A few months ago I joined The Pen and Cape Society.
“What is that?” I hear you ask. Well it’s a group—a posse, if you will—of writers who create superhero fiction. The website describes it as “a collection of superhero fiction authors dedicated to cross-promotion and increasing awareness of the genre.” I create superhero fiction, and I could do with a little more awareness of the genre myself, so joining seemed like a no-brainer. If you ever see me using the hashtag #pencape on Twitter, that’s what I’m referring to.
“That’s all very well,” I hear you say, “but who are these people, exactly?” Well, I couldn’t tell you anything about their personal lives. I’ve never met them. In that respect we’re more like a secret society than a posse. Or an organization of supervillains… yes, yes, that’s it exactly. We meet in private forums. If we ever do video conferencing I suspect we’ll all be silhouettes on a screen, our voices electronically distorted so we’d never be able to recognize each other in public. We will all be stroking white, fluffy cats during our conversations (the cats will inexplicably be plainly visible even as we are all shrouded in shadow) and meetings will be tough to get through due to our tendencies toward monologuing, which is second only to our tendency to break into fits of uncontrollable, maniacal laughter.
Muah. Muaha. Muahahahaha. Ha. Hah. Ah.
“Fine,” I hear you say, “but what do they write?” Well that I can help you with: I’ve been reading their stuff. There are currently 22 members in our dastardly organization, and so far I’ve read ten. Ten is a solid number to start with, so without further ado: here are The First Ten Authors of the Pen and Cape Society Whose Work I’ve Read (More To Follow).
How I chose the first ten
If you go to the Pen and Cape society website you’ll see a rotating slideshow on the front page featuring a number of P&C authors, with links to their works. That’s where I started. I read whatever it was that the author linked to on the page, unless it looked like it was part of a series, in which case I read whatever the first part of the series was (because I hate starting in the middle).
In future posts I’ll start going through the rest of the authors in the “Authors” menu on the site.
What I’m discussing
These aren’t reviews, they’re introductions. I enjoyed reading the work of every author on the list, but I lack the experience in some types of fiction (such as Young Adult Fiction) to be able to discuss it in a way that fairly represents the author or the audience. I will mention what I liked about each book, and will describe the kind of mindset you need to adopt in order to enjoy it: because if you go into a book expecting gritty realism and you get comedy instead, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Warren Hately/Zephyr: Phase One
Sound Bite Summary: “You can be a hero and still be a jerk.”
The Story: Zephyr isn’t just a hero, he’s one of the top tier ones. He’s got power to spare, he knows the job, and he’s good at doing the job.
He’s also kind of a jerk.
There’s not a lot of money in the hero biz. Officially there’s no money in it at all: he lives off his wife’s income, and makes money on the side by selling “insider” information to a reporter who covers the hero beat. His personal life is in shambles. His wife is estranged, his daughter is going through troubles at school and he’s never there to do anything about, and it doesn’t help that he can’t keep it in his tights.
“Keep what in his tights?”
You know… it.
Zephyr: Phase One is the story about a hero whose life is starting to fall apart, and it’s mostly his fault.
The World: Take a DC or Marvel comic book universe and combine it with TMZ.com. Heroes aren’t just heroes, they’re celebrities. Zephyr goes out clubbing. He rubs shoulders with famous actors and musicians. There are dirt sheets that print rumors and gossip about heroes all the time. A lot of heroes have agents, most of the heroes are jaded, most have only superficial relationships with each other, and the ones that have deeper relationships usually don’t like each other very much.
What I Liked: The story is gritty. Not gritty in the noir sense, but gritty like you’re watching an expose of what goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood. The heroes in this story are, by and large, not entirely nice people. They’re not the worst people you’ll ever meet—they do go around putting themselves at risk, fighting crime, occasionally getting killed—but they’re just as imperfect as anyone else in the world, and those imperfections are more noticeable because they can cause considerably more damage than your average imperfect human being.
Zephyr himself is a very sympathetic while simultaneously fairly unlikeable character. He’s irresponsible, he cheats on his wife, does and says very thoughtless things, but at the same time you see him wanting to get a handle on everything and I found myself hoping he would. It’s tough to strike that balance, but Zephyr is a very well-done antihero-leaning-hero character.
