Serious Comics, Part 8: A Novel Approach

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Kavalier & Clay, Soon I Will Be InvincibleKavalier & Clay, Soon I Will Be Invincible

So far in this series we’ve visited several genres of what I’m calling “serious comics”: memoirs, religious texts, comics based on existing literature, and even superheroes. For many people, superheroes are the epitome of comic books — and also the lowest form of the genre. Obviously, I don’t agree entirely: there are so many superhero comics out there, and some are fantastic and elevate the genre (see Part 6) and others deserve the contempt they’re given.

What’s interesting is that comics — and superhero comics in particular — have also made their way into fiction. Some is for adults and some is for kids; some is played for laughs and some is quite serious. What they have in common is costumed crusaders. The question is, how do these colorful characters translate to the black and white world of text? If a picture is worth a thousand words (though, to be honest, some comic book pictures are more like 40 or 50 words), can the same equation be applied in reverse?

If you’re mostly a comics reader, you may be surprised to find how vivid superhero stories can be even without the bright colors and action-packed images. Okay, it’s not exactly “comics as literature,” but it’s an example of comics’ influence on literature, and if you’re a fan of superheroes, then you’ll appreciate them in this different form. Read on for some great superhero fiction.

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin GrossmanSoon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

There’s a reason I’m starting with Soon I Will Be Invincible: it’s one of my favorite books, not just counting books about superheroes. The chapters alternate between Fatale, a partly robotic woman who has just joined the Champions, and Doctor Impossible, the evil genius. Grossman walks the fine line between parody and homage, toying with comic book conventions while showing that he really does like them. The chapter titles read like a list of cliched lines — “The Game Is Afoot,” “My Master Plan Unfolds,” “Maybe We Are Not So Different, You and I” — but then he makes them fit. Imagine if The Incredibles were, instead of an animated cartoon for kids, a novel for adults. That’s Soon I Will Be Invincible.

Doctor Impossible tries to take over the world; the Champions stop him. That’s been the age-old formula, through robot armies, doomsday devices, time travel, and whatever else Doctor Impossible has thrown at them. But this time, he’s got a different plan — will it work?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael ChabonThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Can superhero stories be serious literature? This one won the Pulitzer Prize.

Ok, to be sure, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay isn’t just about superheroes. It’s actually a novel about superhero comics, in a fictionalized version of Siegel and Shuster’s invention of Superman. Joe Kavalier and his cousin Sammy Clay, two Jews living in New York City during World War II, create a comic book hero named The Escapist. But there’s so much more — this book is amazing in its scope, covering not only the Golden Age of comics but also the subsequent witch-hunt and book burnings when comic books are blamed for societal ills. There’s World War II, daring escapes, Houdini, the 1939 World’s Fair, the birth of suburbia.

All of it is wrapped up into one tremendous package — there are so many details that you’ll swear you’re reading historical fiction, that the people in the book were real. And for comic book fans, the chapters that take Sammy’s comic book plots and translates them into action-packed prose are as good as reading an actual issue of The Escapist. (Better, even: I found the later publications of actual Escapist comics, inspired by the novel, to feel much less inspired than Chabon’s prose.)

Powerless and Super by Matthew CodyPowerless and Super by Matthew Cody

Powerless and Super by Matthew Cody

Powerless is targeted at young adults, and centers on a town called Noble’s Green. The kids of Noble’s Green have super powers, as Daniel discovers after he moves there. But they all fear their thirteenth birthday, when their powers — as well as their memories of having them — will vanish. Is that just how the powers work? Do you get to keep your powers if you’re heroic enough? Or is there something else going on? Daniel, who is “powerless” himself, decides to emulate his own hero Sherlock Holmes to do some detective work. Though it’s a middle grade or young adult book (based on the age of the characters), I really enjoyed reading it as well. It raises some interesting questions about being saddled with such great responsibility as a kid, and the fear of losing it all.

I was pleased to see that there’s a sequel due to be released this fall: in Super, Daniel seems to be developing powers … and his friends are losing theirs. Is he somehow stealing their powers inadvertently? I can’t wait to find out.

A Once Crowded Sky by Tom KingA Once Crowded Sky by Tom King

A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King

Speaking of powerless superheroes, A Once Crowded Sky is a novel for adults about a world of former superheroes. In order to save the world, the greatest superhero sacrificed himself — and all of their powers. What’s it like when you no longer have the super strength or perfect aim that you’re used to? A Once Crowded Sky actually does have some comic book pages (by artist Tom Fowler) as part of the book, but the bulk of the book is the prose. Read Jim Kelly’s full review for more.

The Adventures of the Blue Avenger (series) by Norma HoweThe Adventures of the Blue Avenger (series) by Norma Howe

The Adventures of Blue Avenger (series) by Norma Howe

Ok, one last one about non-supers and then we’ll get back to the amazing powers. David Schumacher, average kid, decides on his sixteenth birthday to change his name (officially) to “Blue Avenger,” a comic book superhero he made up when his dad died in a car crash years before. He also takes to wearing his dad’s old fishing vest and a blue towel on his head. Oddly enough, though, things start happening: he becomes famous, starts dating Omaha Nebraska Brown (a kindred spirit), and pretty much transforms into the hero of San Pablo High School. The Adventures of Blue Avenger is a bizarre little book, filled with little fascinating digressions, and delves into questions like free will vs. fate. I’ve actually only read the first book — I found it in the library a few years ago — and didn’t realize there were two more, but I’m curious to see where else this kid ends up going. (And, yes, that last cover was illustrated by Michael Oeming, which explains why Blue Avenger looks a bit like detective Christian Walker from Powers.)

