Genre in the Mainstream

The Unruly Lives of Fictional Superheroes

In the medium of comic book storytelling, superheroes are but one of many genres that the form can be used for. But unlike nearly every other genre that’s told using words, pictures, and panels, superheroes don’t necessarily translate into prose all that frequently. There are a few exceptions—the George R.R. Martin-created Wild Cards series, Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible—but, by and large, the number of novels about the lives of superheroes isn’t a massive one. It’s hard to say why: perhaps the archetypes of the genre are so well-established that they’re nearly impossible to avoid; perhaps it’s just harder to translate these kinds of stories into prose, as opposed to film.

That isn’t to say it’s impossible. As befits a book that takes its title from Superman’s secret base, Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude included a subplot about a ring that bestowed powers on its wearer. The result was a strain that blended superheroic DNA with a heavy dose of magical realism. And two new novels, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs and Fiona Maazel’s A Little More Human, each invoke superheroics alongside more urgent societal concerns. Though the two books are very different, both Lim and Maazel riff extensively on the nature of superheroes even as they introduce fictional superhumans of their own.

On the surface, Maazel’s novel handles superheroes in a straightforward way: protagonist Phil Snyder has a side gig dressing as one of the heroes from a popular series about the adventures of a super-team. Later in the novel, he talks about how the costumes he’s sent from the parent company act as a kind of a market research for upcoming films featuring the heroes in question. But for all that he’s a fake superhero, Phil also has superpowers of a sort: he’s able to read minds. That isn’t the only way Maazel riffs on tropes of the genre, either. Phil works at an experimental medical facility, and several of the patients there have been given high-tech prosthetics that take them into borderline-science fictional territory as well–one of the patients is even nicknamed “X-Man.”

Throughout the novel, there are references to double lives and alter egos—to say nothing of the title A Little More Human itself. The novel can, at times, read like Maazel has remixed and deconstructed a superheroic narrative, hitting some of the same beats and changing others into wildly different configurations. That comes off strongest in Phil’s own life, where the juxtaposition of his superheroic career and his more mundane life is itself juxtaposed with his penchant for getting blackout drunk. This, in turn, leads to a question of whether he attacked a woman in such a state—and there’s an uneasy situation established wherein the novel’s protagonist is at worst a rapist and at best wildly irresponsible in his drinking. Double lives aren’t only for superheroes—and the secrets people keep from those closest to them are frequently of a much less redemptive nature.

Lim’s Dear Cyborgs also uses the idea of superheroes to address urgent contemporary concerns. Questions of activism and the effectiveness of protests both come up repeatedly over the course of this book’s many levels. Occupy Wall Street is referenced specifically: “On October 6, 2011, we’d met and gone to Zuccotti Park after work to walk among the protestors,” one character recounts early on in the novel. And, later on, there’s also a flashback to the 2003 protests against the war in Iraq.

Lim’s novel blends moments of outright realism with others that venture into the pulp-inspired: there are characters named Boss Car and Ms. Mistleto, for instance. Those two elements of the novel coexist in a way that sparks considerable narrative tension. At one point, a location is identified as “Diaspora City,” which certainly seems like the sort of place in which spandex-clad adventurers take to the skies and do battle–but the names of some of its neighborhoods are taken directly from the borough of Queens.

Dear Cyborgs isn’t an easy book to summarize: its disparate plot threads include one character’s memories of a lost childhood friendship, the juxtaposition of pulp heroes and villains with real-world activism, and a brief summary of the case of civil rights activist Richard Aoki, whose role as an FBI informant was revealed after his death. One short chapter begins with the words “In an alternative universe,” and the way that these narratives are nestled creates an innately layered approach to experiencing the novel. Its assorted plotlines come back to questions of identity, of activism, and of the nuances that terms like “hero” and “villain” leave little space for.

The fact that the book is largely structured as a series of monologues and reminiscences further blurs the lines between its realistic and fantastical aspects. The novel’s first chapter is titled “Origin Stories,” and it references both Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS. While it would be tempting to call Lim’s novel a fusion of those two influences, that wouldn’t be entirely accurate—but neither would it be inaccurate to say that both works are certainly in its creative DNA.

For decades now, superhero comics have endeavored to address the relevant sociopolitical issues of their day, whether metaphorically or literally. Generally, the former has endured, while the latter can seem incredibly dated after a short period of time. What both Maazel and Lim have done with their novels is to examine a host of contemporary concerns through the lens of superheroes, but further skewed via various prose devices. These are stories that could only be told via fiction, but they’re also stories that wouldn’t exist without a long history of comic book storytelling. That, too, is a nifty paradox—but it’s one that makes for deeply rewarding reading in the case of each novel.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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