Avengers 2 comes out this weekend. Well, Thursday, in many places . . . which means you might wind up with a lot of geeks missing work on Friday. Me? Ha! I get paid for this stuff!
Well, no, I actually don’t. This blog is a 100% free resource, and I can’t get paid for reviewing Age of Ultron. I can, however, potentially get paid for talking about superheroes in general. (Mind you, I can neither confirm nor deny any involvement in the development of a multi-author shared-world superhero setting. Hush, now. I don’t know how these rumors get started.)
Superheroes have, arguably, been around as long as science fiction or fantasy, at least as separate genres with somewhat dedicated followings. They’ve always seemed a bit separate, however, because they use what I call the fourth medium of print: visual art. (The other three are prose, poetry, and script.) Superheroes have rarely done well outside of comic books, in large part because the visuals have dominated the storytelling so completely that it’s difficult to have the same effect in pure prose. It’s only been recently that film technology has advanced to the point that the big screen can live up to the promise of hand-drawn art.
That, however, is a stylistic difference that more people are accepting these days, and it is entirely because of indie publishing.
The Internet has made indie and self-publishing economically viable. What once might never have seen the light of day except in one small area can now be shipped around the world, practically with the press of a button. Improvements in digital printing mean that print-on-demand is also possible, albeit still on the pricey side, while ebooks are ready for instant download. Both mean that the old concerns of supply versus demand are severely lessened (not completely gone, but that’s another post), and more stories can see the light of day that were once rejected by large presses.
Superhero prose is one of those. The Big Five didn’t take a chance on superhero stories very often, and even the comic book publishers didn’t have much luck marketing prose to their existing audiences. Now, though, authors can take a chance, and for some it works out.
In some ways, it’s odd that it never worked out before; after all, a lot of science fiction and fantasy stories could be reskinned as superheroes. In other ways, though, it’s to be expected. Superhero stories have long relied on action sequences and impressive visuals; even their costumes are a product of visual requirements, and the need to keep characters immediately distinctive in multiple settings and poses. (Yes, that’s why they used those garish colors and weird designs. That, and color printing had a very narrow range for a long time.)
The solution, of course, is simple. Know the difference in your medium.
Don’t get bogged down. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words; and if you have to use a thousand words to cover a single panel’s worth of action, then you’ve got a pretty slow story.
Fight scenes are hard to write. For many authors, it’s a matter of trying to describe something without practical experience, possibly with a knowledge base drawn from movies. For others (such as myself), it’s a matter of trying to distill experience down to something a reader can understand without being a fighter him- or herself. I’ve written fight scenes that make some people exclaim over the detail, and others ask why I used so many words.
But superhero stories aren’t always about the fights. Superhero prose can’t be all about the fights. Know that going in: the flashy visuals just aren’t the same. Describing superpowers in action is going to depend on the audience’s imagination, not the artist’s skill or the budget given to special effects.
Focus on prose strengths. Prose can give other details. In a graphic novel, the character’s thoughts can seem unnaturally detailed; but in prose, you can describe how the character feels without using thought-bubbles. Sights, sounds, and smells can be described in ways comic books just can’t handle.
I always tell authors to avoid depending on visual data all the time. Touch, taste, and smell wind up being very immediate senses, because we have to be there to experience them. Taste and smell trigger memories very easily, and we encounter smells far more than things we stick stuff in our mouths.
A villain with bullet-proof skin shrugs off bullets; but where do those bullets go? Describe the sound they make as they fall to the ground, or ricochet to the side and narrowly miss a police officer.
A hero controls lightning; what happens? A bright flash? The sound of the shockwave, as the lightning causes a sudden shift in air pressure? (Note: unless your hero is summoning a real miles-wide storm, this will be more like “snap, crackle, pop,” probably much softer than a gunshot.) And don’t forget the smell of ozone afterward.
These are things graphics simply can’t deliver like prose can. Use them.
Describe your world. It could take a couple of years of monthly issues to match a beginning-to-end modern novel. You’ve got the room. Make up for those visuals by grounding your audience in your world.
How have supers changed society? Have governments regulated certain dangerous powers? Have they nationalized all supers? What kind of national differences does the audience find? How many are in the military? The police? Firefighters? What are the insurance rates for New York residents, who seem to be such a magnet for these stories? Do people really dress up as costumed heroes, or do the impracticalities mean that only criminals wear masks? (That doesn’t preclude heroes. Remember, vigilantism is a crime.)
This is one thing I enjoyed about Wearing the Cape, one of the first self-published novels I ever read that didn’t feel self-published. It’s not a perfect story by far, but it’s definitely a great example of superhero prose. Harmon shows a world that already had superhero fiction before suddenly people started getting powers, and does a great job showing how that influenced the way things become. For example, something analogous to comic book conventions still exist, but now superhero culture (and supervillain as well) is a real subculture, akin to goths or the SCA. People aren’t just fans of heroes (or villains) as celebrities; it’s a lifestyle.