The Right Mindset: Zephyr is a jerk. He sort of knows it and he isn’t necessarily happy about it but he mostly goes along for the ride where being a jerk is concerned. It works very well for the story, but you have to be willing to read that kind of story.
Find it on: Warren Hately’s author page on Amazon.com.
Sound Bite Summary: “It’s not easy being a hero when everyone thinks you’re the evil twin.”
The Story: Maci Might just turned 16, and it’s supposed to be the best day of her life. She’s a powered—a race of near-humans with superhuman abilities—and this is the day she gets to join the ranks of full-blown heroes.
Unfortunately, she’s also a twin. She’s the good twin, though, so it shouldn’t be a problem… except a lot of people don’t believe her, and her problems with anger management don’t help. The best day of her life goes horribly wrong, she gets framed, and she’s forced to go on the run to clear her name… then she’s forced to go back to save her family.
The World: The society of heroes in Powered is intriguing. People who have super powers aren’t actually human—they look human, but their physiology is different. The law-abiding ones live apart from humans, in their own city, while exiles and criminals mingle with the weaker species regularly. The hero-society is very regimented and tightly controlled. Your place in that society is determined on your 16th birthday, and once it’s decided there’s no going back. If you step out of line, the consequences are harsh: you are forced to undergo a painful medical procedure that strips you of your abilities.
It’s a society that would be considered very dystopian in other settings, and there are definitely undercurrents of that here, but it’s more ambiguous than that.
What I liked: Normal human society isn’t shown much in the book, which is interesting. Dealing with poor mortals is basically their job, and this story focuses on their home. The idea that twins are medically predisposed to becoming ethical opposites (one good, one evil, or one sane, one insane) is a fascinating take on a pretty standard comic book trope. Young does a good job of putting the desires and insecurities of teenagers (or at least, what I vaguely remember of the desires and insecurities of teenagers) in the context of the world these powerful teens live in.
The Right Mindset: Powered is young adult fiction, and I don’t have much experience with YA books, so I spent a lot of time feeling like a tourist who didn’t quite understand the culture or the local dialect. Also, the dystopian elements in the world led me to expect a much darker book than it was. Neither of these prevented me from enjoying the book—it was a fun read—but I suspect that people more in sync with YA in general will get more out of it.
Jim Zoetewey/The Legion of Nothing
Sound Bite Summary: “The Heroes League were one of the most famous hero teams to come out of World War II. Their grandchildren inherited everything… including the baggage.”
The Story: Nick Klein is not exactly your average high school student. When his grandfather died, Nick inherited everything—and “everything” included a fully-stocked secret superhero base and his grandfather’s high-tech battlesuit. Nick’s grandfather was the Rocket, one of the most famous superheroes to come out of World War II, and the base was the headquarters for the Heroes League, one of the most famous superhero groups of their day.
The League disbanded in 1983, but the families kept in touch. Now the grandchildren are discovering they have powers of their own, and some of them want to take up the mantle, resurrect the Heroes League, and forge their own futures as superheroes. At the very beginning of the story, Nick is on the fence. As the story progresses, he starts to get sucked in…
The World: Zoetewey has said that when he started writing, he started with the idea “if you can find it in a comic book, then it exists in my world.” It has heroes, villains, aliens, magic, government programs, parallel worlds, killer robots, the whole nine yards. The world-building goes a little further than you find in many comics, because it shows how everyone tries to make sense of it all—or, at the very least, how to manage it. There are some very interesting examples of conflicting ethics in the hero community: the veterans of the World War II era are much more tolerant of killing a villain than some of the more modern heroes, and mind control is used on a regular basis—even on loved ones—in order to keep people from discovering secret identities. The government agencies that deal with superhumans don’t try to control them as much as they try to aim them in the right direction. The world in general appears to have given up on “solving” the hero problem and is focusing on figuring out how to survive it.
