Superhero Fiction As Genre

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Superhero Fiction As Genre

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Sep 2, 2012, 4:35 pm

This is perhaps a slightly odd question to be posting in Science Fiction Fans, but anyway... how do you view superhero fiction as a genre? Do you see it as a sub-genre of science fiction, a sub-genre of fantasy, or as its own speculative fiction genre, akin to but discrete from science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.? Or do you view it another way entirely?

Sep 2, 2012, 5:11 pm

As its own speculative fiction genre, akin to but discrete from science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.

Edited: Sep 2, 2012, 6:07 pm

I view it much like anglemark. I see it as sharing elements with several genres, but the fact it's pretty easy to identify a work as being superhero, makes it its own category, in my opinion.

However, the superhero stuff often seems to bridge genres, though not necessarily science fiction. More of the superhero stuff seems akin to fantasy to me, and while I haven't seen the Iron Man movies, my impression is that's one that might have some real SF content.

Sep 2, 2012, 6:35 pm

I'd say it's Modern Fantasy.

Sep 2, 2012, 11:14 pm

#3 by GwenH> and while I haven't seen the Iron Man movies, my impression is that's one that might have some real SF content.

Not without some "inertial dampers." XD

Edited: Sep 3, 2012, 12:29 am

>5 paradoxosalpha:

Oh yeah, that's certainly up for consideration, too - you could do a lengthy dissertation on all the Christ figures (fascinatingly, created by mostly Jewish artists and writers) in American superhero comics alone.

Sep 3, 2012, 12:26 am

Along with that, there's the whole creation of "Superman" by Jewish artists and writers at around the same Hitler brought the Nazis to power. The same Nazis which then distorted Nietzsche's ├ťbermensch (translated by some as "superman") for their own racist purposes. It's hard to tell how much of a linkage their really was versus coincidence. But it's an interesting intersection.

Sep 3, 2012, 12:44 am

It could be described Modern Fantasy. but its more than descrete and large enough to warrants its own genre. within speculative fiction, In contrast cyberpunk and slip stream are not sufficently distinct to make them more than subgenres.

Sep 3, 2012, 4:47 am

Well it depends doesn't it. I think superhero fiction can be SF.

Gladiator by Philip Wylie is definitely SF and is definitely a super powered human by not a superhero.
I guess too that Count Geiger's Blues is a SF book which features a superhero but which probably falls outside the superhero genre.
Adam Christopher's Empire State too is something I would count as SF, it feels like a superhero story (although one from the very dawn of superheroes when pulp was still dominant), and is SF.

As for comics. Well it really depends on how fast and loose you want your science. A case could be made for a few characters / teams. However in general the way superhero stories are told in comics is generally different to more SF based stories in comics.

Sep 3, 2012, 6:13 am


Gladiator... Not a superhero.

Count Geiger's Blues... falls outside the superhero genre.

Empire State feels like a superhero story... and is SF.

nods you can use tropes outside their expected genre, I think most people realise that.though they might argue about where an individual work might fall. Indeed the ability to seamlessly assimilate an erstwhile alien trope into a genre so is a sign of a superior writer.

Sep 3, 2012, 11:01 am

>10 andyl:

Thank you for reminding me of Gladiator - I've been meaning to track down a copy of that for a very long time. :)

Sep 3, 2012, 12:28 pm

Like SimonW11, I make the distinction between "superhuman" fiction and "superhero" fiction. For me to classify something as superhero fiction, there have to heroes in the comic book sense (which doesn't mean they have to superhuman).

While most superhero fiction falls into the fantasy category due to the presence of supernatural elements, it isn't inherently fantasy. It's possible to have superhero SF by not including anything supernatural. Something I think Wild Cards and Black and White do reasonably well.

Sep 3, 2012, 1:33 pm

> 13

Yes, we've all become used to the extraterrestrial and mutant superhero subtypes, but Batman's not superhuman, and he emblemizes a whole semi-vigilante masked superhero type that extends from the pulps (the Shadow, e.g.) through modern comics.

Sep 3, 2012, 2:15 pm

I guess it depends on what you mean by "superhero fiction." First time I've heard the term, which probably attests to how much recent conversation I've missed. Would it include something like Dune? Beyond appearing with a cape on Saturday mornings, what defines a superhero?

