Jun 27 2013
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.