As the proud father of three boys ages seven and under, our household is a goldmine of improvised superhero costumes. Along with the quintessential blanket as a cape, I regularly encounter oven mitts as Hulk fists, boxes (sometimes with eyeholes, sometimes not) as helmets, and cardboard tubes over the hands to imitate stretchy arms. (Or robot laser arms, depending on the mood.)
Just a few weeks back, I was able to contain my laughter long enough to catch this wonderful shot:
Just in case you're dazzled by the majesty of those special effects to pick out the pieces, let me break it down for you. Those are a garbage sack and a couch pillow (affixed with two bungee cords) being used to create ninja turtle shells. Weta Workshop, my children are waiting for your call. (Though honestly, even I couldn't figure out why the four-year-old was wearing my shoes on his hands.)
Comic books have entered the mainstream—or, at least, their characters have. To my children, these characters are from their cutting-edge television shows; they were amazed that their father not only knew about TMNT, but had a favorite turtle. (Donatello, for those interested, and not just because he had the best moves in the old arcade game.)
I've known for a long time that I'd eventually do a superhero-themed book series. My entire body of fiction is a product of my passion for taking pop culture storytelling and trying to do something new with it. Mistborn grew out of wanting to do a story where the prophesied hero failed to save the world. One major influence on the Stormlight Archive was me asking what kind of threat and technology it would take to make the awesome (yet ridiculous) oversized weapons from fantasy art actually practical for use in war.
Steelheart, in turn, came from me wondering what would happen if super powers corrupted people to the point that there were no heroes. It was an engaging idea, exactly of the style I like to play with. But when I sat down to write, I found myself daunted by the wealth of superhero traditions. Which tropes would I include, and which would I avoid? How could I walk the line between respecting the source material and trying to break new ground? Considering the long history of superhero comics—including everything from the poignancy of Watchmen to, well, other things — was it even possible to break new ground? (Also, a shout-out through that link to my favorite comic book blogger, Brian Cronin. Every one of his feature article series are a blast to read.)
These were tough questions for me. Now, approaching superheroes in novel instead of graphic novel form isn't exactly new. (Soon I Will be Invincible comes to mind.) That said, until recently, prose works about superheroes were few and far between, unless they were adaptations of a comic book or film. There's a certain freedom in that, but also an uncertainty. It's difficult to say what will work and what won't. The only safe thing to say is that some elements do have to be adapted.
Fight sequences are a great example of this. Here, a comic book shares more with film than it does with prose works. (Though in other areas, comics lean more toward novels, which is what makes them an incredibly flexible medium.) Regardless, I've read plenty of comic books where the action sequences play out like a Jackie Chan film — each blow is interesting and exciting to watch, with careful lines and set pieces giving a grand sense of impact to the storytelling. You can almost feel the comic shake in your hand with each punch.
Generally, this approach doesn't work in prose. The rhythms of the storytelling are different; prose blow-by-blow fights tend to be mind-numbingly boring. At the same time, in prose, I don't have to worry about special effects budgets or what the illustrator can reasonably get crammed into a panel. Each scene can be an amazing set piece, if I want it to be.
But this highlights another big difference: character attention. In a comic book, while you're limited to the constraints of the illustration and panel layout, your characters can charge through a fantastical setting while having a conversation about weighty topics. The reader can take in the setting with a glance, rather than needing it described to them in detail. This allows for very efficient scene setting.
In most types of prose — particularly the first-person or third-person-limited forms I prefer—descriptions and setting need to be filtered through character eyes and character attention. What they fixate upon, we fixate upon. So while I could make each scene have an incredible new setting, I would be—by constantly diverting the character's attention to these descriptions instead of conflicts and growth moments—turning the book into a slideshow instead of a narrative. The book would sink into a mess of descriptions.
