No Heroes? No problem! George R.R. Martin and others share the super solution

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Some 20 years after its inception by George R. R. Martin and his co-creators--folks as varied as Howard Waldrop, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner and Roger Zelazny--the alternate universe that diverged from ours in the year 1946 upon the arrival of superpowered beings known as either Aces or Jokers is still going strong.

The latest offering from Martin and co-editor Snodgrass, Busted Flush, features nine writers weaving together a tale of metahuman realpolitik that spans nuclear blasts in Texas, conniving oil shieks in the Mideast and brutal rebellions in Africa. Oh, yes, as well as a mutant rock band and a reality TV show, American Hero.

Events flow seamlessly and at a rapid clip among the collaborative chapters, providing a roller-coaster ride. But the reader is left at the end asking a seminal question: How does this prose medium trump traditional comics? Lacking visuals, a superhero novel must embody several unique virtues: interiority of characterization, density of ideation, animation over static images and lushness of prose.

But Busted Flush comes up deficient in several areas. The doings of the superheros, the trials and challenges they face, are relentlessly mundane. There are no cosmic antagonists or world-crushing apocalypses, just tawdry villains like those in our everyday headlines. The prose often reads like script instructions to an artist: "The Midnight Angel is clad in black leather. Every curve of her lush body is revealed by the skintight jumpsuit." (Victor Milán's Ross Thomas impersonation fares the best.) And any psychological depth is shallow at best.

But these common pitfalls have failed to deter a fresh crop of superhero novelists. (That would be "novelists who focus on superheros," not "novelists who sport their underwear on the outside.")

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain
Minister Faust

Minister Faust goes for laughs in From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. Eva Brain-Silverman, author of such self-help tomes as UnMasked!: When Being a Superhero Can't Save You From Yourself, is a therapist who specializes in the cape crowd. Her clients range from Omnipotent Man and Power Grrrl to Flying Squirrel and Superfly. As you might guess, their exploits more often involve failure and humiliation than glory and acclaim.

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman

Austin Grossman makes a bold debut with his well-received Soon I Will Be Invincible. Taking all the standard superhero tropes as worthy of his talent, while simultaneously holding them up to piercing scrutiny, he chronicles the eternal battle between Doctor Impossible and a group called the Champions, who bear more than a little resemblance to the Fantastic Four.

Playing for Keeps
Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty embodies the underdog, nebbish point of view in her novel, Playing for Keeps. Her protagonist, a woman named Keepsie who owns a saloon, has the nearly useless power of always retaining what she owns: She is unstealable-from. Living in battered Seventh City, Keepsie and her pals try to ignore the metahumans around them. But events force them to finally confront the doings of their superiors, with unpredictable results.

Perry Moore

Perry Moore's young-adult offering, Hero, features a high-school-age protagonist named Thom Creed who happens to be gay. Still in the closet with his father, an ex-superhero himself, Thom is now faced with the unsettling emergence of his own powers--and the chance to join the League, a collection of heroes including the unfortunately empowered "Typhoid Larry."

Who Can Save Us Now?
Owen King and John McNally

Finally, for maximum variety, editors Owen King and John McNally assemble contributions from 22 different writers in Who Can Save Us Now?. As you might imagine, the pieces range all over the map, from a giant silverfish-shaped hero (McNally's own tale) to Sam Weller's "The Quick Stop 5," whose champions frequent a convenience mart of that name.

This latest surge of "graphic novels without the graphics" might be a passing fad--or the conquest of old-school fiction by its upstart four-color offspring.