (the memoir of a superhero forced into retirement by his corporate comic book masters) is weak. The main character is an unlikeable douchebag, which I suppose is actually the point of the book, but it makes large swaths of it a very painful read.
The best bits are those which are more or less pure throwaway, like a reference to Washington DC's beltway being an actual magical zone that prevents the truth from passing through it. Or Clandestine, a tiny country nestled between Syria and Jordan, where wealthy people with a need to lay low tend to dwell. But most of it is the sort of superficial cheap shots that pass for satire in the "Mad TV" stripe, rather than something more cutting, like "South Park" or the "Daily Show."
In fact, the whole thing reads a bit like an SNL skit that got pitched with one sentence and runs five minutes after it stopped being funny. D-. Will not read from this author again.
BLACK AND WHITE and SHADES OF GRAY, by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge
If I remember right, I picked up the first one of these based on a recommendation over on the Hero Games forum. I initially approached the first one with a bit of caution. It's a superhero novel, which is always a risky proposition. Further, it's a superhero novel by two authors who are already established in the Urban Fantasy genre, a field that has given us everything from the Dresden Files to Trailer Park Vampires and a whole lot of tuff chicks with weapons and tramp stamps staring over their shoulders on the covers of romance novels that just happen to have demons (vampires, werewolves, pixies) in them. So, I wasn't sure what I was going to get.
(I felt a bit better when one of the authors dedicated the book to her mom for giving her a mint copy of X-Men #94 as a Bat Mitzvah gift. I felt a lot better about it as I got into the book.)
The novels are set in a rather dystopian future, about one hundred years from now, where a vast corporation controls many aspects of day to day life. Chief among those aspects is superheroes. The Corp has them and they keep society safe. Chief among the Corp's heroes is Jet, a manipulator of shadow; New Chicago's official protector and the golden child of the media. Her opposite number in every way is Iridium, a supervillain (in the setting, they're called 'Rabids') with light powers. Of course, given comic book causality, they were once best friends, partners at the Academy.
The novel alternates between an ongoing present plot and flashbacks to their academy days. It also alternates chapters, with the POV switching between the two main characters as it winds to the inevitable climax.
Where it really shines is in the world-building. New Chicago, outside of its shiny corporate enclaves, is a nasty, scary place. The Corp is intrusive and slightly sinister, but they keep you hoping it's the lesser of two evils. And the supervillain prison as tourist destination was a stroke of genius.
I need to go back and read the sequel, Shades of Gray, because while I know I enjoyed it (and hoped for more), my notes from the original reading are basically non-existent.
EX-HEROES, by Peter Clines
A mash-up of one of my favorite genres (superheroes) and one of my absolute least (zombie survival horror). It started rather poorly, to be honest, as it seemed the author was still trying to transition from his day job (screenwriting) to the novel form, but the plot got going before the one quarter mark. It wasn't super-great but it was entertaining enough to keep me going to the end.
I did have some issues with a number of the characters, particularly those of the female persuation. One in particular, who could, I suppose, be charitably read as a parody of uber-hot, uber-competent superheroines. Which might have worked, if that approach wasn't undermined by her own backstory, namely, the ultra-hot, ultra-smart girl trades on her looks to put herself through school only to find that no one will take a famous lingerie model with two Ph.D.’s seriously, so she becomes a superheroine and conceals her face so she can be judged by her actions for a change, but still wears a costume so tight and sexualized that one male character calls her "a ninja dominatrix" and another uncomfortably notes not only that he can see her nipples through the fabric but can tell whether or not she's shaved her legs recently. Ugh.
There are sequels that do a lot more world building. I haven’t managed to get through them, though. Because zombies. Meh.
PAX BRITANNIA: GODS OF MANHATTAN, by Al Ewing
This is an odd book, but so much of it was squarely in my wheelhouse I enjoyed it tremendously. When I first saw it, I was convinced it was some RPG tie-in, but this does not appear to be the case. It is, however, part of a series of novels sharing the same setting, a world of twenty first century steampunk, where Great Britain still holds sway over most of the globe, and the brain of Adolph Hitler still rules Germany. It's an intriguing alt-history, filled with historical and fictional characters in somewhat different wrappings. For instance, Andy Warhol is still an artistic visionary, but his visions are of the terribly mundane world of electronics and digital technology of our world.
As its title indicates, Gods of Manhattan takes place in New York City, the greatest city of the United Socialist States of America, the good old USSA. That second S got inserted in the 1950s, after Joseph McCarthy's failed fascist coup led to a six-day second civil war. The hero of the war, and the hero of the City is Doc Thunder, an intriguing amalgam of Doc Savage and Fleischer Brothers era Superman. The plot involves a series of murders perpetrated by The Crimson Spider, a relatively new masked vigilante, whose methods are far too bloody for Doc's tastes. Complicating matters is the insane Mexican swordsman El Sombra, who tends to monkeywrench their otherwise straightforward objectives.
