Superheroes for Adults? Writing Superfiction
My desk is a mess. Piled high with wads of tatty A4 paper. Coffee spills. Lego. Little plastic dinosaurs. Star Wars figures. Pictures of me, drawn by my kids, stuck by pink magnets to a whiteboard alongside my own scribbles about an imaginary world. It looks like a forty-three year old teenager’s desk, the grubby disarray. A little slice of Ikea I call my office. And I’m going to spend a bit longer doing nothing here. And nodding smugly to myself. I’ve finished my first novel. It’s called “Supervillain”.
When I tell people about it, they ask “Oh, is it a graphic novel?” and I say “No, it’s just a regular novel”. They assume, by inference from the title, that it’s for kids. I tell them it’s not. And then their geek shields go up. Most adults can’t see past the spandex once they reach a certain age. Superheroes are for kids. Teenagers. Maybe students. But once you’re past thirty? Grow up.
I wrote my Supervillain story for me, because it’s the kind of tale that adult fiction rarely tells. There’s superhero ‘novelisation’ of comics and movies, but it’s never the real deal. Never the original form. I read a brilliant collection of short superhero stories called Temps (edited by the masterly Neil Gaiman) about ten years back. But few and far between since then.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the meta-human, so called, is solely the preserve of young adult novellas, cod-comic novelisations and big screen movies designed to appeal to that generation of geeks, like me, from the 1970s who now have kids to excuse the fact they’re going to the cinema to watch The Avengers. But it’s not. There is a small, but substantial stable of superhero literary fiction. Over the last decade, the likes of Lavie Tidhar (The Violent Century), VE Schwab (Vicious), and Nick Harkaway (Tigerman) have contributed works with super powers leaking out of them. More recently Samit Basu (Turbulence) added his own urban Indian take on the supergenre. Perhaps, going back, there’s hints of superheroism about some of Michael Moorcock and Philip K. Dick’s work. And of course, Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and Jonathan Lethem (Fortress of Solitude) represent older threads in the spandex literary tradition. It’s there. Not mainstream, perhaps, but definitely not pulp by even the most highbrow literary standards.
They are out there, but you have to go looking and look hard.
It’s a complicated genre, because there’s the inevitable shades of grey about the superhuman story. It sits somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, mixing in elements of thriller, crime, spies, intrigue. It’s a little like Scooby Do, not in form or tone, but in the slightly unsettling revelation that despite the adventures of Scooby and the gang being framed entirely in terms of spooky mysteries, it is, in reality, a detective show. At the end of each episode, it’s revealed that every monster, ghost and undead whatever is actually some sort of crook. But here’s the twist, if Scooby Do was framed as a detective show, it would lose its whole identity, becoming, in affect, Agatha Christie’s Famous Five.
For some reason, prime time TV super shows (and sci-fi, paranormal fantasy etc.) always turn into cop shows with a wacky twist. The movies aren’t much better. They murder the backstory, take the superhero brand and slap it onto a new story that grates against the stack of comics you’ve got in that box in the loft. Okay, I accept that everything could use a new lick of paint before it hits the big screen but all the same… Batman gets growling dog voice? Iron Man is a media luvvie? And what the hell did they do to the X-Men? I can’t watch. It explains why Judge Dredd can transition to the big screen, mind (Karl Urban, not Sly, obviously). After all, that is a cop show to start with.
Take away the superheroes and the superhero novel may well be science fiction, or a thriller, or even a love story (anything, in fact). But something critical would be lost, because the super power, as a literary device, provides a powerful lens through which the reader can view the way society creates heroes, villains and understands ‘the other’. In much the same way serialised comic books have explored changing social attitudes to race, sexuality, lifestyle, religion and culture, so the superhero in a literary work provides a vehicle to do the same. Take away the spandex and you lose a useful tool to create perspective beyond the life of your protagonists.
Plus, of course, superheroes are cool.
There will be, of course, people who find them childish, even geeks who’ll digest classic scifi with relish but turn their nose up at the fantasy element that superheroes represent. Which is a problem for me because I still can’t tell the difference between Batman and Downton Abbey. I mean, it’s all made up, right? The fact one story takes place in a made up city with a dude dressed like a bat, versus another guy in a made up house with made up servants, is irrelevant. A story is a story.
But that’s not to say writing a literary superhero novel is easy. The superhero problem is simple: Unlike cops, spies, space, goblins, ghouls, witches, monsters (name your poison) the superhero genre doesn’t grow up with you. It’s either big and brash for kids, or gets watered down into another genre altogether. The challenge is writing a superhero story as big and impossible as the comics we loved as kids, but with an adult reality that means it’s neither plain dumb nor merely paying a thin homage to the spandex giants of our youth.
The idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is in inherently adult theme, which meant my story had to be about the moral ambiguity of the modern world. It roots the story in the grey of real life, and grown-ups like grey. I mean, we all love Darth Vader, right? Yeah. He’s a genocidal, child killer. Tell the story from that angle and Star Wars becomes a very different kind of movie. One you wouldn’t take your kids to see. That’s where I wanted to go in my book.
I set myself some rules. I had to integrate the classic themes of the comic book genre (the self-doubting hero, the sidekicks, the butler, mad scientists, the super team, shadowy conspiracies, the impossible love interest, the big splashes of KERPOW! action) and turn them into something adults could relate to. Which meant a little scientific plausibility. Remove the glamour of sanitised violence. Show fighting for what it really is. No neatly tied-up threads. A world with political and social problems, collateral damage and friendly fire.
The result wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but oddly, more than I was expecting when I started. And, of course, in the end the superpowers become less important than humanity, the social divisions and the inevitable political satire that flows through the story. Which brings us back to the broader literary supergenre… depth of character, relationships, emotional pull, that’s what makes an enjoyable work of fiction. How that happens, super powers or not, doesn’t really matter as long as at the end of it, the reader feels they’ve got what they wanted from it.
And did I mention superheroes are cool, too?