By Valerie Estelle Frankel
Seanan McGuire’s “Velveteen vs.” series is so independent it’s actually self-published. Unlike many self-published superhero novelists, however, she’s a bestselling author. Nonetheless, she also offers this grassroots project, of which the first collection is available free on her website. In a self-aware series of short stories brimming with twists on superhero tropes, Velveteen abandons the Junior Super-Patriots, a corporate-owned superhero association. After her parents abandoned her there as a child, she was raised with their ethics and training, but left in horror after they insisted on controlling every aspect of her life. Her poignant, all-too-realistic struggle to evade their control warms the heart, while her optimism and superpowers are delightfully whimsical:
Velveteen didn’t notice. She was preoccupied with carrying on a one-sided conversation with the stuffed animal rack, waving her hands in punctuation as she explained the score to the discarded bears and unloved plush dinosaurs of the world. “You’ve been thrown aside once, and that’s terrible,” she said. “I won’t throw you away, but you won’t get a good retirement package if you come with me. I’m the last stop. I’ll take care of you for as long as I can, but I won’t lie to you; toys that come with me don’t live forever.” The plush was starting to stir as portions of the pile — a bear here, a one-eyed turtle there — sat up and paid attention. “You’ll do good things. You’ll take care of children like the ones who loved you. I’ll love you. And you’ll die heroes.”
More stirring, spreading to the action figure bins and the racks of Barbies with bad haircuts and missing shoes. Velveteen kept talking; the toys kept moving, the animation working its way through them like dye spreading through white cotton. She’d never been able to explain why she felt it was necessary to call them this way, although Marketing had managed to get some lovely news footage the first few times she’d done it; she just knew that it felt right to give the toys a choice before she took them out and threw them to their deaths.
In the end, more than thirty toys climbed down from their racks and out of their bins, “choosing” — if toys can choose — to give up the chance at a second owner in favor of following Velveteen into battle. She led them to the break room where the staff had gone to hide, sticking her head in past the curtain, and asked, “Can you send a bill to the city?” One of the cashiers gave a little shriek, following it with a louder shriek as she saw the army of plush standing around Velveteen’s ankles. (“Velveteen vs. The Blind Date”)
Margaret Stohl’s novel Black Widow: Forever Red follows Marvel’s ultimate tough girl while exploring her origins. The novel is light and quick-moving, yet also contains a surprising amount of heart for the distant assassin. She rescues a girl who echoes herself in training and appearance, as both were molded by Ivan and his Red Room:
The child’s eyes showed her fear. She clutched her now blackened ballerina doll by the neck. “Sestra,” she said. Sister. She reached to touch a lock of Black Widow’s hair. Red, just like her own.
“Not exactly.” Natasha almost dropped her. Because she felt something awkward, a certain kind of uncomfortable warmth, as it uncoiled inside her chest. Sympathy. Familiarity. Some kind of connection. It wasn’t something she had experienced often, and it wasn’t something she knew how
to feel, or even understand. And Natasha Romanov didn’t like feelings she didn’t understand. She didn’t like feelings, period. (18)
Natasha watches over the girl from a distance even as Ava, abandoned, molds herself into the Red Widow in white with a double hourglass — the inversion of her betrayer. As Natasha learns to work with this young woman and acknowledge her feelings, she also comes to understand herself, even as a startling mission appears, involving the last member of Natasha’s real family.
The She-Hulk Diaries
“I am a bright and accomplished woman — so why do I always slip up and revert to being a six-foot-seven, jade-green party girl/superhero?” Jennifer asks (Acosta 17). Her novel, with a Bridger Jones’s Diary feel, follows her New Year’s goals (job, apartment, boyfriend) as well as her total frustration with her sloppy party girl alter ego. She-Hulk seems frustrated with Jennifer as well, as she keeps slipping her club invitations and encouraging her to loosen up. While this story begins as a frustrating struggle for power, it ends with the two sides finding unity, along with a uniquely sweet romance.
In the novel Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond, teen Lois navigates high school. When a fragile spelling bee champion gets bullied, Lois discovers that the group of bullies are bound together by an experimental gaming program that links them in a telepathic web. Through the book, she chats and texts with her buddy SmallvilleGuy, bringing their story up smoothly into modern times. Lois ends the bullying by bringing down the tech company behind them, all while taking her first step as a true journalist. It’s a fun teen novel, in which Lois takes center stage, despite her lingering feelings for SmallvilleGuy.
Short story collection Chicks in Capes, edited by Lori Gentile and Karen O’Brien, offers a spectrum of female power. Some are problematic, as a new superhero is stuck with a nasty name when a catty woman sticks it on her. But many are glorious as a secret group of wisewomen rescue those in danger or the Domino Lady foils men in a noir adventure. A parking attendant struggles in her diary to create her secret identity and a Holocaust survivor reveals her chilling origin story. Valerie D’Orozio explores superhero psychology in overcoming trauma in “Nightingale,” while bestselling authors Nancy Holder, Debbie Viguie, and Jennifer Fallon, along with comic book herstorian Trina Robbins contribute stunning adventures.
After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn is a superhero novel starring Celia West, a powerless woman born to her world’s two greatest superheroes, Captain Olympus (Warren West) and his wife Spark (Suzanne West). As Celia explains, “Your parents are the greatest superhumans Commerce City has ever known, but you…you can’t even ride a bicycle straight. You can’t win a swim meet. You can’t fly or read minds or tell the future, or pyrokinetically manipulate pasta sauce. And your parents can’t hide their disappointment. Tell me, what do you do then?” (150). Thus her story subverts the superhero narrative, though she finds a way to become a hero herself…even without powers.
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of many books on pop culture, includingDoctor Who — The What, Where, and How, Sherlock: Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1–3, History, Homages and the Highlands: An Outlander Guide, Empowered: The Symbolism, Feminism, and Superheroism of Wonder Woman. and How Game of Thrones Will End. Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from her heroine’s journey guidesFrom Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Women in Game of Thrones and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she’s a frequent speaker at conferences. Come explore her research at her site.