News, and Ruminations on the Superhero Genre

The first half of 2012 has been a great year for both Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. Both have spent several months among the Top 10 titles in Amazon’s superhero category. WtC remains in the Top 10, while VI holds steady in the Top 20. Not everyone has a Kindle, however, so for readers out there who prefer Barnes and Nobles’ Nook, both titles have now been made available.

It also looks like Wearing the Cape will soon be going international; although both titles have been available in English wherever Amazon has a market, WtC may soon be translated for sale in Italy. I had no idea Italians enjoyed American superhero stories, but perhaps with the international success of The Avengers and the other Marvel superhero movies we shouldn’t be surprised.

So thank you to everybody who has enjoyed the books and shared their enthusiasm–WtC and VI have succeeded almost entirely on word-of-mouth, with only pennies spent on marketing, and the income from these titles has enabled me to work only part-time while continuing my writing; when Bite Me is finished I intend to return to the WtC titles for a third Astra story (with at least 4 or 5 planned to round out the series), and move to finish several long-time projects from years past.

Also, the second Review-Drawing is finished as of the end of June, so everyone who posted a review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble please let me know who you are and your names go in the hat for the free autographed book of your choice.

I have made some changes over on my Wearing the Cape blog. The big one is the inclusion of a new page, The Post-Event World. TPEW is still small but will expand, and is a page devoted to the background of the stories. I intend to add sections on power-types and classes, the legal structure of Crisis Aid and Intervention groups (superteams), etc. The bit there now–a brief history of post-Event warfare–came from a conversation awhile back and at least explains why the US Military keeps trying to recruit Astra.

So, onward. Enough about superheroes, let’s talk about superhero stories.

The State of the Genre

While there are critics and reviewers who predict the eventual death of Hollywood’s superhero-movie boom (and more than a few who hope for its early demise), I think that superhero movies will be with us for the foreseeable future. Two reasons: one, CGI technology has at last advanced to the point where any superhero can be believably portrayed on the silver screen and superhero spectacle practically defines block-buster, and, two, superheroes lend themselves to merchandizing like few other Hollywood properties.

This is good news for Hollywood, but even better news for the superhero genre generally. I predict that the explosion of well-made and well-written movies like The Avengers will broaden and youthen the fanbase, in the way that Star Trek and Star Wars did the sci-fi fanbase and Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings did the fantasy fanbase.

The superhero genre is really a sub-genre of sci-fi/fantasy, and steals shamelessly from both. There are few required elements, beyond the presence of superpowers (the TV show Heroes even dispensed with the costumes and codenames). However, sampling the recent offerings I have noticed three distinct styles of superhero stories–all of which can share the same elements. Whether for the YA or adult market, there are three basic modes of superhero storytelling: deconstructive, cinematic, and realistic.

Ironically, in literature the deconstructive superhero story has been the norm until recently. This is because the superhero genre is full of tropes and conventions that are completely unreal. I’m not talking about the power to leap tall buildings with a single bound–I’m talking about secret identities. One is simply physically impossible, and sci-fi/fantasy handwaves the physically impossible all the time. The other is socially impossible without a good deal of explaining and special pleading; in the real world Batman is as impossible as Superman. The sheer impossibility of costumed crimefighters in the real world acting the way portrayed in comics makes the genre a rich target for deconstruction, played for humor or for dark, dystopian purposes (what are the heroes really doing?). The long-running Wildcards series is mildly deconstructive; it assumes that, given superpowers, some individuals will try and act as superheroes–with varying degrees of success.

Cinematic superhero stories are the ones that play it straight; they assume the reality of all the standard superhero tropes (being able to maintain secret identities, to fight crime without being hunted down by the police, and to always emerge triumphant). Seriously; considering how awesomely bad-ass master supervillains are, how often superhero’s nemesis wield the power to conquer/destroy the world, the heroes must win every time. If the story appears cinematic and then they lose, you’re in a deconstructive story. Cinematic superhero stories remain pretty much confined to Middle-Grade YA and novelizations of Marvel/DC story-arcs, where readers don’t question the narrative and social unreality of the genre.

