The subject of my novel, The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship, comes up pretty frequently in conversation. Even when I’m not shamelessly self-promoting (which, I’ll admit, is pretty frequently these days), it pops up in normal conversation when I’m meeting somebody new or catching up with an old friend. I’ve found, over the course of many such interactions, that the conversation usually goes a little something like this:
Me: I’ve been doing well. I recently published my first novel on the Kindle platform.
Friend: Oh! That’s exciting! What’s it about?
Me: It’s a superhero murder mystery.
Friend:…So, it’s a graphic novel?
Me: No, just a regular prose novel.
Friend: (confused look)
It’s not that these people don’t understand me or that they’re unimaginative, it’s just that the idea of superheroes is so deeply entrenched in the medium of comic books and graphic novels that when they hear the word “superhero,” their first reaction is to assume that I’m referring to a comic. It’s understandable; while superhero movies have been huge blockbusters in recent years, and superhero novels, though uncommon, have been written and published for many years now, people still think of superheroes as a subject matter reserved for four-color print.
When it comes down to it, the question that’s raised in all of these conversations is, if I’m telling a story about superheroes, why didn’t I do it as a graphic novel or comic? The short answer is that, to me, prose was the right choice.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell what was, at its heart, a detective story. That’s the reason I always describe Hero Worship as a murder mystery; it’s about a detective on the trail of a killer. The only difference here is that our detective dresses up as a giant cat and can climb walls and traverse skylines. To me, the best detective stories have always been novels, or at least short stories. From Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and even to modern detective characters like Lincoln Rhyme and Harry Dresden, prose has always been the medium I most associate with detective tales. And I think the main reason for this purely mechanical; in a work of prose, you’re expected to be wordy.
In prose, you can get inside a character’s thought processes to an extent and depth that just doesn’t work in any other medium. If you attempted to do that in film, it would result in so much voiceover narration that the audience members would tear their hair out in frustration. If you tried it in comic book form, the word balloons would fill the page and crowd out the artwork. Believe me, I know; I’ve seen comic book adaptations of mystery novels like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books, and in their attempt to preserve the tone of the work, the adaptors included so many narration boxes that I may as well have been reading the novel.
You have to be a lot more selective when including character narration and internal monologue in a comic form. Frankly, I think that would have gutted my ability to portray the character of Greg Chambers the way I wanted to. Hero Worship, in addition to being a detective story, is a character study. I wanted to portray Greg as a faceted character, to not only convey his skill, dedication and intelligence, but his self-doubt, his frailty, his paranoia. My goal is to write a character who is larger than life, but simultaneously human and flawed without being a caricature. I’m not sure I could have achieved the same effect if Hero Worship were done as a graphic novel.
In addition, the structure of the story I had in mind was better suited for a prose novel than for a graphic novel. One trend I’ve noticed in comic books as the medium has attempted to change and mature over the years is that often they’ll tell stories where not much happens from a visual standpoint. I’ve read comic series that could go four or five issues without a genuine action beat or fight scene, just because they were so bogged down in character drama that nothing else could happen. Reading those books, I would think to myself that, for all that was happening from a visual standpoint, I might as well be reading a prose novel. Hero Worship is paced a lot like that; all in all, there are five or six big (but exciting!) action moments or fight scenes in the entire novel. The rest of it is character dialogue, introspection and investigation–not a formula that lends itself very well to a superhero comic.
The best comic books and graphic novels are the ones that take advantage of the medium they’re written in. They have fight scenes, action beats and visuals that simply would lose too much of their potency if conveyed verbally. Moments like the wordless, issue-long brawl between Superman and Doomsday, or Shadowcat phasing a 10-mile long bullet through the entire Earth in Astonishing X-Men, or the bizarre, intricately detailed machinery and mutations on display in Akira–these are the things that make comics and graphic novels work as a medium. Even subtle visual elements, like a character’s expression or a beat taken up by a silent panel, can make a comic emotionally powerful.
And while, as a prose writer, I’m often complimented on my fight scenes and visual descriptions, I think these scenes work because they help serve as a window into Greg’s thoughts and they allow the reader’s imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting, something that you absolutely cannot rely on in a visual medium like comics, where stories live or die by their artwork. In addition, most of my humor is verbal; it’s based on snark, wit, and descriptions rather than visual elements.
Comics and graphic novels are their own medium, with unique strengths and weaknesses. And the weakest stories in that medium are always the ones that ignore or forget to utilize those strengths and skirt around those weaknesses. A story that would work in one medium might fail in another, and that’s my reason for writing Hero Worship as a prose novel in a nutshell; prose is simply where that story belonged, superheroes or no.