Harmon also spends time on the government’s interaction with superheroes (or capes, as they’re called here; no one tell Edna Mode), which also allows him to take an atypical approach to superpowered fighting (hint: hero/villain standoffs are pretty rare). The police and military work with capes, who are typically organized into government-sanctioned teams. Loner capes exist, but they’re rare.
And, very important, most people with powers aren’t capes. They just do their own thing, using their powers to earn a living. That’s a side rarely shown in superhero fiction, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Remember, it’s an alternate world. DC and Marvel go out of their way to try to keep things as close to the real world as possible, which means that high-tech gadgets never get marketed to the public, countries either match contemporary events or are fictional places located in mumble mumble Eurasia, and no one winds up with a superior military designed around a core of superpowered soldiers that might tip the balance somewhere.
Don’t be afraid to play with that. Once you’ve settled on when powers first show up, as well as what the rules are, take the next step. Don’t let things get limited by real world conditions. Maybe Nazi Germany hung on for a few more years, because they had supers that could fight in the Russian winter and took the Soviets out of play, delaying the Allied D-Day invasion. Maybe there was no Space Race, because the US and the USSR focused on a biological race instead, attempting to produce more supers. Maybe the Space Race went farther, using supers to their advantage (hey, if you can fly by thinking about it, that makes for easy spacewalks). Maybe Kennedy was never assassinated, because a Secret Service agent with super-vision spotted Oswald setting up his rifle. Maybe supers go back even farther, and let the Confederates win the American Civil War, or British supers stopped the American Revolution in its tracks.
A lot of it depends on where you start your world’s divergence, what limits you have on powers, and what sort of story you want to tell. At some point, every superhero setting starts using the same tools found in the alternate history genre, tracing the ripple-effect in interesting ways. Prose can do that in ways comics simply can’t, because there are only so many words you can put in those little yellow boxes.
A great example of this is Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, which uses a lot of superhero tropes in an historical-fantasy setting (everyone knows that Actives, as they are called in this universe, use magic rather than a misunderstood science; ironically, science turns out to be used a lot as the characters figure out more about the nature of magic). In effect, it’s X-Men done right, and I say that as someone who very much enjoys X-Men.
Never lose sight of the human. It’s easy for a comic book to lose track of the little guy in the street, not the least because there just isn’t room in a single issue to cover it. A novel doesn’t have that problem. You can have TV interviews with eyewitnesses who have suffered property damage from the latest super-brawl, radio talk show hosts ranting about the moral decline of the culture due to supers, and super-themed rallies and parties held by ordinary citizens.
The same thing goes for the supers. They’re still human, with their own doubts, distractions, strengths, and weaknesses. One thing superhero fiction tends to do already is cover a super’s income, at least enough to handwave a billionaire’s resources or to limit the idealist by the need to hold down a 9-to-5.
That also means that not everyone with a power is going to put on tights and a cape and do crazy things. Most people just go about their normal lives. Many supers would be leveraging their powers for a steady income, if they revealed them at all. Those who wind up being a hero, or more likely a villain, are the outliers. They are extraordinary. Extraordinarily selfless, or extraordinarily unstable — whatever it is, milk that. Show them as strange. And show their humanity.
Daredevil did a fantastic job of both, particularly with Kingpin. He becomes an almost sympathetic, even tragic figure, without ever losing sight of his villainy. I won’t say more than that for those who haven’t seen it, but it’s fantastic and a great example of using the superhero genre to tell a normal human story.
Superhero fiction is an interesting genre — almost a redheaded stepchild of a redheaded stepchild, where even in the marginalized SF&F fandom it remains relegated to its own little niche. That’s changing, but it’s thanks to the success of TV shows and movies, and so attitudes haven’t been catching up to the reality where prose is concerned.
That also means that it’s not a saturated market, and as the genre’s mainstream popularity grows, authors have a chance to break in to that market. Some people find this mainstream attention to be a bad thing. I don’t, and neither should you. It’s a bit tough to do right, because of the differences in the medium, but far from impossible.
One other thing to keep in mind, though, is that “superhero” is a trademark, jointly-owned by both DC and Disney. This is arguably a violation of copyright law, but their lawyers tend to have superpowers of their own. While I’ve referred to superhero fiction here, I would recommend finding a different word for your novel.
But, other than that, you’ve got a wealth of options in front of you. You have the freedom to tell a story that DC and Marvel can’t, even in the context of their shows and movies. You just have to figure out what kind of story you want to tell.