Thursday, May 31

Memo to Acquisitions Re: Superhero Fiction

Stop. Immediately.

Hollywood may be awash in all sorts of superheros, spies and pirates but attempting to ride their gravy train in publishing has been a huge mistake. And from the looks of the titles in my review stack there are many editors who just don't get it, especially with the superhero stuff.

I am referring to stories about the boy (always a boy) whose powers are lesser, or non-existent, yet another underdog defeating the cardboard adult villain who has never been successfully felled by other adult superheroes. Or those series where the superhero is a sidekick who tells us flat out that were it not for his (always his) intervention the main hero would not have triumphed in the end.

While we're at it, why do these books always tell us how they will end in advance? Are you afraid that the reader will abandon the book unless they know up front how it will end? And once they know, what on earth could be the reason for wanting to actually continue?

No, they are not humorous. No matter how many references to butts or flatulence or belching or body odor. The witty repartee is more hackneyed than the worst Hollywood movie, far from being clever or witty, farther still from being humorous. Dav Pilkey "got away with it" because he was performing a meta parody on the superhero, comics and gross-out prankster boy genres. Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series is clever despite it's potty humor not because of it. Dav Pilkey gets it and he gets it right.

Listen, I can understand that you want to try and capitalize on the latest trends in pop culture, and competing with Hollywood is a major factor. But if you do not fully understand what they are doing you can't begin to hope to catch a glimmer of that lightning in a bottle. Hollywood didn't pluck random screenplays out of the slush pile, or purchase pitches from some hot new talent with a well-connected agent, they went with franchise material that's several decades old. They hired name actors and screenwriters and directors with proven records and sank tons of money, time and pre-production into making them blockbusters out the gate.

But where's the money in purchasing someone else's franchise? Why would any book publisher actively attempt a novel form of a comic book character that already exists in a printed format? They wouldn't, which puts you, publishers and editors, at a disadvantage when it comes to the genre. How, then, to capitalize (as we are capitalists here, yes?) on the superhero genre without looking derivative?

You don't. Spandex-clad superheroes have their place and appeal but it isn't in fiction, otherwise why didn't it originate there? The popular comic superhero has been with us since the 1930's but only in recent years have we seen original fiction concerning caped crusaders that didn't previously exist. This isn't a question of a dormant, untapped market, it's a simple fact that superhero fiction doesn't work. It doesn't work because the artifice of the world it inhabits begs for visuals, and once you begin to introduce visuals you might as well be making a graphic novel or a straight-up comic book.

So do us a favor, Dear Acquisitions Person: If you (or your boss, house, or division) are clamoring to try and capture the superhero market, and you find a worthy manuscript, push like you've never pushed before to have it converted into a graphic novel. If that makes you uncomfortable, if you don't think it'll work in an illustrated format, if it's just too long or you can't imagine the market for such a book, then perhaps it doesn't work as fiction either. If you (your boss, house, or division) are not committed to doing comic-formatted works, then perhaps you shouldn't be pushing the superhero genre.

Personal note to the geniuses at HarperCollins Children's Books:

What possessed you to make a "storybook" version of the new Spider-man 3 movie? The film is rated PG-13, the text of the book talks about "acing college classes" and job security and sexual jealousy and revenge, and yet you think this is appropriate for kids as young as 3 years old? For you I say: Double-plus Stop.


Jess said...

I had a patron - probably middle-school aged - asking for superhero books last week and he didn't really seem interested in the graphic novel format, which were really the only ones I knew to introduce him to. I'm curious what you would suggest in lieu of the superhero novel?

david elzey said...

I come from the retail side of things and on the few occasions I've had actual requests for superhero material it was always specific ("I need something Spider-man!") and it always had to be lots of pictures and movie tie-in. Generally these books were for pre- or early readers.

I do hate it when people go off (as I did) underscoring a problem but, as you point out, offering no solutions. That said, a request for superhero material in my store would get all the likely candidates I showcased in the post


If I were talking to a middle grade reader who wasn't adverse to reading I might try to steer them toward comic book-type adventure stories like Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan, or the ever-pulpy Doc Savage paperbacks currently out there under various author's names (Kenneth Robison and Larry Widen among others), or even Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian books.

Sure, these are older titles, but they speak directly to the fantasy mindset of a superhero reader (they were also serialized on radio and comic books). That's top-o-my-head thinking but as a general guide I would say there is much heroic fantasy material that *should* appeal to that middle grade reader that doesn't necessarily require a man in tights with superpowers.

Which, ultimately, may be a form of revenge fantasy for males in a stage arrested development.

Jess said...

Thanks! Now I need to go find that kid again ;) I was frankly surprised that he wasn't interested in the GNs. I've never even heard of the ones you mention, so I suppose I ought to put down my girly books and go diversify.