Graphic Novels Without the Graphics, Please
February 6, 2011 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I love superhero fiction. I love stories that look into what superhero powers would be like--its psychological and social ramifications. I love the mythology that has developed around superheroes. I love the darkness and moral complexity many modern superhero stories involve.... But I just cannot get into comics or any visual storytelling of that sort. So, can you point me to any good novels about superheroes?

I feel very jealous of those who can enjoy graphic novels. There are so many with fascinating, complex storylines I'd love to get into. For instance, "The Watchmen" sounds fantastic. Frank Miller's Batman work sounds amazing.... And I've tried reading them. I really tried. I just can't in any way enjoy them. I mean, I love Batman more than just about anything, but I stopped three-quarters through "The Dark Knight Returns" because I just couldn't get into it. I can't get a sense of action or emotion from visual pictures, like comics require. I don't know why. I am just forever locked out from that art form. It sucks.

So, what else is there for me? I'm tired of relying on Hollywood for my superheroes (for every Dark Knight, there are far too many Green Hornets). I really want to read about superheroes. I want some superhero fiction I can really sink my teeth into! Any ideas?
posted by meese to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

You might want to check out the Wild Cards series. I enjoyed them back in the day (well the first six that were published in the UK).

There were also the two Temps books published in the UK that did a similar thing but I imagine they'll be a bit hard to get hold of.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:49 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's The Death and Life of Superman.
posted by Pryde at 7:34 AM on February 6, 2011

Perhaps the novel "Nobody Gets the Girl"? I also liked Soon I Will Be Invincible.
posted by RustyBrooks at 7:36 AM on February 6, 2011

Have you read the Superman novels by Elliot S Maggin? He wrote two, Last Son Of Krypton and Miracle Monday around the time of the Superman movies. They're actually not related to the movies at all, despite having Christopher Reeve pictures on the cover. I might look at them with a bit of nostalgia, but I really enjoyed reading about Superman in novel form when they came out. When I stumbled on the e-book (of dubious legality) versions a few years ago, linked from the above Wikipedia pages, I lost about a day of productivity speed reading through them again. Maggin also wrote the novelization of Kingdom Come, which I also enjoyed as a novel. I've only had tiny exposure to the comic book form of the same story. It looks like there are at least four Batman novels, The Ultimate Evil wikipedia page has links to 3 others, and the Amazon page links to a few more. I haven't read any of those.
posted by dr. fresh at 7:39 AM on February 6, 2011

I found these by googling - good phrases seem to "superhero novel", "superhero fiction".

Superhero Novels - list some novels and links to other pages that lists superhero novels.
Marvel Comics in prose an unofficial guide
Superhero Novels - "This is a site dedicated to news, reviews, and commentary about superhero fiction."
"A Thousand Faces is the quarterly journal of superhuman fiction."
Beta City - 'a blog by Micheal C Lea about Beta City which is a sequel to POW!ERFUL TALES (Peryton Publishing, 2009), a superhero fiction anthology.'

From Wikipedia
Superhero novels

List of novels based on comics
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:47 AM on February 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. I quite liked it -- the good thing about a short story collection is that, though it's hit-and-miss, there are bound to be some that you like.

On a lighter note, The Government Manual for New Superheroes, one of whose authors is MeFi's own yankeefog, is a fun read.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:48 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just saw that you love Batman - so Batman Novels:
"By no means an official list of Batman novels, I've tried to get all the Batman novels, novelizations and DC Universe novels where Batman has a role under one roof. I know i'm still missing a few - the Batman Forever and Batman and Robin novelizations are the most glaring - but I think the list is pretty complete."
posted by nooneyouknow at 7:54 AM on February 6, 2011

Not exactly a superhero novel, but The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a wonderful novel about two guys who start a comics empire. Superhero themes everywhere. I'll bet you'd enjoy it.
posted by Sublimity at 8:16 AM on February 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

It may require some digging for back issues, but try looking for stories that stories that are classed as "prose fiction" or "illustrated fiction." They're mainly text stories with just a bit of illustration -- more like an illuminated manuscript than a typical comic book.

The first time I came across one of these it was a newly published, Dennis O'Neil Batman story. To this day it still ranks up there with my all time favourites.

It's been long time, but I seem to recall there being at least one Ms. Tree story written in a similar style. I'm not sure if this is the one I remember, but there is one listed here, also written by O'Neil. (Note the same list also mentions a similar type of story with George Perez accompanying illustrations).

Max Allan Collins has moved Ms. Tree from the four-colour pages into book form.

