After reading Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, which features noir-ish superheroes dealing with the real wars of the 20th Century, I voiced concern that the superhero genre wasn’t fit for prose fiction. I argued that comic book superheroes are by definition a visual creation. I thought that even though the characters are described and the authors of such works have a clear vision of their characters, “all fictional characters are drawn by the reader in their heads, no matter how they are described by the author”. There can be great fiction or great superhero comics, but not a great superhero novel. For more, read it here.
Author Adam Christopher (here for my review of his Hang Wire) read the post and said to me that he pretty much wrote Seven Wonder in response to this very question. He very kindly sent me a copy. Having read it, my opinion still stands.
I enjoyed Christopher’s novel. In terms of the subject matter, it almost strengthens my argument. It begins as a story of Tony, who appears to be developing superpowers not long after getting a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Detective Sam is trying to bring supervillain the Cowl (who I pictured as an evil Batman) to justice while being unhappy that the city’s guardians, the Seven Wonders, don’t seem to be doing much about the last true supervillain. This all takes place in the city of San Ventura, California. The Seven Wonders are Aurora’s Light (leader and Superman figure), Bluebell (a psychic, think Jean Grey with added Storm), Sand Cat (magical warrior who is also a mystical cat), Linear (a little like the Flash but who can also fly), Greek God Hephaestus (cf. Thor), super robot SMART and The Dragon Star (an alien inhabiting a human body).
The plot and the action are appropriate to any major comic book epic story. There are ideas that seem to come from Justice League, Avengers, Watchmen, X–Men and others. As with all superhero groups, some characters get short changed. Some of the characters are barely thumbnails. As with all grand science fiction, the scope is epic but the story focuses on the ordinary – in this case, Tony and Sam. Except it doesn’t always. The focus does change. The Cowl gets his own point of view, as does his sidekick, Blackbird. We have glimpses of origin story, the expected betrayals and double-crosses. Of course there is good versus evil. There is also redemption. Christopher certainly knows what he is doing. He is clearly well versed in comic-book lore. The structure is neat and tidy and it would feel right as a comic arc or even a superhero film. The dialogue and even the narrative is corny at times, but that is more than appropriate (The night belonged to the Cowl; he owned it). Many chapters end on a mini-cliff hanger, as if the end of a comic book issue. I like how he twists the Batman mythos with the Cowl. On page 84 of my edition, the author even tips a nod to the dynamic duo. I found the Cowls POV to be most interesting, as he was the flawed character, but also the least colourful, least visual (dressed as he is in black armour). When Christopher describes Blackbird, he uses the expected clichés, which is fine (Black boots over shiny, skintight leather pants topped with a matte-black utility belt…). This paragraph is like a description of a comic book panel featuring Catwoman. When the likes of The Dragon Star, Aurora and Tony’s new character the Justiciar, are described, it’s harder to get a fix in exactly who they are and what they look like. Despite the descriptions, I kept seeing Aurora as a cross between Superman and Apollo from The Authority.
When the ‘big moment’ happens about half way through and the POV changes focus, necessarily, the novel loses its edge. The character perspective becomes less interesting as the story becomes broader. This doesn’t matter so much in superhero comics, but by their very nature, novels have more depth and there is more time (and words) to describe characters, motivations and their actions. While the descriptions are fine in Seven Wonders, I was suddenly less interested in the characters than I had been earlier in the book.
This is a book about what it means to be a superhero. It’s a thinly veiled (deliberately so, I believe) love letter to classic comic book superheroes. It is almost the black and white (bad v good) alongside the bright art of the golden age of comic books (Superheroes are supposed to be stoic, epitomes of fair justice). It reflects a simpler time when comic books weren’t shades of grey and imbued with so many moral conflicts. If it was turned into a proper graphic novel, I suspect it would be a huge success.
When considering both a great work of fiction and the idea of a great superhero novel I suspect Seven Wonders vindicates my thesis. There is nothing wrong with it in terms of superhero characters (there is a scene towards the climax when all of Earth’s superheroes are gathered, preparing for battle – Christopher has a lot of fun inventing superhero names and personas here), structure, plot, narrative, dialogue and execution, but it falls short. It is impossible to take it for what it is, but instead see other characters has they’ve appeared in comics on in films. Or wondering how it would look in a 24 page comic book. Maybe someone who has never read a superhero comic or watched superhero film might appreciate Seven Wonders differently. Writing a superhero novel is like taking the ingredients of your favourite pizza and trying to turn it into something like a Michelin star fine dining experience. What Christopher has done, is taken those pizza ingredients and made a different kind of pizza. Which I enjoyed.