Superhero fiction has made huge strides in the past decade or so, thanks to books like Soon I Will Be Invincible and Superpowers. But now there's new evidence that the genre is coming into its own in the world of prose, thanks to three exciting new books.
Top image: Steelheart.
They're all just published in the last couple months, and they share a certain wry sensibility, mixed with a powerful emotional hook. Even as the major comics publishers seem to be generating denser and more impenetable continuity (especially DC), these books feel like they're distilling something vital about these archetypes. And most of all, none of them feels the least bit like a pastiche, or like it's explicitly commenting on genre.
We'll go through them one by one, and then talk about what they have in common, and why they're so much fun.
Prepare to Die by Paul Tobin (Night Shade Books) is the story of a gritty superhero named Reaver, aka Steve Clarke, who has a long career of battling (and occasionally having sex with) supervillains behind him. And you soon realize that the book's title is no mere supervillain taunt — this is a story about a man who is preparing to die. Reaver has just two weeks left to live, for reasons that become clear pretty soon, and he's got a lot of unfinished business to take care of. Chief among it, reconnecting with his old high school sweetheart, Adele, whom he left behind when he became a superhero. This is as much a story about returning to your old hometown and confronting your past as it is about power and adventure. (Although there's plenty of that, too.) This is the most personal of the three novels, with a structure that slowly reveals Reaver's secret regrets over the course of the book.
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (Delacorte) is a neat dystopian thriller, set in a world where all superpowered people, pretty much, are evil. All of the superhumans, or "Epics," wind up viewing the rest of the human race as basically insects to be stepped on. In the city of Chicago, renamed "Newcago," one Superman-like figure named Steelheart has become the absolute dictator over a city that's turned to solid steel, where the sun never rises. Only a few resistance fighters, called the Reckoners??, still fight against the rule of the Epics — but to little effect. Until the novel's young hero, David, comes up with a plan to destroy Steelheart, who killed David's father during his rise to power. David has always craved revenge against the superhuman ruler of Newcago, but defeating Steelheart will require "A-Team" levels of planning and improvisation. It's a mostly light-hearted adventure, but it's laced with darkness and Sanderson manages to ask some tough questions about the ethics of deposing a dictator who keeps the peace.
The Villain's Sidekick by Stephen Brophy (Budget Press Books) is a brand new novella by a former San Francisco comedian (which is where I heard of it.) HandCannon is a low-rent thug with a cybernetic jaw and arm — the latter of which can be turned into various weapons. HandCannon is out on parole and in a twelve-step program, trying to get his life together, while still doing the occasional job working for the supervillain Heatsource. In the novel, HandCannon finally gets his long-sought-after weekend custody of his six-year-old daughter, Cordelia — just as the fallout from a job that went south starts to catch up with him. Soon, HandCannon is juggling child care and superhero fights, with the help of his sponsee Teddy, who specializes in building lethal hardware and looking after small children. It's very reminiscent of Despicable Me, of course, but also Adam Beechen's Hench. The writing is funny and fast-paced, but there's also a nice undercurrent of dealing with the fact that you've screwed up your life, and not being sure how to be a hero in the eyes of your daughter when you're a supervillain's part-time henchman.
These novels are pretty different — Sanderson's is packaged as a young-adult novel, while Tobin's is full of sex and drugs and stuff — but the thing they all have in common is a willingness to use the conventions of superhero narratives to tell stories that have nothing to do with superhero tropes. Tobin's novel is primarily a mixture of romance and "homecoming novel," which could be about any kind of soldier or cop going home. Sanderson's Steelheart is more of a dystopian novel than a classic superhero novel. And Villain's Sidekick owes a huge debt to Donald Westlake or Elmore Leonard.
In other words, the past few decades of superhero comics by people like Alan Moore, Gail Simone and Kurt Busiek — plus previous novelists, like Austin Grossman — have carved out some space for superheroes to tell lots of different stories beyond the usual heroic template, and these books take full advantage. Also, there's plenty of humor, of various stripes, in all of these novels — but not much winking or tongue-in-cheek irony.
That's not to say that these three books don't borrow from the decades of superhero archetypes out there — there are versions of Batman and/or Superman, more or less, in all of them. But in all three of them, the systems that create and sustain superheroes are somewhat different, and a bit more well-thought-out, than the standard Justice League pastiche.
All three novels also pack twists and surprises, in which people aren't who you think they are, or someone turns out to be on a different side than everybody believed. These big reveals depend on playing with the tropes of "secret identities" and the ability of codenames and personae to obfuscate or confuse people — but it's generally in the service of a more noirish double cross or reveal. (In the Tobin novel, in particular, the final reveal doesn't ever entirely make sense, but it's still a neat concept that turns everything that's gone before on its head in interesting ways.)
The word that comes to mind when thinking of all three of these novels, to varying degrees, is "hardboiled." Prepare to Die and Villain's Sidekick, in particular, are about old brawlers who were never the best or the brightest, facing the possible end of their glory days. But also, Steelheart's focus on the drive for revenge, and how far people are willing to go to destroy an enemy, feels like a different kind of "hardboiled."
All three of these books feel like a shot in the arm for superhero narratives, showing that they can combine the best of classic "tough guy" stories with the meditations on power and identity that are the hallmarks of the cape genre. And all three of them combine a mostly non-campy humor with a lot of genuine emotion, and characters that you can't help getting invested in.
If superhero comics aren't quite meeting your needs lately — or if you just want something a bit different — these three books are well worth checking out.