From Panels to Prose: The Art of the Superhero Novel

(I'm delighted to present the following guest post from author and frequent commenter Ian Healy. Thanks Ian! I'm posting it today because creative writers putting together interesting super-hero novels is definitely a Thing I Like. -- Jeff)

Jeff asked me (out of desperation, surely) to write a guest post for the HeroMachine blog this week on account of he’s, y’know, moving and stuff. Since I’ve been using the HeroMachine pretty much exclusively for the images on my website ( because I’m also plugging it here), I couldn’t possibly say no.

My name is Ian, and I write superhero fiction. Now that I’ve gotten that admittedly embarrassing confession off my chest, let me tell you a little about it.

I’m a long-time comic book fan, into my third decade of collecting and reading them. One day, back in junior high school, I was poking around in the library, looking for something new to read, and happened across a series of novels called Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin. These books were about superheroes. People with powers. Who did things. And there wasn’t a single picture in them! I read them all. Then I read them again. These were science fiction authors who created an entire universe of superpowered, yet realistic characters. The seed had been planted.

Then, in high school, I read Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and realized that good writing can transcend the medium of sequential art. Both are masterfully-plotted stories which I can’t recommend enough. More seeds had been planted.

It took years before I finally figured out that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I haven’t grown up yet, but I can call myself a writer without it ringing all hollow in my ears. I’m published (short stories, but somebody liked them enough to print them). I have an agent who is currently marketing my novel-length fiction to the publishing world, and with a little luck, I could have a novel (or novels) on the shelves by next year.

Jeff was a beta reader for my superhero novel Blackout: A Just Cause Novel, which follows the lives of four characters over a 21-hour period during the New York City Blackout of 1977. One of the biggest challenges of this project was to take a well-known historical event and weave the superpowers into it. In doing so, I learned something very important about creating believable superhero characters.

A character is not a collection of powers and a costume.

Therein lies the biggest problem of superhero fiction. Writers think in terms of powers first, and then create the character with those powers. What you wind up with then is a knockoff of an existing character, or a cliché, or even a shallow, one-dimensional character. Nobody wants to read about those; they’re boring! When I set about creating the characters of Blackout, I worked out their personalities, goals, motives, etc. long before I figured out their powers. Costumes became an afterthought, because in a realistic world setting, costumes are a little ridiculous. Very few people can pull off the skintight bodysuit look, and costumes never look as good in reality as they do on paper. I wound up with four diverse characters whose stories nevertheless intertwined against the backdrop of the Blackout. The superpowers didn’t define the characters or their actions; the story could just about work without them at all. To write believable, realistic superhero fiction (which I realize is a misnomer), your characters must be more than just a collection of powers and a costume. Like with the HeroMachine, build your characters from the inside out, and you’ll wind up with people your readers will want to know more about, instead of paper-thin cutouts.

Ian Thomas Healy is a writer of superhero and other speculative fiction. He is also the creator of The Adventures of the S-Team daily webcomic. His short stories “The Scent of Rose Petals” and “Graceful Blur” have appeared in A Thousand Faces (, and a third story, “The Steel Soldier’s Gambit” will appear in an upcoming issue later this year. Learn more about Ian and his work at