Superheroes in The Text

Having just finished a book I am feeling empowered. And not a comic book, but a ‘real’ book. (Don’t you hate that term, by the way? Another column, I suppose.)  The books, Masked, is an anthology of superhero short stories, and I enjoyed it enough to want to use my bully pulpit to talk about it, as well as other superheroic prose I’ve read over the years.

The way I see it there are three broad categories of superhero prose: adaptation of a storyline from comics, movie adaptation, and original content. I’ll give my 2 cents on each, but I’m sure my limited purview will be supplemented in the comments.

Adaptation of a Storyline from Comics

This is probably the type of superhero prose I have the most of experience with. My first foray was the novel The Death and Life of Superman by Roger Stern, which was released right around, if not shortly after, the actual story appeared in the comics. I’m pretty sure I read this before reading the actual comics. I remember enjoying it enough that I was willing to try other adapations like…

The Return of the Sinister Six and The Revenge of the Sinister Six each adapting a Spider-Man arc where he, you guessed it, fights the Sinister Six. These were given to me as gifts in giant hardcover format. I read them eagerly and found, to my dismay, that they were not as good. The author just threw everything into each book, even the subplots that weren’t actually resolved in that book. Maybe as a comic reader I should be OK with being left hanging, even by a novel adaptation, but the sub plot felt so distinct from the actual story of the book and its lack of conclusion left me feeling burned. Couple this with the subpar writing, like how in almost every fight scene a comparison was made between Spidey and Olympic athletes, my second prose attempt was met with failure.

Since then I more or less avoided novels based on storylines I could read as comics. Comics are usually a quicker read, more visually stimulating, and deliver the story as originally intended. IAt some point I picked up a Wolverine novel whose name I can’t remember (I have yet to actually finishing unpacking all those books I wrote about a few weeks ago) as well as a Green Lantern novel about the origin of Kyle Rainer (it was on sale). They were both fine. I’m not sure I’m even looking for recommendations for more of these types of books, but I’m sure there are some gems out there to be had for the tenacious reader.

Pictured: LIES

Movie Adaptation

We now live in a world where there are close to a half dozen superhero movies every year, but there was a time when that wasn’t the case. X-Men was good and had done well. Now, a major studio was going to take on… Spider-Man. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement. And in that excitement I bought the novelized adaptation of the movie BEFORE THE MOVIE EVEN CAME OUT. And I read it cover to cover before even having the chance to go to the theater. While heading into the theater with one group of friends, another was on their way out. They were leaving Spider-Man and in my excitement I quoted a line I had really liked from the book. Silence. OK, so maybe it just wasn’t that funny? We then saw the movie, and the line wasn’t in there. The book had lied to me and made me look foolish. Never again, movie adaptation. Never again.

Original Content

I’ve been wracking my brain and so far the only OG superhero prose I’ve read is the Masked book I just finished. It was really damn good and has left me feeling like I ought to have read more of this stuff but for the life of me I don’t think that I have. Do these books even exist?

I’ve talked lovingly about It’s Superman before, which is original even if based on an iconic comics character. There’s the just released A Once Crowded Sky which might also fit the bill. But it seems by and large that this fertile ground is depauperate of content. Greg Rucka pushed the boundaries by offering story arcs of Queen and Country in novel form, and while I devoured the comic once I hit the point where I needed to pick up a novel I just…stopped. Bill Willingham has also extended the Fables universe in prose form with Peter & Max, which I quite enjoyed and do recommend, even if he did manage to sneak a few pretty pictures in there. And Robert Kirkman co-wrote a Rise of the Governor novel, but again, as much as I love The Walking Dead I just didn’t have the drive to get that book. The more I write the more I worry I might be a hypocrite, so let’s change the subject.

So how cool would it be to have a series of novellas about a superhero or team that came out once every quarter or so? I’m sure it wouldn’t sell very well, but it would be cool! A lot of my above examples are expanding out from a preexisting comic world, whereas I’m thinking about a book that was only ever prose but still an ongoing superhero story. I’m sure someone has something locked away in their brain, but will it ever get let out? Would you read it if it did?

I think after writing this I will go pick up a few of those books I mentioned but hadn’t read. I am excited by exploring this other facet to superhero stories, and I think I should see where that interest takes me. What about you? You ever read a superhero novel? Glad you did? Do you think that if we can’t see the bright and shiny costumes on the page then there’s no point? Let’s hash it out in the comments!


Ryan Haupt is worried he may have just declared war on artists. Hear him declare war on nonsense in the podcast Science… sort of.


  1. There is a novel called Soon I Will Be Invincible. It’s One of the only superhero novels I enjoy.

  2. Great article! I will order this asap. Have you read Jonathan Lethem? He has some subtle super hero related short stories

  3. Conan’s a super-hero, right?

  4. I’m pretty sure that Green Lantern novel was part of a loosely connected series they did about other JLA characters. I have one with a similar cover about The Flash by (I think) Mark Waid, and I think there was at least a Batman one too.

  5. Batman has had a lot of novels released over the years. A few were released in the ’60s to tie in with the Adam West show but more books started being released in 1989 and afterwards to tie in with the Tim Burton film. The Further Adventures of Batman was the name of the 1989 book. This was a series of short stories written by various authors, including Max Allan Collins and Issac Asimov. A volume of Joker stories was released the next year and, in 1992 and 1993, collections of Catwoman and Penguin short stories followed.

