Why superheroes?

This is something I've been wondering about more and more as I browse through various serials listed here on WFG. Web fiction as a medium seems very heavy on superhero stories; it's a significant chunk of what's out there, seems like. This is interesting to me, because I've been a bookseller for ten years, and I have only very rarely seen superhero fiction outside of the graphic novels section. Marvel and DC have their tie-in novels, and once in a blue moon an independent title will come up, but the latter are rare enough that they almost always catch my attention when they do.


Why do you suppose this is? If there's a market, you'd think the publishers would pounce on it. What's so apparently different about the world of webfiction that makes it so spandex-friendly? I'm curious to hear everyone's thoughts.


There have actually been superhero novels in the past - the "Wild Cards" series (edited by none other than George R. R. Martin himself) was moderately popular in the 90s. But you're right, it's not usually done.


I love superhero stories, but until I found webfiction I assumed that it was only acceptable in comic book format. An older version of Curveball had, once upon a time, actually been an idea for a webcomic I was developing that abandoned because I couldn't find an artist (no way I'd try to do that story with my own art). I read Legion of Nothing and discovered "hey, you can do it in print too!"


My assumption has been that when people think "superhero stories" they usually think of comic books, and that publishers have fallen into the same trap as everyone else? I dunno. It's nice seeing so much of it online.


I think there's a lot of superhero serials due to Worm's popularity, actually! At least, that's what I'd assume.


No, there were a lot before Worm, too.


Really? Never mind me, then, I've clearly got my wires crossed here.


I asked this question almost a year ago. I forget who said it, but the best answer I got is that a lot of the people came from webcomics, and comics generally very inclined to super heroes.

Also, super heroes are fun to read and write about. Publishers just don't realize that, and whenever they get a super hero book, they immediately reject it (or at least, I'm assuming).


There have been at least a few dead paper books starring superheroes. Soon I Will Be Invincible and Vicious are the first two that come to mind, though I have read and enjoyed the Wild Cards stuff, however there aren't any bestsellers that I know of. A big part of that is probably as you suggested, that people associate them more strongly with comics. I think that's changing, TV and Movies are definitely incorporating them to a greater degree. However, superpower fiction lends itself so well to visual medias that I'll be surprised if they ever play a major roll in the publishing world. Even a well described fight scene won't have the same impact that it will on screen.


I think it's because the super hero story is kind of a quintessential serialized story genre that has survived and retained widespread appeal in contemporary society; very long runs composed of individually short weekly issues that build their stories toward specific climaxes, draw down, and then begin new stories with the same recurring cast and continue. This kind of stuff began with pulp fiction, but outside of niches within niches, adventure pulps didn't survive to the kind of mass appeal comic book superheroes have in America. Maybe in another world most of WFG would be covered in the adventures of Rick Dangerous, explorer extraordinaire, or something; but for a lot of young western writers stuff like superheroes is probably their first accessible encounter with serial media and the kinds of long-term stories and worlds you can build with it.


A big part of it is due to the nature of serialization. Superhero stories work very well with ongoing narratives, perhaps because there's just so much to explore even with the most simplistic kinds of superpowers. The idea of "how would this play out in the real world" is something that can keep a story going for quite a long time, and because writers don't feel constrained to a set length, they're free to explain as much as they want at whatever speed they want.


But in traditional publishing, serialization has become a very rare thing. No longer do we see popular magazines running serialized stories every week or month, like how Charles Dickens famously got his start. Nowadays, if you want a print publisher, you have to go with short one-off stories or book-length narratives--both of which require very different types of storycrafting. And generally speaking, a wholly self-contained superhero is just not as interesting, not when there are already so many other stories out there in comic books that have long-running continuity on their side.


Which brings up the next point. Comics have the genre pretty well-covered. Most superhero enthusiasts probably aren't looking to literature for their next favorite work. And until some breakout mega-hit comes along and redefines the market, I do not think this is going to change.


We're looking at you for that last one Wildbow. Just saying.


No, we're not. We're looking at ourselves. As we should be.


As writers, we should always be looking at ourselves. That said, Worm is exactly the kind of story that could gain a lot of traction if it wasn't on a relatively little-known medium. Safe to say it's gained a lot of traction even so. If Wildbow ever partnered with an artist to release a graphic adaptation, it'd go over very well indeed, methinks.


Well, superheroes are so associated with comics, and comics are associated with children, so I think it shows up less in written fiction and more in web fiction because it falls into the age ghetto. Like the animation age ghetto. However, the internet lets you get away with writing all kinds of stuff. Some people indulge in fanfictions. Others Power Rangers. The Internet Wrestling Community is pretty huge. And, finally, you get people who can finally do some superhero stuff.


