Pictures and Words

by Max Gladstone

Picture if you will Action Comics #1: a man wearing blue tights under red undies lifts a green 1937 DeSoto over his head, and smashes it against a cliff. A red cape billows from his shoulders. Crooks flee. Though the catchphrase wouldn’t be used until much later—it’s not a bird, it’s not a plane, it’s Superman!

Or, Amazing Fantasy #15: jaunty Dutch angle of a young man dressed in a face-covering mask and a red and blue spiderwebbed leotard, swinging from a spiderweb, with a criminal held under his arm. The Amazing Spider-Man!

Or the Fantastic Four #1, aswirl with the Human Torch’s flame, the titular Foursome deploying their elemental powers against a giant green monster.

The key word here is Picture. Again and again superheroes appear in costumed array and four color process, the Men and Women of Tomorrow ready for their closeup. They punch through the panel gutters and soar across the splash page. Even the great works of superhero deconstruction—from Moore’s Watchmen to King’s Mister Miracle—use the comics page to dissect itself, leaning into the nine panel grid structure, the tense links of picture to word. And when superheroes made the jump to the billion-dollar screen, they kept much of this visual language and style. The costumes might be a bit more textured and less color-saturated in live action, but the giant green man with the suspiciously stretchy trousers remains giant and green, and the trousers still accommodate a range of thigh measurements Lululemon would envy.

Recently a friend who’s a longtime reader of Wild Cards remarked on how rare and special he and his friends found the project when they were growing up, specifically as a prose super-story, a story of super-beings told word by word rather than panel by panel. I was surprised by my own surprise: both that such a thing might be rare, and that it had never occurred to me how rare it was. Perhaps this was because I wrote a great deal of my early fiction for a comic book crossover fanfiction space online—so costumes and supervillains seemed normal for me in prose. But, professional published fiction? I could list a few books at most. Setting aside for a moment comic book tie-in novels—content-centered media corporations will naturally leverage their characters, concepts, and stories in as many lanes as possible, which of course doesn’t say anything one way or the other about the quality of the books or TV series or films those instances of leverage produce—there are a few standout examples of superhero or supervillain fiction, like Sarah Kuhn’s fantastic Heroine novels, Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age, or VE Schwab’s Vicious, and works of satire like Soon I Will Be Invincible

But while I can point to bookstores’ worth of novels about vampires or werewolves or space wars, the impulse to sit down and write an original prose superhero tale seems rare by comparison. Which raises the question: why? And: why does Wild Cards work?
Some would argue with my premise here, and claim an ancestry for super-folks that runs back to the dawn of writing, long before the modern tights-and-capes comic books, including figures like Gilgamesh, Bhima, and Hercules. But I see clear lines between the mythic hero and the superhero—lines of inheritance, yes, but also lines of distinction. Gilgamesh and Lancelot and the rest of the crew have exceptional abilities, but they live in different moral universes, and address different concerns, than do the superheroes of the twentieth and twenty-first century. True, by the time pulp heroes like Doc Savage and the Shadow arise, with their secret identities, rogues’ galleries, reclusive bases, and legions of super-friends, it’s hard to deny their nature as prose super-heroes. But after the rise of the comic book, these heroes are more seldom seen in prose adventure, as if the comic book was where the heroes belonged all along, and they were just waiting in the pulps for a chance to emigrate. Of course, plenty of prose stories still star superpowered mutants, hyperintelligent detectives, angels, aliens, and mighty warriors of all varieties, but they’re rarely presented as ‘heroes’ in the comics model. The Vampire Lestat may be super fast and super strong, and very occasionally he might save the world, but no one would confuse him for a super-hero.

So: is there something essentially superheroic about comics? Do comics stories just lend themselves more to super-antics than the prose page? And how are Wild Cards stories different from the sorts of stories you see between the covers of a monthly magazine? Or: how are they the same?
Melinda Snodgrass, a series editor, has this to say: “The major difference I’ve found between writing superheroes in prose and in a comic or graphic novel is that without visuals to help sell the action sequences they end up being boring in prose. Especially if a writer tries to give a punch-by-kick description of the fight. We can never manage to compete with a giant set piece in a Marvel film. So I think Wild Cards (For the most part) found a way around that by putting the focus more on the internal conflicts of the characters, and moral and emotional choices that can gut a character.”
Paul Cornell also emphasizes that inner focus: “’I think there’s so little super hero prose because until relatively recently super heroes were regarded as being first and foremost visual beings. That’s also why proper super hero movies took so long to arrive, because special effects had to catch up with what the comics could show. Now the comics have become, in the last few decades, more internalised, more about what the super hero sees from inside rather than what the world sees of them, prose is suddenly in the frame in terms of connecting to those narratives. In the movies, it’s still relatively novel to have someone pick up a car and throw it. In comics, that’s kind of passé. In prose, well, the inner experience of picking up that car offers a wealth of new material.”

