Why do superhero novels suck

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Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sat Jan 25, 2014 8:53 am

I was boxing up part of my bookshelf today & realised I have a whole heap of super hero novels that just really REALLY suck & I started to wonder why. Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking why individual properties suck, I already know that: Bad writing, no editing, complete absence of plot, a focus on trying to turn superheroes or super powers into a metaphor for something else (including puberty, sex, homosexuality, religious conversion, old age, etc), restricting all superheroes to a single company based origin (depersonalising them into workaday employees), or just lying about the genre (or happen to be in a different genre), or the "annoyingly reluctant hero". An then of course you've got the deconstructionist " I'm smarter than the genre I'm writing in" type writers, along side the "I'm going to insult my audience by pretending the only people interested in superheroes are the same people who want endless sex jokes because as we know all comic book fans are stuck in perpetual adolescence" (Paul Tobin I'm looking at you, you rweally should know better).... We already know all that.

What I was thinking is more WHY do they all do that? Why isn't there a single novel or a series of novels that gets it right? Why do they all fall into the same set of traps?

Okay, that might be a bit hyperbolic, "Soon I will be invincible" gets it right, but only when you compare it to others in the genre (on its own, its not going to set the literary world on fire). An then there is Superfolks, but that was mainly a deconstructionist narrative written before such things were played out. An both Wildcards & the Ex-Heroes series of novels I consider to be a different genre entirely.

But by and large there are just no good superhero novels, let alone any good popular super hero novels. Just a straight up superhero novel or series of novels

Why is that?

Because we have successful series about pretty much everything else under the sun... From the kinky sexperimentation of BDSM newbies (50 shades of poorly written girl porn for post menopausal women), to incompetent bounty hunters from New Jersey (the Stephanie Plum series), to boy wizards at wizarding school, to book series about kids who turn into animals, or rangers in fantasy worlds, or girls who want to become fantasy city guards, or theme parks with dinosaurs in them.

Why is the superhero genre so conspicuously absent from speculative fiction? Is there something specific about the visual nature of super heroes that does not translate well to a non-visual medium? Or is it just something that will explode into the scene when eventually one is put out that becomes the "it book" for a couple of years 7 generates thousnads of poorly written knock offs trying to sponge off its success.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby FuzzyBoots » Sat Jan 25, 2014 9:54 am

Eh, I think you're just seeing Sturgeon's Law in action. 90% of everything is crap. In the case of superhero novels, the assumption is often that there is no market for it (<sarcasm>I mean, all of the people who read superhero stories just read comics, right?</sarcasm>), so there aren't many, which means that the exceptions are considered much worse. Good superhero novels that I enjoyed include, as you mentioned, Soon, I Will Be Invincible. I also enjoyed Under the Cape for all that it occasionally read like fanfiction. Worm is superlative, as is Brennus although the latter is still in progress. I've heard good things about Legion of Nothing, but haven't gotten around to reading it. I've heard good things about the Red Panda books, but I've only listened to the radio show. Under more mainstream ones, there's always Gladiator and I remember highly enjoying Daredevil: Predator's Smile and the three books of X-Men: Mutant Empire. There were a few good Generation X paperbacks too, but they're unfortunately hard to separate from the chaff.

Under more conditional praise, the Whateley Universe fiction can be really good. I personally don't enjoy some of the authors, and the main team, the Kimbas, aren't really to my liking, but a lot of interesting side characters are also covered. Plus, honestly, they're more like fanfiction than novels in that there is no planned ending (oh, they say that there's a plan, but I think the inmates are running the asylum at this point), so it just stretches on and on.

It is also possible that superheroes don't translate very well directly to the page, much as with superheroes in film or video games. Within film, you're limited to what the special effects can pull off a good bit of the time, not to mention that fights can look significantly less iconic when it's a fluid series of movements instead of a series of frozen choice hits (unless, of course, you're awesome like the 60s Batman series). Add to it that Talking as a Free Action gets kind of weird in the movies sometimes. Within video games, it's kind of the same problem that the RPGs have. Players will find ways to break the system and then they'll complain about things being too easy and boring. Still, there are outliers even there, as there are in the novels.