Archvillain series by Barry LygaArchvillain series by Barry Lyga

Archvillain (series) by Barry Lyga

Of course, superheroes are interesting but sometimes it’s the supervillain who has the more interesting story. Barry Lyga’s Archvillain series takes a kid named Kyle Camden and makes him super smart and super strong, with flight and some other abilities. Now, he doesn’t set out to be a villain — in fact, he’s just trying to be helpful … and expose this do-gooder Mighty Mike for the fake that he is. Trouble is, people just keep misunderstanding his actions, and now instead of being the Azure Avenger, he’s been labeled the Blue Freak. The books are middle grade fiction, but I had a blast: they’re the perfect blend of comic book tropes and junior high snark that’ll have you laughing — and rooting for the bad guy. Read my full reviews of Archvillain and The Mad Mask. Good news: the third book in the series, Yesterday Again, has been announced for a January 2013 release.

Super Human series by Michael CarrollSuper Human series by Michael Carroll

Super Human (trilogy) by Michael Carroll

I wasn’t sure about Super Human when I first started it: there was some stuff about this Assyrian god-king battling the Egyptians over four thousand years ago, and then it jumped into the present day where we’re following Lance McKendrick, a fourteen-year-old con artist running from mall cops after pulling his latest scam. But once the story got rolling, I got pulled in. Lance lives in a world where there are superhumans and supervillains — though not very many of them. And when a mysterious group called the Helotry kick into action, there’s even fewer: it seems that every adult has been infected with a crippling flu, and it’s up to a ragtag gang of kids to set things right. Roz has telekinesis; Abby is fast and strong, but her strength seems limited to metal; “Thunder” can control sound waves. And then there’s Lance, whose only real powers are his big mouth and a sharp mind — and he’s not exactly what you’d call a hero.

Of course, if you’ve seen The Avengers then you know that a band of misfits makes for really fun story-telling, and this is no exception. The second book, The Ascension, picks up right where the first ends, as the all-powerful Chancellor takes over the United States, and the kids spring into action again. The final volume of the trilogy, Stronger, centers around the big blue kid named Brawn who makes an appearance in the first book. It ties into Carroll’s previous Quantum Prophecy trilogy, which I haven’t read but have now added to my list.

Hero by Mike LupicaHero by Mike Lupica

Hero by Mike Lupica

Zach’s dad was a superhero, but Zach didn’t know that. All he knew was that his dad was a “troubleshooting diplomat” and went on frequent “business trips.” But after his father doesn’t make it back from one of his excursions, Zach starts developing some powers of his own. I’d seen Hero by Mike Lupica in stores, but because Lupica is known more for his sports-based stories for young readers, I didn’t really pay much attention to it. The excerpt on Lupica’s site isn’t bad, though, and it’s gotten some decent reviews. I’m thinking I might reconsider and add this one to my list to read.

Prepare to Die by Paul TobinPrepare to Die by Paul Tobin

Prepare to Die by Paul Tobin

Here’s another one that’s definitely not for kids: Steve Clarke (aka Reaver) is a superhero, but this is the end of the line for him. He’s bought himself two weeks to wrap up loose ends before giving himself up to the Eleventh Hour, and we get flashbacks to his origins, previous battles, and the events leading up to his current situation. I haven’t read Prepare to Die yet, but thanks to Jim Kelly’s review, it’s on my list.

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy HickmanWayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman

I don’t know about you, but I was slightly disappointed in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a Batman movie that somehow manages to have very little actual Batman in it (and, you might have noticed, is the first with no Batmobile). Good thing I’ve got Wayne of Gotham to read. Written by Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance fame), Wayne of Gotham jumps back and forth between Bruce Wayne in the present day and his father Thomas Wayne in the past. In the present, Batman is trying to solve a puzzling series of crimes that involve secrets about his identity — and in the process he’s discovering things about his parents that he might not want to know.

The book is an interesting pastiche of Batman timelines — there’s a nod to the old TV show with one of his many Batmobiles being a “heavily converted 1955 Lincoln Futura,” and Hickman spends a lot of time (sometimes almost too much) describing the way that Batman’s gadgets and suit work. It’s set in modern times, but the writing is a sort of hard-boiled detective style, with Bruce Wayne’s terse comments punctuating the story. It wasn’t my favorite novel by any means, but it did give me my Batman fix. I especially liked the way the story digs into the life of Thomas and Martha Wayne, because usually we don’t get much more about them than that they got shot at Batman’s origin — here we find out much more about the parents Bruce Wayne lost.

So there you have it: ten superhero novels (and series) to put on your reading list — and this is just scratching the surface. There are a lot more novels about superheroes out there, so if you find you enjoy this genre you can use this list as a jumping point to more superhero fiction. (Be warned, though: not all superhero novels are created equal.)

I’m taking my kids to Taiwan in August, so my “Comics as Literature” series is going on hiatus. But when I get back, we’ll pick it back up with some more comics about science, war, journalism, and more!

Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies of the Super Human trilogy and Wayne of Gotham.

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