Against the other two styles, realistic superhero stories are a growing part of the genre. Realistic superhero stories accept the standard superhero tropes, but try and explain them in a way that gives the superhero room to believably be what he is in the comics; a public-spirited hero fighting for Good. Oddly, TV and movies are a driving force behind this. The Incredibles, for all its cinematic battles, featured government-sponsored heroes with a sophisticated support organization helping to maintain secret identities, public backlash (personal injury lawsuits!), and superhero death. TV shows like Heroes, The Cape, and No Ordinary Family made attempts at superhero-realism, with varying degrees of success.

Recent superhero novels fall mostly into the realistic and deconstructive styles, often mixing the two. In Hero Years… I’m Dead heavily deconstructs the genre but leaves it intact. Ex-Heroes portrays a previously cinematic world in which the zombies won. After The Golden Age strives for high social realism and mostly accomplishes it. Confessions of a D-List Supervillain gleefully dances the line between cinematic and deconstructive. Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc… I like to think they meet at the nexus of the three, but I’m not impartial.

Of course writers write what they like to read, and I’m no exception; WtC and VI are both intended to be internally consistent–the rules governing superpowers rather strict–and socially realistic. This is because, whatever the genre, I enjoy character-driven stories; it is hard for me to invest emotionally in characters when I can’t suspend disbelief sufficiently to buy the reality of their situation. Deconstruction is often too self-aware for the suspension of disbelief, while the cinematic style is generally too artificial–I can’t help trying to peek behind the curtain and point out the wires. This is, of course, a matter of taste; fortunately enough readers share my taste to enjoy my stories, and that’s what counts.

And now, the question; trying to write for a living, I don’t have enough time to read as much as I used to–even to keep up in my chosen genre. Does anybody out there have story/stories to recommend? I’d love to hear about them and how they fit into the genre-structure I just discussed.

Marion G. Harmon


19 thoughts on “News, and Ruminations on the Superhero Genre

  1. Ah! 😀 I really hope Seven has more of a presence third Astra book. He was one of my favorite characters from the first book, and he didn’t have nearly as big of a role as I’d hoped in the second. :3

    1. That is one of the problems with having a large cast, but rest assured you’ll be seeing him again. And as things stand right now, he may have a much bigger roll.

  2. You may want to check out The Infected: Proxy by P.S. Power. Currently $1 on Amazon. I think it fits in the superhero realism category. Like your stories there is an event that creates people with superpowers. The mechanics are a little similiar to your stories, but much more gritty. It is almost like it is 10 years down the road from where your story is set with the politics of how to deal with people with powers hitting the fan. Your stories capture the awe and hope of having superheroes. Although in the backround with the super soldiers and war we know your story World can be a dark and dangerous place. I have read a few books from this author and one flaw I find in his writing is that his main characters tend to become an A-type personality and boss everyone around. I still enjoy the stories but this one trait is noticiable and I feel a little lazy on the part of the author to help resolve his story.

  3. I’m curious to know what you might think of both Jumper (and the sequel Reflex) by Steven Gould (and the film, though it’s not as thoughtful) and the film Push, directed by Paul McGuigan – both of which take a position skewing realistic. Orson Scott Card’s new series “The Lost Gate” (or “The Mithermages”) takes a semi-mythological look at the same kind of thing as Jumper, but is kind of on the edge for “superhero.”

    I’m been noticing the same trend, and in a completely shameless ripoff of a trend, started calling the deconstructive/realistic type stories “Capepunk.” 🙂

    1. I’ve seen Jumper, but not Push (which sounds like an interesting re-do of Scanners). I found the treatment of teleportation very cool–but the whole thing about the group dedicated to exterminating jumpers felt very odd. A fanatical religious group dedicated to killing jumpers because “nor mortal should have that power”? Thin. Very thin. I think the writers just had a hard time coming up with a nemesis for the main character.

