Over the last few decades, comic book superheroes have had a look that has stayed consistent: skintight, brightly colored outfits, capes, and identity-concealing masks. They are larger-than-life figures, instantly recognizable when you see them. Unsurprisingly, they have fared well in visual media: comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, TV, and lots of movies. Yet in the past ten years we have seen a new trend: these heroes have been showing up in plain unillustrated novels. We have to ask: why would authors be co-opting these visually striking characters for a completely non-visual medium? Given that over the last twenty or thirty years the stories told in comic books and graphic novels have achieved insightful depths (see Maus, Sandman, and Perseopolis, among many others), the question of why caped crusaders are now being used by novelists is all the more intriguing. Superheroes are ready-made visual symbols, so one suspects that the authors importing them are using the superheroes in such a way as to make use of their symbolic power. Each of the books examined here has an agenda that they advance through the use of superheroes straight from the comic book pages. The agendas are more or less explicit and more or less political, but there is a common thread running through them all. Superheroes, being so over-the-top and recognizable, lend themselves brilliantly to satire, and satire is easy to turn towards any number of political targets.
Let me first distinguish the works that this paper deals with from more traditional depictions of super-powered beings in the science fiction genre. From Odd John by Olaf Stapledon in 1935, to Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card in 1985, the Übermensch hero has been a common figure. These overpowered heroes are distinct from the caped crusaders that became familiar to the public in comic books. The science fiction genre heroes are usually one of a kind, set apart and alienated by their differences. Their accidents are unique, and often they try to blend into their societies rather than face the ostracism that comes from standing apart. Usually they look unassuming. In contrast, superheroes run around in brightly colored costumes, doing bold and daring deeds in public. They may have secret identities that enable them to blend into crowds as their "normal" selves, but in costume they generally aren't going for stealth. This makes sense from a marketing point of view, since the comic book publishers are trying to establish recognizable brands. Even Batman, whose black costume may be stealthy, has an instantly recognizable (and marketable) silhouette. Another distinguishing feature is that comic book superheroes tend to exist in worlds with other superpowered beings. They are not unique in their home universes. They form teams with other superheroes and fight a revolving suite of similarly powered villains. The public in these universes is usually aware of the superheroes and feels either gratitude or distrust towards them as events turn. It is in these universes that the books I'll discuss here are set.
Next, some historical review. The superior heroes of early pulp fiction inspired the creation of comic book heroes (e.g. Philip Wylie's Gladiator influenced the creators of Superman). The heroic comic books developed their own symbols and tropes separate from unillustrated genre fiction. Sometimes a superhero would cross back over to novels, as when George Lowther wrote a novel titled The Adventures of Superman in 1942. However, superheroes tended to stay in the visual media, while more traditional Übermench characters stayed in novels and short fiction magazines. There was an early example of superheroes crossing over into novels, in the 1977 novel Superfolks by Robert Mayer. In this book, "David Brinkley" is the alias of a superhero much like Superman. In middle age he has been losing his powers, settling down to a normal family life. Eventually, a crisis makes him pick up his mask again, and he must face his past, his enemies and make a choice about his future. In this book, the superhero is used to examine midlife crises—the waning of youth and vitality, the yearning for youthful adventures now balanced with responsibility to family. In the meantime, Mayer also uses the story to rail against pollution and monopolistic capitalism. It presages the tendency towards satire in its comedic approach to its political targets.
Another early example is Count Geiger's Blues, written by Michael Bishop in 1992. Here, an art critic has a run-in with some nuclear waste. Instead of useful superpowers, he develops an allergy to fine art. He discovers that by inculcating himself with things he considers tasteless, like wearing a superhero suit under his clothes, he can still tolerate the fine art he loves so much. Unfortunately, he comes to see the beauty and worth of even "low" arts like thrash metal and comic books, eventually becoming allergic to them as well, leaving him almost unable to function. It doesn't exactly fit in with the newer books I've looked at: the critic is a unique character operating in a basically mainstream universe, but it does use comic book tropes and an absurdist approach to further agendas on several issues, among them the divide between highbrow and lowbrow art as enforced by art critics, and the evils of pollution, uncontrolled nuclear waste, and irresponsible corporate money-grubbing.
