So if I’m writing a super-hero novel, why don’t I like reading them?

As part of my prep for revising The Impossible Takes a Little Longer, I’ve read quite a few super-hero related novels or collections this year: Karma Girl, Who Will Save Us Now?, Superpowers and most recently From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain. And I haven’t been thrilled with any of them. So I’m wondering why, and what the reason can tell me about the book I’m writing now.
I think a big part of the reason is that when I read a novel about super-heroes, I don’t really want them to just clone a comic-book universe. I love comic-books, but as every fan knows, they’re trapped by their open-ended nature: Almost nothing is resolved, and if it is resolved, the next generation of writers will usually unresolve it (as witness DC replacing Hal Jordan, Barry Allen and Oliver Queen as Green Lantern, Flash and Green Arrow, and then new writers and editors putting them back in the suit).
And part of the appeal of comics, as writer Kurt Busiek pointed out, is that despite all the super-science, mutants, smashed cities and deities running around, they look just like our own world. It doesn’t make sense, but it is part of the charm.
Books don’t have to play by those rules. Heroes can end their careers, die, get pregnant, turn evil and stay that way. They can show how the presence of super-heroes transforms the world, shaping it away from our own. If all they do is create a comic book universe with a twist or two, that’s not going to satisfy me, because comic books have been doing that for years and they’re frankly better at it.
I first had this reaction back when the Wild Cards series came out (shared world anthology about superheroes); most of what was supposed to be so clever about them was stuff comics had already done, like having HUAC investigate super-heroes. It wasn’t fresh, it was just a watered-down, less spectacular version of the DC or Marvel Universe.
Another problem is that it’s frankly hard to write comic-book action scenes. Minister Faust is an excellent writer, but the opening sequence of Dr. Brain (a novel concerning a therapist trying to treat a severaly dysfunctional super-team) has knockoffs of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman (among others) battling a variation on the War Wheel—during which Faust is also trying to characterize his cast and develop the character relationships. That’s a tall order and the scene fell short.
And then there are names. A lot of super-hero names in books sound like the writers can’t seem to come up with ones that have much ooomph (Fantastic Order of Justice in Dr. Brain seems more bureaucratic than super-heroic, for instance), or that even fit. I can see a hard-nosed Batman type named Flying Squirrel in an episode of The Tick, but it doesn’t seem believable in a “straight” super-heroic universe, even one that’s the basis of a comedy; ditto Faust’s Superman figure, Omnipotent Man (on the other hand, some of his names work well, like the bubbleheaded Power Grrl).
Admittedly it’s not easy: My heroine in Impossibles was called Nighthawk, but I’d really like to come up with something better. No luck so far.
So what do I like? Like I said, stuff that doesn’t look like it could have been a comic-book just as easily:
Superfolks by Robert Mayer with its bizarre approach to a comic-book universe.
•Julie Kenner’s Aphrodite’s Kiss and its sequels, romantic comedies set amidst a superhuman world (which is also the premise for the online comic-strip Love and Capes).
•Or while it’s not a novel, Heroes, the first season, taking the premise of a super-heroic (and villainous age starting) and handling it very deftly.
So in setting Impossibles in a world that doesn’t look like a conventional super-heroic universe, I’m obviously writing what appeals to me.
Let’s hope when I finish the revisions, it appeals to someone else too.


Filed under Reading, Writing

3 responses to “So if I’m writing a super-hero novel, why don’t I like reading them?

  1. Pingback: Movies and books « Fraser Sherman’s Blog

  2. Pingback: And more books « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: What’s in a name? | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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