Look! Up in the Sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...a book?
Mention superheroes and people immediately recall the costumed marvels they've seen in the visual media of film, TV, graphic novels and comics. It's to be expected; those are the media where the majority of us mere mortals encounter them.
Superheroes were born in the pages of comics and graphic novels, of course, and on the big screen we've seen blockbusters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Iron-Man, Thor and Captain America. On the small screen we've seen Smallville, Heroes, The Cape and now Alphas. It's no wonder that when we think of superheroes, we recall visual media.
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But did you know that superheroes are no stranger to written fiction? It turns out that there is a supersize dose of superheroes represented in novels and short stories.
Everything Old is New Again
Established superheroes certainly don't need to find new life in books—they're fairly ubiquitous already—but that doesn't mean that some of your old favorites can't have new adventures. The benefit of superhero novels is that, although they lack the visual aspect of comics and graphic novels, the stories are often deeper and more detailed than their visual counterparts.
Two of the pop culture's most famous heroes, Superman and Batman, have had exciting new adventures on the written page. Superman fans should check out The Last Days of Krypton and Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson. The former features Jor-El, Superman's father, while the later places both Superman and Batman in the cold war of the 1950s fighting Lex Luthor.
Batman fans can also turn to original novels by John Shirley (Dead White, where the Caped Crusader battles a white supremacist villain), Michael Reaves & Steven-Elliot Altman (Batman: Fear Itself, in which a madman unleashed a poisonous toxin amongst Gotham's citizens) and Alex Irvine (Inferno, where the Joker takes advantage of a firebug's hobby and wreaks havoc while masquerading as Batman himself). On the short story front, Dark Knight fans should seek out the anthology series The Further Adventures of Batman and the one-shot anthology The Further Adventures of The Joker, all edited by Martin H. Greenberg.
A Different Kind of Joker
One step removed from the preconceived superhero milieu puts us into the land of shared-world stories. In shared-world stories, multiple authors play in the same literary sandbox, which defines a single universe in which to play. And wouldn't you know it, one of superhero fiction's longest-running series takes place in a shared-world setting.
Long before George R.R Martin wowed audiences with his fantasy epic A Game of Thrones, he helmed that very superhero franchise. It's called Wild Cards. The series has hopped from publisher to publisher over the years, but it's still in print today (published by Tor) and consists of over 20 books. Most are anthologies with each volume offering superhero stories by some top talent in the science fiction field.
The premise of the series is that an alien virus is released in an alternate New York City following World War II. Ninety percent of those who come into contact with the virus are killed; 9 percent become monstrous mutations known as Jokers; and the remaining 1 percent, referred to as Aces, gain super powers. (Extending the playing card metaphor, the superheroes with useless powers are called Deuces.)
Being firmly entrenched in the realm of alternate history, the series gets to play with some real-life figures as well as its fictional heroes and monsters. But the superhero theme is the prevailing one here, and this series does not disappoint. Over the course of the series' 25-year run, the stories have been spun off into the world of comics and role-playing games.
We looked at extensions of pre-existing universes and shared world...next time, we'll look at original superhero fiction. So stay tuned, same bat time, same bat channel. (See what I did there?)
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.