Since the modern superhero, with her costume and flashy power set and outlandish origin, emerged from the comics page, it makes sense that the language in which she is most at home—the narrative tools and shorthand by which she is conveyed—remains visual. We recognize Superman because he can lift a car, bullets bounce off him, and he can fly. Spider-Man, meanwhile, swings from webs. Each hero can be recognized by her clear, easily differentiated costume. (The costumes serve a range of instrumental ends, as John Miller points out: skin-tight spandex is easier to draw than street clothes, and in the early decades of superhero-dom when a shocking number of superheroes were lantern-jawed white men with dark hair, costumes helped the reader tell one character from another. There’s even a famous campy Batman and Superman story where the two trade costumes to defeat the Joker and Lex Luthor, because Bruce Wayne and Superman are drawn exactly alike.)
But even when superheroes’ abilities veer toward the surreal—the psychic, mystical, or cosmic—it’s up to artists to translate those abilities to the page through pencil and ink. Zatanna speaks backwards. Professor X communicates through thought bubbles—and, when he engages in battle, he does so in an astral or psychic realm, an artistically surreal space. Occult circles halo Doctor Strange’s hands when he works magic. Extra wiggly lines around a character’s temples mean “mind control” or “spider-sense tingling.” And of course there are the famous Kirby dots—inky black bubbles that appear in Jack Kirby comics around devices of world-shattering cosmic and technological power. The more dots you have, the more world-shattering! Any attempt to capture these heroes in prose would involve surrendering the visual language through which their powers exist. What, after all, is the plaintext equivalent of a Kirby dot?

But, as Melinda and Paul point out, prose has other, more interior tools—and Wild Cards writers use those tools to create characters suited to the medium. The Great and Powerful Turtle, for example, has a superpower that would shine in any super-book: telekinesis. But his power’s limit is psychological: the Turtle can’t use his TK if he feels nervous or scared. Internal, psychological limits like this are excellent narrative constraints in prose, but panic attacks are hard to draw. (Unless you’re so lucky as to have your comics drawn by a stylist like Bill Sienkiewicz, with the gift of blending external and internal worlds.) Many comics superheroes struggle with psychological issues and mental blocks—but when I was reading X-Men growing up it seemed that every time the narrative called for Storm to experience a panic attack due to her claustrophobia, the writer had to explain what was happening in a thought bubble and a narrative box and a citation for good measure. In prose, claustrophobia would anchor Storm’s character design far more than would her haircut or whether or the presence or absence of a spiked collar. Since prose fiction excels at internal experience, Wild Cards’ emphasis on prose lets characters shine who might be difficult to convey on the comics page. Take the Sleeper, for instance: Croyd has a different power set and appearance every time he wakes up! Hard enough to write effectively, but to draw?
Prose also requires a different sort of world building than the comics page. Costumed superpowered vigilantism on the Big Two comic book model is an odd spectacle-forward mix of magic, superscience, fetishism, social commentary, and Lucha Libre. The ecosystem of concealed identities, archnemeses, superheroes, and supervillains feels natural in comics in part because it’s familiar as an old boot—holed and patched, yes, but also broken in by crossover after crossover, character after character. The big comics universes have the authority of big comics history—but a writer who wants to create an original superhero story has to build all that history from the ground up. That’s why it took superhero movies decades to grow beyond the origin moment: before you can establish that a whole universe of these people exists, you have to prove one of them can. For this reason, the superhero universes that exist in prose are often worlds of superscience or magic in which a few characters just so happen to wear tights or rob banks—often because they’re fans of, or consciously emulating, the superhero comics they read as children.