What I Liked: Reading The Legion of Nothing is one of the biggest reasons I decided to give Curveball a try, so it’s fair to say that I like pretty much all of it. Nick is an interesting character. He doesn’t have any superpowers himself (other than heightened intellect, perhaps) and at the beginning of the story he isn’t particularly interested in the gig. But he likes a lot of the things around the gig—specifically he likes tinkering with his grandfather’s armor—and seeing him get pulled in to the world is neat. All of the characters are well-done, and one of my favorite elements is the way that they aren’t all universally best friends. Like any group, there are people Nick likes more, and people he likes less, and like any group, some of his biases are warranted, and some he doesn’t really have any good explanations for. As the story goes on, some of those biases shift and change, some willingly, some not.
There are also flashback stories that focus on members of the original Heroes League. Those stories are fantastic.
The Right Mindset: The Legion of Nothing takes place in a “traditional” comic book universe, but it digs deeper into what it means to live there—there’s more context, and there’s more introspection. If you’re looking for a comic book with more meat in it, this is where to look.
Sound Bite Summary: “When a hero’s death inadvertently turned Los Angeles into a smoking crater, the government had to step in and start regulating them for everyone’s protection. But the hero’s death—and the regulation that follows—isn’t what it seems.”
The Story: Michael Larson has a choice—join the Joint Task Force, the government program that regulates superhero activity, or spend the rest of his life in jail. He chooses to join the JTF, and he’s thrown into a group of other trainees as they try to learn to come together as a team.
Well, most of them. Not everyone wants Michael there—he is a criminal, after all—and some of them have pedigrees that make them feel awfully special. Michael’s own power isn’t considered very noteworthy: he can open small teleportation portals, but if they get too big he passes out.
As the story progresses, Michael learns to make do with what he has. Along the way he starts to learn that his ability is a lot more powerful than it initially appears…
The World: Super powered beings in this world—they’re called “enhanced”—are very heavily regulated by the government. If you don’t immediately register with the government as soon as you discover your powers, you’re arrested and you go to jail. If you use your powers outside of the sphere of the government programs set up to allow the enhanced to use their powers, you go to jail. Basically there are lots of ways for the enhanced to go to jail, and the government appears to be inventing more every day. It wasn’t always like that. Once upon a time the world was a lot closer to the traditional kind of society you see in comic books: heroes fighting villains, heroes lauded as heroes by the civilian population, that kind of thing. But then Atomic Power, one of the biggest heroes of his day, was accidentally shot and killed in the line of duty, and his death turned Los Angeles into a radioactive crater in the ground.
The enhanced are now second-class citizens, only weaponized. Some accept it, some fight against it, and as the story progresses it appears there’s even more going on behind the scenes. There’s more to Atomic Power’s death than the public knows.
What I Liked: The world this story takes place in is fascinating and nightmarish. It’s dystopian, but not absolutely so. It’s bordering on post-apocalyptic, but the society isn’t caving in quietly. There are a lot of politics that go on behind the scenes, and Larson shows just enough of it to give you an idea of what’s going on, while not forcing you to get mired in it. By the end of the story you learn that a few assumptions the world accepts as undisputed fact are absolutely, 100% wrong… which makes the setting even more interesting.
The Right Mindset: The very beginning of the story is a little uneven—there’s a lot of worldbuilding and important information that’s thrown at you right and left and it can slow you down at first. This problem disappears by the time Micheal actually joins the JTF. By Chapter 10 Allen fully hits his stride as a writer and it’s a fun, fast-paced story from there on out.
Find it on: Portal is the first book in the Enhanced Series, and is available on Allen’s website as a web serial. The second book should be coming out in October.
R.J. Ross/The Distort Arc
Note: Ross’ slideshow specifically advertises Aces Wild, which is a later book in the series. The Distort Arc contains the first four books of that series.
Sound Bite Summary: “In the super powered community, personal and professional relationships get complicated.”
The Story: The most powerful heroes in the world decide that kids who have powers need a safe place to learn to use them, so they decide to set up a high school that does just that. The high school will be open for heroes and villains alike, and its principal is one of the more famous super-villains around.
It’s a condition of his parole.
This story isn’t specifically about him, though—it focuses on the teens who go to the school. Including his two children, who he knew nothing about until the day he was given his job…
The Distort Arc is a collection of the first four novels set in R.J. Ross’ superhero universe: Super Villain Dad, America’s Grandson, Hello Kitty, and Don’t Know Jack.
