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Superhero fiction: the next big thing?

There is an old writing adage worth paying attention to: don’t write for the market. What’s hot now may not be hot next year, and considering a book may take two to three years to come out after being picked up by a publisher – and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually write and sell the thing – deciding to jump on the current trend is not a good idea. This probably applies more to specific concepts rather than genres as a whole. For example, while zombies, vampires and werewolves are currently ruling the roost, horror as a general genre is also experiencing something of a resurgence. So although writing a paranormal vampire romance is not the best idea (unless you have something unique and/or amazing), writing something in the horror field might be a good bet, as a genre trend might have a longer cycle of popularity and decline.

Might.

Predicting trends is also pretty much impossible. Although you can spot signs here and there, a scene will have pretty much established itself already before anyone notices, and it’s only in retrospect that you can more clearly identify the key titles and writers responsible. Many publishers will try to pick a trend anyway, and some will even rush-release titles to cash in. You can usually tell which books these are, and I really have no idea if it works as a method of generating a quick buck. Bully for them if it does.

So far, so good. Two facts: don’t write for a trend, and trends are impossible to predict anyway. Got it? Got it. So whatever you do, don’t ask me what the Next Big Thing in genre fiction will be, because I don’t know, and if I did know I probably wouldn’t tell you.

But… maybe it’s superhero fiction.  I said maybe.

Superhero prose fiction has been around for as long as its comicbook equivalent of course, but has been paid far less attention than the original material for an obvious reason: superheroes are visual. They wore bright costumes in the late 1930s because the bold colours really stood out amidst the monotonous gray of the corner news stand. They caught the eye, and what better way to show Superman lifting a car over his head than to show Superman lifting a car over his head.

But prose is different. Everything takes place in the reader’s head, and what they see will undoubtedly be completely different to how the writer pictured it, even if he or she goes crazy with description. That’s how prose works and what makes it so brilliant. But this may explain why superhero fiction, while enjoying a modest level of popularity over the years, has never really caught on. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve written superhero prose fiction, so ingrained is the notion that superheroes are for comics and comics are a visual medium.

The most notable recent example of superhero fiction that had a slightly higher profile among the public was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. When this novel was released in 2007, public telephone boxes in the UK were transformed with wraparound advertising, playing on the traditional cliché of Superman. The book isn’t bad either, although it’s probably more important as an example of how superhero fiction can work outside of a visual medium.

Unfortunately, the momentum of Soon I Will Be Invincible was quickly lost – just last month the author updated his blog to say that he has some more books scheduled for 2011, but that’s a gap of nearly four years since Invincible came out, and in the interim trends in science fiction, fantasy, and everything genre have changed. Another notable entry is From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust, also from 2007, but while this comedy novel gained something of a cult following, like Invincible it perhaps arrived too early.

Why then am I breaking one of the golden rules and predicting an upswing in superhero fiction? Well, my friends, there are signs.

Superheroes have always been popular material for film adaptation, more so now than ever. I think this is because of all media, film (especially big budget film) is the one that can match the visual spectacle of comics. And just look at the line-up of comicbook adaptations coming in 2011 and beyond: Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3… the list goes on.

But all of these are adaptations of existing properties. This is logical, of course – with the gargantuan amounts of money spent on Hollywood productions it makes sense to stick to the tried and true, and it’s also a good way for publishers like DC and Marvel to get their characters and stories to a wider audience. Off the top of my head I don’t recall an original superhero concept on the big screen, except for Pixar’s The Incredibles, and Megamind from Dreamworks, both of which are CG animation. Hancock, starring Will Smith, might be the only live-action original superhero film of recent times, but its not exactly a shining example of the genre.

More interesting than film – and possibly more indicative of a growing trend – is the explosion of superhero television shows, specifically original superhero shows. Heroes was the first, but after a spectacular first season it floundered terribly and was ultimately canned. Currently we have No Ordinary Family, a drama series about a family of four who gain superpowers after surviving a plane crash in South America, and the forthcoming The Cape, about an ex-cop framed for murder who joins a circus and, erm, gains superpowers and stars Summer Glau as a…*cough* investigative blogger. Actually, it looks better than it sounds. The SyFy network is also developing Three Inches, a series about superheroes with rather pathetic powers (cover your ears, Mur!), and Alphas, a series about… actually, nobody seems to know. Of note, The Cape appears to be the only example so far of series about costumed superheroes, and even in this case they have a rationale for it (the cape in question being a circus costume). Surely I wasn’t the only one wishing that the characters that populated Heroes would just cut to the chase and form a spandex-clad crime-fighting league?

Anyone? Moving on…

The most interesting superhero television series comes not from the US but from the UK. Misfits is about five delinquent youths sentenced to community service for a variety of small crimes. Caught in a bizarre electrical storm, they are each gifted a power, and over two series (the second of which has almost finished screening here in the UK) become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sequence of events which include murder and lot of sex (although not always at the same time). It is easily the best written British television series at the moment and is a dynamite subversion of the superhero genre and concepts.

Really, it’s genius. If you can see it, see it.

So what of books then? What signs are there that superheroes are about to become something big? Firstly, there’s the Masked anthology, edited by Lou Anders, which features short fiction from a number of comic writers and well-known novelists. Angry Robot Books is set to release The Damned Busters by Mathew Hughes later in 2011, in which an office worker summons a demon who grants him his greatest wish, to be a superhero.

Numerous online magazines and fiction sites have also sprung up, extolling the virtues of superhero fiction – Superhero Novels, A Thousand Faces and Beta City, to name but three.

Perhaps an even bigger sign that Something Is Coming is the fact that comic writer Bill Willingham is the guest of honour at WorldCon 2011, being held in Reno, Nevada, a convention traditionally tied very strongly to science fiction and fantasy literature (ie, prose fiction).

