There is a scene in The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar towards the end of the novel, which describes a conflict between what Tidhar calls Ubermensch. There is the English Fogg, three Americans (Tigerman, Whirlwind and The Green Gunman), the Soviet Red Sickle and the German Schneesturm (Snow Storm). This is Berlin, 1946. Tidhar describes, amongst other things, the transformation that Tigerman undergoes as he morphs from man to tiger and the power unleashed by Whirlwind. It is expertly written in a very decent book. It is vivid, imaginative and clear. You can picture what it is happening. You can see the man become tiger. You can see the woman whirling around. It is your version of Tidhar’s superheroes.
They’d never meant to be heroes. For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart. But there must always be an account… and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.
I’ve also read Vicious by V.E. Schwab in 2014. As described by the publisher:
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in one another. A shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death-experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. They become EOs, ExtraOrdinaries, leaving a body in their wake and turning on each other.
These books are both attempts to write fictional superhero novels, although they aren’t ever called that. Tidhar calls them Ubermensch or Overmen. Schwab calls them EOs: ExtraOrdinaries. In both cases, these super-people are given credible origin stories. In The Violent Century they are a result of a quantum device that was being worked on by a German scientist, a fictional contemporary of Von Braun and the likes. In Vicious they are the consequences of specific near death experiences and what the characters were thinking at the time.
Both these books nod knowingly to the comic book superheroes. Indeed, Tidhar has characters called Stanley Martin Lieber (Stan Lee), Joseph Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Of course, superheroes were born on the pages of comic books. Masked and costumed heroes such as Zorro and Phantom could be said to be the pre-cursors, swiftly followed by Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. And then of course the floodgates opened.
The thing about comic book superheroes (and supervillains, and anti-heroes and all the other iterations) is that they are intensely visual creations. Why else would Superman wear the red and blue? Surely Spider-man would be black or brown? The Flash doesn’t need a costume? A Batman invented in prose fiction would not have looked as striking. This is because they are creations of both writers and artists, and that is their power; they are a precise and distinct vision. When Tidhar created Fogg and the rest of the characters in The Violent Century he probably had a vision of how they looked. He describes them and yet they are still filled in as complete by the reader. Which isn’t always a bad thing. All fictional characters are drawn by the reader in their heads, no matter how they are described by the author (unless there is an TV or film adaptation and then the actor usually replaces the author’s description). Despite all efforts to prevent it, I kept picturing a version of the Thundercats character, Tygra, even though Tidhar describes Tigerman as having a mane.
In years gone by I’ve also read Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman and Superpowers by David J. Schwartz. Both of these are more explicit takes on the superhero. The former is mainly the point-of-view of a supervillain (Dr. Impossible) and a cyborg (Fatale) while the latter is about a group of college students who suddenly find themselves with super-powers. Both enjoyable if unspectacular books.
One of the first prose fictional attempts at superhero fiction was The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther (1942), which I haven’t read. I wonder how many comic books and superheroes have been published in the last 70-odd years. Yet there has never really been a successful prose-fiction superhero book. I maintain that this is because super-heroes are specific products of writer and artist (which is sometimes the same person, clearly) and not the unspoken collaboration between author and reader. Everyone who reads The Violent Century will see Fogg, Oblivion, Tigerman and the others based on not only the words crafted by the author, but the readers’ own experiences. If you’ve never seen Thundercats, it is unlikely you’d see Tigerman as Tygra. However, if this book had been drawn as a comic book, all the readers have a shared common vision. The cast of characters in these four books I’ve read is a long one, each with a distinct look and a variety of powers (some new and original, others just versions of their comic-book cousins). Yet none of them will ever leap to from the pages to the public’s imagination (or even science fiction and fantasy and/or comic book fandom). I can’t see people Cosplaying as Oblivion, Snow Storm, Eli or Dr. Impossible. Only the occasional fan artist might draw their version of these characters; but it will be their own interpretation, not mine, and not Tidhar’s, Grossman’s or Schwab’s.
Not that these books aren’t worthwhile reads in their own right. Of the four mentioned, the Grossman was probably the most fun to read, while the Tidhar is the most technically well-crafted. Of this latter, I enjoyed the writing and the plotting, although I found the characters all too distant, despite explicit emotional journeys and believable motivations. In this case, this is a successful story about war (and politics) and consequences that features super-human characters, as opposed to Superpowers, Soon I Will Be Invincible and Vicious which were all more about the characters, rather than the bigger picture.
I would like an author to prove me wrong, but I predict that there will not be a great or classic piece of unambiguous superhero prose fiction anytime soon. Or even not so soon. The genre needs the visual. The superhero and superheroine needs to be drawn for us before it becomes something greater than an idea on a page.
Author’s note: throughout I’ve referred to superheroes which I know is wrong and probably sexist, but it would be tedious to read superhero and superheroine at every mention, and most of the characters created by these authors and discussed are male. Not that this is a good excuse. Superhero is the universal term for super-humans in comic books and I have simply repeated convention, correctly or not. It is interesting that Word allows the spelling of superhero but flags superheroine and I acknowledge my poor form in reinforcing the masculine when the noun should be neutral.