The World: The big secret in this world is that heroes and villains have a business relationship that is very similar to the old days of pro wrestling. Some are heroes, some are villains, but most of what they do is show—some even go so far as to plan out their fights in advance in order to set up storylines for the normal people to follow. This is viewed as a necessary distraction that keeps everyone busy until it’s time to actually deal with real problems: sometimes a villain goes to far, and needs to be imprisoned, sometimes there’s a disaster that requires the entire super powered community to unite to deal with.
What I Liked: The Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog relationship between heroes and villains in this world is brilliantly done and I’m very jealous of it. The relationship isn’t universally friendly (“professionally polite” is more accurate, and some villains are more villainous than others) but there are some friendships that cross lines and they’re genuinely funny. There’s a scene in the first book when a teen-hero and teen-villain are staging their first fight, and they can’t stop crowing over how awesome it will be, then during the fight they’re snarling and sniping at each other, then after the fight they’re slapping each other on the back for putting on such a good show. I think the relationships between the “heroes” and the “villains” are my favorite part of the books.
Each book focuses on a different character in the school. The protagonists of the later books usually show up as a side character, or in at least one instance as an antagonist, in earlier books. I understand this is a fairly common device in romances, but I it was new to me and I thought it was a pretty effective way of showing the world and the characters in it in slightly different ways.
The Right Mindset: I think the Distort Arc is best described as “YA with romance”—every book involves someone getting a boyfriend or a girlfriend as a significant plot element, but it’s not the only significant plot element. If you don’t like romance in your stories you might be reluctant to pick this up, but while it’s not really something I look for, it’s a well written, funny, fun story, and there was only one pairing that left me scratching my head. There are a few occasions through the arc when the protagonist breaks the fourth wall—there are people who hate that, and if you’re one of them, you will hate that. I loved it. I’m a sucker for the fourth wall going down.
Michael Ivan Lowell/The Suns of Liberty: Revolution
Sound Bite Summary: “Corporations have run America into the ground. A small group of revolutionaries put everything on the line to take America back.”
The Story: The US Government has essentially ceded control of the country to a conglomerate of multinational corporations. They may have had some “encouragement” when a number of politicans against the idea were killed in tragic “accidents.” The only real opposition these corporations have is The Revolution, a man in a miraculous battlesuit waging a never-ending war against corporate tyranny. That war is about to take a decisive turn…
The World: Imagine a world where Occupy Wallstreet would be accused of being too soft on big business. This is a world where the one percent own everything, and everyone else pays the bill. The government is little more than a public relations firm for corporations. Most of the population is so beaten down and exhausted from trying to survive—or to protect what they have—that there’s not much energy left for rising up and casting down chains.
What I Liked: If Portal is a story about a country that is trying prevent a slide into a post-apocalyptic world, The Suns of Liberty is a story about a country that is still struggling against a dystopia. The history of the world shows that people have been revolting against the “corporate overlords” pretty much since the very beginning—they haven’t been terribly successful, but they’ve been successful enough to keep going. The bad guys are winning pretty consistently throughout the history of the fight, but they haven’t won. Instead, they’ve adapted—they use the revolution as a semi-safe way for citizens to channel their discontent, all while making sure it doesn’t get too big or dangerous. But the revolution isn’t stupid—they’re adapting as well, and their status gives them the time they need to work on a special project of their own. There’s a lot of history wrapped up in that revolution, some of it described, some of it only hinted at, and that makes the struggle feel complicated.
The Revolution is portrayed as a fairly ruthless man, and while it’s shown that the ruthlessness is a necessary part of making the revolution work, it doesn’t always serve him well, and in at least one incident that ruthlessness bites him on the ass pretty hard.
The Right Mindset: When I try to think of how to categorize this work I keep going back to “dystopian science fiction with super heroes.” Most of the heroes are technology based (the one who isn’t is still technology based, once removed) and that makes it feel more… science fictiony.
The first few chapters of the book involve a number of skips in time that are a little confusing—it starts in the past, jumps forward eight years, jumps back six months, then it stays with that time frame until it catches up to the previous chapter, then jumps ahead two months. It doesn’t happen a lot but the skips are significant, so you need watch out for them and just your narrative timeline accordingly.
Elise Stokes/Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula
Sound Bite Summary: “A laboratory accident turns Cassidy into a superhero, and throws her into the path of a madman who will stop at nothing to get the formula that did it.”
