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Nov 24 2011

Writing a Marketable Superhero Novel

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

One major obstacle to getting a superhero novel published is marketability–can your novel convince publishing professionals that it is likely to sell many thousands of copies?  This might be a bit counterintuitive.  Even though superhero stories have sold billions of dollars worth of movie tickets and dominate one branch of the publishing industry (comic books), superhero novels are not known for strong sales.  Here are some tips based on the superhero novels that have been most successful.

 

1. Please make your novel at least reasonably intelligent.  A superhero comic book or movie might conceivably become a bestseller despite being pretty idiotic.  (Batman and Robin sold ~$240 million worth of tickets, for example).  Comic books and movies have other things to fall back on besides the quality of the writing.  Novels, not so much.  For one thing, the target audience for novels is people that actually willingly buy novels, who tend to be more literate than the population as a whole.  Consequently, the most successful superhero novels (notably The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the Wild Cards series) tend to be more complex than just action. For example, Amazing Adventures and the first few* Wild Cards books  were historical chronicles and AA had more action for an artist escaping Nazi-occupied territory than it did for any superheroes.

  • Imagination.  Does your story have elements we haven’t seen before?  If we have seen plot elements before, are you executing them differently and/or more interestingly?  For example, Amazing Adventures deftly handled a stranger-in-a-strange-land with a great ear for the artist’s unusual-sounding voice and some interesting use of his cultural background.  In contrast, the Superman series bends over backwards to make Superman’s transition to Earth as seamless and undramatic as possible.  (Superman looks exactly like a stereotypically attractive human, his English is utterly nondescript, his superpowers don’t create enough problems for him, there are few if any cultural differences in play, etc).
  • The ability to make connections and offer themes that are not necessarily obvious.    For example, The Incredibles has a few scenes where superheroics get mistaken for adultery/inappropriate love.

*Thanks to John for the correction there.

 

2. It might help to consider a setting besides “pretty much any modern First World city.”  I think it’s more acceptable for superhero comic books to use a more or less generic city as the setting.  (Besides the names of the villains, is there anything that could happen in Superman’s Metropolis that couldn’t happen in Spider-Man’s New York or Green Lantern’s Coast City or vice versa?).  If you’re doing a novel, I’d recommend looking harder at more flavorful, distinct examples (inside and outside of the superhero niche) like Batman’s Gotham, Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University (and probably Ankh-Morpork generally), Watchmen’s New York, Transmetropolitan’s The City*, Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, maybe Dresden Files’ Chicago and Making the Corps’ Parris Island.  Also, whereas most superhero comic books and movies are set mostly on modern Earth, quite a few successful superhero novels have experimented with historical settings (e.g. Amazing Adventures and Bitter Seeds are mostly about WWII and the buildup to WWII and the first few Wild Cards books cover the period from WWII to the present).

*Vastly more interesting than it sounds.

 

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