Humble minion (humbleminion) wrote,
Humble minion

A review of the literature...

I was never into comics as a kid. Just never got into them, largely because they were too expensive for too little. Probably a good move on my part, since I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, and apparently that was the blood-splattered foil-covered exploitative nadir of the medium. But to be honest my hard-earned $9.02 per week of paper-round money went straight into plastic models, cheap ouzo and Warhammer so I'm hardly in a position to be holier than thou about teenage investment choices.

I have, however, really enjoyed the best of the recent spate of superhero films (X-Men 2, Iron Man and the first two Spiderman films at the top of the list, haven't seen First Class yet), and my enjoyment is probably heightened by my NOT having a head full of established continuity. What I've really gotten to enjoy, though, is the recent spate of superhero novels. The melding of the fantastically out-there plots of your average comicbook story with the additional depth, plot complexity, and insight into character that the prose for can give is something I find oddly fascinating. Blending genre authenticity with actual real-life authenticity is one of the more fascinating writing and world-building challenges around, and it's one that (from my limited knowledge) the actual comic medium abandoned a long time ago in favour of an ever-more elaborate and inconsistent sci-fi shared world.

(I should at some point write a post on what is My Favourite Shared World Ever, even though I've never seen a single use of it in any medium that lives up to the setting's potential)

Been musing a bit on the medium. Historically of course it's usually films which go to (generally poor) tie in books, computer games, comics etc (my particular surrealist moment was seeing in the bookshop a novelisation of 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' - except that the Bram Stoker version obviously wasn't good enough so they grabbed Fred Saberhagen and told him to churn something out that matched Coppola's script). A bit more often now you get other media - books, comics, computer games - going to film, from which point they spin off into the usual polyethylene explosion of tatty marketing paraphenalia. But a very comic-specific genre going to books, with original characters that aren't a spin-off property - that's something new. I'm just trying to get a handle on what works and what doesn't.

Austin Grossman - Soon I Will Be Invincible is one I've reviewed before, and it's probably the book that attracted me to this weird little subgenre. Brilliant voice, damn good characterisation, a sort of love-story to superhero comics. What works is the integration of superhero story tropes into real life, the way the characters spark off each other and the sense of tangled history and backstory. What doesn't is the ending, the sense that the two viewpoint characters were really background players in someone else's story. Genre-appropriate - no entertainment media barring action movies and first-person shooters has a more cavalier approach to its supporting characters lives than superhero comics - but it just didn't work in prose.

Perry Moore - Hero is a bit more conventional in structure. You've got the kid going through his hero's journey/origin story, an indirect nod to the backstory by way of his superpowered dad, etc, etc. What works: the background characters are great, particularly the main character's father and the odd squad that the Thom finds himself working with towards the end. Thom's crowning moment of awesome in the middle of the book is very nicely done too, as is the pre-relationship vibe between the hero and his love interest. What doesn't work is predominately a lack of writing craft, sadly. Can you envision a Batman-analog running around calling himself (in all seriousness) 'Dark Hero'? Neither could I. The main character too often comes across as a whiny git to be truly sympathetic (a big problem in a first-person PoV piece), and the world just doesn't feel deep enough, like it's only been cobbled together out of plywood for the sake of this particular story rather than existing solidly in its own right. And the ending was just a little too pat for my liking. It's a Hollywood ending, rather than a comic ending, and the evolution of Thom's powers in particular undermines too much of what the rest of the book was about.

Rob Rogers - Devil's Cape runs fairly hard into the reality-wall, which is a pity because in terms of setting and mood it's up there with the best of the lot. Sort of a corrupt humid bayou city, it is to New Orleans what Gotham is to New York. The author is obviously of the same 'realism equals the bad guys being infinitely smarter and luckier than the good guys all the time' school of writing like KJ Parker and Jon Abercrombie, but while I'm beyond sick of that attitude in fantasy I've still got room for it here, oddly enough. What works is the setting, obviously, and the way the author organises his 'super-team' with their different backgrounds, origin stories and powersets. Enough similarity, and enough differences. I think the team vibe works much better than the lone crusader in prose, because there's so much more scope for interpersonal interaction, and because long form gives you more space to work with to give the other team members the screentime the deserve - pagecount is much more limited in comics, and screen minutes even more precious in film. What doesn't work is primarily a genre emulation issue - basically, there's only a couple of superhero fights, but when they do happen they tend to be messily, permanently fatal. Which seems horribly hollow - how do you build the superhero mood when police evidence lockers all over the place are full of spandex with bulletholes from a bunch of blokes who never lasted long enough for anyone to remember their names? Where's the scope for rivalry, history, intricacy, personality? Very disappointing to miss out on the best bits of the genre like that. There's a reason superheroes are hard to kill in the comics. The whole larger than life thing. Quite a few comic book films have this problem too. But then again, comic tend to resurrect people so often that danger and death have no meaning whatsoever, so pick your poison there.

Carrie Vaughn - After the Golden Age is written by a prolific 'paranormal romance' author (albeit one of the tolerable ones), and it shows a bit. The main character is the unpowered child of the world's greatest two superheroes, which is an interesting spin on things (and, spoiler alert - she actually remains unpowered at the end of the book!). Emphasis is heavily on interpersonal relations, with the save-the-city-from-the-mysteriously-harmless-crime-wave plot tacked on as a bit of a rickety skeleton so that the author could focus on the important stuff. What works is, in general, the dialogue, the majority of the first-person narrative, and most of the characterisation, although a few romance-novel stereotypes seep though in the latter department. What doesn't work is again, the lack of setting depth and history, the small numbers of superhumans in the story (this is admittedly a plot point, but it just makes the world and the story seem small - in a bad, limited way, rather than a good cozy way). And from a personal point of view, it seemed a bit odd that such a lrage percentage of the cast were superhumans, but (largely because of the non-powered nature of the main character) we never actually saw them do much in the way of superhuman stuff.

Still to purchase/read/review: Ex-Heroes, Playing for Keeps, From the Notebooks of Dr Brain, Heroine Addiction, Masked, Nobody Gets the Girl, Paranormal, Brave Men Run. The genre's really getting a workout recently, it seems.

So after all that twaddle - which superhero novel is the best? The one I'm currently about 20k words into writing, of course... :p
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