For Superheroes in Prose

by Carrie Vaughn

Because I write about superheroes, both for Wild Cards and in my own Golden Age novels, I get asked a lot:  Have you always been into comic books?

And the answer is no, I have not always been into comic books. And the one comic book I was most into as a kid wasn’t superheroes — it was G.I. Joe (long story there, for another time). For me, superheroes and comic books were never synonymous, because I grew up during the first great age of superhero TV shows,watching Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Greatest American Hero, not to mention all the animated shows like Superfriendsand Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I learned about the traditional heroes, their powers, their origins, the tropes, and the amazing inspiring adventure of it all, from TV. For better or worse. Better, I think — my idea of superheroes was never confined to one medium.

But even now, in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all the myriad of shows and movies across so many platforms, when most people first encounter superheroes through something other than comic books, the superhero genre is still deeply connected with comic books. Which makes the Wild Cards universe so interesting, I think. Maybe I was primed for Wild Cards precisely because I didn’t associate superheroes with comic books.

Form follows function, the saying goes, but it works the other way as well. Appearing in prose, rather than visual media like television and comic books, changes how superheroes get written. It’s fascinating to look at how.

First:  no costumes. Or rather, very few costumes. Prose doesn’t need visual signifiers to tell one character from another, we don’t need to instantly identify our hero across a big action-packed splash page. The original Wild Cards writers talk about how they made a conscious decision not to have their heroes wear traditional costumes (except in the case of grandstanders who are doing it on purpose, like Cyclone) because it didn’t make sense in the “real world” setting. In the real world, not the world defined by comic-book superhero logic, costumes make you a target, and make it hard to function on a day-to-day basis. There’s also that whole Clark Kent and the telephone booth quandary. But the decision was possible because the writers didn’t need to rely on visual cues.


When there isn’t a visual component to the stories, other ideas become possible. More complex mental powers, and powers with no visual element at all. Wild Cards has produced some great visual superheroes — Peregrine and the Turtle come to mind. But others–Demise, the Jumpers, and at some level Fortunato, whose power and all its potential would quite possibly require many, many little text boxes to explain adequately — work best in prose, where more detail and more subtlety are possible.


The portrayal of Puppetman in the Epic Comics version of Wild Cards must have been a fraught prospect. There, Gregg Hartmann became something of a Jekyll and Hyde figure — when using his powers, he would suddenly look mean, or a shadowy monster would appear over him, pulling strings. In the novels, particularly the stories in his point of view, he could appear perfectly calm and normal while his power lashed out and wreaked havoc. Part of his spectacular breakdown in Ace in the Hole is that loss of outward calm. Again, having insight into that character’s inner thoughts made it a story that worked well in prose, where it might not have in a comic book.

Which brings me to the one thing prose does that no purely visual media can do, without the use of voiceovers or exposition: convey what it’s like, how it feels, what means to bea superhero (or villain), subjectively, from the point of view of the characters themselves. A character like Oddity has so much going on, but the most tragic thing about them is the subjectivity of their experience. In any other form, they would just be a weird brute with a crazy backstory.


Superheroes are a visual genre. I think a big reason for the popularity of the current round of TV shows and movies is the special effects finally caught up — you will believe a humanoid raccoon can fire a bazooka. Spectacular explosions and superhero battles are well and good and I love them. But prose does something more, something the movies, TV shows, and even comic books can’t do, at least not with the same finesse, and that’s get us inside this world and these characters so completely.

There’s a reason I dedicated Dreams of the Golden Ageto the Wild Cards crew. They showed me the way.