So, my options for setting are far more open—but my opportunities for them are dramatically smaller (if that makes any sense). And these items are only talking about the medium change, not the question of the tropes themselves. Recent superhero films have made a point of using "realistic" versions of superhero costumes, yet the truth is that these new costumes are only realistic when compared to the originals. While I love the film adaptations, I have to admit that this:
Is only slightly less silly than this:
One of the fun elements of film adaptations was in how they allowed us to collectively pretend that we were watching stylish realism, when in reality we're still talking about people dancing around in horribly impractical outfits while saying the cheesiest of lines in the most solemn of voices. The best adaptations in film run with this idea, embrace it, and have Hulk play snare drum with Loki on a concrete floor.
The big question in my mind was this: Would readers let me get away with the same? Would they be willing to buy into the premise enough to play along, to let a man in a black lab coat and goggles be cool in the context of the story, so long as I gave them enough threads of realism to hold on to?
The only way to tell was to write the book. I decided to let the film adaptations be my guide, and offered rationales for what I was doing, but transitioned and adapted the tropes rather than ignoring them. Code names, costumes, and (sorry, Edna) even some capes.
Because at the end of the day, all of my stories are about allowing the reader to join me in a fantasy world. This might be of a slightly different style, and I might have injected a dose of "realism," but at the end of the day, you've still got to be willing to strap a pillow to your back with bungee cords, maybe shove some shoes on your hands, and pretend for a little while.
ADDENDUM: My seven-year-old son saw this post, and is indignant that I mistook his Bomb Batman costume (with cannon on the back for launching the bombs very far, like in Lego Batman) for his Leonardo costume from earlier in the day. The author is ashamed of this error.
Brandon Sanderson is on a national tour for Firefight, the sequel to his superhero novel Steelheart. Here are the details:
SALT LAKE CITY, UT
Store: Barnes & Noble: West Jordan
Address: 7157 Plaza Center Drive,
West Jordan, UT 84984
When: Monday, January 5, 2015, 6:00 PM
Store: University Bookstore: U District
Address: 4326 University Way NE,
Seattle, WA 98105
When: Tuesday, January 6, 2015, 7:00 PM
Venue: The Seattle Public Library
Address: 1000 Fourth Avenue,
Seattle, WA 98104
When: Wednesday, January 7, 2015, 7:00 PM
Store: Books & Books: Coral Gables
Address: 265 Aragon Ave,
Coral Gables, FL 33134
When: Thursday, January 8, 2015, 8:00 PM
Store: Powell's Books: Cedar Hills Crossing
Address: 3415 Southwest Cedar Hills Boulevard, Beaverton, OR 97005
When: Friday, January 16, 2015, 7:00 PM
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Store: Barnes & Noble: El Cerrito
Address: 6050 El Cerrito Plaza,
El Cerrito, CA 94530
When: Saturday, January 17, 2015, 4:00 PM
SAN DIEGO, CA
Store: Mysterious Galaxy
Address: 5943 Balboa Ave #100,
San Diego, CA 92111
When: Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 7:30 PM
Store: Changing Hands
Address: 6428 S McClintock Drive,
Tempe, AZ 85283
When: Wednesday, January 21, 2015, 6:00 PM
Store: Murder by the Book
Address: 2342 Bissonnet Street,
Houston, TX 77005
When: Friday, January 23, 2015, 6:30 PM
Store: Barnes & Noble: Newnan
Address: 342 Newnan Crossing Bypass,
Newnan, GA 30265
When: Saturday, January 24, 2015, 3:00 PM
Store: Joseph-Beth Booksellers
Address: 161 Lexington Green Circle,
Lexington KY 40503
When: Monday, January 26, 7:00 PM
Store: Children's Book World
Address: 17 Haverford Station Road,
Haverford, PA 19041
When: Tuesday, January 27, 7:00 PM
Store: Brookline Booksmith
Address: 279 Harvard Street,
Brookline, MA 02446
When: Wednesday, January 28, 7:00 PM