Jun 27 2013

The Comic Book vs. The Superhero Novel (Or: The Hulk Is People Too)

Published by at 7:30 am under Writing Articles

Tony Stark has a drinking problem. And a broken heart. Peter Parker is a nerd. Superman has daddy issues. And Bruce Wayne? Where do you start?


These are our heroes. And we learn about their addictions and predilections, their agendas and vendettas over the course of hundreds of issues, creating a tableau of identity that evolves over the span of years, or even decades. But in any one issue we are given only a snapshot of their character, another piece of the puzzle that we have to thread together ourselves, week by week.


Not so in a novel. The novel is a tapestry in itself. All the threads already stitched together so the reader can unravel it, page by page.


It doesn’t take a genius (or even a writer) to figure out how such a dramatic difference in form can impact a superhero narrative. What’s interesting, however, is exploring how authors of superhero novels can use the boon of all those extra pages to revise, and sometimes even pervert the norms of comics as a genre.


The comic book, by its very nature, is plot driven (which is not to immediately suggest that many novels aren’t). This is simply a matter of real estate. Geniuses that they are, comic writers and artists are capable of cramming all the conventions of good story telling into cramped panels, but when it comes to the more nuanced issues of theme or character development they often must engage in a type of literary guerilla warfare—a hit and run of suggestions and asides, because as soon as you turn the page, somebody’s going to have to “do what they do best.” Action is paramount, and for every moment of pathos where our hero reveals his innermost fears, desires, etc. there are three more where he opens up a can of Snikt-brand whoop-arse. This is to be expected. It’s what gives the genre its returning weekly audience.


A superhero novel, on the other hand, has fewer limitations and a much wider repertoire of conventions to draw from; after all, the history of the novel and the sheer number of books vastly dwarfs its glossy-covered counterpart. This allows for a multiplicity of purpose that can be both daunting and exhilarating to a writer.


For example, ask a reader to describe a particular issue of Vaunted Superhero XYZ and you will likely get, “This is the one where he fights Dr. What’s His Face.” When asked to describe my latest superhero novel, however,  I’m torn between two responses: It’s either a story about a superhero sidekick who battles evil against the backdrop of typical middle school trials and tribulations or it’s a coming of age novel about a young man struggling to find his identity against a backdrop of superhero shenanigans.


It is both, of course, but it is a novel’s pliability that allows it to simultaneously transcend the tropes of comics while still counting on them to provide a familiar (and exciting) structure. Superhero novelists get the benefits of an art form packed with adventure, violence, tension, catharsis, and testosterone, and merge it with art form that is infinitely more flexible in design. The difference is 6,000 words (or less) versus 60,000 (or more), but in that difference lies the superhero novelist’s dilemma.


What do you do with all of those words?


The answer, I think, lies in the bathroom.


Why is it superheroes never use the john? Aquaman aside (he can pretty much pee whenever), comic books don’t have much room to explore the mendacity of a superhero’s (or supervillain’s) non-giant-robot-smashing moments. Yet even Clark Kent surely drops a deuce every once in a while. What does he think about while he’s sitting there? Does he mull over about his latest confrontation with Lex? Does he wonder where he should take Lois for dinner? Does he weep over a bystander he wasn’t able to save? Maybe he just does the Daily Planet crossword. The answer says a lot about his current state of mind. It is in these everyday moments that superhero novelists are granted the opportunity to more fully explore their characters. Moments that most comic books simply don’t have space for.


Take The Tick, my personal favorite superhero—not because he is nigh invulnerable but because he cooks dinner. Because he has an accountant for a sidekick. Because his catchphrase is so extraordinarily ordinary (“Spooooon!!!”). While admittedly farcical in nature, The Tick speaks to what we’ve actually known for ages: that superheroes are not all that unlike us. Sure they have better abs and can walk through walls, but they are just as flawed as we are (if not more so as they often have farther to fall).