In other words, it's Super Doc Savage versus The Shadow while Zorro keeps annoying them from the sidelines. With Lex Luthor along for the ride, because hey, why not?
Along the way there are more pulp/comics references and in-jokes than you can shake a girasol ring at.
The book's not perfect. Ewing makes the dreaded physiology/physiognomy mistake at least once, and there are so many Easter Eggs that it feels like fan-fic at some points, but there are also some truly marvelous ideas as well, making for an inspiring and fun ride.
Addendum: I had some difficulty locating this one. When I heard about the book, the friend who recommended it simply called it "Gods of Manhattan." As it turns out, there's a YA series with that name that has nothing to do with this. If you're interested (and I suspect a couple of you will be), make sure you're looking for "Pax Britannia" or Al Ewing. (Yes, the same Al Ewing who writes for Marvel these days.)
AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE, by Carrie Vaughn.
Meet Celia West, Forensic Accountant. No, it's not a superpower and she's not a superheroine. She is, however, the daughter of the two foremost heroes on the block, Captain Olympus and Spark. It hasn't been an easy life, but it has taught her some very valuable skills to fall back on when kidnapped (which happens several times throughout the story).
While I enjoyed the book, I can't say I did so unreservedly. The major plot twists were telegraphed from miles away, and many of the superheroes were simply unlikeable. Unlike Vaughn’s Kitty Norville stuff, this novel was written in third person, and I felt a bit too much like an observer. While first person narratives have their problems, I think this would have been a stronger book had Vaughn gone that way. But that's just my opinion.
The other problem is more a symptom of the clash of media. Novels should ideally be self-contained. Comics seldom are. As a result, I had few doubts that all of the plot points would wrap up neatly by the end of the book and relate directly to the protagonist, and indeed such was the case. It felt a bit unsatisfying and "pat," if that makes any sense.
BATMAN: NO MAN’S LAND, by Greg Rucka.
Oh hey, it’s a novelization of a rather dumb...no, strike that, EXTREMELY dumb "Event" from the pages of DC's Batman comics. But it’s by one of my favorite writers. Conflict!
For the two or three of my readers not up on comics parlance, an "Event" is a setting-changing circumstance, usually presaging months or more of ongoing stories revolving around them. In this case, the event is a massive earthquake that destroys much of Gotham City. On the heels of the disaster, the US Government decides its better to simply seal Gotham off and declare it a "No Man's Land," rather than, you know, fulfill its mandated duties of disaster relief and rebuilding. In other words, a Republican wet dream. Anyway, the comics, and the novelization, deal with life in the ruins for those who stayed behind, focusing in turns on various criminals (Two-Face, Penguin, The Joker), the cops (led by Jim Gordon), and the vigilantes (obviously Batman, but a number of others as well, most notably Oracle).
Considering that the basic premise of "No Man's Land" is ludicrous and considering that Rucka is novelizing events from several comic book series, the fact that he can stitch it into a coherent narrative is no small feat. That he does so and makes an entertaining read out of it is even greater. I shouldn't be entirely surprised, really. He's an outstanding crime novelist as well as one of the best writers in comics. And what I think really makes it work is his use of Oracle's journals to frame the story. In those short chapters, his work really sings.
"As Batgirl, I learned Gotham City like the back of my gloved hand. The Gotham that Fodor's doesn't write about, the Gotham that lives between criminal madness and ultimate despair. I know things. For example, I know that the sewer grate on the north side of Middaugh and Cohen is a false one, not on any city record, installed by a certain vigilante to allow for immediate access to a cache of equipment if he's ever low on Batarangs as he's passing through.
I know, too, that if you dive off what was once Babylon Towers with a good cable and perfect aim, you can loop your throw around the statue of the Zion Lion thirty feet below, the one that sits atop the GCBC building. If you do it right, your arms will feel like they're leaving their sockets the hard way, but if you keep your grip and your nerve, you can swing all the way to the penthouse apartments overlooking Victory Square.
I know that if you do it wrong, you'll hit the ground so hard they'll need a sponge to get you out of your costume.
I know that, if you do this at 2337 hours Monday through Friday, you can clear the next three rooftops in time to land atop the J Street el as it slows to turn up Broadway. On Saturdays, you've got to do it three minutes earlier."
I love bits like that. They made this book for me.
