Stack Overflow: Superheroes in Print

Reading Time: 9 minutes

If you just can’t get enough of superheroes from movies, television, and board games, here’s one more place to get your fix: books. Of course, there are plenty of comic books to choose from, but I also have a soft spot for superhero prose. Here are a few of my recent (and not-so-recent) reads featuring superpowers.

One thing I did notice in this batch is that many of them primarily feature male characters. There are some key female characters in most of them but for the most part these aren’t any better at passing the Bechdel test than the latest Avengers film. So although I did have fun reading them, that felt like a glaring absence at times.

The Ables by Jeremy ScottThe Ables by Jeremy Scott

What’s it like to have superpowers, but also be disabled? Of course, with Netflix’s Daredevil series we got an up close look at a character who is blind … but not really blind. The Ables takes place in a city of Freeport, a town populated by people with superpowers (the “custodians”) and their human support–it’s a safe place for these superheroes to live and raise their families, and for their kids to learn about their heritage once their abilities manifest, around high school age. The custodians actually have different DNA, so it’s often possible to determine what a person’s abilities will be before they even manifest, which is why Philip’s dad knows that Philip has inherited his telekinesis.

But there’s a problem: Philip is blind, and his telekinesis relies on knowing where an object is, how big it is. When Philip starts high school, he’s disappointed to discover that he’s been placed in a special education class with several other kids who also have disabilities of some sort. Henry is a telepath confined to a wheelchair–that may seem familiar to X-Men fans. James, also blind, can teleport. Fred can change his size, but has chronic asthma and is completely wiped out if he gets big. Bentley is a math and science whiz, but has cerebral palsy. And Donnie has Down syndrome, but nobody is entirely sure what his abilities are.

Philip becomes good friends with the others, largely out of necessity, and together they find ways to overcome their disabilities, hoping to compete in the SuperSim, a town-wide simulation that allows the kids to practice fighting imaginary crimes. But there’s something else going on–a mysterious figure shows up, perpetrating real crimes while everyone is distracted.

I enjoyed reading The Ables and trying to figure out the mystery, but there were a few weak points. In particular, even though there were two girls in the special ed class, they were basically introduced at the beginning and then … absent. Even when Philip’s team needs one more person for the SuperSim, they didn’t include either of the girls.

The other weakness is the way that Philip (who narrates the book) describes things–although he does come up with a trick to get around his blindness to some degree, things aren’t always consistent. He talks about gestures and things that he wouldn’t actually have been able to notice. I also think the author, Jeremy Scott, sometimes had trouble handling a large group of characters, because you might have several people enter a scene, but only two of them interact with anyone for most of the scene. And, finally, despite the fact that Bentley is the one with the enhanced intelligence, Philip is the one who generally comes up with the plan and figures things out. In the Noble’s Green series (below), I think it works for the one non-powered kid to be the Sherlock Holmes figure, but when you’ve got a hyperintelligent kid on the team, it would seem to make sense to have him figure things out, right?

Still, if you like the idea of mashing up superpowers and disabilities, The Ables is a fun read for young adults and adults.

Villainous by Matthew CodyVillainous by Matthew Cody

The Supers of Noble’s Green is a trilogy that’s targeted at middle grade readers, and Villainous is the last book in the series (after Powerless and Super). After the events of the second book, Noble’s Green has changed: in particular, there are a lot more people with superpowers, particularly kids. A new academy has been built specifically to train these gifted kids, teaching them to control their powers. But it’s clear that not everyone is interested in being good citizens–somebody has been vandalizing buildings in town, and Daniel and his friends suspect a group of new super-powered teens at the academy. It’s hard to say more about the plot without giving away more spoilers about the previous two books, but it’s a good conclusion to the story. Matthew Cody includes details that tie back to the other books and sets up a nice mystery for the kids to figure out.

One of the things I liked about this series was that it’s told from the point of view of a kid who doesn’t have powers, but he’s a bit of a detective. So although he’s often jealous of his friends who can fly or have super strength, he becomes an important part of the team by putting together the pieces of the puzzle. But when it comes to relationships, he’s a bit clueless. One of the major figures in the book is Molly, who can fly and has super speed. One of the subplots of the book is the relationship that develops between her and Daniel, and his inability to understand girls. It’s cute at times and annoying at others, but at least it’s not your typical young adult romance plot.

Even though so many of the people in the story have super powers, it doesn’t feel like they’re the main focus of the plot. They’re part of the premise, sure, but then a lot of it is set up more like a kid mystery book–following the clues and piecing together bits of evidence to track down what the villain’s ultimate goal is … and who the real villain is.

Villainous is targeted at middle grade readers.

Geeks, Girls, and Secret IdentitiesGeeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung

This one’s actually a few years old, but I just re-read it recently. Vincent Wu is the president of the unofficial (and unpopular) Captain Stupendous Fan Club, along with his friends Max and George. They know nearly everything there is to know about their city’s resident superhero, Captain Stupendous: all of his fighting techniques, the villains he’s defeated. None of this really impresses Polly, the girl Vincent has a crush on.