Will 2011 be the year of superhero fiction? Maybe. The signs are there. If the superhero genre does explode, I’ll be very happy indeed, as I love superheroes and have written a lot of superhero fiction. If that bandwagon is a-comin’ to town, I’ll be jumping right aboard (and thus breaking rule number one. Le sigh.).

Am I right? What are your picks for superhero fiction, and what other signs have I missed? Or is this all for nothing, and you really can’t predict forthcoming trends? I’d love to hear your comments!

Comments (13)

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  1. Crocman says:

    Supercroc Warriors and Humans Fight Over the Earth.

    On the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand an independent crocodile farm allowed some cognitive enhancer (smart pill) experiments on their crocodiles by a non government organization. Unknown to the crocodile farm and the NGO, the experiments were a complete success beyond expectations transforming the crocodiles into a much more intelligent species then their human keepers. This newly developed species of Supercroc can now walk upright, talk and make use of its arms and clawed hands just as well as any human.

    All of the crocodiles involved in the experiments disappeared from the crocodile farm only to end up living riverside in Bangkok.

    With their unique accelerated learning capabilities the Supercrocs became aware of the global political and ecological destruction of animal species. They are intent on freeing animals from the evil human species that have brought earth to its present ecological disasters now threatening extinction to all life on earth. Vicious Supercrocs use kidnapping, robbery and intelligence to fund their terrorism war against the human enemies whom they eat. Determined to hold those accountable for exploiting animal species the shopping malls, boxing stadium and train stations are not safe from these advanced Supercrocs. Their latest advanced weapon systems against the police and army are put to the test before their scheme to establish Crocland over Thailand.

    Overwhelmed by the ignorant masses of humans on earth Supercrocs wish to rule as God.

    As the Supercrocs successfully advance their war capabilities they are supported by the sympathetic scientist who developed their new found intelligence while he is busy changing the crocodiles worldwide into Supercrocs.

    Involved with the Supercrocs by accident and chance Ben a middle aged expatriate who seems only interested in being a drunken playboy may well be the only one chance humans have to escape destruction by these highly intelligent, technologically advanced man eaters.

  2. Peter says:

    “What other signs have I missed?”

    While I can understand there is a confilt in intrest for Escape Pod to officially mention, “Playing For Keeps,” Parsec-Award winning novel of superheroes by Mur Lafferty (available in both podcast and print format). I as a independant reader/listener am under no such limitation.

    Another well written superhero podcast novel (which has come out in print) is, “Brave Men Run,” by Matthew Wayne Selznick. There is also a collection of short stories set in the same universe, “The Sovereign Era: Year One,” which contains short stories by some names that readers here would probably find familiar.

  3. BlaqueSaber says:

    I’m unable to contribute further to your list of superhero fiction magazines. Thanks for the links. I have begun finding more and more “Superhero” styled podcasts and would love(and pay for)it if you guys put one together.

    HeroPod?

  4. jrderego says:

    Seriously? You write this, publish it here, and don’t mention Union Dues? You mention “Soon I will Be Invincible” but not Union Dues? You mention a bunch of self published stuff too, and No Union Dues?

    You realize that Escape Pod has published 12 Union Dues stories to date since 2005, right?

    Sheesh. Thanks…

  5. What about Union Dues? The stories are generally solid, and those that I’ve heard on Escapepod have been coherent and consistent, which, if they have the variety of authors I’ve thought they had, is no mean feat.

  6. Fritz says:

    Adam,

    I hope your right (for selfish reasons of my own) and Superhero fiction is the next Harry Potter phenom. But published superhero books are pretty thin on the ground, even if you include the direct Marvel and DC universe spin offs.

    I’ll add a few books that I have seen in the bookstores to your list of recent superhero works: Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Kaitlin Kittridge; it’s sequel Shades of Gray; The Quantum Prophecy, the YA series by Michael Carrel (The Awakening, The Gathering, and The Reckoning); Hero a YA novel by Perry Moore; and Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann. You mentioned Mur, who I presume is Mur Lafferty, so I’ll add her Playing for Keeps to round the list off.

    Fritz.

  7. Hey all,

    Thanks for your comments – some interesting additions there!

    @jrderego – I have to apologise, I have not listened to any Union Dues stories. I’ll rectify that immediately. Thanks for posting the link to your website, it looks good!

    However, I’m not sure what you mean by listing self-published stuff, as I haven’t mentioned anyway.

    Everyone, keep the comments rolling. I think this is a topic we can revisit with a more comprehensive look in the future!

    Cheers,

    Adam

  8. Moonbat says:

    Minor point, but My Super Ex-Girlfriend was “live-action original superhero film of recent times.” It was about as good as Hancock.

  9. Dave Doty says:

    A minor point – I wouldn’t necessarily look to Bill Willingham at WorldCon as a sign of an upswing in the respectability of super-heroes. While he does write some superhero stuff, and back in the 80s was best known as the creator of the Elementals, for close to a decade now, he’s been most associated with creator-owned fantasy series Fables, including a prose fantasy novel he came out with last year, with a second on the way.

    It might be a good thing for comics writer visibility, but I doubt superheroes were high in their minds when they asked him.

  10. Loved “Invincible” – even though it made me despair of ever selling my own comedic superhero novel, as yet unpolished. Le sigh.

    That said, I certainly hope you’re right that superhero fiction is going places. I love to read it, and I happen to be the publisher of a superhero novel that’s coming out in January 2011 – “Broken,” by Susan Jane Bigelow.

    Talk about being ahead of the curve on a trend – it’s a dystopian near-future sci-fi thriller. With superheroes. Yeah. All it needs to do is be YA and it hits all the current buttons!