Now I haven't been current on the comic scene in ages, but another very quick search has provided this link.
posted by sardonyx at 8:25 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gladiator by Philip Wylie. Allegedly an inspiration for Superman.
Odd John by Olaf Stepledon -- if you count mutants as superheros, which of course includes the X-Men. Lots of these in science fiction; Slan, The Synthetic Man, etc etc etc and so on and so forth.
The Midwich Cuckoos - by John Wyndham, made into the film Children of the Damned (two versions).
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:30 AM on February 6, 2011

Stapledon, not Stepledon. *sigh*
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:30 AM on February 6, 2011

Wild Cards. It's a "shared universe" created by George R. R. Martin, and the series has run to a couple dozen volumes by this point.

A strange virus was released in a certain location in the midwest. 90% of the people who were infected died. 9% of the people infected became weirdly mutated in some way; they became known as "Jokers". And 1% of those infected gained a unique super power. They're known as "Aces".

For instance, one of the Aces is known as The Turtle. He is an immensely powerful telekinetic. One time for a publicity stunt he picked up USS Missouri. No one knows what he looks like; he operates from within an armored capsule, which he makes fly using his power.

One of the Aces is a kind of hippy. He's also a Ph.D. in chemistry. His power comes out when he takes designer drugs that he makes for himself. Each one makes him transform into an alternate form, with an alternate personality, which has some sort of super power.

The stories vary in quality, in part depending on who wrote them, but the overall continuity is pretty consistent and it's an interesting series.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:41 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Self-help book created from group therapy and individual sessions with superheroes. From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain
posted by ayc200 at 8:42 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible, and I am halfway through the Who Can Save Us Now? anthology, which, as is the nature of such things, is yielding mixed results. It is, however, far superior to another collection, The Darker Mask, which I must anti-recommend.

I just got an advance copy of After the Golden Age, a new superhero novel for which I have some mild hopes.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 8:44 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes is a novel about what superheroes would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:48 AM on February 6, 2011

American Gods by Neil Gaiman probably qualifies (gods though, not superheroes).
posted by salvia at 9:10 AM on February 6, 2011

You might want to check out fanfiction for different comic books. There's a lot of bad fanfic out there, but there's also a lot of good thoughtful stuff as well.
posted by Caravantea at 9:34 AM on February 6, 2011

Superpowers is pretty much exactly what you're looking for. Group of college-aged kids drink some bad homebrew and wake up with various superpowers; difficulty coping, dealing with the responsibility, issues of vigilantism etc.

It's not a prizewinner, but it's an entertaining read, especially if you're into that theme.
posted by richyoung at 9:51 AM on February 6, 2011

Black and White and Shades of Grey by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge. Superheroes are under corporate control, but the corporation itself may be more sinister than anyone realizes. I highly recommend these.

Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey isn't explicitly in the superheroic genre, but has most of its signifiers -- special powers, secret identity, fight against the evils of the world. It's excellent

Adeptus Major by Alex Mykals is also a "non-explicitly superheroic" superhero-esque plot, but I can't recommend it -- it veered too far into wish-fulfillment territory for the main character.

I've read "Soon I Will Be Invincible", but I can't recommend it as highly as most people here seem to. I thought it ended up never going anywhere with its admittedly interesting ideas.

Poking around Amazon, I also see titles like "Ex-Heroes" by Peter Clines, "Nobody Gets the Girl" by James Maxey, "Playing for Keeps" by Mur Lafferty, and "Superfolks" by Robert Mayer, all of which appear to be specifically in the genre. I haven't read these, but I may pick them up now. :)
posted by kyrademon at 10:42 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Joining the chorus of recs for Soon I Will Be Invincible, which I loved. And if you haven't read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, run do not walk. The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea Campbell is enjoyably cheesy YA superheroics-meet-stepfamily-wangst reminiscent of Sky High.

There are a number of good comic book novelizations, especially the ones by experienced fiction writers of their own stuff. The Venom Trilogy about Spider-Man by Diane Duane is my particular favorite.

I will also echo Caravantea's suggestion to check out comic fanfiction, which has flourished on the web; Sturgeon's Law applies, but the good stuff is amazing. I'm happy to name recs here, or you can memail me privately.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:59 AM on February 6, 2011

How Like A God is sort of a superhero story and sort of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and is very much about the "psychological and social ramifications" of power. There's also a sequel, The Doors of Death and Life, which I remember as being better than the first book.

