Superheroes are inescapable on the big screen, and they’ve dominated comics for more than half a century. But what about those of us who just can’t get enough prose? Where’s the long-form fiction aficionado supposed to get their daily dose of superhero?
When I was doing research for my own upcoming superhero novel, I found that—fortunately for us—publishing is catching up with the rest of our hero-obsessed pop culture universe. And the best thing about getting your superheroes in novel form is the opportunity to dive into our costumed faves’ psyches.
In my debut YA novel The Unstoppable Wasp: Built on Hope you’ll meet Nadia Van Dyne, a teen superhero who’s trying to do it all: be a good hero, take care of her mental health, be a supportive friend, head up her all-girl science lab, even learn how to drive. It was such an honor to write for Nadia, a brilliant, optimistic, kind superhero who always sees the best in everyone she meets and wants the best for everyone around her. When writing this novel I had to ask myself: what does it really mean to be a superhero, and what effect does it have on them emotionally? Let’s take a look at some of my favorite books that dive right into all that heroic goodness.
Black Widow: Forever Red by Margaret Stohl
Margaret Stohl is one of the queens of YA fiction, so it’s no surprise that her take on Natasha Romanoff is as adventurous, romantic, and high-stakes as you’d hope. But there’s a twist: the book isn’t really about Nat. It actually follows Ava Orlova, daughter of a missing Russian physicist, Black Widow rescuee, and ward of S.H.I.E.L.D. When she escapes her American captors, Ava is on her own… but it isn’t long before danger comes knocking. As Ava and Nat face down their enemies together, Ava learns about who she really is—and Nat is forced to take on the big sister role. It’s awkward and adorable murdertimes for everybody. If you’re stoked for the upcoming Black Widow movie, pick this one up—there’s lots of great Nat backstory you’ll want to know in advance.
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
The first book in Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine series is so much fun you’ll want to snap up the sequels immediately (I definitely did!). Evie Tanaka lands herself a position as assistant to Aveda Jupiter, the best superhero in San Francisco (and her childhood BFF.) Evie does it all: fielding diva moments, wrangling demon-blood dry cleaning emergencies, staying mostly out of sight. But when Evie discovers she also has powers, her life changes overnight. If supernatural karaoke battles, superhero gossip bloggers, and Asian-American supersisters all sound good to you, then you’ll love the Heroine series, guaranteed.
Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo
If you’re a fan of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha novels, there’s no doubt you’ll love her take on the most famous Amazon of Themyscira. As part of DC’s YA Icons series, Warbringer follows Diana on a quest to prove herself to her warrior sisters. Breaking the laws of her people to save a mortal called Alia Keralis, Diana accidentally dooms the whole world… because Alia is a Warbringer, a descendent of Helen of Troy. Hordes of enemies descend in an attempt to either destroy or possess Alia, whose fate is tied to destruction and death. Can Diana and Alia defeat them all? (I mean, obvi. She’s Wonder Woman!) Bardugo brings her signature flair to this novel, bringing to life one of the most likeable iterations of Diana ever to grace the page.
Dreadnought by April Daniels
I absolutely could not put this book down once I’d started reading it; Dreadnought is just that fast-paced and fun. It follows Danny, a trans girl who’s just accidentally inherited the powers of the superhero Dreadnought (he died in front of her; it was a whole thing.) Though Danny loves her new powers, she’s faced with all kinds of challenges: less-than-supportive parents; a best friend who suddenly wants to make out with her; other superheroes who can’t decide where and if she belongs or not. And that’s all topped by the fact that Dreadnought’s murderer, a super-evil cyborg called Utopia, is still out there. And, this time, Utopia wants to end more than just Dreadnought. (Hint: this time, it’s the whole world.)
Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster by Liza Palmer
It’s an open secret that Carol Danvers is my favorite superhero, so I’m always looking for more of that good good Cap content. Liza Palmer’s novel, a prequel to the 2019 Captain Marvel film, follows Carol just trying to make it through U.S. Air Force flight school in the ‘80s. Carol meets her best gal pal, Maria Rambeau, and the two of them tackle the military boys’ club head first, crushing misogyny and flight circuits over the course of their first year. If you’re a fan of the strongest Avenger, I highly recommend picking up this fast and fun read.
Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor is a genius, obviously, and if you haven’t read Binti or her Shuri comics then I would recommend you give those a shot ASAP. But for the more powers-minded (and that’s what we’re here for, after all!) I would absolutely recommend her 2008 novel Zahrah the Windseeker. Zahrah, from the Ooni Kingdom, is born with vines in her hair—a sign that she has special powers. While most people fear Zahrah for her differences, her best friend Dari is always loving and supportive. So when Dari finds himself in danger, Zahrah has to put it all on the line to save him. With extremely Tolkien/Narnia vibes, Zahrah is suspenseful, magical, and a blast to read from start to finish.
Black Canary: Breaking Silence by Alexandra Monir
Okay, this one isn’t out until December 19th, but it sounds so good I basically had no choice but to include it on my list. Sci-fi scribe Alexandra Monir (The Final Six) takes on Black Canary as part of the DC Icons series, bringing her fierce feminist perspective to the character. Breaking Silence is set in a near-future dystopian Gotham City ruled by the Court of Owls, where women are stripped of their rights—no working, no learning, and certainly no singing. Seventeen-year-old Dinah Lance’s life is changed forever when she illegally stumbles onto music for the first time. Embracing the power of her voice might just mean changing the whole world. I cannot wait for this one.
Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee
CB Lee’s Not Your Sidekick is the first in the Sidekick Squad, a series of books that follow Jessica Tran, daughter of superheroes. With no powers of her own, Jessica decides to spite her parents with what she thinks will be the perfect internship for her college application… which just happens to be for her town’s resident Super Villain. Things don’t go incredibly smoothly for Jessica from there, as you can imagine. For the representation of bisexual identity in the series, CB (bisexual herself) was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Children’s/Young Adult Fiction, and she’s previously been a finalist in the Bisexual Book Awards!
Originally published in July 2020.
Sam Maggs is a bestselling author of books, comics, and video games. She’s a Senior Writer for Insomniac Games, including work on Marvel’s Spider-Man; the author of DK’s Marvel Fearless and Fantastic! and Quirk Books’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, Wonder Women, and Girl Squads; and a comics writer for beloved titles like Captain Marvel, My Little Pony, Star Trek, and Jem and the Holograms. A Canadian in Los Angeles, she misses Coffee Crisp and bagged milk.