The novel, as an art form, allows writers of superhero narratives the chance to explore the humanity (very loosely defined) of their main characters. Sometimes you wan to point at the armor-clad, laser blasting hero wrapped up in the tentacles of an inter-dimensional planet-devouring sea monster and say, “Yep. Life sucks sometimes.”


The novel allows us to not only trace that trajectory more fully—the perpetual fall and rise of our superhuman brethren—but provides more opportunity for readers to identify with the protagonists themselves. Think of the novel as 70 percent rising action, 15 percent climax, and 15 percent resolution. Some comic books are all climax. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just that sometimes you want to savor the build up to better appreciate the drop.


One of my favorite comics is Astro City. In this series the city itself provides the impetus for much of narrative and thematic elements. What I like most is how many of the stories in the series are told from the point of view of bystanders—a hotel concierge, a newspaper reporter, just some random lady going to work. They aren’t outsiders— they are very much aware of the hero-and-villain-laden world around them—but they provide a fulcrum, leveling the playing field of empathy and identification. We see ourselves easily in these narrators, and as a result, it makes us even more receptive to the complexities of the world they inhabit. In short, Astro City moves the ordinary to the foreground and shifts the extraordinary to the back. The innocent bystander often becomes the protagonist and the caped crusaders often become the chorus. It’s a fun move that allows readers to explore sides of the superheroes and their world that are not always available.


That’s what superhero novels can do as well. They more readily shift the focus from the super to the human. They allow writers the chance to juxtapose the ordinary with the extraordinary by balancing the presentation of each. For every five-page knuckle pounding brawl, there are twenty pages of character development, back story, interior monologue, setting, dialogue, and ambiance. Plots can be more complex, of course, but more often than not it’s the characters that gain depth, their many facets allowed to show.


Does that make them better? Absolutely not. There are single issue comics out there that contain more moral complexity and thematic nuance than some five hundred page tomes. What the novel as a form does is shift the rules. It gives writers who want to explore the world of superheroes and their nemeses greater leeway to delve into all of those things that must, by virtue of form and space, be regulated to the background in a comic.


So for anyone working on their first superhero novel and pondering about what to do with all those extra words, here are a few suggestions:

  • Avoid the stock, flat, and stereotypical. In a novel, no one has to be one-dimensional. Not the hero, not the villain, not the henchman or the hot dog vendor or the poor guy who has his Hyundai smashed by the mechanized dinosaur’s foot. You don’t have to explore everyone’s soul, of course, but be open to their complexities: it may take your story in directions you hadn’t conceptualized at the start.
  • Take full advantage of dialogue. Superheroes often don’t get the chance to talk. They grunt. Or they exchange witticisms. Occasionally they sermonize. Through careful attention to dialogue, a superhero novelist can allow his characters to engage at deeper level, creating tension by building complex relationships rather than by creating crumbling buildings.
  • Explore the surroundings. No story takes place in a vacuum (except, I guess, for all those comics set in outer space). Novelists are responsible for creating, in words, the backdrop that an artist would ink in. The dark corners of your metropolis hold infinite possibilities for side stories and ancillary characters that can make a novel richer.
  • Use the extra room to build suspense. Most comic books don’t have that luxury: the villain is revealed on the cover. You know what’s coming. A comic writer has to lay his cards out on the table because he generally has fewer than 25 pages to work with. Novelists have a few hundred. You can afford to keep your reader hanging.
  • Don’t neglect the action. If you find you’ve written a hundred pages of intense character study, punctuated by verbose interior monologues and a dozen swarthy pages describing what your superhero had for dinner last night, you’ve probably lost your fan base. Give your hero something to punch every once in a while.
  • Dive into motive. Why does your hero do what he does? Because he is a champion of freedom and justice, of course, but there’s got to be more to it. Their jobs are even more stressful than ours are, after all, and most of us question why we keep doing the same old thing day in and day out. Comic books have a hard enough time answering who, what, when, where, and how. Novels can bring why to the center.