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sat Jan 25, 2014 10:21 am

FuzzyBoots wrote:Eh, I think you're just seeing Sturgeon's Law in action. 90% of everything is crap.


Then I can only assume Sturgeon has a brother whose about to have a 10th birthday because about 98.9% of all super hero novels are terrible.

FuzzyBoots wrote: Worm is superlative, as is Brennus although the latter is still in progress.


Not to be an arse about it, but I don't consider fan fiction level online writings to be novels... When they get published in book format they are a novel, but not a moment before.

FuzzyBoots wrote:Under more mainstream ones, there's always Gladiator and I remember highly enjoying Daredevil: Predator's Smile and the three books of X-Men: Mutant Empire. There were a few good Generation X paperbacks too, but they're unfortunately hard to separate from the chaff.


Yeah, I knew I forgot to put something in: I'm talking about superhero novels, not comic book novels... The difference being that one is about a super hero & the other is just ripping off an established character.

There have been a few good ones, such as JLA Trail of Time, but there have been some pretty terrible ones too, such as Batman: God of Stone.

Though I'm pseicifcally talking about Superhero novels, about original characters.

FuzzyBoots wrote:It is also possible that superheroes don't translate very well directly to the page, much as with superheroes in film or video games. Within film, you're limited to what the special effects can pull off a good bit of the time, not to mention that fights can look significantly less iconic when it's a fluid series of movements instead of a series of frozen choice hits (unless, of course, you're awesome like the 60s Batman series).


I always thought the flaw with the movies is that every movie had to be the quintessential story about that character. That's why every Batman movie is trying to be the Batmaniest movie that ever was, rather than just an interesting case file from the archive of Batman. But novels shouldn't have that problem as they are still a form of serialised fiction.

That's what perplexes me: It should be an obvious medium jump, more obvious than movies which cost billions to make, or video games that cost almost as much for a AAA title. I mean a novel is literally cheaper to produce than a comic book, heck if you are the one writing it in your off time, its cheaper to write & produce a single 600 page book than it is to pay someone to draw a single comic book page.

Or maybe (& this just occurred to me), its exactly because all comic book movies are like they are, that no company or writer wants to take a chance on making a comic book movie without the explosions & special effects, because people think that's the only draw those movies have. It'd be like trying to convince someone to write a series of Barsoom novels in todays market, based entirely on the Disney adaptation, in a universe where the original books don't exist.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby The_Watchman » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:03 am

Disregarding the novels based on established properties (I've enjoyed Greg Rucka's novelization of No Man's Land as well as the doorstoppers for Death of Superman and Knightfall and the Avengers/Thunderbolts novel), I do agree that there's a lot of weak stuff there but I don't think it's conspicuously worse than any other major subgenre. Rob Roger's Devil's Cape is enjoyable as a hybrid of superheroes and Southern Gothic without any major metaphor to the superheroes beyond "they are superheroes." I also enjoyed Black and White for its world building.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby FuzzyBoots » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:05 am

saint_matthew wrote:Then I can only assume Sturgeon has a brother whose about to have a 10th birthday because about 98.9% of all super hero novels are terrible.

You must have a much larger sampling than I do... limiting this to original superhero fiction... well, the ones that I've cited as good are over half of the books that I'd read. Perhaps it would help if you'd elucidate on the titles that failed to satisfy?

saint_matthew wrote:Not to be an arse about it, but I don't consider fan fiction level online writings to be novels... When they get published in book format they are a novel, but not a moment before.

{nods} I know that they're looking for a publisher for Worm. Part of the problem is that it's already available for free. Cory Doctorow gets away with it because he already has an established market. A new writer has more issues. And, unfortunately, enthusiastic fans can derail the chances of anything going forward, c.f. the Global Frequency TV pilot or the publication of The Salvation Wars as a book. I'd agree with you that there's a higher percentage of crap work out there without the hurdles imposed by publishing, but I'd also point out that many of our great literary works were done serially via newspapers and the like before finally finding a publisher willing to take a chance at it (or, in some cases, merely becoming so popular that they couldn't pass up a chance to make money off of it).

saint_matthew wrote:That's what perplexes me: It should be an obvious medium jump, more obvious than movies which cost billions to make, or video games that cost almost as much for a AAA title. I mean a novel is literally cheaper to produce than a comic book, heck if you are the one writing it in your off time, its cheaper to write & produce a single 600 page book than it is to pay someone to draw a single comic book page.

