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On Superhero Fantasy: Creating a Genre

On Tuesday I talked about my fantasy problem, and the project proposal that solved it. The core of that project proposal involved taking comic book conventions and transplanting them into traditional fantasy novels.

I’ve been thinking about that old project a lot lately, and one day it occurred to me that I’ve got a Director of Marketing these days who’s a huge comic book nerd, and he’d never heard the story. I had never even mentioned the premise to him.

So I shared it with Joshua the other day. We were chatting online and I said, “Did I ever tell you about my old Fantasy Justice League story?” He was immediately intrigued (naturally), but before I got too far into the story I got called away from the conversation. I suggested we could pick it up again when we got together for Social Writing the following night.

That left Joshua with 36 hours to mull the concept of a Fantasy Justice League. So Saturday night I was sitting in the bookstore/coffee shop, chatting with some of the other writers who’d shown up early, then Joshua arrived, grabbed a seat right next to me, and said, “Okay. Tell me more.”

I dove in, describing the premise, the characters, some of the stories we wanted to tell….

And he kept trying to tie them back to actual Justice League characters. It probably could have been done, but I don’t know a thing about the Justice League. It took me three days to remember that our catburglar character was explicitly based on Catwoman!

But no, for the most part Dan and I weren’t trying to recreate existing superheroes. We were trying to take traditional fantasy characters and elevate them to superhero status by their antics. But from the moment I first said “Fantasy Justice League,” Joshua had been working on building a much truer representation than I’d imagined.

So by the time I ran out of description for my project, he started describing his. He had a stand-in for Superman ready to go, and good ideas for Batman, and there were half a dozen others who barely needed any adaptation at all.

That might sound like there would be intellectual-property concerns (and the big comic publishers are known for being a litigious bunch), but superheroes have never been a terribly original crowd. They’re all archetypes, and making a genuine transition to a unique fantasy setting (with all the character tweaks that entails) should be more than enough to clear the “transformative” hurdle.

But the interesting thing was to see how effectively the concept of “superhero fantasy” resounded for both of us, and how distinctive the end results looked. Either project would sound like “superhero fantasy,” but even with the eventual Justice League gimmick thrown in there for both of them (that is to say, a large band of the “superhero” types ends up joining forces), the two projects would produce very different end results.

There’s an awful lot to learn there, for new writers. I know a lot of writers get really excited (or anxious) about coming up with the perfect “story idea.” I know writers who are terrified of sharing their “story idea” for fear someone will steal it.

But when it comes right down to it, stories don’t live or die on the ideas. They live or die on the telling. “Fantasy Justice League” is an undeniably cool story idea, but it’s not a novel. It’s a genre. Joshua can tell his version of the story and I can tell mine.

If it takes off, it could become the next “nicey-nice vampires” — a new fad genre bursting into popularity. In the next year we could see a thousand different renderings of “Fantasy Justice League.” Some would be fascinating. Some would be terrible. Some would barely fit within the genre. Some would be direct ripoffs of other stories.

But the cool thing about it is that each one would be its own thing. The magic of writing is that there’s only a handful of actual stories, but there’s no limit to the number of tellings. There’s always room for another voice, another perspective, another twist.

Watch for some superhero fantasy from the Consortium. Maybe we’ll be ground zero for the Next Big Thing. Or if you find it happening elsewhere, be sure and let me know. If nothing else, we’ve got a couple projects to contribute to the flood.

And in the meantime, write your stories. Don’t hoard up your ideas, don’t wait for something new, just tell the story that’s interesting to you at the moment. Everything else flows from that.

One Response to “On Superhero Fantasy: Creating a Genre”

  1. This is especially interesting considering that Sean has mocked my fantasy world for being not about magic but about “superpowers in a fantasy world.” So…I guess you really stole the idea from me.