That’s a hurdle Wild Cards cleared early, through the first anthology’s historical approach: its stories span the century, creating almost fifty years of super-history. This continuity also establishes some important differences between the Wild Cards universe and the worlds of comics superheroes, especially those portrayed by the Big Two. For example, Wild Cards does not tend to rely on the device of the Secret Identity. With few exceptions, characters are who they are; they have street names, and names that tie into their powers, but few spend a great deal of effort keeping their natures separate. (In this way, Wild Cards prefigured the modern wave of post-secrecy superheroes—and even Tony Stark’s decision not to use his secret identity after the first Iron Man film.) It’s no coincidence that secret identities are especially difficult to use in fiction—a visual artist has many more channels through which to convey information, while if a writer calls a character by one name in one scene in prose, then by another name in another scene, it’s difficult to establish even to attentive readers that these two characters are the same person.

I’ve focused here on the differences between prose and comics as forms— but of course, form isn’t the only difference between Western prose fiction and Western comics. There are also huge differences in the manner in which the work is done, owned, and paid for. Bob Wayne points out that while the storytelling impulse remains the same, comics in the West are inherently collaborative in a way prose is not.
“Creatively, I feel they’re very different disciplines, both in service to storytelling. In a prose story, the author is communicating directly to the reader, with only the editor as a potential intermediary. Generally every word in the manuscript is intended to be read and appreciated by the reader. In comics, the collaborative nature of the medium changes that substantially. The complete manuscript is usually only read by a few people: the editor, the pencil artist, the inker, the letterer, the colorist. You’re describing things that are intended to be read primarily by your collaborators. Only the word balloons, sound effects and captions are seen by the reader. Because it’s a collaborative visual medium, the pencil artist usually has latitude for designing the characters (with input from the writer and the editor) and even for structuring the story page itself. There’s a wide spectrum of approaches for how to do this, from the extremely detailed scripts of a writer like Alan Moore to the classic “Marvel style” developed by Stan Lee and his artistic collaborators where the artist is given a loose plot, draws the comic, and the writer goes in and scripts to fit the penciled art. But it’s still storytelling.”

Not only do comics and prose have different default methods of creation in the West, there’s also a huge difference in who owns the resulting work. Here’s John Miller: “The comic-book super-heroes (for the vast majority of comic book history) were owned lock, stock, and barrel, by the companies. This is not to say that some of the prose properties weren’t owned by their publishers, but for the most part it seems that the pulp publishers were happy enough to let their writers do what they wanted as long as they got their work done and on time, so it was that one main writer always controlled characters like the Shadow, Doc Savage, the Spider, the Avenger. Of course – other prose writers like ER Burroughs and Robert E. Howard had complete ownership of their creations and were not as subject to editorial whim, resulting in more coherent and strongly conceived universes, which was not at all the way of the comic book world, until the mid 1960’s when Marvel introduced the concept of continuity throughout their entire universe (which, granted, was not always completely sustained).”
Corporate ownership of these properties subjects comics writing to editorial whim (and constrains a certain sort of derivative work activity), but it gave the characters a kind of enduring life beyond any individual creator. While cross-title continuity might have been rare before the 1960s, in the decades since, Big Two comics universes have become a rare space in the present copyright regime for a storytelling pseudo-commons—owned lock, stock, and barrel by a single company, yes, but in storytelling practice a shared universe, a joint legendarium. Comics writers in the big superhero universes work under editorial supervision, and are endorsed, hired, and fired by their respective corporations, but within those bounds they can build off, argue with, refute, and further the stories of their fellow writers and their predecessors, much as the writers of Arthurian romances responded to and one-upped each other throughout European literary history. Modern commercial prose writers rarely engage with the works of their contemporaries in such a direct fashion, in part because so few of their contemporaries’ works are in the public domain—which is part of the reason Sherlock Holmes and Dracula appear so often in modern writing, compared to figures like, say, James Bond. This might not by itself explain why so much 19th century popular culture retains its vital in the modern era, while 20th century popular culture rapidly acquires a sepia tone—but it is one key piece of the puzzle.

That hive of creativity—dozens of authors responding to, bouncing off, interfering with one another’s work—lends superhero comics its distinctive mythic character. And here we find the bright line I see connecting superhero stories, in Wild Cards or in comics, to earlier myths and legends. Myths are never told all at once. They grow with retelling, like glaciers lifting and carrying new language from each teller, sculpted by and sculpting human experience. Wild Cards’ collective approach to storytelling helps it capture the refining magic of the folk tale. Picture it, if you will: a collective of writers pursuing individual stories gathered into a greater whole—tellers telling tales back and forth, creating icons, reaching for something true.