One thing I don’t comment on too often about being very young in the 80’s and coming of age in the 90’s is that it left me keenly aware of how corporate culture works. Between the 80’s love affair with trying to be as sleazy as possible in the corporate world and the 90’s jaded feeling toward the sudden an inevitable betrayal that went hand-in-hand with that attitude, pop culture was full of commentary on it. Murphy Brown, Dilbert, Office Space… the list goes on.
The big thing I learned from it was a healthy disdain for marketing people. If you are or if you know and love a marketing person, please don’t take this personally. The fact of the matter is, as a kid who liked off-beat stuff, I grew to realize that marketing people were in charge of making sure I didn’t get nice things. Seeing other people’s philosophies on marketing in the ebook arena… has not helped this disdain.
See, until the internet, stuff had to ‘test’ well in focus groups or get a certain level of ratings before they even showed up and there were no webcomics/serials/or videos to pick up the slack. While plenty of stuff I loved did get through, many of my wildest imaginings never saw the light of day, or like MANTIS, was quickly retooled to be less awesome.
Why am I writing such a long intro here that doesn’t even seem tangentially related to the Superhero genre?
Well, because the Book International Studies Group is a body of such marketing weas… people. Specifically, they’re the ones who effectively set the standard categories that bookstores and other marketplaces use to organize their books.
You might recall my years-long raging over how Superhero was only a literary heading under ‘Graphic Novel’ up until Amazon stepped up… and put it under Fantasy. Yeah, that happened.
I wrote emails to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo about this and in January, finally found and sent an email to the BSIG itself. As it turns out, this was unnecessary, as they were apparently already in the process of adding Superhero to their list starting this year.
This, for both writers and fans of the genre is big like so big that it’s hard for me to articulate in the slapdash blogging style. It means that it will be easier to find Superhero books, that there will be more known lists and reviewing spaces for the genre, and that we’ll be getting greater recognition as a group in our own right within the speculative fiction sphere.
So with that in mind, I bring you this post in the name of pressing forward. Like I said last week, there’s a lot of space to move forward here and no one’s ever gotten anything accomplished with just being satisfied with what they have and not—let’s be honest here—pushing their luck.
The next step, and the step I think will be of most value to readers, is subgenres.
Let’s be honest, even if you like superhero stuff in general, you probably don’t like all superhero stuff. I’m nothing if not vocal about my feelings of grim and gritty, 90’s anti-hero stuff, or my love of super school stuff and people reading this probably feel the same way about other corners of the Superhero universe.
So in this post, I’m going to propose and discuss some ideas for defined subgenre. As a framework, I’m working off of the framework genre definition I previously described in my first major post on the genre here. The only real ‘rule’ is the assumption that such characters exist or have the strong potential to exist in the setting.
And without further ado, I’ll kick things off with…
I’ll admit this probably needs a new name if only to set it apart from Young Adult oriented books in the Superhero genre. I feel that Teen Hero books have their own established suites of tropes that set them apart and can be applied to both YA books and books oriented to both younger and older audiences.
Teen Hero as a genre would be a character-oriented genre where the protagonists are (duh) teen superheroes/villains (more on villains in a bit) complete with the related restrictions and character traits that come with characters in that age bracket. It would encompass Coming of Age stories, Super Schools, themes of finding one’s identity, peer pressure, and seeking acceptance as well as the trappings of more serious teen drama.
I describe it as set apart from YA Superhero in general (and there’s a rant I could go into about how Young Adult/New Adult X generes should be sub-genred into every genre instead of weirdly set apart, but I digress) because not all YA super-stuff is going to feature teen heroes and not all Teen Hero books are going to be aimed at that demographic. Hand-in-hand, therefore, is the implication of the creation of a YA Superhero genre, which is why it doesn’t have its own listing here.
In webcomics and mainstream print media, I would venture that this is the largest singular super-subgenre.
I think we all know the drill here: the same conditions that define the Superhero genre are fertile ground for supervillains regardless of if the heroes are featured or even included. Villains are often even more compelling than their counterparts and it’s interesting to explore stories from their perspective.
Again, there are some well understood tropes surrounding supervillains and the gamut of how straight they’re played or even if they’re employed creates a well-defined, but still highly variable genre for authors to play in and readers to experience.
I also feel that of all the categories I’m proposing here, this one is the most vital long term. Even now, browsing the superhero lists on Amazon brings up plenty of villain stuff right beside it. As someone who loves villains, but isn’t always looking for villainy, it’s just a hassle sorting through it to get what I’m in a mood for and the actual search term cuts out a LOT of entries that fit.
It’s deeply important that we authors put the books the readers wan in their hands, and at this point in the genre’s history, the creation of a Supervillain subgenre is what’s going to have the most impact.
Here is where I expect an argument. A lot of people in the genre are going to want to try and shed the trappings of the comic book origins of the genre entirely. I respectfully disagree because this particular set of trappings is damn useful.
Sparing my usual rant about the Dark Age of comics, the Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Dark/Iron, Modern) serve as a pretty decent shorthand for the general style and attendant tropes. And even for people new to the scene, they’re as easy to pick up as the Epic, Dark, and Sword and Sorcery classifications of Fantasy. It helps people know what they’re getting quickly and, again, that’s the whole point to this.