Ee... any time someone says that something seems so obvious that they wonder why no one has jumped on it, I usually split it into two possibilities. Either everyone has missed the boat and you have a genius idea, or many qualified people have looked at it and know things that you don't that make it difficult to impossible. :) And if you're going to discount anyone who doesn't go through traditional publishers, well, you're cutting out a lot of the potential wellsource of creativity.

saint_matthew wrote:Or maybe (& this just occurred to me), its exactly because all comic book movies are like they are, that no company or writer wants to take a chance on making a comic book movie without the explosions & special effects, because people think that's the only draw those movies have. It'd be like trying to convince someone to write a series of Barsoom novels in todays market, based entirely on the Disney adaptation, in a universe where the original books don't exist.

There are movies that avoid the extravagant special effects, enough that there's a trope on TV Tropes for "Coconut Superpowers" where they find ways to make things work. You have a good chance of losing the segment of the audience who are just there for the explosions, but it's doable, kind of like how the occasional PG live-action movie gets released and does well in theaters.

Again, as above, I'm not entirely certain of where you're going with all of this genre being bad, but it may be a matter of different experiences, different tastes, or even different understandings of the genre (I'll admit that I was thinking over the various books I've read and was tempted to include some of the more sci-fi entries such as Manfac that involve a single person gaining superpowers through better engineering, but I'm assuming that you're specifically looking for books where superpowers are relatively common and come from multiple sources, plus there are people acting stereotypically heroic or villainous rather than people just doing what they need to do).

Ooh, that actually reminds me. Another you might check out is In Hero Years... I'm Dead by Michael Stackpole. It's a bit of a deconstruction in that, at that future time period, superpowered people have settled into more of an entertainment game than an actual criminal lifestyle, with the idea being that, if it's lucrative enough, people don't necessarily need to turn to crime to get sufficient money and jollies (of course, some people just like to see the world burn, as espoused in the second Dark Knight movie, but I think the idea was that enough powerful people are vested in the idea of keeping the system running that they squash those who might disagree).

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby Ares » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:12 am

There was an Avengers/Thunderbolts crossover novel that I thought was actually very solid. It feels like a well done superhero crossover, had a classic supervillain team up and plot (involving using old Nazi supertech to create an army of super soldiers), the action was solid, everyone as in character, etc. I can't recommend it enough.

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:50 am

FuzzyBoots wrote:You must have a much larger sampling than I do... limiting this to original superhero fiction... well, the ones that I've cited as good are over half of the books that I'd read. Perhaps it would help if you'd elucidate on the titles that failed to satisfy?


LOL, type in "superhero novel" into google & click on the first one that has "good reads" in the descriptor & you've got a pretty good starting point for failed super hero novels. My most recent two were Empire State (a novel with a plot so no existant if I drop the book it floats to the ground like a feather) & Prepare to Die (which was written by a comic book writer, but insults its readership buy acting like all his readers are 13 year olds who talk about sex all day).

FuzzyBoots wrote:I'd agree with you that there's a higher percentage of crap work out there without the hurdles imposed by publishing, but I'd also point out that many of our great literary works were done serially via newspapers and the like before finally finding a publisher willing to take a chance at it (or, in some cases, merely becoming so popular that they couldn't pass up a chance to make money off of it).


The difference between first being published in a periodical & being published online is that periodicals have editors. If you aren't any good you will be told so from the get go.... Unfortunately ever wannabe author on the internet thinks they are the next Hemmingway. The amount of failed vanity published books would suggest that most of them were wrong.

FuzzyBoots wrote:Ooh, that actually reminds me. Another you might check out is In Hero Years... I'm Dead by Michael Stackpole. It's a bit of a deconstruction in that, at that future time period, superpowered people have settled into more of an entertainment game than an actual criminal lifestyle, with the idea being that, if it's lucrative enough, people don't necessarily need to turn to crime to get sufficient money and jollies (of course, some people just like to see the world burn, as espoused in the second Dark Knight movie, but I think the idea was that enough powerful people are vested in the idea of keeping the system running that they squash those who might disagree).


