06 October 2007

Looking for the Great American Superhero Novel

A few days ago, toward the start of NON-COMICS WEEK, I posited that the increasing respect for comics in our culture has opened the door for "literary" novels about comics creators, both children and adults. Another, less high-falutin' result of the same trend is more prose novels about superheroes. Not just characters with special powers, like Harry Potter, but characters whose fantastic powers and worlds are based on American superhero traditions.

In American literary publishing for adults, we have Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) as the most prominent example. For kids, the trend seems to be largely confined to mass-market series, such as Dan Greenburg's Maximum Boy and Greg Trine's Melvin Beederman, Superhero.

Which brings me to William Boniface's Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy series, starting with The Hero Revealed. Boniface is actually Jon Anderson, who worked at Penguin and now heads Running Press. He comes by his superhero knowledge honestly: he was once buyer of graphic novels for Barnes & Noble.

For more background, see this video interview at First Book. And according to an interview with Anderson's hometown paper, the Argus Leader:

"Ordinary Boy" was written during a four-month period when Anderson devoted himself to his story full time. He sold the manuscript to the first publishing house he approached. But the whole process screeched to a halt with the arrival of a movie about another superhero family. "'The Incredibles' has been haunting me," Anderson says.

In spite of being written nearly two years before "The Incredibles" took center stage, HarperCollins decided to delay the release of "Ordinary Boy" so as not to appear to be riding the coattails of the hit animated movie. Even now, as Ordinary Boy takes his turn in the spotlight, "Incredibles" comparisons persist.
(That article is no longer on the Argus Leader website; I pulled it from a Google cache.)

That worry about "riding the coattails" seems to be missing the point of all of today's superhero books, movies (e.g., Sky High), and TV shows (e.g., Heroes), not to mention the current state of superhero comics publishing. It's all self-referential. Everyone is chasing each other's coattails. Readers are expected to spot cross-references and allusions. So let's hear no more about the genre being derivative; that's the point.

The Hero Revealed exemplifies a number of trends in recent superhero novels for kids. It takes place in a world with a plethora, a veritable surfeit, of superpowered criminals and crime-stoppers; these books tend to be inspired by the DC and Marvel "universes" rather than individual hero legends. The protagonist is a growing member of that society; in The Hero Revealed, Ordinary Boy is special because he doesn't appear to have any powers.

The genre emphasizes comedy, finding it in the awkward disadvantages of superpowers. These books usually have a lot of illustrations in an energetic, humorous style. The Ordinary Boy series is part of the subcategory--maybe half of the genre--that plays off the marketing of superheroes to kids.

The Hero Revealed is on the long side--almost 300 pages. But it's not terribly tight. On pages 132-3, for instance, OB spends five paragraphs reviewing the mystery and his feelings about it for us readers. And then he tells his parents exactly the same things in one big paragraph on page 134.

The book starts slowly, with 30 pages before "an enormous muffled explosion" inaugurates something like a plot. Up to then, Boniface has simply filled us in on Superopolis society with a maps, trading card-like character profiles, and backstory. It's possible to be too self-referential.

One big, old-fashioned flaw in this book, not shared by all others in the genre: as in the earliest versions of Superfriends, each group has a token female. The main crime-fighting organization, the League of Ultimate Goodness, includes one woman, and her sole job is to make the leader feel good about himself. (I'm not making that up.) Does Ordinary Boy's club do any better? No, they, too, have only one female member.

TOMORROW: A superhero novel from a female point of view.

(Publishers who are looking to get into the superhero novel genre should ask Greg Fishbone for a look at his How to Be a Superhero manuscript.)


david elzey said...

A couple of things. First, according to information I remember reading back when The Incredibles first came out, the story originated at a meeting just after the Pixar folks completed Toy Story, which means that it was bandied about a full decade before Boniface/Anderson even conceived of his family-of-superheroes book.

Knowing that Boniface/Anderson was once the graphic novels buyer for B&N is telling. Until they gave in to manga (and eventually the independents, once they could no longer deny the facts) the B&N graphic novels sections were almost exclusively Marvel and DC.

As a result, I'm not surprised to see the Marvel/DC universe so completely absorbed into the Ordinary Boy adventures, sexism and all. In fact, having read The Hero Revealed what is startling about it is how thoroughly unoriginal its elements are. At its best, it's fan fiction, and not very good fan fiction at that.

I remember thinking at the time, and being reminded of it now, that I couldn't imagine who would want to reads this book. At the bookstore I currently work at I have yet to have anyone, adult or child, ask for superhero fiction. If they want Captain Underpants or Melvin Beederman or even Shrederman the superhero aspects are almost a backseat to the humor.

Generally with the superhero crowd, if they want Spiderman they don't ask for Aquaman, and they aren't usually convinced that one is as good as another. You can't make a case for middle grade superhero fiction with an audience that is skeptical of what they cannot see. Without pictures, you only get a few paragraphs to make your case, not the endless pages Boniface/Anderson wastes getting to his point.

That, of course, is just my opinion.

J. L. Bell said...

A couple more thoughts about the Incredibles situation.

First, some folks at Marvel have volubly noted the similarity between the four main characters in that movie and the Fantastic Four: a strong person, a stretchy person, a person who can turn invisible and create invisible force fields, and that last person's smart-talking brother. True, the brother has superspeed instead of spouting flame--but there's also a baby brother who does spout flame. The Incredibles itself has been accused of being derivative. (Someday I'll say more about derivativeness in this genre.)

More important, however, the delay in publishing The Hero Revealed seems to have been not a feeling that it seemed directly derivative of The Incredibles, but rather that any depiction of a superhero-laced society would seem too similar. Yet the two narratives have quite different themes.

In the movie, society has come to fear and resent superpowered people. In the book, the society admires the heroes among those people with the same fervor our society admires popular athletes, actors, or musicians.

In the movie, the family as a whole functions as the protagonist. In the book, the parents are basically out of the picture, and it's up to Ordinary Boy and his pals to save the day.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the interesting thoughts about the reading public's distinction between superhero comics and superhero fiction—which has largely been parodic.

Superhero comics are usually melodramas, with outsized situations and emotions to go with the outsized musculature. Perhaps we can accept that when we're seeing both words and pictures, and in relatively short form, but not when we're faced with pages of prose.

I think Captain Underpants is the only parodic, book-based superhero who's achieved the mass-market success of the comics originals, and thus can move out of their shadows. Yet he's clearly a parody inspired by those comics, assisted by the awesome power of the word "underpants."

Greg R. Fishbone said...

The superhero genre has its own set of archtypes including bricks, speedsters, blasters, masterminds, and martial artists. Well-conceived superhero teams contain a balance of archtypes, so it's no wonder they'd have a similar or derivative feel to each other.

The sequel to HOW TO BECOME A SUPERHERO was going to be HOW TO BUILD A SUPERHERO TEAM, so I had a lot of these things plotted out.

J. L. Bell said...

Talk of standard archetypes reminds me of the fan theory that the Fantastic Four represent the four Greek elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

Not a theory that holds water, of course, since Stan Lee would never have let such high-falutin' inspiration remain secret.