Helping it out is that superheroes are very friendly as far as self-insert characters. A person could probably write about their day, then make up stories of their secret superhero life behind a mask. It also helps that there's a significant emphasis on high school and teens, which a number of people seem to enjoy writing about.


I bet some people are attracted to the idealism. Others might enjoy deconstructing it and going all gritty. It's open to a lot of interpretations.


My best guess is that it has something to do with the same reason I like wrestling...big personalities, wild fights, interesting costumes, fun speeches, and some humor. It's just more fun for me. I don't have a problem with the idea that something can be over-the-top and ridiculous, but also be series business. And while some people don't like superhero stories for this, I actually enjoy the fact that you can go all over the place with time travel, epic fantasy, steampunk, magic, mysteries, crime drama, other dimensions, and sci fi alien stories.


Coincidentally, I'm not sure if my lapse in reading Pact is more because it's not superheroes or if I'm just a little burnt out on Wildbow's style. And as someone who frequently deals with people, I find it unrealistic that there are so many rational actors depicted.


I saw a definitive surge in SH fiction after Worm ended. It WAS always there, but often smaller stories, very few sprawling narratives on it. I think its part the fact that its hard to traditionally publish SH prose, and so people want to fill a gap, and the popularity of Worm, and people realizing they CAN fill that gap. (now if we can get AE to abandon MU and start back on Star Harbor. )


Superheroes are a thing, not just in serials. There have been at least 2 superhero TV series in the past 2 years that I know of, countless movies, and if you do a search for books / ebooks, you'll find way more than you might have expected. It's actually a pretty popular genre. Even if you do a youtube search for epic trailer music, many of the tracks feature superhero inspired titles and / or video background art.


I'm guessing Wildbow converted a good number of people who previously weren't interested in the genre. I'm one of those! I used to dislike anything superhero before Worm.


Superheroes in Webfiction go back before Tales of MU - Alexandra Erin had Star Harbour Nights online first, so 2006 or earlier. I consider it superior to TOMU but that's just me.


Legion of Nothing from JZ was at least 2007 if not sooner, as we got acquainted through Pages Unbound. Worm is circa 2011 so much later. It spawned inspired followers, but the genre was well established before that by The Last Skull and Shimmer and other series.


It is not something you would be likely to see in published books because serials are different animals than print novels. You can sprawl on the web, and not everyone can draw well enugh for a comic. Wildbow writing 3 times a week would be 12 issues a month, whereas a comic would do 12 a year. The web is suited to sprawling ongoing serials in a way print publication is not.


But it is also a new format for superheroes so it isn't broad yet, it is still a niche. Like most web fiction.


If we're going to shows, then they've been around long before the past two years. The Flash wouldn't have been done without Arrow, but Arrow came from Smallville. No Ordinary Family and The Cape were around a few years back. Stan Lee hosted a reality show called Who Wants To Be A Superhero? for a couple of seasons. That doesn't even get into the cartoons, but those were more firmly within the age ghetto.


Wildbow certainly inspired a lot of imitators, I know that. There's a very obvious tone and similar set of themes in stories inspired by Worm that make them easy to pick out.


Even before all that, you had Legion of Nothing and the Whateley Academy stuff. There are even superhero story anthologies, like Masked, which came out in 2010.


Ya know, maybe it's just because people like their myths. People made up Slender Man, Ben Drowned, the Rake, the Fear Mythos, and various CreepyPastas, much like people once made up urban legends about calls coming from inside the house. The superheroes tend to match up better with old epic tales like Hercules and his labors, or the Odyssey. Heck, the other books in the Odyssey and Iliad series are like lost comics for us. Since most of the superheroes aren't supposed to be gods, they even fill that gap without seeming blasphemous.


Siegel and Schuster based Superman on Jewish figures like Samson, David and the prophets. The "first" super-powered superhero in tights debuted in 1938 but his ancestors are thousands of years old.


So glad to hear people talking about Star Harbor Nights and The Last Skull--probably my two favorite serials. Something about them was just so dang (replace "dang" with whatever piece of profanity you want; I don't know if the board allows swearing) fun.


I think Legion of Nothing probably had some impact on the amount of people doing superhero stuff, because it and Tales of MU always struck me as the two works that really got people interested in this stuff early on. There's also something to be said for the fact that Iron Man came out in 2008, kicking off the superhero craze at around the same time that serials started gaining a bit of traction.


Worm definitely had a strong influence on some people, but I find it kind of interesting that I haven't seen any Pact clones yet. Is it too early in the story? Am I just not noticing them?


PS Anyone know what happened to Robert Rodgers? I miss that guy's writing.