Subgenre Study: Superhero Fiction

Up in the sky!  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…well, it’s a Sky Shark, but we will ignore it for the time being and pretend it’s Superman to go along with today’s entry.

Superhero fiction is somewhat unique among speculative fiction subgenres in that it exists almost exclusively in visual formats.  Comic books, movies, TV shows.  There are the occasional radio show or novel, but they are definitely in the minority.  Some alternative names for this subgenre include Superhuman and Super-powered fiction as villains tend to feature as prominently as the heroes.

It also crosses the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, like many of these subgenres do.  At first glance, a lot of it is science fiction: characters like Batman and Ironman depend on advanced technology, Superman is an alien from another planet, the Green Lantern is just one of many throughout the galaxy.  But there are also more fantastical characters such as Thor (who is the Norse God), and Wonder Woman, and some of the things that both the heroes and the villains get up to have absolutely no basis in science.

This is a very trope-y subgenre, for the most part.  There are the Superheroes.  There are their nemeses, the Supervillains.  They all tend to have silly names.  Most have mild-mannered (or not) alter egos.  Some are more obvious than others.  (Clark Kent, of course, wears glasses while Superman does not.  Batman is at least smart enough to wear a mask.)  Increasingly, superheroes all seem to live in the same universe, allowing them to participate in a number of crossovers with other superheroes, and leading to series such as the Justice League or the Avengers.

While the DC and Marvel characters are probably the most well-known, there are an increasing number of non-mainstream characters, produced through webcomics and indie presses.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this genre is that it is constantly evolving, the characters being re-done and updated to meet the concerns of each age they find themselves a part of.  The modern Superman is very different from the 1940s Superman, because we worry about different things than they did back then.  There’s also been a trend lately of creating antiheroes or adding darker twists to superheroes’ backgrounds, or more media focusing on the villains instead of the heroes.

What’s your take on superheroes, Squiders?  Anything to recommend?  (I’m partial to Batman myself).  Read any books in this genre?

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christopher on 2011/10/28 at 7:14 PM

    Aaaah. You nailed my absolure favorite subgenre!

    I can recommend an entire *series* of books. “Wild Cards” is edited by George R.R. Martin (yes, THAT GRR Martin), and in the early days, was contributed to by him, Melinda Snodgrass… even Roger Zelazny. Volume One has recently (last year, I believe) been reprinted, and is available in over-sized paperback and for the Nook (and probably other e-readers).

    In fact, if you have a Nook, and the time and interest, I will *cheerfully* use the “Lend Me” feature available with that book to loan it to you.

    Past that, both DC and Marvel have put out novels based on their characters. To date, I can only recommend one, a Question novel Called “DC Universe: Helltown.” I can recommend *against* Austin Grossman’s “Soon I will be Invincible.” I couldn’t finish it, even in audiobook format– and at 46 years of age and a bookaholic all my life, there are just over 20 books that I couldn’t finish, if that tells you anything….

    The superhero is spreading more and more into prose– which I very much approve of. I hope the trend continues.


    • Ah, I wish I had a Nook so I could borrow it! I’ve had my eye on the Wild Cards anthology for awhile.


      • Posted by Christopher on 2011/10/30 at 1:21 AM

        Now there will be a movie. Tragically, the rights to the books were bought by SyFy films. Doomed to be awful before they’re even made….

  2. Posted by Chris High on 2011/10/31 at 12:05 AM

    Second Wild Cards. I got a free copy of the first volume of the modern incarnation of the series from a couple years ago (the fist volume referenced above is much older…the series went away for a while, but now it’s back, still in continuity, but not dependent). I forget the name, and I’m too lazy to look it up, but it’s on my goodreads page.
    I was skeptical of the whole “mosaic novel” concept, but GRRM got some good people to contribute and I was very impressed. Damn fine story.


    • Oh, is it collective world? I’ve been reading a fantasy series like that, where it’s multiple authors but the same world and the same story.


  3. I read Wild Cards when they originally came out, and can recommend them with fond memories. I also greatly enjoyed “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, particularly the half that’s narrated by the supervillain, for it’s humor and troperiffic recapitulation of the superhero genre.

    I am currently in the process of revising a wiki article that I wrote called “A Brief Overview of Superhero Fiction”. If you’re interested in the prose end of superhero fiction, you should check it out.


  4. […] MISC. SUBGENRES Subgenres that either fall within both scifi/fantasy and/or could be considered their own genre Alternative History Paranormal Science Fantasy Steampunk Superhero Fiction […]


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