Sep 3, 2012, 2:49 pm

> 14 & 15

In my attempt to define superhero fiction, a story must have a significant subset of (superhero) genre tropes. These include: superpowers, costumes and masks, secret identities, hero vs. villain, genre blindness, crime fighting / vigilantism, 'super' plots, and superhero culture. See

for more of my attempt to define superhero fiction. Note that at the time I wrote this, I hadn't come up with the distinction between 'superhuman' and 'superhero'.

Batman is a good example of a character who is primarily portrayed as being "merely" human, yet is fully a superhero as the obviously superhuman Superman.

Sep 3, 2012, 3:54 pm

Ummm isn't the "Superhero" an extension of a classic hero character? I remember the educational Joseph Campbell series on religion and some of his comments on the development of the hero myth. I think he stated the archetypal hero classical evolution was from a prankster to a hero by the end of the story.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces book by Campbell I read on wiki that he tackles this subject and is mentioned in this article on screen writing.

Sep 3, 2012, 11:33 pm

>15 Jim53:

Superhero fiction is a genre originating in and most common to American comic books, though it has expanded into other media through adaptations and original works.

The form is a type of speculative fiction examining the adventures of costumed crime fighters known as superheroes, who often possess superhuman powers and battle similarly powered criminals known as supervillains. Occasionally, this type of fiction is referred to as superhuman or super-powered fiction rather than superhero fiction in order to reflect that broader scope of both heroes and villains, as well as cover those characters with enhanced abilities that fall outside the classic superhero/supervillain dichotomy.

From the Wikipedia article Superhero fiction (

A series where the main character has powers and/or abilities that set him aside from other people. Usually (unless he's Not Wearing Tights) he is a costumed do-gooder with a colourful outfit (which likely sports a Chest Insignia), a Secret Identity and often unusual and useful superpowers or equipment. Sometimes he's a loner trying to deal with the hand that fate dealt him. Usually his reason for existence is to defeat his nemesis or arch-enemy the Supervillain.

...Superheroes are
not limited merely to comic books and their derivations. Greek Heroes like Heracles and Achilles could be considered a sort of ancient prototype. Knight Rider or The Six Million Dollar Man are television examples partaking fairly little of the comic book medium. Anime in particular is chock full of super heroes from Astro Boy to Goku and Sailor Moon...Not to mention Super Robot, which is the Super Hero writ very large (and armored).

From the TV Tropes article Super Hero (

Sep 4, 2012, 8:24 am

On that basis, you can make a very good case for James Bond being a superhero.

Sep 4, 2012, 8:46 am

To me, if you have to convince someone that X is a superhero, then X probably isn't a superhero.

Sep 4, 2012, 8:49 am

Of course James Bond is a superhero. And Doctor Who is James Bond.

Sep 4, 2012, 9:08 am

It's all about the tropes.

Sep 4, 2012, 11:04 am

Yes, send in the tropes!


Sep 4, 2012, 11:21 am

You know, that was a cute panel title.

Sep 4, 2012, 11:24 am

Without the tropes, genres kind of disappear and everything is just "fiction". Even history. ;)

Sep 4, 2012, 11:41 am

In German the word for 'story' and 'history' is the same: "Geschichte".

Sep 4, 2012, 11:47 am

I always think of the word "history" as "his story". I'm still waiting for herstory.

Sep 4, 2012, 11:50 am

> 27

Isn't the future born from the womb of hystery?

Sep 4, 2012, 11:51 am

#27 by pgmcc> You must have missed the 60s, then. ;)

Sep 4, 2012, 12:30 pm

#29 Thanks, brightcopy. I was probably too focused on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programmes to notice that.

Edited: Sep 4, 2012, 12:54 pm

I'd say superheroes are their own genre, with a scale that slides from science fiction (The Physics of Superheroes as an example for how you could have scientific heroes0 all the way to fantasy and even religious.

Edited: Mar 4, 2013, 6:25 pm

Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on science fiction lists "superhuman" as a science fiction subgenre ( Examples given are Slan (A.E. Van Vogt), Odd John (Olaf Stapledon), More Than Human (Theodore Sturgeon), and Man Plus (Frederik Pohl).

Mar 5, 2013, 4:37 am

But superhuman (├╝bermensch) is not at all the same thing as superhero.