    Ah crap. Now I really want to write my own article about all of this. You’ve got my juices flowing, Ryan!

  6. I adore It’s Superman. It’s such a great read, and really shines Superman in a light that we’re not used to seeing him in. It very much feels a bit like Morrison’s earlier Action issues.

  7. The novelization of No Man’s Land is pretty awesome. And there’s a book called Hero by Perry Moore that’s pretty good too. And of course, while it isn’t technically a superhero novel, Kavalier & Clay deserves a mention. And there are several great history books about the genre.

  8. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SUPERMAN was pretty fun, but if I recall correctly, Roger Stern excised the Justice League from the fight with Doomsday, which annoyed me at the time.

    I also really enjoyed the novelizations of KINGDOM COME and CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Like, a lot. Especially KINGDOM COME.

    And as asafager said above, the BATMAN: NO MAN’S LAND novelization (by Greg Rucka!) is great.

    • I think that Stern book also removed Hal Jordan from being the person who took down Mongul, which drove me nuts. At the time, I was convinced that there should only be one official continuity.

      Though I haven’t read the novelization, the audio version of 52 was quite good. It removed entire plots from the series, but the voice acting was pretty great.

  9. I read a number of Marvel or DC novels back in the ’90s. There was a Hulk novel by Peter David that was good. I remember liking the adaptation of Knightfall (the only version of that story I’ve read). There were a few Spider-Man books and even a Daredevil book. I’ve forgotten most of them.

    I would point you all to A Thousand Faces, an online superhero journal (where yours truly had a couple of stories published), but it is now defunct.

  10. Also, you can’t really talk about superhero novels without mentioning the Wild Cards:

    • I read the first few of these, but then they got really grossly raunchy (not necessarily in a good way, I’m no prude!) and excessively dark so I stopped. Odd given what a fan of Game of Thrones I am, but these pushed the envelope for me at the time.

  11. The Adventures of Superman from ’42 is a classic….great illustrations by Joe Shuster.

  12. Ryan,

    Hi I’m Tom King, author of A Once Crowded, which you mentioned in your article. I’m also a long time member of the ifanbase–I think I started listening in 2007. Just wanted to say thanks for talking about the book. I really appreciate it. If you do pick it up, please let me know what you think. I’m at twitter: @tomkingtk.

  13. This isn’t super-hero, but Ryan’s comments at the end about a quarterly released ongoing serialized prose story reminded me that Stephen King released The Green Mile like this, one chapter per month.
    And apparently this used to be common. Many (if not all?) of Dickens novels were originally serials released a chapter at a time.

  14. [quote]a series of novellas about a superhero or team that came out once every quarter [/quote]

    Oh, man, that would be really fun. I love reading prose as much as comics, so I would totally try this out.

  15. Waynes of Gotham was pretty decent. Also, Enemies and Allies about the first meeting of Batman and Superman in the 1950s was really great. second only to It’s Superman. The historical setting of those really ads to the realism.

  16. When I was a kid I had a collection of short stories, edited by Stan Lee, called “The Ultimate Silver Surfer” (well before Marvel re-appropriated the name). I remember these stories being amazing, each featuring the kind of philosophical introspection that made me love the character in the (then EXCELLENT) comics.

    They released a similar anthology for Spider-Man, but nothing beat the gravitas and wonder of those Surfer stories. I think you can buy it on Amazon for 95 cents or something. Well worth it.

  17. Superfolks, takes the coming of age power-fantasy that drives most main stream comics and turns it into a middle age mid-life crisis fantasy. Excellent.

    And I’ve been following the Secret World podcasts for a few years, which have been collected into a series of books as well. Alien Nazi’s from space invade earth and almost overwhelm the worlds heroes and villains. Oh an there is a computer avatar ghost of Nikola Tesla.

  18. The genre of superhero in prose fiction has fascinated me for years. The most recent examples I’ve read have both been VERY good.

    First is MOONDOGS by Alexander Yates. A terrific, wonderful story set in the Philippines.

    Then there’s PREPARE TO DIE! by Paul Tobin.

    Both are EXCELLENT examples of superheroes in fiction. Personally, I think that superheroes in the next five years are going to go mainstream. Like Grisham’s lawyer books or countless doctor/cop/detective stories that dominate the best-seller lists, there’s going to be a wider acceptance of men and women being extraordinary.

    There’s my two cents.

    — Jake

  19. Some may disagree, but I count Dick Tracy as more superhero than detective. I remember really liking the Max Alan Collins novelization of the movie back in 1990. I actually read the book before I saw the movie and feeling disappointed that the movie wasn’t as good.

  20. They are kind of a genre mash up of superheroes vs zombies but Peter Clines has two books out (Ex Heroes and Ex-Patriots) that are good reads. Think Justice League operating in The Walking Dead world.

  21. Someone up above mentioned Jonathan Lethem. His short story “Super Goat Man” is wonderful, and is up on The New Yorker’s web site:

  22. There’s also a wonderful novel by a young Australian writer named Steven Amsterdam called “What The Family Needed”, about a family with superpowers (nothing like the show No Ordinary Family, btw). You can read what the local press said about it here;