Why bother with a novel? Maybe you want to move beyond the limitations inherent in another form and discover all new limitations! Maybe you just can’t cram everything you want to say into a speech bubble. Maybe Meanwhile… and Elsewhere… aren’t doing it for you as transitions anymore.


Or maybe, like me, you write novels because you just can’t draw worth a damn.


John David Anderson is the author of the novel Sidekicked. Find him on Facebook at johndavidandersonauthor or at johndavidanderson.org.

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “The Comic Book vs. The Superhero Novel (Or: The Hulk Is People Too)”

  1. Aj of Earthon 30 Jun 2013 at 11:40 am

    This is a fantastic article. Ultra relevant. Two thumbs way up.

  2. Nayanon 30 Jun 2013 at 9:01 pm

    One problem with superhero novels is that this genre does not have as big market as other genres like adventure, romance or sparkling vampires. Another thing is that writing a comic book is easier than writing a novel and requires less time. As I have written both novels and comic books (not published though), I feel that to write a novel, the writer has to be more skilled.

  3. Elecon 02 Jul 2013 at 2:34 am

    Great article, great tips :).

  4. Peanutbutter Jerryon 03 Jul 2013 at 12:07 am

    This was really helpful. I was able to come to the conclusion that the novel I was writing is better suited to be a comic book and my comic book has the potential to be a novel. Thanks!

  5. Peter Ron 12 Jul 2013 at 7:05 am

    Very informative and very interesting. I’ve been planning a superhero novel series on and off for almost a year and finding this website has given me a lot of interesting tips; especially on how to make the villains and heroes both not too and too cliche (it’s a comedy so that works).
    I do have to add one thing though; I think the best reason to write a novel is that it allows you to write from specifically one character’s point of view, getting inside information, thoughts and details that a comic can only leave in a cloud speech bubble. And of course, no one would want to buy a comic drawn with my stick figure skills.

  6. TamarBon 20 Jul 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Awesome article–and it makes me realize I’m in the right format. I don’t think my super hero stories could really be told any other way.

    Aaaaand of course there’s the can’t-draw-worth-a-damn part. But mostly the storytelling.

  7. B. McKenzieon 20 Jul 2013 at 11:22 pm

    “Aaaaand of course there’s the can’t-draw-worth-a-damn part.” Most comic book writers don’t do their own art. 🙂

  8. Will Rodgerson 29 Jul 2013 at 11:36 am

    I have an idea for a superhero named Typhoon who can control water (he can’t like shoot it out of his hands or anything, but can control existing water) and is nice enough, but is a recluse after searching for his Family’s Murderer and investigating himself. Since he can defeat most humans without tons of difficulty (by turning the water inside them against them), his enemies are an alien warlord and a robot killing machine created by an evil scientist (the one that killed his family). Any thoughts?

  9. Kid Writeron 07 Aug 2013 at 11:48 am

    Very good article. 😀

    I find the main reason I write novels rather than comic books is that writing in depth stories, with a dozen pages of character development against one page of action, and also just spewing out some thoughts about life I have (in a more discreet manner than I might admit).

    Oh, and of course, it’s also because I ‘can’t-draw-worth-a-****’, hehe.

  10. Benon 29 Sep 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Great article. Again.

    I’ve been away from the website for over a year now, but on coming back I see there’s even more great writers and articles.

    I’m kicking off superhero publishing over here in Australia and have just released an anthology of superhero stories called This Mutant Life. A few years ago I printed anthologies as ‘zines but I’ve actually go all-out and tackled self-publishing.

    And it’s been a great experience.

    Cover art, layouts, navigating through Createspace and KDP – as well as setting up a publisher, Kalamity Press.

    If you’re interested in writing short stories where you explore the ‘other’ side of superheroics I’d love to read your stories. The third anthology will be published next year and submissions will open in January.