Also, given that: it’s inevitable that something is going to show up to classify the genre in this way, so we might as well get out ahead of it and use something some people (some might say our core audience) are already familiar with.
Maybe not Modern Age. It’s been a mixed bag of De/Reconstructions and at this point, you might argue that the field has broadened enough that there are enough works out there that aren’t in an ‘Age’ in the same wa that there are Fantasy works outside of the major groupings.
While we’re arguing, let’s go for another I’m sure will generate words:
Some of you, I sense, are tilting your heads in confusion. Am I seriously proposing a genre distinction for Superheroes focused on cities? Aren’t all superheroes focused on cities?
Well, no. Obviously not. Green Lantern, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Space Ghost… there are plenty of non-city based superheroes—but you’ll notice all those guys are Cosmic heroes. There’s a distinct lack of Superhero titles that venture out of the Urban Modern setting.
That’s fine at this stage: for a very long time, Epic and Sword and Sorcery were the vastly predominant boxes Fantasy fell into. Urban Fantasy (placing Fantasy in the real, modern world and in cities) is a relatively new thing.
The idea of creating an Urban Superhero is rather a preemptive strike at another inevitable problem: the genre needs to grow and will grow and when that happens, other genres have had awkward growing pains when things like Epic Fantasy or Cosmic Horror came on the scene. There were greybeards standing ready and waiting to proclaim what was and wasn’t ‘their’ genre.
I’m a fan of inclusiveness and of learning from the past, so for me, the acknowledgment that the modern city setting isn’t inherent to the genre is a good step in nipping that issue in the bud right quick. It may also encourage people to push out a bit from the get-go, seeing as they will clearly see that ‘Urban’ is just one way things can be done.
An admission here: this one is probably too broad to be a good genre (by its own virtue, it’s a setting specification), but this article is devoted in part to driving discussion of our shiny new genre as a whole and how best to describe things to help readers get what they want. In fact, the new ‘official’ status is itself just a marketing category, as the genre has existed for decades now. Talking subgenres ends up being conducive to talking about other categorizations, like this final example:
Power Source Classifications
While I’m down with heroic world with all kinds of power sources (aliens, SCIENCE!, magic, gods, psychic powers, etc), I know that some people are really keen on settings with singular sources and wish to avoid, say, magic or pseudoscience. As much as I love mixed worlds, I get that it would be helpful to have some broad listings for people who are down with things like Marvel bending over backward to pretend Thor isn’t a god who uses magic in their movies.
Thus, I have it in my head to propose a few wide classifications: Mixed World, Natural Powers, Super Science, Mystic, and Psychic Superhero settings. Like Urban and Cosmic, these aren’t full blown genres, but they are something readers can latch onto when thinking about a specific type of story they like.
Natural Powers is a pretty awful way of saying ‘mutant’, but I didn’t want to say mutant. Every attempt to convey ‘powered by dint of birth’ made me feel like I was writing some racist screed and the ghost of Mengle started laughing and ranting about twins somewhere in my head, so I gave up.
The point is, I think these are sufficiently inclusive enough and descriptive enough to get the ‘this is how powers work in this world’ idea across so people who like mentalism can rush over to Psychic Powers and people who like super-wizards ala Dr. Strange can pick Mystic.
But really, the point here isn’t to codify anything, it’s to get the ball rolling and jaws flapping about what we do with our new status and responsibility to the genre we love. Whether I’m an insightful prophet or a mad idiot for my ideas doesn’t matter at this point in the game, it’s a starting point we can build on, even if that means crowbarring everything I just said up and putting something better down in its place.
I’ve given my opening statement, there’s a comment bar below where you can support or rebut.
Also, as we speak the third Descendants ebook, The Devil Came Down To Mayfield is now available on Amazon, B&N, and Kobo, (pending on iTunes, GooglePlay and DriveThruFiction) for $2.99. This is the last book I’m putting out without the street team’s prior input. If you’d like to be part of the Street Team and get books for free, check out this post spaces are limited, so act quickly!
Oh, and check it out! I don’t have to copy and paste my byline anymore! Learning is fun.
As someone who likes superhero fiction but has never gotten into the comics (mostly because of perceived continuity lockout and a few things of that nature) I do still find the “Age” classifications pretty clear. My basic understanding is that the Silver Age was the silly one, for example, while the Dark Age is Exactly What It Says on the Tin, as TVTropes might say. It makes for a good shorthand. Like most shorthand, it encompasses limited options, but that always happens, which is why people are always redefining genres. So I see no problem there.
I do think that there’s an interesting conversation available when it comes to the differences in writing superheroes in different media. One thing that I think has always made movie adaptations appeal to so many people looking to make a buck (and to many fans) is that the sequential art storytelling format lends itself well to varied and individual costumes, visually interesting powers, and things like punching someone across a city. Movies are pretty good for that as well, relying largely on the combination of visuals and dialogue for storytelling (much as comics do). Of course, movies have audio and there are other important differences – I don’t deny that – but it is something I find noteworthy.
In contrast, the costumes and look are less important to both readers and writers when it comes to pure prose, and that means that people with less visually appealing powers often get more play. The medium has a substantial influence on the story and characters, beyond that found in fiction in general, I believe. It’s an interesting genre quirk.
I imagine the written medium would also see more powers that are a pain to show visually, like perception distortion.