In 2000, Michael Chabon wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Although it is a mainstream novel with no masked characters in sight, its protagonists are comic book writers. Their comic, The Escapist, strikes a telling note about the Jewish experience before and during WWII. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and it seems to have brought an air of legitimacy towards comic books and comic book heroes as reputable subjects for "normal" novels. In 2003, Jonathan Lethem strengthened this trend with The Fortress of Solitude. Basically a mainstream novel about a white kid and a black kid growing up in Brooklyn in the '70s, it also contains slipstream elements such as a magic ring. This ring sometimes conveys superpowers on the kids, and they even occasionally wear disguises and attempt vigilantism. Although the superpowers here are clearly metaphorical, casting a different perspective on each child's place in life over time, they also maintain a literal truth in the story—i.e. when the ring makes a character "invisible," he isn't just metaphorically not being noticed, but other characters in the book literally cannot see him when he's standing in front of them. While neither of these books is particularly satirical, having such celebrated authors use comic book tropes in respectable novels lends legitimacy to others who might wish to do the same.
This brings us up to the remarkable set of novels published recently that unabashedly use over-the-top comic book heroes to make their points. 2006 and 2007 saw several such books brought to market, with four in 2007. Three of these books are under discussion here: Supervillainz (2006) by Alicia E, Goranson., Karma Girl (2007) by Jennifer Estep, and From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain (2007) by Minister Faust. They each use spandex-wearing superheroes to satirically advance a social or political agenda.
Supervillainz is a particularly interesting case. Devon and Bit accidentally interfere with a group of power-suited superhero vigilantes. The vigilantes go after them, and they have to enlist their community of friends and their skills to try and survive, figure out what the power-suited folks want, and eliminate the threat. The twist is that Devon is a post-operative transgendered man, Bit is a pre-operative transgendered woman, and most of their friends are genderqueer in various ways. The power-suited "heroes" are generally white-bread defense contractors. Of course the power-suited folks see themselves as the "heroez," which automatically casts the (as the author calls them) "Scooby gang" of non-heteronormative people as the eponymous "supervillainz." By the inept bumblings of the heroez, the story mocks the usual assumptions of society: that those operating totally within societal norms would automatically be the heroes, and that people who oppose heroes are automatically villains. We also tend to assume that people without much money and who are sometimes identified as victims can't be heroes. This author begs to differ. This is a fun, action-oriented adventure novel, but it is also a subtle commentary on how the force of normalization casts difference as villainy.
Karma Girl is equally adventure oriented and fun. Its agenda is less momentous, but still central. In this book, our heroine Carmen discovers, on the morning of her wedding, that her fiancé is sleeping with her best friend. At the same time, she learns that this guy is also the town's superhero, and her best friend is the town supervillain. She caught them with their tights down. Having been so thoroughly jilted, she dedicates her journalistic skills to tracking down and unmasking "supers" everywhere, heroes and villains. This crusade takes her all the way to the city of Bigtime, NY. Her righteous furor is undone when one of the most popular superheroes in the world kills himself after she unmasks him. She is shunted back down to reporting on society functions and not much else. The plot thickens when a group of supervillains kidnaps her and forces her to unmask the rest of the famous superhero team. As she starts to track down their identities, and also those of the villains, she enters into a lust-fueled yes-I-can-no-I-can't relationship with the head of the superhero group. After several rounds of over-the-top-amazing sex followed by them pushing each other away, she solves both the superhero/villain crisis and her relationship problems, winding up marrying the prince and living happily ever after. The entire story is basically a satirical send-up of the wish-fulfillment tropes of the chick-lit genre. It's delightful to read. The superhero factor gives a little more legitimacy to the "I want him, no I shouldn't want him, but he's really sexy, no I'm not worthy of him, etc., etc." angsty blathering on that one usually finds in chick-lit novels but with even less rationalization.
