SERIES INTRO: As a speculative fiction writer, you need to know your genres. Why? Knowing your genres makes it easier to find your readers. Even if you’re not excited by the thought of marketing your book, knowing your readers helps you make the right creative choices. And, let’s face it, you save a lot of time if you can make those choices earlier rather than later.
The idea behind this series is to give you a tour of the sub-genres you’ll most often find within the different spec-fic genres. It’s a whistle-stop trip, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget to read the rest of the posts in the series: fantasy, science fiction, horror and magical realism.
After a long, close association with comics, superhero fiction is enjoying a literary heyday.
Offering far more than mere escapism, the superhero story has its origins in mythology, and continues to be as controversial as it is popular.
I think the superhero novel is one of the most exciting branches of speculative fiction. But to write a good one, you need to be very familiar with the sub-genre.
Here’s what to look out for when you do your research.
What Is a Superhero, Anyway?
Lucky for us, there’s a ready-made legal definition (coined in 1974 by the United States Court of Appeals). Referring to Superman, the court described the superhero as:
“A person of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest.”
But there’s a bit more to the superhero than that. In his analysis of superhero fiction, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, Peter Coogan lays out the ingredients for the classic superhero.
Coogan agrees that the superhero has powers beyond those of mere humans, and that they have a mission to do good.
But he reminds us that they must also have a double identity, one part of which is their superhero self, and one part that of a private – and often unprepossessing – citizen.
I’d add a further ingredient, picked up from Michael Chabon’s meta-novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: your superhero needs a why.
The why explains your hero’s superpowers, but most of all it explains why they’re committed to their mission.
The Origins of Superhero Fiction
The highly enjoyable Superhero Reader traces the origins of superhero fiction back to the mystery man genre of American pulp fiction, which featured characters like the Lone Ranger.
Peter Coogan argues that the first real superhero was Superman, who appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. In 1941, the man of steel was joined by Wonder Woman, created by psychologist William Marston (whose other great invention was the lie detector).
As a lover of comics, I’d be delighted to credit this art form with the birth of superhero fiction. But I think the sub-genre goes much deeper.
My bedtime stories as a child were tales of the exploits of mythical Irish shapeshifter Fionn Mac Cumhaill, obligingly embellished by my granny. And classical mythology tells us about the seemingly impossible labours of Hercules.
What are these if not early prototypes of superhero fiction?
Superheroes: What’s Not to Like?
You might think of the superhero as an entirely positive character. But that’s not the case for everybody. Ever since its emergence, superhero fiction has been criticised.
One of its earliest opponents, the psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham, thought superheroes bred violence. Others, like playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman, argue that there’s something classist about the sub-genre.
More recently, protestors at the United Nations objected to Wonder Woman because of the character’s sexualized image and imperialist overtones.
Superhero Fiction: Points Worth Noting
- The graphic novel and superhero fiction are natural bedfellows, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The twenty-first century has seen a move towards standalone superhero fiction. Austin Grossman’s 2007 novel Soon I Will Be Invincible has been credited with bringing about this sea change.
- As Grossman so ably demonstrates, every superhero needs a powerful antagonist: the supervillain.
- The superhero sub-genre is about an individual struggling to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of their mission. Therefore, The Hero’s Journey is a good starting point when it comes to structuring your superhero story.
- Although every superhero fights for justice, their notion of justice is often personal and at odds with sanctioned ideas. For example, V, the dubious hero of Alan Moore & David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, works towards a ‘free’ society based on violent struggle.
- By the way, this disagreement with the official definition of justice is almost certainly why the superhero is a significant LGBTQ figure today.
- Many superheroes are orphans, or are otherwise estranged from their parents. All kinds of reasons have been suggested to account for this. I think the most useful explanation is that it adds power to the why of your characters, leaving them free to reinvent themselves and fulfil their mission.
- Superheroes tend to come by their superpowers through a seamless blend of science and magic. VE Schwab’s Vicious illustrates this well, depicting a world where normal humans acquire extraordinary powers as a reaction to near death experiences.
- Contemporary superhero novels are highly genre aware, and the most interesting (such as Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century) play with the form. That’s why, more than with any spec-fic sub-genre, if you want to write superhero fiction, it pays to read superhero fiction.
That’s quite enough from me on this subject. What’s your recipe for the complete superhero? Which literary creation comes closest? What are your favourite superhero novels?