The Story: Cassidy Jones is a 14 year old girl whose life is relatively normal: she has friends, bullies, and siblings, all of whom keep her pretty occupied. One day she tags along with her father, a reporter who is doing a human interest story on a local geneticist, and when a mysterious vial of chemicals is knocked over during the interview she accidentally breathes in the fumes. In short order Cassidy learns that the chemicals have changed her somehow, the doctor has mysteriously disappeared, and the people responsible for her disappearance aren’t nice.
The World: Cassidy’s world is probably the closest to our own out of all the novels in this article. Superheroes don’t officially exist (as far as we know) and life seems pretty normal from the outside. That said, corporations and organized crime syndicates have a lot in common, including the use of ninjas when the occasion calls for it.
What I Liked: It’s a story about some teens who stumble into an adventure, notice the adults are going about everything the wrong way, so they do it the right way. I read a lot of stories like that once upon a time in younger days, and this is as strong as any of them. Cassidy is a strong and decisive character and the other characters acquit themselves well. It’s not particularly grim or dark, though some of the events (kidnapping, extortion, breaking into corporate buildings to fight through hordes of ninjas) could be grim or dark in different settings.
The Right Mindset: This book is also YA, but it feels like it was written for a younger audience. Cassidy is 14, and I think the target audience can actually reach back younger than that—I remember when I was in elementary school I’d read a lot of stories where the protagonists were teenagers because I wanted to be a teenager for crying out loud and I’m pretty sure Cassidy Jones would have been in my “to read” pile if it had been published back then. Think of “Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and Spider-Man” and that’s a pretty good picture of what to expect.
T. Mike McCurley/Firedrake
Sound Bite Summary: “Ben Grimm, Federal Agent.”
The Story: Francis Drake looks like a humanoid dragon. Claws, wings, fangs, the whole package. He works for the Department of Justice, a job he doesn’t particularly like, and he works for people he doesn’t particularly care for. He’s tough-talking, impatient, and mostly all he wants to do is spend time with his kid brother, who has to be kept in a high security medical facility for his protection and for pretty much everyone else’s as well.
When one of the world’s top heroes contracts a mysterious illness, everyone in the government gets pulled into the effort to do something about it, and Drake is pulled in right along with everyone else.
The World: In 1963, scientific experimentation causes human beings begin to develop super powers. They call it “emerging,” and not everyone’s emergence is pretty. Drake, for example, was born looking like a dragon, which made his life difficult. The Department of Justice spends a lot of time managing the Emerged in the US, and guys like Drake are called in to take down lawless Emerged who refuse to come along quietly.
Unlike a lot of other worlds where the government takes an active roll in regulating superheroes, Firedrake doesn’t exist in a dystopia. The world is more authoritarian, and it isn’t necessarily nice, but it seems to focus more on “the government gets involved when things go south, then they go south in new and unexpected ways.”
What I Liked: When I described this as “Ben Grimm, Federal Agent” I meant it. I get really strong Thing vibe from Drake, and I like it a lot. He’s not dumb, he’s just plain-spoken and too impatient with people to play the game. He doesn’t like his life very much and doesn’t really respect his boss, but he does the job It’s a living. It’s not an exact match. Drake is a lot more belligerent and crude than Ben Grimm would ever be. But there are a lot of similarities.
Drake never says “it’s clobberin’ time!” but in my headcanon he says it all the time.
The Right Mindset: Drake as the Thing, except he’s a dragon.
Find it on: T. Mike McCurley’s author page on Amazon.com.
Ian Thomas Healy/Jackrabbit
Sound Bite Summary: “The Rabbit God chose him to be his representative on earth. Then the cockroaches invaded.”
The Story: Jay is a high school kid who just got dumped by his girlfriend. The Rabbit God is a pretty low-level god, long forgotten by humanity, who just discovered the realm of gods is about to be invaded by a diety nobody expected—the cockroach god. Not a god worshipped by men who takes the form of a cockroach, but a god worshipped by the cockroaches themselves.
The Rabbit God needs to do something fast, so he decides to make Jay his representative on earth. In return, he gives Jay his divine gifts: extreme physical fitness and the ability to jump.