Was that the one where they had people who trained to become professional hostages? It sounds familiar.

I think that's one of the big problems with super hero novels.... No one ever plays them straight. Almost every author tries to add some kind of clever catch & the catch is never as clever as the author thinks. When did we become so jaded that we thought "you know what this genre needs? A outlandish twist." I mean we are talking about a genre in which "you'll believe a man can fly." What's worse is that the twist is too often self defeating.

Its like the people writing these books are embarrassed to admit that that what they are writing & keep on feeling the need to make pretences to more literary pursuits. "No, I'm not writing a superhero novel, I am writing a mature novel about transhuman trouble shooters in space, with a lot of political intrigue." Instead what we ended up with was a book that tried to hide the super heroes, was dull & had characters having kinky sexy at the drop of a hat, for no other reason than he could make them do so.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:51 am

The_Watchman wrote:Rob Roger's Devil's Cape is enjoyable as a hybrid of superheroes and Southern Gothic without any major metaphor to the superheroes beyond "they are superheroes." I also enjoyed Black and White for its world building.


Really? Because I own both of those & I found them both to be pretty terrible.... Especially Devils Cape. The fact that it takes you about 95% of the way through the book before they bother to actually introduce the characters to you in any meaningful way & then they don't actually do anything of merit in the story. Though to be fair I did purchase mine online for 2 cents & it turned out it was signed by the author... Even personalised it to some woman named Heidi (no I'm not kidding).

As for Black and White, sure it did the world building thing, but it was meant to be a novel & as a novel it wasn't really very good.... Though to be fair, I was written by dime store romance novelists, so its not like they had any experience actually writing a novel that doesn't include the words "heaving bosoms" or "throbbing loins."

But that does go to demonstrate exactly what I'm talking about: Even our best examples get bogged down in the big list of negatives, the things that would kill a book in any other genre. Why is that?

Other genres have got past these flaws, but not Superheroes. It would seem to be a pretty easy task for a reasonably talented author to write a novel about a already established vigilante character, with a secret identity that is actually human & has human desires. A vigilante who is presented with a specific case in each book.... Very much the Harry Dresden novel formula, but slightly less dry.

An its not like we need to restrict it to the dark avenger of the night style character, almost any of the superhero concepts that work for solo comic books could be made to work in a novel format.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby FuzzyBoots » Sat Jan 25, 2014 1:01 pm

saint_matthew wrote:The difference between first being published in a periodical & being published online is that periodicals have editors. If you aren't any good you will be told so from the get go.... Unfortunately ever wannabe author on the internet thinks they are the next Hemmingway. The amount of failed vanity published books would suggest that most of them were wrong.

:) I guess one could go the same route and point out how some of the later Stephen King books got a lot worse once he found the "Protection from Editors" effect. You can say the same thing about some movie producers and directors.

Anyhow, I have personally experienced both Worm and Brennus and can aver that they're as good as the published literature. Not Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, but as good as or better than Janet Evanovich or JK Rowling.

saint_matthew wrote:I think that's one of the big problems with super hero novels.... No one ever plays them straight. Almost every author tries to add some kind of clever catch & the catch is never as clever as the author thinks. When did we become so jaded that we thought "you know what this genre needs? A outlandish twist." I mean we are talking about a genre in which "you'll believe a man can fly." What's worse is that the twist is too often self defeating.

I would argue that that happens in pretty much every genre. When was the last time you read a straight detective mystery? Mere decades after they came out, there were as many subversions as there were straight portrayals and these days, you pretty much don't find them unless they have a gimmick or a twist going on.

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sat Jan 25, 2014 6:11 pm

FuzzyBoots wrote:I would argue that that happens in pretty much every genre.


Its not that other genres DONT do that, its that ours does NOTHING but that.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby FuzzyBoots » Sat Jan 25, 2014 9:42 pm

saint_matthew wrote:Its not that other genres DONT do that, its that ours does NOTHING but that.

