The care and feeding of supervillains

You know, James Davis Nicholl has a real gift for writing a great paragraph on just about any theme.

Here’s his post at on the care and feeding of supervillains.

And here’s his last paragraph:

Granted, by definition costumed crooks will have executive function issues that might make them hard to convince. Happily, anyone who sets out to be a superhero probably has issues of their own. Let yours blind you to the failure modes of an iterated prisoners dilemma and guide you towards Silver Age commensal relationship with your rogues gallery. The bystanders will thank you.

Executive function issues! Ha ha ha! I really did chuckle out loud. A commensal relationship! That’s just as good. Fun column.

Okay! Favorite superhero / supervillain novel, go!

I liked Sinner by Greg Stolze quite a bit. I did think the ending was weak. Still, I should definitely read that one again.

I did not much care for Steelheart by Sanderson. Too much character stupidity.

A few days ago, I started to read All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, which has a great title, but good lord, soooo much info is dumped on the reader during the extra-long introductory couple of chapters and I lost interest.

I do like superhero novels, though. Particularly the ones that create their own world with new heroes, not novels that feature Superman and Lois Lane, or whatever.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a couple more superhero novels I’ve tried. If you’ve got a favorite, drop it in the comments!

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11 thoughts on “The care and feeding of supervillains”

  1. I haven’t liked any superhero novels I’ve tried, but the Teen has pointed out (to the point of my exhaustion in the topic) that anime/manga does them better. Or at least, the property One Piece does. It’s certainly got a lot more variety in the powers than anything else I’ve heard of: string, shadow, soap(!), magma, ice, snow, mammoth, phoenix, giraffe, rubber, slime, gas… and that’s just off the top of my head. And creativity in the uses to which the holders put them.
    And the villains tend to be smart with long term layered plans that only get bested by the presence of .. essentially a ta’averen, who still has to work for it.

  2. Two oldies:

    Elliot S. Maggin’s 1978 Superman: Last Son of Krypton features a powerful and humane Superman and a properly challenging plot on a suitably large stage. But it also features what’s for my money the best Lex Luthor, a genius whose villainy is driven nearly as much by his impatience at being surrounded by people who just can’t see what’s obvious to him as by his hatred of Superman. (Which hatred takes and distills a Silver Age silly story into something almost operatic.) The sequel, Miracle Monday, isn’t nearly as good, but is still fun.

    This one probably isn’t Rachel’s speed, but is both good and massively influential. Robert Mayers 1977 book Superfolks prefigures the 80s fashion for imagining heroes’ futures past their prime, with more than a dash of satire and the 70s excitement of being unbounded by the Hays and Comics Codes. The tone isn’t quite grimdark, but it has a strong strain of 70s malaise and middle age regret. (Part of it reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s “Dying Inside”.)

    (Alan Moore fans will recognize a number of plot elements whose serial numbers weren’t so much filed off as touched lightly with an emery board.)

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    There are a lot of MG and YA superhero series that do a good job, like William Boniface’s Ordinary Boy series or Barry Lyga’s Archvillain. Marissa Meyer’s new series is okay. (Full of tropes, but what can you do.) For adult superhero stories, Carrie Vaughn has a superhero duology, Golden Age. Mercedes Lackey and a number of other authors have worked on the Secret World Chronicles. A lot of the adult series are hard to take, because they tend to take the cynical “no one trusts superheroes and superheroes are jerks” approach. Alas. I want my heroes back…

  4. “Soon I will be invincible” is a great title. But so was “All those explosions were someone else’s fault.”

    I’m not surprised the story in the latter picks up … but why why why include that first history lesson chapter at all? Trim that whole chapter down to five pages maximum and let the reader figure out the backstory as we go … well, fine, by now you all know my preferences with backstory. Something I’ve learned from reading reviews is that some readers really do like the whole backstory spelled out in detail, history textbook style, before the story begins. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    And yes, neither “superheroes are jerks” nor “middle aged malaise” strike me as appealing moods or themes.

  5. The thing about comics is because they are just about all unlimited series, you aren’t allowed to do anything permanent, which might actually bring about an END.

    One reason why Astro City is so good is that since he never has to have the same main character per arc, he can do very permanent things. Certainly he deals with retirement more than everyone else.

  6. I’m with Robert in saying All Those Explosions… does pick up quite a bit after the slow beginning. And there is a sequel with another cute title although the name escapes me at the moment.

    Sometimes when I get bored with the beginning of a book I skip to the middle or to the end and see if that interests me enough to go back and find out how it all happened. Maybe you could give it another try by starting a few chapters in? Up to you, of course, since YMMV.

    There is an author, Sarah Kuhn, who has written a trio of superhero books that I really liked. They might be YA, can’t recall, but they had interesting perspectives.

  7. And then there is the web serial Wyrm which my kid has poked at and sounds very grimdark. The Teen found it via got into a fanfic crossover which she summarized as canon/Wyrm gets Sauron and it’s an improvement. So canon source=grimdark for sure. The fic isn’t nearly as bad as it’s going for redemption arcs.

    I tried Wearing the Cape DNF.

    I just looked at All those explosions.. I’m afraid it looks very much like a variant on the Agatha Heterodyne Spark/mad scientist idea. And not varied enough from it.

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