WEARING THE CAPE, by Marion G. Harmon
This was the first of an ongoing series of self-published ebooks. You know how folks have called Feist’s original “Riftwar” trilogy “My Awesome D&D Campaign in Prose Form”? Yeah, that’s “Wearing the Cape,” though Feist has vastly better writing chops. That said, there’s a lot to like about (most of) these books, and the price point is very attractive. Most of the series focuses on a young woman named Hope who gains superpowers. It’s one part coming-of-age story, one part superhero yarn. The world-building and action are first rate, the coming-of-age stuff, a little hard to take sometimes. Hope is relentlessly nice and liked and not quite a Mary Sue (no author self-insert), but she treads the line. The supporting cast is generally terrific and the sequels are quite satisfying.
The one exception (and it’s a howler) is Bite Me: Big Easy Nights, a novel focusing on a vampire character who actually works pretty well in the main setting as an Avenger of the Night. In this one, she goes to New Orleans. And deals with other Vampires. Because, of course she does. It’s an odd departure, basically a hard left turn into the Urban Fantasy Bayou, and it just doesn’t work. That said, it’s easily avoided, since it doesn’t really impact the main plot arcs at all.
Overall though, I’m a fan. If nothing else, they give me a mark to shoot for in my own fiction. Other volumes in the series: Villains Inc., Omega Night (a short story), Young Sentinels, Small Town Heroes, and Ronin Games.
IN HERO YEARS, I’M DEAD, by Michael A. Stackpole
Speaking of superhero fiction derived from gaming, this is a novel based on Mr. Stackpole’s character Revenant from the long-running Champions campaign at Flying Buffalo. This too is an e-book only publication, telling the story of a superhero who's effectively been "on ice" for the previous twenty years coming to terms with a very different world than the one he remembers. One part midlife crisis novel, one part social commentary, one part rip-roaring superhero yarn, it's a pretty good read, with a few caveats: it's self-published, and even though Stackpole is a veteran bestselling author, he needs an editor. There are a lot of annoying typos throughout the text and parts of it could have been leaner. Also, the social commentary is pretty heavy-handed. If you agree with his politics (I do), that's not necessary a bad thing, but I can see where it would annoy folks who don't.
HEXCOMMUNICATED, by Rafael Chandler
I’m putting this down as a superhero story, but it’s in a weird middle ground with Urban Fantasy. The characters roughly correspond to the classic monster archetypes, but their powers are actually due to scientific intervention. It also bleeds over into military action, so it’s got something for everyone.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS, by Mur Lafferty
If I didn’t have this on my Kindle, I’d not remember I’d read it. I think I got it in a charity bundle, to be honest. Refreshing my memory online a bit, I note it was a cut above the average superhero stuff, even though it focuses on “Third Wavers,” the people who end up with more or less useless powers, like never being able to lose anything. It’s light-hearted, but not a parody. Not particularly memorable, but overall, worth five bucks.
VELVETEEN VS THE JUNIOR SUPER-PATRIOTS, by Seanan McGuire
Poor Velma “Velveteen” Martinez. Born with what she’s told is a second-rate “support” superpower (the ability to animate toys), she’s basically sold to Super-Patriots, Inc. at the tender age of twelve. By age eighteen, she had enough and walked out on her contract. Now, after six years of hand-to-mouth existence, she’s just trying to get to Oregon for a job interview. Unfortunately, life keeps getting in the way of things, what with the crawfish rebellion, the coffee cultists, and her stupid ex-boyfriend, Awesome Dude getting in the way. Accompanying the story are McGuire’s observations on innumerable superhero tropes, delivered as delightful asides.
Light-hearted, funny, but also affecting, the stories comprising this volume explore Vel’s past and present, ultimately giving her a future that bears further exploration. Fortunately for the fans, there’s a sequel, Velveteen Versus The Multiverse that’s equally well done.
ROCKET AND GROOT STEAL THE GALAXY, by Dan Abnett
A Guardians of the Galaxy novel! By Dan Abnett! Did you like how hilarious “Guardians of the Galaxy” was? That’s pretty much down to Mr. Abnett’s writing in the comics. If you like that sort of thing, you really need to read this book. It’s like Marvel’s Hitchhiker’s Guide. OK, maybe not as profound, but a whole lot more violent.
THE ASTOUNDING ANTAGONISTS, by Rafael Chandler
Set in an entirely different world from his earlier book (Hexcommunicated), this novel focuses on a group of “villains” who are, in all honestly, far more forthright, honorable, and just plain decent than the so-called heroes of the world. It’s a good Robin Hood sort of reversal and a fabulous read. Also, it’s got a character named “Helen Damnation,” which makes me seethe with jealousy every time I see it. Read this book!
So, there ya have it. I'll be happy to field questions, but remember, let's keep this positive.