Monday, July 9, 2012

The Superhero Prose Genre, or How Harmon's Ruminations Informed My Own

Earlier this year, I started reading superhero fiction. I used to read a lot of comic books regularly/obsessively, but I've drifted away from most of them over the years and the current crop of comic book movies just don't seem to be directed at me, but I've been reading comic book adventure-style stories in prose form. I stumbled across Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon, and loved it. I read its follow up - Villains Inc. - and now I find myself eagerly awaiting his next story set in his universe. While waiting for that to happen, I've checked out other superhero prose by authors like Van Allen Plexico or collections like George R. R. Martin's Wildcards series. A handful of superhero anthologies litter my Kindle right now, and while I'm also regularly reading horror, dark fantasy and non-fiction, I'm finding myself dipping into the capes and tights quite a bit.

I'm really enjoying it, and while I do have some favorites (like Harmon's works), I'm excited to see that more and more authors are springing up with superhero stories to tell. (I'm even finding myself writing some of my own stories. The once-put-to-rest notions of writing comics suddenly seems possible again since I don't have to worry about drawing the books; I can just write them!)

I follow Marion Harmon's website, watching for news of the next WtC novel, and last week I read Mr. Harmon's blog entry in which he ruminates on the superhero genre. First, he expresses his belief that the superhero movies are going to be with us for "the foreseeable future" thanks to advances in CGI and the merchandising possibilities. I agree with him, especially since most Marvel movie properties are going to have Disney money and marketing behind them (although I find Disney's decision to develop Big Hero 6 as an animated feature a bit odd).

He goes on to break down the three basic modes of superhero storytelling: deconstructive, cinematic, and realistic.

I've read some superhero prose that I haven't enjoyed as much as some of the others, and I've not been able to put my finger on what it is that I like versus what I don't. I think Mr. Harmon helped me to figure it out.

I'm not a huge fan of the deconstruction of the genre. I mean, I get it. It's kind of fun to dig into the more "silly" elements of superheroes (Harmon mentions secret identities as being physically or socially impossible, for example), but for me, if I'm reading a superhero story, I'm ready to accept some of the hyper-reality that goes with it.

This kind of bleeds into the realistic superhero story. I might want a little justification or explanation as to how things work the way they do (a special branch of law enforcement being set up to handle superpowered heroes and villains, for example), but I don't need to break down these tropes to really enjoy a superhero story.

My own preference apparently is (mostly) the cinematic superhero story, but I don't need the heroes to win every time. Those who know me know that I like my stories a little more dangerous and dark, so I don't mind the heroes losing or characters dying (when it serves the story). I don't believe that these kinds of stories have to be aimed at the YA-market exclusively.

I have found a trend in a lot of superhero fiction, especially long form fiction, in which the main character is someone just discoverig their superpowers and joining an established superhero group or community. While I do appreciate the existence of established superpowered groups in my superhero prose (it makes the world seem more "real" to me somehow), I don't know if we always need that newcomer to piggy back with to really get into the story. I'm not saying that this is an instant turn off for me - Wearing the Cape does this, and does it engagingly well - but do we need an origin story for our viewpoint character right off the bat?

(Something I'm outlining right now actually does follow this set-up and pattern. I hope I manage to pull it off as well as Mr. Harmon!)

Another trend? Snark. Now, don't get me wrong. I enjoy snark as much as the next guy, but I don't always need that anti-establishment-the-man-even-if-he's-wearing-a-cape keeping us down approach in my superhero stories. It's just off-putting to me. Maybe it's my age or my exposure to years and years of comics (both mainstream and indy) in which this element wasn't needed to tell a good story.

As much as I love my horror fiction and my zombie stuff and my monster movies and all things kinda-sorta dark and scary, sometimes I just want a straight up cinematic superhero story without the deconstructive-snarky-through-the-eyes-of-a-teenage-newcomer lead character.

(Although I do reserve the right to work some twisted magic and supernatural boogey-ness into the mix!)

(I also reserve the right to be proven wrong.  If there's some superhero prose out there that anyone would recommend, whether it's deconstructive, realistic, cinematic or some mix of all three, please shout out the title and I'll check it out!)


ERR said...

Re: Superhero Prose...

Liked the blog entry. A couple things come to mind.

Used to read Wild Cards (Big fan of the Great and Powerful Turtle and others) and Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Other than that I've usually stuck w/ regular comic books. There are some fantastic creators in the business right now - most of them living in PDX.

The three genres are a fair breakdown of things although I would add Reconstructionist to the list. It's an emerging meme w/in comics as pioneered by Grant Morrison and a couple others. Now that you've deconstructed and examined the ballyworks that hold the milieu together, now you put it back together into something that works even better than before.

Even though everyone sees the rise of superhero movies as a boon for the industry, it actually could be the death of it. It's strip-mining the medium of any IP that looks salable and forcing money and resources out of titles that might explore the boundaries of the genre and promote its growth.

Again, good post.

Tony Laplume, Sith Architect said...

Selfishly, I kept wondering if you were going to mention my book, which fits the topic and I know you read ( or perhaps tried to read). But it's good to see that superhero fiction in general is finding an audience.

ERR said...

@Tony Laplume,

To which book do you speak of?

Tony Laplume said...

The Cloak of Shrouded Men

Derek read it last year or so.