The words "comic books" and "superheroes" were synonymous at one time in America, but in the years since Art Speigelman's Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, graphic storytelling as a medium has grown up, or rather grown out, discovering mature landscapes once solely populated by literary fiction and film. Superheroes, for their part, have flown away as well, off the colored page and on to Hollywood, where they now regularly dominate our summer blockbuster fare. And while this summer's lukewarm reactions to some of these films may show that the allure of Mystery Men has faded in the public's eyes, on the pages of these three novels, superheroes still shine in Technicolor.
Men and Cartoons
By Jonathan Lethem, Paperback, 240 pages, Vintage, list price: $13.95
Literary and genre fiction are often married, but seldom is it a happy relationship, with the offspring inheriting all of literary's drabness with none of genre's allure. Not so with Jonathan Lethem's Men and Cartoons, which manages to incorporate the best of both worlds into something truly unique and haunting. One of the most powerful superhero tales I've read in any medium is in the story "Super Goat Man," where a faded hero is hired as the distinguished Walt Whitman Chair at the narrator's liberal arts college. The resulting interactions wipe away any vestige of childhood idolatry, as the story combines the failures of both comic book lore and the baby boomer generation to live up to Generation X's childhood expectations.
Edited by George R. R. Martin, Paperback, 320 pages, I Books
George R. R. Martin may be best known for his medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, now adapted as the hit HBO TV show Game of Thrones. But before turning to swords and dragons, Martin created an equally complex and vast superhero world with his Wild Cards series, a collaborative work of linked stories that Martin edited as well as contributed to. Wild Cards is a the tale of a world where a biological attack results in much of the population being transformed into either Aces — those with stunning super powers — or Jokers — those changed into hideous monstrosities if they survive at all. With accomplished sci-fi writers such as Roger Zelazny and Chris Claremont contributing, this intricate, haunting world has grown to encompass 21 books in the two dozen years since the first volume was published.
Soon I Will Be Invincible
By Austin Grossman, Paperback, 336 pages, Vintage, list price: $15
Austin Grossman's Justice League of America-inspired reality in Soon I Will Be Invincible feels so alive, you can almost see the muscles rippling through the page. Told by the dual voices of B-list hero Fatale and the insidious archvillain Doctor Impossible, the reader is immersed in the future promised to us by Saturday morning cartoons. I would call it a satire, but there is too much love here of the superhero mythos for the story to unravel into cynical absurdity. What it is is just plain funny, taking itself just seriously enough to capture the "caped crusader" thrill.
In the last decades, we have learned that comic books are not a genre but a medium capable of telling any story. From these novels, we can see that the superhero genre itself can be just as sophisticated, allowing us to once again feel the bliss of when you were just back from the comic book shop, with all your glossy treasures splayed across the floor.
Mat Johnson is the author of several novels and graphic novels including Pym, Drop, Hunting in Harlem and Incognegro. Johnson is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program and lives in Texas with his wife and children.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.