From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain has all the angst, all the social critiques, and more to spare. Minister Faust is no stranger to comic book tropes, particularly their unique blending of science fiction and fantasy. This can be seen in his earlier novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, which featured ancient Egyptian magic along with home-made fighting robots, all set in the black neighborhoods of Edmonton. Dr. Brain takes place in a fictional world filled with homages to comic books. In the setting of the book, the superheroes have finally conquered all the major supervillains in an event referred to as the Götterdämmerung. Finding their purpose in a world without villains to focus on is one of the major subtexts of the book, closely paralleling America's self-searching in the wake of winning the Cold War. In Dr. Brain, Faust presents us with a completely dysfunctional superhero crime-fighting team. They are so dysfunctional that the governing body of superheroes orders them into group counseling. As they begin their counseling the most famous superhero in the world, the Hawk King, dies. This causes all the superheroes to splinter, each going their own way. Conspiracy theories, rancor, and animosity fly. Dr. Brain, the psychologist handling their case, then has to go track them down individually to work with them. The book is told as if from Dr. Brain's notes, and she is one completely unreliable narrator. Her own biases color every passage, and she has a unique narrative voice—part clinical and part cheesy self-help guru. Faust uses her to take shots at the pop-psychology industry, and they are well aimed. Descriptions of the main members of the crime-fighting group will also give one a feel for the diversity of targets Faust is aiming at:
Omnipotent Man (basically Superman) is from planet Argon. Argonium is his one weakness, but that's because it's made into a drug that he's addicted to. He's big, dumb, and naive, yet is still supposed to represent the all-American hero.
The Flying Squirrel (Batman, also Iron Man) is an arch-conservative industrialist whose megacompany, Piltdown International, gets massive defense contracts through the Fantastic Order of Justice (F*O*O*J). He's angling for the presidency of F*O*O*J to set the agenda for the post-Götterdämmerung world, and to secure his company's contracts well into the future. Think of a cross between Batman and Dick Cheney.
Iron Lass (Wonder Woman, also Storm) is a Norse/Germanic demi-goddess. She was the tactical genius behind the Götterdämmerung, and has a spectacularly dysfunctional family past. She's of the old-school fighting style of feminism.
X-Man (no immediate analog comes to mind—which is part of the point) is a hero who came up through a Black Panther-type organization, the League of Angry Blackmen (L*A*B) before joining F*O*O*J. Like The Flying Squirrel, he seeks the presidency of F*O*O*J, but he wants to shift its mission towards social justice issues. His power involves words and shadows. Politically, he's a bit like Jesse Jackson.
Power Grrrl (think Paris Hilton with superpowers, or an animated Bratz doll). Crime fighting is secondary to her world-wide self-branding efforts. Deeply narcissistic, she has staked out her turf as a lesbian power hero. Her music albums, TV spots, and clothes and makeup merchandising lines often come before crime fighting. Despite her Grrrl Power trappings, feminism is nowhere on her radar.
Last but not least is Brotherfly (Spider-man), a young black playa (playboy) version of Peter Parker who tends to buzz around the margins of the group. He's from the younger generation of black men who don't necessarily understand or respect what the '60s generation went through.
Here you can see the satirical potential of comic book heroes used to full effect. Faust has taken several major types of superhero, and highlighted their political and cultural contexts, holding each up to the reader and subjecting them to a satirical, sarcastic, and hilarious deconstruction. After reading this book it is impossible not to look at Batman's "Wayne Industries," or Superman's naïveté, or Wonder Woman's self-righteousness in the same way. How does Wayne Industries deal with pollution? If Superman is supposed to be a symbol of what's best about America, what does that mean? Does that leave any room for people who aren't white and male? That's not even touching upon the generational conflicts between X-Man and Brotherfly or Iron Lass and Power Grrrl, showing that the older generation who struggled so mightily cannot predict what use the younger generation will make of their gains.
These recent books show that the readily identifiable symbolism from comic books is making its way into mainstream literature. Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, writing for a generation that knows about comic book heroes even if they aren't fans, paved the way. This opens up a diverse suite of icons and images that can be used for any number of effects, but lends itself particularly well to satire. Satire functions best when its images are instantly recognizable, and the over-the-top, colorfully dramatic images of super heroes are exactly that. The trend seems to be continuing. Also out in 2007 was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Superpowers by David J. Schwartz came out in 2008. Krypton Nights by Bryan Dietrich is a book of poetry about Superman, soon to be followed by one about Wonder Woman titled Amazon Days. Looking further down the line, an anthology of superhero-related short stories tentatively titled Superqueeroes, dealing with gay inversions of comic book tropes, is making its way through the publication process. This emerging trend shows no immediate signs of fading away. The bright, shiny, powerful, and mythic superfigure may end up being a permanent feature on the novelistic landscape.