      Capepunk. I like it. But for it to be proper superhero fair, no matter how much its deconstructed, there needs to be two elements: superpowers (even if they’re just pushing the limits of what superbly trained human beings can do) and superhero personae (capes, masks, codenames, etc).

      1. Just finished the newest book in the Jumper series, Impulse. I think Gould is really starting to show the superhero conventions here – very slowly, and not obviously, but you are starting to get the uniforms and heroic purpose. Highly recommended!

      2. The Jumper books aren’t related to the movie at all (except Jumper: Griffin’s Story, written specifically as a prequel to the movie, and likewise not connected to the other novels). No bizarre “only God should be that omnipresent” teleport-hunting fanatics, for one thing, and Davey is the first and only vector of *any* paranormal ability In the entire world. All of the books are very much straightforward explorations of “what if” and highly recommended.

  4. I agree that the villains in Jumper were quite silly. In the novels, there is no hint of that kind of thing – but there is a sense of the “punk” idea of systemic corruption being the real enemy – similar to noir or distopia. But that kind of thing is tricky for a film to show effectively – which is why, in Push, even though there is that kind of faceless govermental agency as the nemesis, it is centered around one main antagonist. Oh, well, conventions of the medium.

    Ooh, thought of one odd one – the film Griff the Invisible. I wasn’t a huge fan, but it was a somewhat interesting look at the mind of a “superhero.”

  5. Forgot to mention that Alphas, which is sort of the American answer to the rude, crude, and annoying British capepunk show Misfits, is also quite good, if sometimes a bit low budget and occasionally silly.

  6. I just ran across “Wearing the Cape” recently, wondered if you had a website, and found this one today.

    As for myself, (and at the risk of self-promotion), I’ve been writing an online serial called “The Legion of Nothing” ( for the past four (nearly five) years. It’s recently been published in part by 1889 Labs, a small press.

    It’s about what happens when the grandchildren of Golden Age heroes take on their identities and try to recreate a version of their team.

    It definitely falls on the realistic end of the spectrum. Basically, I use the standard tropes, explain them to the degree it’s possible, but only while I can still justify it to myself. What I try to do is make powers realistic in their social and physical side effects, and then to what I seldom see in the comics–allow heroes and villains to get old, make sure that “dead really means dead,” and go on from there.

  7. Recently read and enjoyed WtC and VI, quite enjoyable, above the average superhero fare by a considerable margin.

    I’ve read a lot of them recently, but since you asked for suggestions (and since I read so much I’d have to browse my library to remember the titles of even those I loved) I’ll say Prepare to Die! was fantastic, a mix of all three of your categories though leaning more towards realism/decon, and the YA series starting with Gone by Michael Grant has been great, though its less a superhero novel and more lord of the flies with superheroes (and way too dark in some bits for the target audience imo, though great for older readers).

    Also I have to agree on the Jumper villains. Nobody should have this power? Umm… you’ve built this power into a freaking man-portable device, meaning anyone can have it not just the people your god gave it to. In a couple years you nutjobs will probably build an app for that, but nobody should have it? Even more annoying is the fact that the hero, David, kinda assumes the veracity of their talk about jumpers going bad in the end, saying, “I’m different.” when he drops sam jackson off at the cave. Different, presumably, than the only other jumper in the movie. That dastardly fiend whose killing dozens of paladins, perfectly innocent…. religious nutjobs… who make a living murdering small children and their families… wait, what? I imagine in the movie sequel, if they make it, he’ll once again prove his superiority to other jumpers by jumping back in time to the scene of Hitler cackling maniacally as he takes a concentration camp tour and instead of killing HIM he’ll jump him to the roof of a building in Berlin, mildly inconveniencing him, before getting another wry look from sam jackson.

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