This week on “Previously On,” I share my four favorite fictional superhero novels, and my three favorite non-fiction books about superheroes.
Feature Of the Week –
The Best Superhero Novels!
Believe it or not there was a time I didn’t exclusively read books with pictures. I call this era Dave version 9.0 to 18.0, and during this dark age, I was still a voracious reader, but my passions were directed more towards the works of Tolkien, Vonnegut, Crichton, and Steve Rushin. Hardly a comics career among them!
Despite the fact that I’ve since pulled a complete reversal and now find myself staring at walls of text without word balloons like some kind of ancient glyph, I still have an appreciation for what I’d call “almost comics.”
I’ll note up front there’s a vast wide world of “superhero novels,” and my list of favorites simply reflects those I’ve made time for. If you have favorites that are missing, please share in the comments!
My Favorite Fictional Superhero Novels
My objective favorite selection, Wild Cards is an anthology series curated by editors George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. If you didn’t know the writer of Game of Thrones wrote a series of stories about his version of Peter Parker (Tom Tudbury, aka The Great and Powerful Turtle), then boy do I have some exciting news for you.
Honestly, it’s to my eternal confusion why Wild Cards isn’t in production at HBO as we speak.
There are some less savory elements that reflect the era in which the content was produced (for example, Fortunato’s vulgar reactions to Dr. Tacyhon), and these instances highlight how the concentration on a mature approach to the subject matter can actually work against the series.
More often than not, though, Wild Cards reflects a unique superhero universe where interlocking short stories coalesce into strong novels.
My subjective favorite selection, as I actually *did* read Marvel’s “Chaos Engine: Trilogy” in high school, and can say without question the trilogy shaped my love of Marvel as much as anything from that period in my life.
Everything I know about alternate realities, the cosmic cube, and Sebastian Shaw’s torture techniques, I learned from the “Chaos Engine: Trilogy.” Picture those wild X-Men Animated Series episodes where the X-Men fight Apocalypse on Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road, but with boss fights dedicated to Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the Red Skull.
As Tom King becomes more of a comic book celebrity (the guy’s writing Batman after all), “A Once Crowded Sky” becomes more of a footnote. This is too bad because while the story and writing show promising talent, the book’s structure is my absolute favorite approach on the list.
In “A Once Crowded Sky,” King builds an entire superhero universe, and positions each chapter as if it’s the next issue of a hero (or villain’s) comic book series. There are even brief comics interludes to further evoke the *feeling* of reading a long history of a shared universe in the pages of a single hardcover.
Above all, King’s novel highlights one of my favorite things about him as a writer, and that’s a willingness to fully commit to audacious themes and tones.
My “I’m Not Sure Where This Fits Anymore” Superhero Books
The most esteemed “classic” on my list, considered inspiration for the entire superhero deconstruction engine made most famous in works like Watchmen or The Incredibles. Grant Morrison likes to cite “Superfolks” in his ongoing one-way feud with Alan Moore (as evidence that Watchmen isn’t particularly original), and indeed that’s how I came to the novel by writer Robert Mayer.
For the most part, the ideas of the late 70’s novel hold up as particularly influential, if not altogether savory. There are some surprise turns to “South Park does the Marvel Family” style comedy, and it’s worst, Superfolks is genuinely offensive in the service of shock jock schlock. There’s a very good review on The Middle Spaces making the case for this book’s complete and utter disposal. It made me seriously consider my own nostalgic celebration of the book’s bigger ideas and influence.
Even with the problems, I can’t quite shake the feeling that this is an essential stepping stone in Superman analog/parody and the overall progress of breaking the superhero genre down to its base elements.
My Favorite Non-Fiction Superhero Books
The only book on the list that deepened my appreciation for Final Crisis, “Rage of the Panther,” and the Roy Thomas era of Avengers.
Supergods is part comics history, part Grant Morrison autobiography, and all worth reading. While there are interesting takes on comics that apply at a broader level, I do think readers familiar with Morrison’s comics work will get significantly more out of Supergods.
The only book on the list that features a review quote from Comic Book Herald!
Glen Weldon is one of my favorite writers about comics, covering “the refined art” (ok, no one calls it that but me) for NPR and “Pop Culture Happy Hour.” I’d recommend just about anything he writes, but Caped Crusader is particularly excellent given its comprehensive overview of Batman, fan culture, and the intersection between the two.
