The Big Idea: David J. Schwartz

If Spider-Man — and indeed the entire Marvel canon — has taught us anything, it’s that being a super-hero isn’t as easy as it looks. But if you think that’s difficult, try writing one… especially when you’re aware of all the inherent flaws of the genre, no matter how much you love it. In Superpowers, author David J. Schwartz writes up not one but five newbie superheroes, and decides in working with them to zig where most writers (and readers) zag, just to see what would happen. What’s the zig — and what happens? David J. Schwartz uses his super-typing powers to explain.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I became a person who has a lot of skepticism about the things I love. Pulp fiction? Love it–aside from the bits where women always bring trouble, the mysteries rarely make actual sense, and the bewildering etymology of the word “gunsel.” Latin American literature? Transcendent, if you’ve got a tolerance for metric tons of macho, the dominance of Catholic themes, and a fascination with incest. The Lord of the Rings? It still gets me–except for the part where it’s all about buttressing flawed monarchies, defining good and evil along racial lines, and, well . . . elves.

Which brings me to comic books, specifically super-hero comics. I can’t get enough of these stories, and I have the long boxes to prove it. I love the discovery of weird abilities, the monthly struggle to do the right thing, the last-minute victory against overwhelming odds. This despite the rampant sexism in comics which presents women as ornaments or victims in order to appeal to the fantasies and insecurities of adolescent boys; despite the fact that I worry that heroes with unlimited power and unimpeachable virtue make some readers complacent about the state of truth and justice in the world; and despite the fact that the struggles between costumed figures often seem too mythic to say much about the mistakes and choices made by normal humans.

I like mythic, too, but for Superpowers I made a decision early on: no super-villains. No silly men with overly complicated plans, no giant monsters, no shadowy government organization pulling strings. In a way super-villains make it easy on heroes; obviously _someone_ needs to do something about Dr. Unpleasant, and who better than the ordinary sanitation worker who’s just received the strength of a gorilla from a radioactive plantain? This is how writers and editors avoid having decent, hard-working Captain Banana beat up on normal civilians, which is all well and good except for the part where crime becomes something perpetrated by archetypes instead of people.

That wasn’t going to work for me, because what I really wanted to talk about was power–political, military, and personal–and how we use it. The story is about how these five college kids in Madison, Wisconsin wake up one morning with new abilities, and how that changes their lives. It’s about their good intentions and the bad decisions that follow. In a way, power itself becomes a villain, because the thing that they discover is that once you have that sort of power, it’s very difficult _not_ to use it.

Which is all well and good, but there’s one thing that villains do really well, and that’s drive a plot. My Rule One for writing–hopefully every writer’s Rule One–is DON’T BE BORING. The challenge for Superpowers was, having decided to forgo the slug-fest, not to go to the other extreme and write a full-bore angst-fest. How to avoid that? My personal crutch is humor, and there’s a lot of comic potential in not knowing your own strength, or having no control over when you’re going to turn invisible. Keeping it light works until the point where it’s necessary to knock that crutch out from under the reader and beat them with it. Hey, you don’t need a villain; you’ve got me!

Did I say that I love superhero stories? I do, and as much as Superpowers is about Big Ideas, it’s also about the sheer fun of being able to fly, or to run the two-minute mile in less than a second. Yeah, these are power fantasies, but I think we’ve all imagined what it might be like to do those things. I also had a lot of fun referencing–both openly and in ways that only the true geeks will pick up on–the characters and stories that I obsessed over in my teens and twenties. Many of which did the sort of thing that I’ve tried to do with this book–tell a good superhero story with full awareness of the problems inherent in the genre.


Superpowers: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Superpowers here. Visit Schwartz’s Livejournal here.

18 Comments on “The Big Idea: David J. Schwartz”

  1. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one.

    A couple of other recent superpower novels I enjoyed:

    Faust, Minister. 2007. From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain.
    Grossman, Austin. 2007. Soon I will be Invincible

    Faust’s book has the form of a superhero self-help book, with the narrative embedded as a ‘case study’ of superheroing dysfunction. Grossman’s Invincible alternates between the activities of Dr. Impossible, an entertaining supervillain, and a rookie superhero who is part of the team opposing his latest plan for world domination.

  2. I picked this up recently, after having read a description a while back and recently reading a couple of positive reviews on various blogs. So I’m happy to see it here as a Big Idea, and I’m looking forward to reading it even more after reading Schwartz’s Big Idea piece!

  3. I’ll definitely have to pick this up.

    Sounds like the new comic series by Warren Ellis, “No Hero”.

  4. Great idea – this book just went onto my wish list (that’s where I keep my ‘to be purchased when I can afford it’ list.)

