They wear flashy capes and colorful costumes—typically involving tights. They have populated the pages of comic books for almost three-quarters of a century, thrilling millions of readers who then spend millions of dollars to watch movies based on their adventures. Some want to be them; others just want to understand them. And a new generation of writers is now incorporating superheroes into their fiction, bringing a literary air to the larger-than-life modern archetypes.
That superheroes appeal to a mass audience is obvious. One need only attend Comic-Con International in San Diego, the world's largest annual comic book convention, to observe firsthand how fervently fans embrace superhero culture while the publishing industry looks for new ways to make money off the backs of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and other caped crusaders. Crime and thriller writers such as Max Allan Collins, Denise Mina, and Greg Rucka have vacillated between tales of superheroes and more mortal protagonists for years, but it wasn't until Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000) and Jonathan Lethem's lifelong passion for Marvel comics found fruit three years later in his novel The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday, 2003) that comic book geek culture crossed over into the literary world.
"Nerds are a demographic," says Austin Grossman, whose first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was published last month by Pantheon Books. "Theirs is an American experience that can't be ignored and has to be written about just like every other experience. They too shall have their day in the literary world."
Indeed, Grossman and others like him are having their day in this world, transplanting the dictums and expectations of superhero comics into narrative prose without sacrificing their love of the original, more visually oriented format. The uberheroes and heroines in their books wonder about their place in society and ponder complex identity issues. "It's too easy to make superheroes into caricatures and point out their absurdities," says Grossman, a former video game developer who is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's much more difficult to make them real, living characters and admit larger emotional range into the story."
Finding reality in a superhero universe—or pinpointing the intersection of realism and hyperrealism, if you will—was also a strong draw for David Schwartz, who decided to make the main characters in his debut novel, Superpowers, forthcoming from Three Rivers Press next summer, college students. "When I was in college I remember being overwhelmed by possibilities. You could do anything and be anything, yet never be any one thing. So many stories involving superheroes fall into the trap of using the same plot devices, like saving the world from evil and unrequited love, and flashy costumes. It's easy to get stuck in those tropes." Instead, Schwartz was more interested in the "mundane aspects" of superhero life. "How does a superhero live on a day-to-day basis? What happens when they have to get up, eat breakfast, and go to class? How are they like humans, but also different? Those questions set up a lot of comic elements but also human ones," Schwartz says.
Human rather than superhuman motivation proved a chief concern for Alison McGhee in the midst of writing her most recent novel, Falling Boy, published by Picador in April. Despite having received critical acclaim for her ability to write for all ages (she's the author of both adult novels and children's books), McGhee struggled to give voice to her protagonist, Joseph, a sixteen-year-old paraplegic who has recently moved to a Minnesota town and is believed by a younger neighbor to be a superhero.
To fully understand the superhero appeal, McGhee turned to her fifteen-year-old son, a devoted comic book fan, for help. "He said that what made a superhero story work was that any superhero had to have a supervillain," McGhee says. "The answer was so simple, yet it opened up the story for me and clued me into Joseph's motivation. I started thinking about what would happen if there were no supervillain, if there were no great evil to fight. The story became much more poignant as a result."
Unlike McGhee, Grossman very much wanted to create a supervillain and found he identified closely with the voice and actions of his, Dr. Impossible, who battles a loosely knit band of superheroes called the Champions. "It's not an uncommon thing to want to identify with the villain," Grossman says. "There is something fascinating about them, something real and true about their emotional position. It's like a grad student at a university—you know you're smart, you're told you're smart, and yet you're still treated like a loser. I suppose it is manic disproportion between what you know about yourself and what the world thinks of you."
So why are superheroes popping up in literary fiction now and not, say, seventy years ago, after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character of Superman in 1932? Grossman, for one, isn't sure. "We're not the first generation to grow up with comics, but somehow older writers didn't choose to make use of those stories in narrative fiction," the thirty-eight-year-old says.
Schwartz stresses the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, as a prominent factor in his decision to write superhero lit. "After 9/11, it was difficult for me to write," he says. "I felt helpless and kept wondering about the significance of storytelling after such a catastrophic event. Did it seem important anymore? And then, not long after, I couldn't get the idea of superheroes out of my head, thinking about how they might feel equally helpless. Would there be a way for them to alleviate the feeling and do something about it?"
Schwartz's literary agent, Shana Cohen, offers a more universal rationale. "I feel like superheroes work as a shorthand, demonstrating that there are terrible things in the world. Maybe they keep cropping up in fiction, literary and otherwise, because literary [writers] like imagining their redemptive power."
McGhee believes the superhero connection goes back to early notions of human archetypes. "Superheroes are not a new concept. If anything, they are our culture's version of old myths and legends, where great battles of good and evil are waged against a large canvas. Superhero tales are part of a continuum starting with ancient mythology."
Grossman agrees and says that the superheroes readers know and love "debuted as archetypal gods with occasional ‘retconning' to keep them fresh." But in prose, he can go beyond archetype, "make use of all senses, not just the visual," and craft something more meaningful without losing the essence of superherodom.
In other words, Grossman laughs, "Let's let them swear, but keep the spandex."
Sarah Weinman is an editor of the publishing industry news blog GalleyCat. She writes for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications. Her Web site is www.sarahweinman.com .