^_^ Except, of course, half of the ones that I cited? I recognize that you may have gotten some back picks, but I think you're overstating the case.

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby Kyle » Sat Jan 25, 2014 10:08 pm

It's certainly an interesting question. While I haven't read many superhero novels, part of what's kept me away is that the few I have read left me cold more often than not. The only one I thought was half decent was Soon I Will Be Invincible, and even that starts off with this gimmick that all the heroes are unlikable jerks who don't get along very well. It ends stronger than it begins, but if it's the king of the hill, the competitors aren't very fierce.

My assumption would be that there are several factors which contribute to the issue. There is likely an assumption that comics already have the superhero thing well in hand. Also, we can all see that within the comics industry, superheroes who aren't already established have difficulty finding an audiance; I imagine it's more difficult in a medium that isn't known for superhero fiction. Third, superheroes seem to lend themselves to a visual medium. There's lots of flying around, fighting, and brightly coloured costumes. Which isn't to say that prose can't handle such, but it's not playing to its strengths.

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sat Jan 25, 2014 11:01 pm

Kyle wrote:It's certainly an interesting question.


Indeed it is. You'd think by now there would be a few good examples (actually good rather than just not as bad as the really bad ones).

Kyle wrote:While I haven't read many superhero novels, part of what's kept me away is that the few I have read left me cold more often than not. The only one I thought was half decent was Soon I Will Be Invincible, and even that starts off with this gimmick that all the heroes are unlikable jerks who don't get along very well. It ends stronger than it begins, but if it's the king of the hill, the competitors aren't very fierce.


Indeed, there is to much of the gimmick thing in the attempts to do the genre, usually by people who don't seem to quite get what a superhero is.... To put it in perspective, it would be like if every contemporary crime writer of the last 75 years tried to lampoon Bogart, in the now clichéd "a leggy blond walked into my office, I knew she was trouble, the internal narration in my head told me so" hard boiled detective genre, without ever actually having consumed any media by Bogart.... An then attempting to use bogart as a Verb rather than a Noun.

Most of the time it comes off as feeling like you are reading a children's book, written for adults, by a horny teenager.

Kyle wrote:My assumption would be that there are several factors which contribute to the issue. There is likely an assumption that comics already have the superhero thing well in hand.


I don't really buy it. Especially given the focus on super hero movies over the last decade & everyone screaming "This is an era of superheroes" as both major superhero producing companies flounder creatively.

Kyle wrote:Also, we can all see that within the comics industry, superheroes who aren't already established have difficulty finding an audiance; I imagine it's more difficult in a medium that isn't known for superhero fiction.


Where as I would consider it to be easier, since you have literally no real competition. I mean its not like that is ever a consideration for publishers when some author comes along & says "hi, I'm not very talented at writing, but I would love to write a urban fantasy novel for teenage girls about a self insertion character who is also a teenage girl but with magical powers of an ill defined nature, who is criminally sexy, wears a leather jacket & has a thing for a 2 dimensional dark brooding pretty boy she cannot have due to plot contrivances, who is also magical, is dark, dangerous, mysterious & acts so stand-offish to the prospect of sex with the protagonist one would think he's gay, but he's not."

Or as I call it: Every urban fantasy novel ever written for a specifically female audience :lol:

Kyle wrote:Third, superheroes seem to lend themselves to a visual medium. There's lots of flying around, fighting, and brightly coloured costumes. Which isn't to say that prose can't handle such, but it's not playing to its strengths.


But flying around, fighting, and brightly coloured costumes are a means to an end, not an end. Focus on the things non visuals can do better. Its a difference in style its true, bot necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.
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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby Kyle » Sun Jan 26, 2014 12:25 am

Has anyone read Brian Clevinger's Nuklear Age? This conversation has me tempted to get it seeing as I'm a big fan of his ATOMIC ROBO comics, but I'm wary because comics writing skill doesn't necessarily translate to novel writing, and he did write the book a few years prior while he was still mostly doing web comics that were a bit more hit or miss.

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Re: Why do superhero novels suck

Postby saint_matthew » Sun Jan 26, 2014 7:27 am

Kyle wrote:Has anyone read Brian Clevinger's Nuklear Age?


Nope.
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