I agree with some of the critiques of Clough's writing on the Amazon page, so these might be hit-and-miss for you (though hello, people, if you don't get why Ed's dialogue sounds like it came from a Silver Age comic, maybe you should have picked a different book)... but hey, if I still remember these books ten years after I read 'em, that means they're worth it.
posted by vorfeed at 11:22 AM on February 6, 2011

I have not yet had the opportunity to read it (but I'm looking forwards to!) so I can't offer a personal recommendation, but Masked, an anthology of short stories, would seem to fit the bill. It has been getting good reviews, and many of the authors are comic book writers so it's definitely authentic superhero fiction.
posted by jzed at 12:28 PM on February 6, 2011

Look, just go read Soon I Will Be Invincible. If it's not what you're looking for, I'll go out and buy a hat for the express purpose of eating it.
posted by Kreiger at 2:02 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thirding the Wild Cards series, which I didn't realize had additional volumes well after I stopped reading.

It's exactly, and I mean exactly, what you're looking for. It's (from the wikipedia) I guess 17 dense novels/compilations of interweaving short stories/novellas, so you have a ton of material. Each book has one more overarching storylines with the individual characters weaving in and out of each other's plotlines, and their own arcs extended over the course of several novels.

It's very much about the individual lives of the infected, as well as the changes to society and day-to-day life. The characters range from funny to classically heroic to grotesque. Each character and storyline is mastered by different writers so you get a diversity of voices and styles. And much like the sprawling fan-created alt-history 1632 series, "Wild Cards" will have something for everyone, with perspectives and focuses on not only powers, but their consequences and real-life practical effect, that no one writer could come up with alone. Some "aces" have powers so weak as to be disregard, while some "jokers" have astonishing (and in some cases, hidden) powers that would make them aces but for a deformity or "gotcha".

Warning: adult-themed, with as noted some grotesque events and people. Some "aces" are gifted with great power but horrible minds; some "jokers" are mutated but wonderful people. The section in one book where an evil mind-controlling telepath politician named Puppetmaster makes a retarded "joker" named Peanut named for his extremely coarse, lethally jagged skin) rape some young girl just for the Puppetmaster's own sick pleasure haunted my teenage mind.
posted by hincandenza at 2:10 PM on February 6, 2011

I enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible, several stories in Masked, and several stories early on in the Wild Cards series, so I'm Nthing those. Incidentally, SIWBI is pretty tongue-in-cheek.

Casting a wider net, there are an awful lot of fantasy novels that are effectively superhero stories, lacking only the colorful underwear. Sandman Slim is sort of like Ghost Rider. The Black Prism is set in a fantasy world where people have powers a lot like the Green Lantern Corps. Sheri Tepper's True Game series features basically psionic mutants on another planet.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:13 PM on February 6, 2011

Came in here to recommend Playing for Keeps in case anyone hadn't already. and they hadn't. tsk.
posted by bleary at 2:38 PM on February 6, 2011

Response by poster: Wow, thanks guys!

The suggestions in here are going to keep me in fun reading for quite a while.. (And just to make sure Kreiger will find out soon whether or not he'll have to get a hat, I'll probably start with Soon I Will Be Invincible.) Please, keep the suggestions coming!

When it comes to compilation lists of titles... I'm a little hesitant to get into them. For instance, seems like it could be a good resource, but I'm afraid it would just be too hard to sort out the bad from the good. As with fanfiction, Star Trek novels, Doctor Who novels, etc, there are some good ones, but waaaaaaay too many bad ones. With so many choices, and without any guide to which ones are actually good, I don't even know where to start. It's overwhelming.
posted by meese at 2:45 PM on February 6, 2011

kyrademon: "[...] Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey isn't explicitly in the superheroic genre, but has most of its signifiers -- special powers, secret identity, fight against the evils of the world. It's excellent

[...] "Playing for Keeps" by Mur Lafferty, [...]"

oh oops! I missed that "Playing for Keeps" did get a mention. Consider my comment a recommendation. I really enjoyed it.

I also want to double recommend "Santa Olivia".
posted by bleary at 2:47 PM on February 6, 2011

How to Succeed in Evil is a terrific podcast. Also available on itunes.
posted by mearls at 3:47 PM on February 6, 2011

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks is also good, as is Confessions of Super Mom by Melanie Lynn Hauser. Oh, and Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge.

And don't forget to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz if you haven't already.

In a slightly different, er, vein, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series has all the fun and complexity of comics mythology.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:25 PM on February 6, 2011

I really enjoyed It's Superman by Tom DeHaven
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:17 PM on February 6, 2011

i came in here to suggest soon i will be invincible and am super happy to see so many of you love it like i do! servicey to fans: austin grossman will hopefully be announcing something new and big soon—you can follow him on twitter if you like—but today's comic book therapy interview with him might give you some ideas.
posted by lia at 9:04 PM on February 7, 2011

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