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6 Dark Superhero Reads that Pack a Punch

by  | January 15

Superhero narratives are often characterized as very black-and-white: The good guys are very good, the bad guys are clearly bad, the city is always saved. But there are plenty of shades of gray when it comes to superhero stories. Whether you love comics like The Boys, where normal people take down corrupt superhumans, or Watchmen, where heroes make more messes than they solve, there’s lots of room in the genre for darker, more introspective takes.

Those new interpretations don’t stop at comics and TV shows either; there are plenty of great novels that look at the tropes of the superhero genre in a new light. If you need saving from the same old story of good versus evil, here are six books to challenge the super–status quo.

A Once Crowded Sky

A Once Crowded Sky

by Tom King

What is a superhero without powers? No, not Batman (though technically correct). In a different universe, the heroes of Arcadia all give up their powers to Ultimate, a superhero who takes on an insurmountable threat to save the planet. The problem, however, is now there are a bunch of superheroes without superpowers. Well, except PenUltimate, Ultimate’s sidekick. What follows is a study of characters trying to define themselves when the one thing that made them “good” is gone. A mix of comic and prose, A Once Crowded Sky clearly loves the superhero genre. It explores interesting ideas, questions what it is that we want from our heroes, and wonders how far we are willing to let them go to achieve those ends.

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Vicious

Vicious

by V.E. Schwab

Good and evil, right and wrong. In fiction, it can be as easy as being told who the good guy is. In reality, however, it’s all about your perspective and circumstance. Victor and Eli are two friends and college students who, after a series of experiments with adrenaline, develop superpowers and accidentally kill Eli’s girlfriend. Victor goes to jail for the crime but escapes a decade later to find Eli is hunting down superpowered individuals in order to eliminate what he considers evil from the world. And yes, this includes children. Thus, two quests, one for revenge and the other for power, end up intertwined once more. With a quick-paced and gripping narrative, along with some fascinating and nuanced characters, Vicious will grab your attention and pull you into a world where nothing is clear-cut and the powers are high-stakes.

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The Refrigerator Monologues

The Refrigerator Monologues

by Catherynne M. Valente

You might not ever have heard the term “fridging,” but you’ve almost certainly read a story that features it. To fridge a character means to gruesomely kill them in order to spur the emotional journey and growth of the main character. Unsurprisingly, it is usually the girlfriend or wife of a hero who gets fridged so her partner can be pushed to action. The term actually originates from criticisms of the graphic murder of Green Lantern’s girlfriend, with her corpse stuffed into a fridge. So for Catherynne M. Valente to write an entire collection of stories around these types of characters provides a fresh and welcome perspective to the trope. Every woman who tells her story in The Refrigerator Monologues is dead, and a play on a famous wife or girlfriend from a major franchise. To say any more would spoil some fantastic surprises. If you’re looking for a superhero read that looks at the consequences behind the capes and cowls, this edgy, provoking one is for you.

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Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible

by Austin Grossman

Villains have got it hard. Okay, sure, they hold cities hostage and try to destroy the world, but some of the best dark narratives in the superhero genre focus on supervillains and their failed quests for power. Doctor Impossible is one of the smartest villains in the world, and his powers make him a formidable foe in hand-to-hand combat. He manages to escape his super-prison and heads off to try to take over the world. The story is alternately told from the point of view of Fatale, a former-NSA cyborg who joins this universe’s version of the Justice League, called the New Champions. Soon I Will Be Invincible has a few direct parallels to popular comics (there are in-universe Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman stand-ins), and it balances wit, philosophy, and cultural commentary in a quick-paced story. If you loved Megamind, you’ll definitely want to pick this one up.

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Empire City

Empire City

by Matt Gallagher

Empowered individuals are a popular trope in comics, used to fight and win battles large and small. But in the upcoming novel Empire City by Matt Gallagher, we see the perils of that level of power being wielded for war. The Volunteers are a group of super-powered soldiers who are awaiting their orders for further combat some thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War. Their world is a constant balancing act between freedom and security, with violent protests and dark government secrets that constantly question civilian loyalties. Gallagher’s characters are not just memorable, but fully fleshed out as backstory-heavy heroes—the kind that we’re used to. Reminiscent of Watchman, Empire City (publishing in April) looks at how even those with extraordinary powers get caught up in the system, and what it takes to get out.

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The Ables

The Ables

by Jeremy Scott

Less a dark take on superheroes and more one that asks an important, often unasked question: What if differently abled people had superpowers? So often we think of those with disabilities as needing protection, but in Jeremy Scott’s The Ables, we see a world where people can have disabilities and superpowers at the same time. Phillip, the protagonist, is blind, but he also has telekinesis, a trait he inherited genetically. Despite being powerful, Phillip is relegated to a special ed class along with other empowered kids with disabilities. They form a small team of their own, though no one trusts them to handle anything themselves. However, when their world is threatened, Phillip and his friends work together, using their abilities to take down the bad guy. While aimed at a teen audience, this book presents a fascinating crossroads for any reader to examine, and even has a few twists hidden between its covers.

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Photo Credit // Miika Laaksonen on Unsplash

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A reporter by trade, Sara Roncero-Menendez is a lover of horror, sci-fi, and all things pop culture. From indies to classics to even the strangest genre pieces, all movies, TV shows, and books are fair game for a binge-fest. Follow her on Twitter @sararomenen or at her website, www.sara-roncero-menendez.com