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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And in the spirit of Comic-Con, we have a recommendation now of three books all about superheroes. Here's Mat Johnson.

MAT JOHNSON: The words comic books and superheroes were synonymous at one time in America, but in the years since Art Speigelman's "Maus" won the Pulitzer Prize, graphic storytelling as a medium has grown up. Superheroes, for their part, have flown away, as well - off the colored page and on to Hollywood, where they now dominate our summer blockbuster fare.

And while this summer's lukewarm reactions to some of these films may show that the allure of mystery men has faded in the eyes of the public, on the pages of these three novels, superheroes still shine in Technicolor.

Literary and genre fiction are often married, but seldom is it a happy relationship, with the offspring inheriting all of literary's drabness with none of genre's allure. Not so with Jonathan Lethem's "Men and Cartoons," which manages to incorporate the best of both worlds into something truly unique and haunting.

One of the most powerful superhero tales I've read in any medium is in the story "Super Goat Man," where a faded hero is hired as the distinguished Walt Whitman chair at the narrator's liberal arts college. The story combines the failures of both comic book lore and the baby boomers to live up to Generation X's childhood expectations.

George R. R. Martin may be best known for his medieval fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire." But before turning to swords and dragons, Martin created an equally complex and vast superhero world with his "Wild Cards" series, a collaborative work of linked stories that Martin edited as well as contributed to.

"Wild Cards" is a the tale of a world where a biological attack results in much of the population being transformed into either Aces - those with stunning super powers - or Jokers, those changed into hideous monstrosities, if they survive at all. This intricate, haunting world has grown to encompass 21 books in the two dozen years since the first volume was published.

Austin Grossman's "Justice League of America"-inspired reality in "Soon I Will Be Invincible" feels so alive, you can almost see the muscles rippling through the page. The reader is immersed in the future promised to us by Saturday morning cartoons. I would call it a satire, but there is too much love here of the superhero mythos for the story to unravel into cynical absurdity.

In the last decades, we have learned that comic books are not a genre but a medium capable of telling any story. From these novels, we can see that the superhero genre itself can be just as sophisticated, allowing us to once again feel the bliss of when you were just back from the comic book shop with all your glossy treasures splayed across the floor.

SIEGEL: That's author Mat Johnson with the latest in our series Three Books, in which authors recommend three books on one theme. His latest book is called "Pym." For all of our summer reading picks, you can visit our Summer Books page at NPR.org.

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