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The Superhero Novel

After lamenting the lack of monster books on our shelves, I thought I’d turn to another stock character that seems to be missing in action when it comes to the books we read and the books we (might) write.

Why are there no superhero novels?

Now I realise that there are some. Every now and then we’re treated to a book that utilises the superhero character and it takes us by surprise. These, though, are usually different to the traditional superhero, in that the stories are either literary inversions of the superhero mythos (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), wish-fulfillment coming-of-age narratives (The Cartographer), or are those ensconced in another genre already to not necessarily define themselves as a superhero story (Jumper). They’re not superheroes in the way that we now familiarise ourselves with the term.

It’s odd, though. It seems to be a character-type and genre ripe for longer written narratives. Given how pervasive and all-consuming superheroes have become in cinema in the last decade – which in turn has boosted the resurgence in the comics original and new, animations, TV shows – it really is surprising that it’s a character that seems resistant to making the leap onto the pages of a book.

I’m hard pressed to think of another hugely dominant stock character, genre or subgenre that has as much difficulty transcending the boundaries of its original medium.

The adaptation of comics into cinema is a logical step. The mediums share so much of a common language in visual storytelling that the ongoing obsession with comic book superheroes broadcasting their origin stories to audiences through cinema screens is really an inevitable result. It was always going to happen.

It might have taken a few years and quite a few missteps before mainstream cinema found the right formula, but now that Marvel and DC have it, there’s no way they’re letting go. Here there’s an established audience that is migrating with the character from comics to films, so there’s a guaranteed baseline of earnings, and that’s before any walk-in audience is even factored into the equation. The bigger the original character, the bigger the star you hire to play them, the bigger the director you get to reinvent them, the bigger the earnings. Multiply the superheroes, multiply the earnings, you end up with The Avengers.

So why not books?

I can’t quite see Batman or Superman going through another incarnation in a 250-page novel. That would run the risk of becoming too much like a novelisation. Less credibility, less desire from an author to try creating a narrative around a pre-existing character. But we all understand superheroes, we all understand how they work and how they function in narratives, surely there’s a genre ripe for the picking then? One that could sustain a brand new superhero in a different medium?

The more I think about it, the more it does seem odd that it’s not attempted more by writers. Those in love with the character-type are in a position to add to the legions with their own creation, complete with his or her own origin story, psychological complex, jettisoned family life and desire to fight for good and for truth and for the 21st century way.

Or those sick of the endless origin stories, the flimsy psychologies, the procession of reinventions upon reimaginings, sick of the Muscle-Clads and the Buxom Superiors, sick of the stereotypes and regression, those sick of it all in the traditional mediums can finally take a stand and write their own superhero. Write a superhero that exists in their own world, in their own way, who can stand on a milk-crate, lean out an open window and cry out that they’re a mad-as-hell superhero, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

It would certainly make a change from all the chosen-one plots that seem to be clogging up the store shelves, in that there’s a clear distinction between a hero in a literary sense, and a superhero in a comic sense. From the origins as an inked image of a character with speech-bubble dialogue, to a Sunday-morning cartoon on TV, to a character defined by a major studio and a major actor, the superhero is ready for another reinvention.

Writers and artists have always tried to mould the superhero to their own devices, whether continuing or enhancing or bucking the trend. The superhero as a character is strong enough to withstand the journey into a story that relies not on the drawings, nor on the acting or the effects, but on the strength of a writer’s prose. Prose that fights for truth, fights for justice, or maybe just prose that likes to watch the words burn.


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