But then after a battle with new villain Professor Mayhem’s giant robot, things get a little weird. Polly, who was rescued by Captain Stupendous during the attack, finally starts talking to Vincent, at least a little. And Captain Stupendous himself is acting a bit off. It’s up to Vincent and his friends to figure out what’s going on, and just maybe save the day.

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is a fun read, even though (like most of the other books on this list) it’s mostly focused on the boys. However, Polly does play a big part in the story, and I was glad to see she wasn’t just there to be a love interest or get rescued. The book also includes more diverse characters: Vincent and Polly are both half-Asian, Max is Jewish. There’s not a huge focus on that in the story, but it’s cool that there are kids in a story that look like my own kids.

The book includes spot illustrations by Mike Maihack (creator of Cleopatra in Space)–I wish there were even more, because they’re great. Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is also for middle grade readers.

Our Hero: Superman on EarthOur Hero: Superman on Earth by Tom De Haven

Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to mention this non-fictional examination of Superman. Tom De Haven, an English professor, digs into the history of Superman–as comic books, television shows, cartoons, movies, and cultural phenomenon. It’s fascinating and well-researched, and really sheds some light on how Superman influenced and is influenced by American culture. Our Hero is part of the “Icons of America” series from Yale University Press, which includes icons like Andy Warhol, the Empire State Building, Fred Astaire, and the hamburger.

I have to admit: in the DC comics universe, I’d always been less interested in Superman. Batman seemed like a much more interesting character. (I know, this is not at all a unique opinion.) Superman seemed too powerful, too perfect–how can you relate to that? But De Haven follows Superman’s evolution, showing how he has changed over the years, yet he still manages to hold our attention (some of the more recent movies notwithstanding).

Although it’s a scholarly piece, it’s not boring or dry. De Haven keeps things moving and has a lot of great anecdotes to sprinkle throughout the book. The one thing I do wish, though, is that there were more illustrations. There are a few images–mostly from movie or television appearances–but almost nothing of the comics other than the cover of Action Comics #1. You’d think that a book that traces the history of Superman would include some more images of his comic-book incarnations.

The League of Regrettable SuperheroesThe League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris

With all these Marvel movies, everyone knows about Iron Man, Thor, or Black Widow. Even less mainstream characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6, and Ant-Man are getting their due. So if you want to out-geek anyone about superheroes, you’ve got to dig for something even more obscure. Ta-da: The League of Regrettable Superheroes is just the thing.

Featuring little-known heroes like the Red Bee (who keeps bees in compartments in his belt) or Madam Fatal (actually character actor Richard Stanton in drag), this book is chock-full of the bizarre and unfortunately named, from the Golden Age to the present. Each character gets at least a two-page spread, with color reproductions of the original comics and a short description that includes how long the character lasted before fading into history.

A lot of them are, as the title states, regrettable–you’ll wonder how they ever got published. But there are some that may deserve a second chance–like Amazing Man, who is getting a new story thanks to Barry Gregory and Steven Butler. If you like weird superheroes, this book is a treasure trove. (It will be published by Quirk Books on June 2.)

Superheroes Anonymous by Lexi DunneSuperheroes Anonymous by Lexie Dunne

Okay, here’s one novel that does feature a female character front and center. Gail Godwin, the narrator, has earned the nickname “Hostage Girl” for the many times that she’s been kidnapped by villains and rescued–usually by Blaze. But then Blaze is gone, spotted in Miami, and the villains leave Gail alone for a while.

I’m only a little ways into this one yet, so I can’t tell you much more, but I’m enjoying it so far. There are some funny bits, like the fact that everyone assumes Blaze is really Gail’s boyfriend, Jeremy–and he certainly seems to fit the description–but she insists he isn’t. It remains to be seen whether he really is and she’ll figure it out later, or if it really is just a series of coincidences. I’ll report back on Superheroes Anonymous when I’ve finished. (And the second book, Supervillains Anonymous, is expected at the end of June.)

Smash Trial by Fire

Smash: Trial by Fire by Chris A. Bolton and Kyle Bolton

Okay, I’ll include one comic book: Smash is long overdue for a review, but it got lost in my piles of review books and I forgot that I hadn’t written it up yet. Brothers Chris and Kyle Bolton have created an all-ages superhero comic that’s a lot of fun to read. Andrew Ryan is tired of being little–he gets picked on by his older brother and the school bully. When Halloween rolls around, he’s the only one without the store-bought Defender costume and has to wear one his mom made. (Apparently the kids at his school have bought into that old Target ad.)

But when the evil Magus tries to steal Defender’s superpowers, Andrew winds up with them, gaining super-strength and flight. So, of course, he decides to emulate his favorite hero and use the powers to fight crime … somewhat badly. He’s nicknamed “Smash” by the media for all the collateral damage he causes en route to his rescues. Meanwhile, Magus isn’t happy that some kid got all the powers, and has a plan to get them back.

Smash is just the first book in the series–the book ends on something of a cliffhanger, and Book 2 is in the works. The book itself is a nice, wide hardcover, a bigger format than most comics, and it looks great. (Aside from Andrew’s mom, though, you won’t find a lot of female characters in the book.) I just re-read this one this week, and I’m eager to see what comes next.

Want more superhero fiction? Check out our list of 10 superhero novels from my “Serious Comics” series.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.

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