The best superhero material being produced today is not in comics. There are good comics. I am really enjoying Silencer which combines an interesting new character, classic storylines in a darker tone (the title character is part of the Batman section of DC mythos), and excellent call outs to the genre and the company, including a shout out to Crisis on Infinite Earths issue four. Still, it is not the best superhero material.
The obvious answer is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While enjoyable, that is it not it either. I think it is starting to fall into a rote repetition of things that worked and has peaked for now. Even taking into account excellent films from Captain America: The First Avenger to Guardians of the Galaxy they are not also the best superhero films. That honor falls to The Incredibles.
No, the best superhero material being produced today is prose fiction about superheroes. The nature of prose, compared to visual media, has allowed writers to explore more inner spaces. The nature of a book compared to an ongoing comic enables certain types of longer stories to be told more readily. In one sense, prose is still providing low hanging fruit regarding stories more suited to prose than graphic, film, or television formats. Perhaps in a decade when the low hanging fruit is plucked the balance will shift away from prose.
For now, however, just because prose provides some low hanging fruit does not mean the fruit is tasteless or poor in quality. As I said, it is the best superhero material coming out today.
One of the best series is the Wearing the Cape series by Marion G. Harmon. The first book of the series is the title track, but it is not the best of the series. I have not read all eight books. I am mid-way through book seven as my current Bradbury Challenge short stories with seven waiting in the wings. Of the five I have read books four, Young Sentinels, and six, Ronin Games, are the strong competitors.
All of the books are good reads. Wearing the Cape, despite some flaws, was enjoyable I had ordered book two before I finished books one.
Wearing the Cape is the origin story of Astra, Hope Corrigan, and the rapid rise to become the most visible member of the Chicago Sentinels. The book begins with the events in the few minutes before the near-death experience that results in her superpowers, or breakthrough as it is termed in-universe. It finishes with her defeating the supervillain whose actions lead to her breakthrough. In between, it gives us not only Hope’s story but a quick history of why supers exist and for how long in its world. It also sets up several major plots lines in the series. It is hard to believe it is Mr. Harmon’s first novel.
Having praised it, the first thing I want to reflect on is something poorly done. Most superheroes gain a ton of tragedies and secrets throughout their career. Hope is no different, but she wins a decade’s worth in the first handful of chapters. Mild spoilers, but the list includes a dead relative, near death disease, a dead friend via accidental suicide, and superhero relative. It was a bit much and almost threw me out of the book. In any other genre, it would have, but supers gave Mr. Harmon room to push too hard.
One area Mr. Harmon has done well compared to modern comics is treating current social issues and non-Western cultures. Unlike many comics non-modern nations in the Wearing the Cape world do not have supers. Instead, breakthroughs tend to express their powers in local traditional lines. Many Chinese breakthroughs take the form of dragons and other figures of Chinese tradition. The prominent Arabic breakthrough is the “Sword of the Faith.” Even in modern nations, where the various supers provide the standard pattern, other traditional superhuman forms are found. Vampires, in a wide variety, show up as well.
The books tackle social issues in a less direct manner. The initial book discusses border issues only briefly. A supers team in El Paso is said to have a very rough beat due to drug cartels. Given I spent much of the first decade of this century worrying about my parents, who lived in El Paso, due to increasing violence in Juarez and the state of Chihuahua, that rang very true. My last couple of trips home I did not go downtown or along the river at all, and I was pleased when my mother moved closer to my sister in east Texas after my father’s death.
One significant social trend seen in the book is the appeal of thug culture to middle-class kids. The place in middle-class, primarily white middle class, culture held by certain forms of hip-hop is done with villain-rap culture. It seems to be something more akin to hardcore punk or nu-metal instead of any hip-hop in our world (unless you consider nu-metal a form of hip-hop instead of just incorporating elements of hip-hop). The principal performers of villain-rap are breakthroughs of various power levels who integrate their powers into their performance. There is also an actual gang culture of low-level breakthroughs.
Somewhat related is the culture of breakthrough chasing. In a world where near death experiences or extreme stress causes the development of superpowers, there will be people who defy death to gain them. The sad fact of accidental suicides and business providing breakthrough experiences are not shied away from by the book.
The book spends some time on the culture of celebrity. In one of the most realistic things in the books is the celebrity status of capes. There are licensed comics and television series for the various heroes. One super team exists to be a Hollywood team. You could see them as the superhero version of The Monkees. Astra’s public image is intentionally developed and suffers from various tabloid culture subplots along the way.
Finally, the book puts a lot of effort into the status of superheroes. We learn they perform more disaster recovery than law enforcement. While there are military and LEO capes, the majority are civilians working solo or in non-government sponsored teams. The central group of the book, The Chicago Sentenials, is an example of the civilians teams. They only engage as law enforcement when the threat is something regular law enforcement cannot handle. Much of the super action in the book is crowd control, evacuation, and disaster recovery.
There are incidents of super on super action, but not all are typical supervillain plotting. Many are controlling a new breakthrough going through the rough parts. In the few comic book style stand up battles in the book the specter of death is present. This is a significant separation of the book from typical comics fare.
Wearing the Cape is probably a must-read for anyone interested in superheroes as a genre even if they prefer the various visual formats. For the general reader it isn’t a bad read, but might not be compelling enough to get you to read the rest of the series.
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