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Published: Tuesday May 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday May 20, 2014 MYT 5:34:55 PM

All words and no visuals make serious fiction superheroes an exciting read

Superheroes born in comic books have been reincarnated in plenty of TV shows and movies. Can superheroes in serious fiction stand up to them with just the power of prose?

Superheroes have never really worked for me outside what I consider their natural environment – comic books. Even in this post-Avengers movie age, I still find brightly-costumed heroes interacting with real life on the big screen somewhat jarring, something with which I have no trouble in the confines of a comic panel.

And superheroes, born out of a very visual medium, have never really gelled for me in prose fiction, especially established characters who occasionally make the jump to the pictureless narrative. When I was young I had a Superman novel written by Elliot S! Maggin (yes, he spells his name with an exclamation mark). It was a well-crafted tale but I could never escape the niggling thought that I’d rather be reading about Superman in a comic.

And what an age of comics it was in those heady late 1970s and early 1980s (somewhat disappointingly termed the Bronze Age in official comics history). Chris Claremont’s X-Men, classic Spider-Man storylines such as the Gwen Stacy plot forming the basis of the current movie, Green Lantern and Green Arrow tackling drugs and civil unrest... they were great days.

I still buy comic books, though not anywhere near the numbers that I did in the Bronze Age, or even 20 years ago. Perhaps, in my 40s, a 22-page monthly instalment of characters I’ve had a lifetime of familiarity with just doesn’t cut it any more. And when the big companies such as Marvel and DC do breathe fresh life into their characters, they don’t seem to be aimed at me – anyone for the new Ghost Rider, reportedly inspired in his look by One Direction’s Zayn Malik?

Maybe I have to face up to the fact that I’m just not the demographic for comics now, which is no bad thing. Back in the 1980s, when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen and Frank Miller was doing Dark Knight, we were all at pains to point out that “comics aren’t for kids any more”. It became a kind of mantra. Now, when I look at some of the recent big hits – Keiron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s smart and sassy Young Avengers, for example – I think that maybe comics are for kids after all. Which, I suspect, is just how it should be.

However, I do seem to be rekindling my sense of wonder at superheroes... but in prose fiction rather than comics. In the past year I’ve read three novels that not only exorcised my inherent dislike of superhero prose, but gave me cause to wonder if the future of well-written adult superhero stories is perhaps in the novel form. 

My first witness for the prosecution is The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, published last year and out in paperback now. This is an astonishing alternate-history novel about a world with superheroes – while the Americans fulfil their cultural destiny by wearing garish outfits and adopting outlandish names, the British heroes owe more to Le Carr’s glum, shadowy spies and work in the background of history.

Next to take the stand is Vicious by Victoria (writing as V.E.) Schwab, which takes all the usual superhero formulas – a pair of brilliant friends experimenting with the possibility of superpowers at university, sidekicks, superpowered battles – and neatly inverts them in a rather brilliant novel that questions the notions of heroism and good versus evil, and paints a picture of just how “real” people with all their foibles might deal with being gifted extraordinary abilities.

Finally, I offer you Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, which is published this month by William Heinmann. Tigerman is Harkaway’s third novel, and despite the title isn’t a really superhero novel at all. However, it does feature a superhero called Tigerman, born from not a lightning bolt and a stew of chemicals, but rather a half-formed paternal love and a desire for revenge. Tigerman is a proper grown-up novel in which it feels entirely appropriate for a man knocking on 40 to put on a mask and a costume. Now there’s a demographic I feel squarely at home in.

Superhero novels aren’t a new thing – there’s a website devoted to them and the numbers being published are huge, which is perhaps not surprising given the money superhero movies rake in at the box office. But the examples above seem to signal a shift towards quality, depth and literary values, which begs the question, for me at any rate, could novels really steal comic books’ thunder?

The wheels were set turning years ago with Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress Of Solitude. Lethem’s book scrawls the discovery of a Green Lantern-esque magic ring over the backdrop of racial divisions in Brooklyn, while Chabon’s novel retells 20th-century history through the lens of a pair of cousins (one recently escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague) who are analogies of Superman’s real-life creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

But, as Stuart Kelly cleverly notes in his Violent Century review, they were perhaps “meta-novels”, where fictional comic worlds blend with literary “reality”. Vicious, The Violent Century and Tigerman feel like a new era, where the concept of the superhero is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can strip it back to its basics and start all over again: superheroes for superheroes’ sake.

After all, comic superheroes had their roots in the pulp-fiction adventures of The Shadow and Doc Savage, so perhaps things have just come full circle and prose is their natural environment after all. – Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Reads, book news, superhero books, comics, novels, serious fiction

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