[GUEST POST] K.D. McEntire on Why There Are So Few Superheroes in Young Adult Literature


KD McEntire is the author of the debut novel, Lightbringer. She currently lives in the Kansas City area and spends what little free time she has gaming and reading. There are far too many amazing books for her to pick a favorite, but Stephen King gets her money every time. You can find her at kdmcentire.com or on Facebook; she has a Twitter account but rarely updates it as KD believes that a hashtag is something you fry up for breakfast.

Where Are All The Superheroes in Young Adult Literature?

It occurs to me that Young Adult literature – while quite wide in many respects – is bereft of a genre very dear to my heart… comic books. I’m not sure why that is, but I have theories and yes, I do intend on sharing them.


Standing on the outside and looking in, it makes little sense. All the outer edges of a traditional comic book universe happily exist side by side in the Young Adult aisle. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the Fae, immortals of all flavors, and even individuals who can’t be neatly categorized and packaged into a neat Urban Fantasy slot nestle together on the same shelves, frequently sharing the same readers and often pushing the boundaries of what would have traditionally been considered “acceptable reading” for the 13-18 year old set even as recently as ten or twenty years ago. In the Young Adult aisle you’ll find protagonists whose growing sexuality ranges from traditional human-on-human heterosexuality to homosexual bestiality and everything in between, whose outlook on life varies from the jovially cheerful good girl to the dire and depressed bad boy and every combination therein. The Young Adult spectrum is the place to push boundaries, the place to experiment as a writer – not just with language and style, but with the very nature of being a teenager itself. Those teen years are the perfect realm to stretch, to explore, and the literature of current day certainly reflects that.

So why is it that, with all this room for self-expression, with all this space for examining the nooks and crannies of the human (and non-human) condition alike, that you hardly ever see a single Young Adult title sporting a spandex-clad super human? Why are the epic battles that could be spun out between super-powered beings confined to the realm of sexy vampires and sultry witches? Do we really believe that the origin stories of your friendly neighborhood Captain Amazo and Doctor Dreadful are best only told in pretty pictures that can only give the reader a glimpse of the reasoning behind the character’s actions? Comic books, fabulous as they are, force-feed the reader the back story in long monologues or in short, flashy panels that take up precious real estate on the page. It’s an impressive and lovely art form, but the depth of story available is necessarily truncated. When a reader begins a comic book they don’t know if they’ll ever necessarily even see the end of a given story arc – how many great DC titles were recently cut short when the reboot occurred? A novel might not have the amazing art that a comic book does, but it can certainly dive deeply into places a comic book or graphic novel really can’t without devoting an entire book to back story alone.

So, with this said, what gives? Why are there hardly any heroes of the super-persuasion bounding around the YA section?

My personal opinion? I think it’s because YA is aimed almost exclusively at teenage girls. Writers for this age group have to battle this belief that boys skip right over YA and dive into adult literature, but the prevailing question here is WHY? Why would teenage boys skip an entire range of books unless there was very little on the shelves to interest them? There’s a fabulous blog called Guys Lit Wire that tackles that very subject and tries to rectify it, ferreting out the titles for teens that might interest guys.

We are told over and over again that girls don’t read comic books; that they don’t enjoy the stories; that they can’t appreciate the sexy art and extreme violence the way boys can. Right.

Maybe once upon a time that really was the case, but the ladies I’m acquainted with grew up just as did, on a steady diet of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Super Mario Brothers. I used to keep a Goomba kill-count and happily out-stomped the neighboring (male) twins with vicious gusto. Any ladies interested in comic books can handle violence, I promise. Furthermore, girls today are exposed, even from a very young age, to an intricate drama-ridden internet-directed worldview that I was blessedly protected from growing up. While I personally get irritated at the costume choices comic book heroines are frequently forced into, the teenagers of today have seen worse on Jersey Shore, I assure you.

So what do to? The publishing industry is a business just like any other. They publish what sells and don’t like taking chances on new subjects, new authors, especially in this turbulent market and doubly so when it goes against all social conditioning. Boys love violence, the proverbial “they” tell us. Girls want to see sparkly inhumans kissing. But what if we gave them something different? What if we bought comic book novelizations aimed at adults first? It’s bound to start trickling down to YA… and there, there the magic happens.

8 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] K.D. McEntire on Why There Are So Few Superheroes in Young Adult Literature”

  1. In the Young Adult aisle you’ll find protagonists whose growing sexuality ranges from traditional human-on-human heterosexuality to homosexual bestiality

    I . . . what?

    As a YA SF writer and blogger, I’m really disappointed to see articles like this one (and Simon Haynes’ post last month about the lack of MG SF, a claim not grounded in any iota of fact), bemoaning the lack of X in teen novels, when X is often a genre on the up-and-up, at the SFSignal. What about TH Mafi’s Shatter Me? Marie Lu’s Legend? . . . The Hunger Games trilogy? Divergent? Seems like there’s lots of action-packed stuff being written for teenage girls these days.

  2. I think the general perception is that SF’s written for teenaged males anyway. A quick perusal of the cover art on the shelves seems to agree with me.

  3. She’s not saying there’s no action in YA books, she’s saying you don’t see comic book superheroes in YA. She’s right, too. My wife reads nothing but YA so I’ve been in that section more times than I should probably admit to without sounding creepy and yeah, you’ll see werewolves getting it on but not a single superhero.

  4. K.D.,

    Your point about the perceived YA audience being girls is a good one, but there is an overall lack of superhero fiction.  Earlier this year I put together A Brief Overview of Superhero Fiction, and even when I loosened the criteria I found that there has only been on the order of seventy super novels and anthologies published in the last fifty years.  Spured by your posting, I went back and looked what percentage of these were YA novels, and it turns to be about %20.  I don’t know what percentage of published novels are YA, but anecdotally (i.e. looking at what I find in the bookstore), it seems that there is a higher percentage YA superhero books than the adult.

    Fritz.

    PS – I’m publishing my first novel Dispensing Justice next month, and as the Fates would have it, it is a YA superhero novel.  (See DispensingJustice.com for more info.)

  5. One possible brusque answer is that “Super heros are irrelevent and the youth don’t care about them, only nostalgic older men.” (just generalizing, of course there will be exceptions)

  6. utilsabound,

    In response to: “Super heros are irrelevent and the youth don’t care about them, only nostalgic older men.”

    This seems to contradict the popularity of superhero comic books (including cosplay and conventions), superhero movies, superhero TV shows, superhero cosplay, and various online venues where superhero art flows past.  So, no, I don’t think superheroes are relevant only to nostalgic older men.  (Then there’s the argument that superheroes are modern form of myths.)

    Fritz.

  7. Part of the problem, I think, is that geeks and boomers have so aggressively claimed comic books that the only people left who think they’re for kids (even teenaged kids) are the kids.  And if there is one thing that kids have absolutely no interest in, its stuff for kids.  So they cede the field to their toy-oriented elders.

     

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