The Best Superheroes Right Now Aren’t on Screens. They’re in Books
Superheroes are everywhere. Our spandex-clad saviors rule movies. They own television. They even appear in comics occasionally. Yet some of the most interesting stories about caped crusaders right now don’t come with pictures or fancy special effects. They’re in good old fashioned books.
A new wave of authors is bringing fun, romance, and a spirit of adventure to superheroes—and they’re doing it by focusing on the sorts of saviors big-budget tentpole movies tend to overlook. Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex, for example, tells a story about what happens when your childhood best friend becomes a superstar (and the defender of humanity from extra-dimensional monsters). Meanwhile, Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a coming-of-age tale about Jessica Tran, the powerless daughter of two superheroes who gets a job at a tech company—and discovers that the world of heroes and villains is more complicated than she realized. And How to Save the World by Lexie Dunne, coming next month, is the third book in a series about Gail Godwin, a young woman who was nicknamed Hostage Girl after supervillains kept capturing her but eventually becomes a superhero in her own right.
Superhero novels are nothing new, of course. Authors like Austin Grossman, Carrie Vaughn, and Brandon Sanderson have been writing fantastic books about capes for years. Plus George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass carved out their own superhero universe with the Wild Cards anthologies (soon to be a TV show). But these new books—all coming during a rather dismal year for on-screen heroes—are exactly the kind of super-powered jolt the genre needs right now.
That’s due in part to the fact that these three novels share a light, funny tone that’s reminiscent of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, with a minimum of dark brooding. They have a healthy dose of romance, but also a lot of strong friendships. They imagine worlds where superheroes are famous, and use that to talk about social media and popularity as well as celebrity culture. And their protagonists are the sidekicks and hostages, rather than the celebs—at least, at first.
Making the Heroes You Want to See in the World
These underdog-focused approaches might be a product of their creators’ past lives. Before tackling superheroes, Kuhn wrote the “nerd girl” epic One Con Glory, which was picked up for development as a feature film. Lee’s previous book was Seven Tears at High Tide, a young adult novel that won praise for its same-sex romance. So what made these women decide to switch over to superheroes? For Kuhn, a self-described lifelong comic-book nerd, it was a strong desire to create her own saviors. “I love that superhero stories and characters tend to lend themselves to elements that are big and loud and colorful and over-the-top,” she says, “but the best ones are rooted in really true human emotions at the core.”
Dunne, meanwhile, says that she grew up with Batman and X-Men cartoons, but never thought about putting superheroes into prose fiction until she read Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible and found herself inspired. Grossman’s realistic take on what it would be like to have a cyborg body, or blades implanted under your skin, blew her away. In the process, she says, his heroes “went from larger-than-life and untouchable to actual book characters that I could enjoy and sympathize with.” When she’d completed Invincible, she wanted to see if she could create superheroic characters who were equally grounded, but more likable than Grossman’s. So one year, during National Novel-Writing Month, the first version of Superheroes Anonymous was born.
“I think people are drawn to superhero stories because they’re larger than life, and also at the same time immensely relatable,” says Lee. She also loves the “bright, colorful cheesiness” of classic comics, which the recent “dark, angsty” versions of heroes have tried to cover up. She wanted to bring fun back to super-powered heroes, while also keeping them down-to-earth.
Building on Buffy
Kuhn agrees, saying that sometimes, “people have trouble with superheroes in prose, because so many of the classic elements sound sort of ridiculous when you start describing them.” That said, Kuhn was keen to create a story where Asian Americans like herself could be superheroes—complete with capes, code names, and saving the day. Kuhn’s solution to this dilemma was just to go all the way over the top with the silliness in a self-aware way that draws on the humor of her favorite TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Middleman.
But Kuhn was also influenced by another aspect of classic superhero comics: the focus on the ordinary lives of heroes. One of her favorite issues of any comic is the “Ladies’ Night” story in Uncanny X-Men, in which “a bunch of the X-Women” go to the mall. “It’s so much fun and it shows superheroes in a different light,” she says. “Like, what do they do on their day off?” That gave Kuhn the idea of telling the story of a superhero through the eyes of her personal assistant, bringing a Devil Wears Prada approach to the genre.
Lee was also heavily influenced by the X-Men, because their stories of living with mutant powers were a way to talk about “themes of coming out, being closeted, [and] how society looks at you,” before you could discuss them openly. She also loved the way these heroes were “constantly reinventing themselves and learning about self reliance and control and working on a team.” In Not Your Sidekick, she wanted to use the story of a powerless girl, in a world that celebrates superheroes, to talk about some thorny issues of identity and alienation.
Meanwhile, Dunne came up with the idea of a hero who gets stuck with the name Hostage Girl as a tongue-in-cheek response to all the damsels in distress who populated the heroic narratives of her childhood. “These women become bargaining chips and prizes to be fought for, and they were often the only women to be found in Batman and Superman stories,” she says. She wanted to tell a story about “the damsel in distress finally breaking free of her chains and saving herself.”
In addition to the “heroes as celebrities” themes all three of these books play around with, there’s also a healthy dose of social media, including blogs that track heroes’ every moves.
“I don’t think superheroes could keep their mystique in a world of social media,” says Dunne. They’d probably have PR teams, like Aveda Jupiter in Kuhn’s Heroine Complex. “People who live in neighborhoods with heavy supervillain activity would regard life like those who live in neighborhoods where a lot of filming takes place now,” she adds, tweeting things like, “Ugh, Bento Baddie is on Ventura again #wtf #smdh #gonnabelate.” There would be superheroic appreciation sites, but also forums dedicated to doxxing and stalking them. Some superheroes would probably tweet way too often, and destroy their mystique once and for all by oversharing.
All three of these authors say that they were motivated, in part, by a desire to put heroes who looked like them into widescreen heroic narratives. Dunne says she believes superhero stories are becoming more inclusive, although it’s not happening fast enough and there’s still a ton of backlash when it does. “The day they announced the Captain Marvel movie,” she says, “I went home and cried, thinking about all of the little girls who’ll get to grow up with that.”
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