A Brief Overview of Superhero Fiction

In the past fifty years I would venture to say that less than fifty novels and anthologies have been published that fall within the superhero genre, excluding Marvel and DC media spinoffs. If you include Marvel and DC, I think the number is somewhere between 100 and 200. So I set out to prove or disprove this supposition. The following overview of superhero fiction is the result. In this overview, I won’t be including graphic novels. Link to the full wiki version of this article.

Classifying Superhero Fiction

In order to be classified as a ‘superhero’ fiction, a story must have a minimal subset of genre tropes. These include:

  • superpowers
  • costumes and masks
  • secret identities
  • hero vs. villain
  • genre blindness
  • crime fighting / vigilantism
  • ‘super’ plots
  • superhero culture

Most of the superhero tropes I listed above are self explanatory. Genre blindness, as a trope, may need a bit of an explanation, while the idea of a ‘superhero culture’ needs more. Genre blindness is when the characters don’t recognize that they are operating within a genre, a common example of this is found in horror genre, where, we as readers or observers know that it is generally a bad idea to go down in the basement or out in the woods by our lonesome, the characters in question blithely proceed to do so. For more information on tropes, see the Supplemental section Common Superhero Genre Tropes of the wiki version.
While some of the fiction I found during the survey have several of these superhero genre elements, such as superpowers, they do not have a constellation of them. See Borderline Superhero Novels of the wiki version.

Classification Elements

Superhero Culture (as a Trope)

For the trope ‘superhero culture’, I think the following attributes are reasonably descriptive:

  • The general populace knows about the existence of supers.
  • The general populace expects supers to intervene in bad situations.
  • There is a general awareness of many of the superhero genre tropes, such as Crime Fighting, Secret Identities, and Secret Lairs. There is an assumption of ‘truth’ about common knowledge tropes.
  • Culturally formalized relationship between supers and normals.

Superhero Culture Level

SCL Superhero Culture Level Description
0 None. Even the idea of superheroes doesn’t exist.
1 Minimal; The idea of superheroes exists, but is considered entirely fictional.
2 Some people are aware of supers, but there is little public acknowledgment by the mainstream.
3 Many people acknowledgment that supers exist, a significant minority does not.
4 General acknowledgment that supers exist and there relationship between supers and normals is generally known.
5 Full scale; Everyone knows about the relationship between supers and normals.

Superhero Power Level

ShPL Superhero Power Level Description
0 None. Only the insane think they have superpowers.
1 Minimal; Superheroes are basically normal humans, with some possibly only believing that they have powers.
2 Minor powers;
3 Significant powers;
4 Major powers;
5 World/reality shaping powers;

Supervillain Power Level

SvPL Supervillain Power Level Description
0 None. Only the insane think they have superpowers.
1 Minimal; Supervillains are basically normal humans, with some possibly only believing that they have powers.
2 Minor powers;
3 Significant powers;
4 Major powers;
5 World/reality shaping powers;

Superhero Genre Level

SGL Superhero Genre Level Description ShPL SvPL ShPL + SvPL SCL
0 None, which means it won’t even appear here. 0 0 0 0
1 This is most commonly stories that have characters with ‘superpowers’ or are übermenschs, but few, if any, of the other superhero tropes. 1 1 0-2 0
2 A handful of superhero tropes 1-2 1-2 1-4 1-2
3 Significant number of superhero tropes, approaching critical mass for superhero genre 2-4 2-4 3-4
4 The full spectrum of superhero tropes; superhero fiction that is science fiction. 3-5 3-5 4-5
5 Full blown, anything goes, superhero tropes; superhero fiction that is, essentially, fantasy. 4-5 4-5 5

Superhero Novels

  1. Devil’s Cape by Rob Rogers
  2. Ex-Heroes by Peter Cline
  3. From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust
  4. Hero by Perry Moore
  5. Icarus Project 1: Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge
  6. Icarus Project 2: Shades of Gray by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge
  7. Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey
  8. Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty
  9. Quantum Prophecy 1: The Awakening by Michael Owen Carroll
  10. Quantum Prophecy 2: The Gathering by Michael Owen Carroll
  11. Quantum Prophecy 3: The Reckoning by Michael Owen Carroll
  12. Sentinels 1: When Strikes the Warlord by Van Allen Plexico
  13. Sentinels 2: A Distant Star by Van Allen Plexico
  14. Sentinels 3: Apocalypse Rising by Van Allen Plexico
  15. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
  16. Superfolks by Robert Mayer
  17. Wild Cards 10 : Double Solitaire by Linda Snodgrass
  18. Wild Cards 12: Turn of the Cards by Milán

See Superhero Novels (Annotated) for more information.

Superhero Anthologies

  1. The Darker Mask: Heroes from the Shadows edited by Gary Phillips & Christopher Chambers
  2. Masked edited by Lou Anders
  3. Superheroes edited by John Varley
  4. Wild Cards edited by George R.R. Martin
  5. Wild Cards 2: Aces High edited by George R.R. Martin
  6. Wild Cards 3: Jokers Wild edited by George R.R. Martin
  7. Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad edited by George R.R. Martin
  8. Wild Cards 5: Down and Dirty edited by George R.R. Martin
  9. Wild Cards 6: Ace in the Hole edited by George R.R. Martin
  10. Wild Cards 7: Dead Man’s Hand edited by George R.R. Martin
  11. Wild Cards 8: One-Eyed Jacks edited by George R.R. Martin
  12. Wild Cards 9: Jokertown Shuffle edited by George R.R. Martin
  13. Wild Cards 11: Dealer’s Choice edited by George R.R. Martin
  14. Wild Cards 13: Card Sharks edited by George R.R. Martin
  15. Wild Cards 14: Marked Cards edited by George R.R. Martin
  16. Wild Cards 15: Black Trump edited by George R.R. Martin

See Superhero Anthologies (Annotated) for more information.

Borderline Superhero Novels

These novels include super-powered characters, but they’re not full blown superhero fiction.

  1. Brave Men Run by Matthew Wayne Selznick
  2. Code Duello by Mack Reynolds
  3. Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann
  4. Jumper: A Novel by Steven Gould
  5. The Lab by Jack Heath
  6. The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry
  7. Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
  8. Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell
  9. The Roar by Emma Clayton
  10. Ryder Hook 1: Whirlpool of Stars by Tully Zetford (aka Kenneth Bulmer)
  11. Monster by A. Lee Martinez
  12. Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
  13. Those Who Walk in Darkness by John Ridley

See Borderline Superhero Novels (Annotated) for more information.

Roots of Superhero Fiction

Superhero fiction before 1960 is nearly non-existent. Here I have collected a number of references to novels, series, and characters that form, in my opinion, the roots of comic book superheroes, and thus the roots of superhero fiction. From Clark Savage Jr., aka Doc Savage, who shares the same first name as Superman and has the first Fortress of Solitude, to the Scarlet Pimpernel who is, as far as I know, the first doer of good deeds and fighter of evil (if you consider the excesses of the French Revolution to be evil) who had a secret identity, namely Sir Percival Blakeney.

See Roots of Superhero Fiction (Annotated) for more information.

Part 2 (and conclusion)

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