Mar 5, 2013, 4:44 am

A superhuman could be a hero or a villain, or an ordinary superhuman who has a normal day job that frustrates him/her totally because he/she is of the opinion that he/she is not reaching his/her maximum potential which, given his/her superpowers, may be difficult to determine as he/she may be unique and find him/herself in a bookshop or browsing the Internet and not be able to find a self-help guide on how to be a fully effective superhuman...

Mar 5, 2013, 7:56 am

#34 Dying Inside for example?

Mar 5, 2013, 8:21 am

Precisely. I thought that book contained the most perfect review of Kafka's The Trial.

Mar 5, 2013, 9:00 am

>33 anglemark:

And vice versa, actually. Batman, for example, is clearly a superhero (an archetypal one at that) yet he possesses no superhuman powers.

>34 pgmcc:-36

Sounds good! Onto the wish list it goes. 8)

Edited: Mar 5, 2013, 10:04 am

Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sometimes uses the locution "science hero," which suits a character like Batman. Even though he's just a (wealthy, hyperintelligent, combat trained) human, he has access to exotic technology. It would also apply to mutated superhumans.

Mar 5, 2013, 10:09 am

#38 by 2wonderY> That was a fun book.

Mar 5, 2013, 10:33 am

#39 I thought it was Tom Strong who was the science hero, not the League?

Mar 5, 2013, 10:51 am

#39 & #41 I think Brian Cox is the real Science Hero.


Mar 5, 2013, 11:08 am

> 41

I haven't read Tom Strong, but yes, I suppose he's a science hero. He's not the only one, though, as the newly-issued Nemo: Heart of Ice demonstrates. Several of the antagonists in that volume are science heroes, as is, arguably, Nemo herself.

Mar 5, 2013, 12:14 pm

Didn't know about that Nemo one. Will have to stick it on my wishlist.

Mar 5, 2013, 1:25 pm

>34 pgmcc: If a superhuman has superior cognizance, knowledge and analytical tools to us mere humans, perhaps only the superhuman would know if they were a hero to humanity.

Mar 5, 2013, 4:04 pm

Any sufficiently advanced science hero is indistinguishable from a superhero.


Mar 5, 2013, 4:53 pm

>48 brightcopy:

Aha! The little-known Fourth Law of Clarke. :D

Mar 5, 2013, 8:25 pm

The trope that keeps me from really enjoying most superhero books is the fact that you know the series is always going to continue in some form, so no one ever really dies. Sometimes the characters morph, such as Batgirl-->Oracle, but it's hard to get emotionally invested when you know not much is really at stake. And no matter what happens, there's always the likelihood that some deus ex machina will swoop in to save the day.

I know All Star Superman was supposed to be really good, but the fact that I knew he can never really die made it so I didn't really care about this "death of Superman" plot.

Mar 5, 2013, 8:34 pm

>50 weener:
Some stay dead for decades though (Barry Allen for example) and some of the dead from the various crises in the DC worlds are yet to return.
But then - you are pretty much sure that the main character in any series (superhero or not) will survive whatever happens...

Mar 5, 2013, 9:21 pm

As anybody read any of the Shadowmen books from Black Coat Press? They seem to be along the lines of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman but with characters from French literature.

Mar 6, 2013, 10:33 am

> 50

All Star Superman is really good. But my favorite of Morrison's work, which does include explicit superhero business, is The Filth. It gets robustly metafictional and offers some explorations of the cultural needs and social functions addressed by superheroes, while weaving a sort of outre science fiction psychedelic odyssey that (now that I think of it) reminds me a little of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell crossed with Austin Powers.

Mar 6, 2013, 4:18 pm

>53 paradoxosalpha: All-Star Superman's artwork was lovely but other than that it didn't do much for me. I'm not that familiar with the source material so perhaps I wasn't prepared to enjoy it as much as some people are. My boyfriend is a superhero fanatic and I read it based on his recommendation. I did quite enjoy Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, though, another of his recommendations.

Edited: Mar 6, 2013, 8:57 pm

From the villain's point of view: Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman.

Mar 7, 2013, 1:22 am

Are there any well know superheroes who have remained virtually unchanged throughout their history? They do all seem to morph powers or clone or resurrect which I also find unsatisfying.

Mar 7, 2013, 8:44 am

I'd say Batman has stayed pretty much the same in terms of powers an storyline. He goes through phases of being more and less "gritty", though.

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