    I’d love you to take a look at the website – http://www.thismutantlife.com

    And if there are any book reviewers out there, let me know if you’d like a copy of the book to review.


    Ben Langdon
    Editor, This Mutant Life

    P.S. If you read and loved ‘Devil’s Cape’ by Rob Rogers, you’ll be happy to know there’s a short story by Rob and it’s set in Devil’s Cape! I was wetting myself with excitement! Great stuff!

  11. JWJon 04 Feb 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Best article I’ve seen on this site.

  12. Anonymouson 01 Apr 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I just had an idea for a Character, Jack Shapiro, aka Firefly:
    His father was the head of a genetic research company that was figuring out how to splice human and insect DNA. Jack, however, was more interested in spending the family fortune and getting girls than hearing about his dad’s latest breakthrough. Then, a man arrived, one Jack had never seen before. He speaks to the elder Shapiro in hushed tones, and the confrontation escalates. The men come to blows, and Shapiro is shot. Jack, who had been eavesdropping, is frazzled, and takes refuge in an odd chamber stored away at the back of the room. He hits a switch, and his DNA is combined with that of his namesake insect. He dons a suit of power armor and begins to search for his fathers’ killer. He mostly does this to escape reality and avoid the responsibility of taking over the company. Viable, or cliched?

  13. Anonymouson 03 Apr 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Still waiting on a response. No pressure, just a reminder.

  14. B. McKenzieon 03 Apr 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Anonymous, I have some ideas, but they don’t strike me as incredibly helpful.

    –I think it would help to give the son a more interesting/active role in this scene than passively watching as things happen around him? It would probably help to give him a choice or action that most other protagonists would not have made in the same situation. At the very least, it may help to involve him more in the scene by making the conversation between the father and the murderer somehow related to the son (but this would not solve the passivity problem by itself). Speaking of passivity, I’d recommend giving the father some interesting choice to make vis-a-vis the murderer rather than just standing around and getting killed.

    –Is there anything memorable or distinctive about the father or the murderer? Do they do anything that 90%+ of other scientists or criminals wouldn’t have done in the same situation? (By the way, the father’s extremely lax attitude towards workplace safety strikes me as distinctive* — I hope that’s intentional).

    –Why does a genetic research company have a suit of power armor lying around? Does the son do anything special to acquire the power armor?

    –If he has DNA-related superpowers, does he need power armor (or vice versa)? If not, it might help to remove one or the other for simplicity & conciseness.

    –*The main character unknowingly takes refuge in a (presumably unmarked) testing chamber for an insect-DNA device *and* the switch to activate this device is in the chamber *and* the switch to activate it is unmarked *and* everything they needed to run an extremely advanced experiment had been left ready to go and completely unattended *and* the room (and chamber) was unlocked? It’s like the father INTENDED someone to get stuck in it. I hope this unusual set of circumstances is being used to develop characters and/or the company in some way. For example, if a scientist in The Taxman Must Die built his lab that dangerously, he’s probably planning a murder and wants it to look like a workplace accident or he needs a test subject for a test so dangerous he can’t find an actual volunteer. I’m hoping there’s more going on here than just the father doing something foolish because it’s the only way to explain how the son gets stuck in the chamber (e.g. it hints at a recklessness which makes the father more interesting than just a generic scientist would be).

  15. Anonymouson 21 Sep 2014 at 6:05 am

    Not to mention that (If it was on purpose) some scientists from the genetic research lab could provide interesting enemy’s.

  16. B. McKenzieon 21 Sep 2014 at 6:22 am

    “(If it was on purpose) some scientists from the genetic research lab could provide interesting enemies.” Agreed.

  17. young grasshopperon 02 Jul 2016 at 6:43 am

    This is awesome advice. Personally, I’m thinking of making my story in comic form, but with a style more similar to a TV series, with seasons with longer plot lines that are comprised of smaller episodes (or issues, in my case)

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