  5. I don’t know if David will be answering questions here, and I’m too lazy (well, busy actually) to go trawling elsewhere for an answer, but I wonder why this isn’t a comic book? It seems to me that the best place to explore superhero stories is in their natural state. Now, the reason could be that David isn’t the sort of person who can write comics (it is certainly a different group of brain muscles), or it could be that he was under contract to write a book and this was the best idea he had (nothing motivates like a team of lawyers). But now that it’s a book, has there been any discussion of making it into a comic?

  6. I would also recommend the “Union Dues” series of stories from Jeffrey DeRego. Great “real world” superheroes with lots of issues, but no super-villains.

  7. As a comicbook fan, one of the neat things I found in reading SUPERPOWERS was that it managed to provide that specific pleasure I get from reading a superhero comic book. Which is something you almost never get out of a purely text novel. That was a neat trick, especially since it came packaged along with the pleasure I get out of reading novels, too.

  8. Damn you, Scalzi, that brings this week’s book bill up to $30. Pretty soon I’ll be spending more on books than coffee.

  9. Yay, a Big Idea on Superpowers! I just finished this yesterday, and speaking as a non-comics-person, I liked it a lot. It’s deceptively light and funny: the serious questioning of the uses of power and our obligations to the social contract kind of sneak up behind you when you’re not paying attention.

  10. Darn it. Darn it, darn it, darn it.

    Uh, yeah, I will definitely buy and read this (and probably love it), and then in every possible way try to rewrite my own novel on the same basic premise and themes to completely and utterly avoid Schwartz’s.

    Darn it.

  11. To answer Jemaleddin’s question: the reason Superpowers isn’t a comic is that I can’t draw :-)

    To answer more seriously, I would say that I was trying to do some things that perhaps work better in prose than in sequential art. I think that it’s easier to be introspective, for example, in prose. At the very least it’s easier to show those moments between the action. There’s action in the book, but I very much wanted to stress the fact that these are still ordinary kids with some extraordinary abilities — I wanted to keep them life-sized and not larger. I certainly wouldn’t be averse to working in comics at some point (perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’d love to have a crack at them), but I’m not sure I could have told this story in the same way in that format. And hopefully this way I’ll be able to reach an audience who may not have been inside a comic book shop in their entire lives.

  12. Is running a two-minute mile in less than a second something like doing the Kessel Run in less than eight parsecs?

    I like the radioactive plantain, though, and think The Radioactive Plantain would be a great name for a blog.

  13. So we have here five “super-powered” young adults with a) no idea what their powers are; b) no idea what to do with them; and c) an author who thinks it’s funny to laugh at them, and get his readers to laugh at them, while they try to deal with points a and b?

    No thanks, I’ll pass.

  14. a) no idea what their powers are; b) no idea what to do with them; and c) an author who thinks it’s funny to laugh at them, and get his readers to laugh at them,

    I think you’ve misread what David said, wolfwalker. There’s plenty of drama in the novel, and what happens to the characters isn’t entirely funny: much of what happens is absolutely tragic. But how can there not be humor, as someone tries to figure out how to read minds, or work out in the gym with superstrength, or deliver papers with superspeed?

    Like life, the novel is not all one thing: it’s funny and ironic and sad and tragic and hopeful and despairing all together.

  15. As a writer working on a quasi-super hero novel on and off for some years (basically just for fun, I was largely unaware of a market for this sub-genre) I found this big idea interesting and intriguing, and i want to add the following thoughts which have hit me over the course of this endeavor.

    1. why do superheroes never seem to care about politics, humanitarian issues, etc. I mean, genocide in Sudan and you’ve got Captain Jackass stopping a car accident in middletown USA?

    2. what about the kid super hero after he grows up? We’ve seen the adolescent Meta-coming of age story where the teen discovers his powers and we remember what it was like to discover our own, so many times, but what about the jaded old bugger who spends his time spontaneously generating gold just to upset the markets?

    3. I totally agree you don’t need (or even want) megavillains. I totally agree with using power itself as the bad guy. (and am curious to read how this was accomplished) but lets not forget, there are some pretty powerfull folks out there who could use some “special” operatives. some of them will have good intentions, and others not so much. Whats a patriotic fella with the ability to bend gravity to do? Just duck the whole thing and raise a family? Good luck. (though thats precisely what my main character tries).

    4. fundamentally, its a sub-genre so rife with pitfalls and chances to be cheesy, flat, redundant and preachy that I feel like those of us who have taken a crack at it are a kind of hero all our own. Is the pen mightier than the myth? Anyone who has seriously tried will know that Mr. Schwartz means business when he says it ain’t easy.

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