The only book on the list that I’ve vigorously marked with notes and reactions, and read more than once.
I’ve reviewed this inside baseball history of Marvel before, but it’s worth noting on repeat that Sean Howe’s work on the publisher’s machinations is second to none. Apart from the comics themselves, there’s no source I turn to more frequently for My Marvelous Year than Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
My To-Read List: (all via The Middle Spaces)
It’s Superman! – Tom De Haven
The Kryptonite Kid – Joseph Torcia
The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
TREND: Batman Shake-Ups & Comics Culture
Within the last two weeks, DC made serious “what are they thinking” waves when rumor spread that writer Tom King would be taken off Batman with issue #85. The news quickly spiraled from wild rumor to credible rumor to “holy crap, DC’s actually doing this” within the span of probably six hours.
I’ll admit my initial reaction was “I doubt it,” quickly followed by surprisingly palatable despondence. I’ve written repeatedly about the inconsistencies of King’s recent DC writing, while also celebrating the fact that when he hits (Batman Annual #2, Batman #36), few writers in comics are on King’s level.
All of that is kind of besides the point, though, whether you found yourself in the vocally celebratory group more than ready for new vision on Batman or a curious fan like myself who really wanted to see the promised #102+ issue epic shake out. The bigger problem to me was DC and King repeatedly declaring the plan for more than 100 issues of this Batman narrative, only to call it quits at issue #85. Why run the marathon only to lay down and soil yourself with the finish line in sight?
Given the confusing questions this news (see also: these rumors) led to, I (and many others) suspected there was more to the story, with the most likely outcome finding King moving “off” Batman but on to a new title spinning out of the series.
We now know that while King’s time writing Batman the series will end with issue #85, he will simultaneously be moving to a twelve issue limited series called Batman & Catwoman with artist Clay Mann. This is good news for fans of King work, still reeks of some weird editorial/corporate pressure, and a notable glimpse into DC’s damage control (not to be confused with Marvel’s Damage Control) reaction time.
My main takeaways from the whole affair:
- King writing a book that shipped twice monthly is supremely underrated. The rate of production on Batman since King took over with DC Rebirth is extremely fast, and King’s still been able to cram some wonderful ambition into two-to-three issue story arcs.
- The 12 issue series has been King’s bread and better – this is clearly a good thing for his storytelling.
- For all of its flaws, Heroes in Crisis is a structurally and visually compelling work by King and Mann. These two creators are one of my favorite pairings in comics (others include Bendis & Maleev, Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, and Tom King and Mitch Gerads!)
- Writing 100+ issues of any one series is an insanely rare breed – I still don’t know why DC would walk away from the earned investment of King’s issue #100 here. I’m sure a Batman #100 won’t have a hard time selling, but my amateur sales-brain tells me it will sell more when part of a 4 year build-up.
- Reactions and overreactions to comic book rumors are increasingly dark. I used to dismiss the idea that these were particularly harmful, but “fan” culture has shown time and time again that even the reported implication of something that doesn’t suite them can lead to death threats, harassment, and – at best – loss of business. One of my first thoughts with this news was that I couldn’t see DC’s logic, but I could see why King would want off Batman, given the absolute deluge of abhorrently excessive abuse hurled on him for his work. Creators are not above criticism, but raging threats are not criticism. I hate this part of comics, and it’s why I don’t really associate with “fandom.” Nonetheless, those who fan the flames of this insanity are even more guilty.
- The above is why I started planting the theory that comics publishers had finally gotten smart enough to begin playing rumor-crazed comics sites like NBA GMs play the media. In this particular instance I don’t know what DC planting this rumor would have accomplished, but I’m all for fake leaks that publishers use to actually benefit themselves, at least at the expense of the more obnoxious rumor mongers out there.
Comics Thing I Love
I met a two and a half year old recently who told me his favorite movie is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Ignoring for a moment that this toddler has better taste/access to cinema than I ever had, I can’t get enough of kids everywhere growing up with Miles, Gwen, and Spider-Man: Life Story Peter Parker as their Spider-Verse.
The next generation is going to be awesome at comics!