Then the world’s heroes disappear. Then the cockroaches invade.
The World: Healy’s hero universe is called the “Just Cause Universe.” Jackrabbit takes part in that continuity, but it most of it is in the background and the story stands well on its own. It has superheroes and villains and government agencies and Secret Government Projects In The Event Of Armageddon and pretty much everything else you expect from a superhero universe.
The thing that sets it apart very sharply in this book is the way it treats dieties. All the gods live in a pocket dimension called God’s Home, which can best be described as a luxurious vacation resort. Jehovah and Allah spend most of their time in the lobby playing cards. Posiedon hogs the jacuzzi and makes Ares stand guard to keep out all the undesirables. Dionysus runs a seedy bar down the way where all the seedy gods hang out.
What I Liked: This book is funny. It starts out funny when it describes the realm of the gods and it stays funny when Jay gets his powers and it remains funny as the rest of the story plays out. The bad guys are intelligent alien cockroaches that worship a dark cockroach god. Jay is a smartass, which I like in my protagonists, so he’s fun to follow around. The Rabbit God, his best friend the Frog God, and their eventual ally the Hummingbird God are all pretty fun, and the rules and regulations that govern the existence of dieties are fabulously bureaucratic.
The Right Mindset: Whimsy. You definitely need to be able to appreciate whimsy. I would go so far as to describe some parts of this book very similar to something Pratchett would write, if he were writing a superhero story about a guy who gets his powers from a Rabbit God.
Drew Hayes/Super Powereds
Note: Hayes’ slideshow specifically linked to his novel NPCs. NPCs is, for the record, a great novel, but it’s not in the superhero genre, so I went and bought Super Powereds: Year One… and then I bought Super Powereds: Year Two.
Well played, Hayes. Well played.
Sound Bite Summary: “Lander University has a secret—it trains students to become super heroes. Five Lander students also have a secret—technically they shouldn’t be there.”
The Story: People with powers are divided into two categories: supers are people with powers who can control them; powereds are people with powers who cannot. Powereds live rather miserable existences—they’re shunned by normal people, who fear what the lack of control might do to them, and they are looked down upon by supers, who generally feel superior to powereds in every way.
Five young powereds are put through an experimental procedure intended to give them control over their abilities. It works, and all of a sudden these powereds find themselves genuine supers. No longer forced to live as outcasts, they’re enrolled in a prestigious (and secret) program to train supers.
There’s a lot riding on their success in the program—their success could pave the way for other powereds living a better life. But there are other things going on behind the scenes, and they may be caught in the middle of much bigger, much more dangerous game than simply graduating from college…
The World: Hayes universe is authoritarian—supers and powereds are subject to extensive government regulation, and you can’t actually go out “heroing” unless you graduate from a federally approved program like the one at Lander Unviersity—but it is by far the most benign of the lot. There are heroes and villains, ex-heroes and reformed villains, and one particularly nasty incident where a hero went rogue, brutally murdered his best friend, and had to be put down by the rest of his teammates. Supers are held in awe, fear, and a certain amount of jealousy by the general populace, while powereds are generally despised by everyone, even themselves.
The training programs like the one at Lander are very brutal, intended to have very high drop-out rates in order to force the ones who manage to stick it through each year to be the very best of the crop.
What I Liked: Man, I gotta tell you this series has drawn me in hard. I like pretty much everything about it. I bought Year One because NPCs (which I also enjoyed) had nothing to do with super heroes. After reading Year One I immedaitely bought Year Two, and then I went over to his website to read the in-progress Year Three serial. Then I caught up to the serial and I’m not impatiently waiting for him to update twice a week. The characters are well written, the powers are well thought out and they way people use them is very clever, and it’s an overall fun, engaging read. I like this series so much that I think I’m going to have designate Hayes as my Official Nemesis(TM) because NEVERMIND DREW JUST POST THE NEXT CHAPTER ALREADY ARRRGH
The Right Mindset: It’s funny, but not specifically a comedy. It has action and danger, but it’s not especially grim or dark. If you don’t like the superheroes in college conceit, that may frustrate you.
And that just about wraps things up
This has been the first installment of “Introducing the Pen and Cape Society.” Now go forth and buy all the books.