Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine’s Journey is our current Den of Geek Book Club pick, and it shouldn’t be hard to understand why. The Heroine series, which begins with Heroine Complex, is an easy trilogy to fall in love with. Set in an alternate Bay Area that happens to be home to a demon portal problem, the books follow three Asian American superheroines as they work to keep San Fran safe, figure out their own complex interpersonal drama, and have karaoke nights with the rest of their superhero team/found family.
While Heroine Complex followed superheroine-assistant-turned-superheroine Evie Tanaka and Heroine Worship followed Evie’s childhood best friend and superhero partner Aveda Jupiter, Heroine’s Journey brings us into the head and life of twenty-something aspiring superheroine Bea Tanaka, the younger sister of Evie as she works to make her own superhero mark on the world, fighting her supportive, yet overprotective big sister every step of the way.
The series is ongoing, and I’d like to see someone step up and bring this world to the big or small screen (I’m not picky). Here are just a few of the many reasons why the Heroine Trilogy would make such a good on-screen adaptation…
We may be living in a time of on-screen superhero story abundance, but those superhero narratives tend to fall into the same, narrow patterns. Ten years into this era of furiously adapting superhero stories for the big and small screens and white cishet men are still majorly over-represented in the superhero field. Kuhn’s Heroine Trilogy centers three Asian American women as superheroes. (Evie and Bea are Hapa, Japanese-Irish American, while Aveda is Chinese American.)
The Heroine series is filled with characters who are diverse in so many ways, and while those identities inform their characters, they are allowed to be more than any one identity. One of those identities is their respective superheroines deals; all three women have awesome abilities: Evie has fire powers. Aveda is telekinetic (and a total martial arts badass). Bea can manipulate others’ emotions. Demon cupcakes (yes, there are demon cupcakes in this series), beware!
A superhero series that centers female relationships.
I’m over the era of the Strong Female Protagonist. Give me a female protagonist who isn’t defined by any one identity and give her tons of supporting female characters with whom she can interact. The Smurfette Principle should not still be a thing, but it sadly is—especially in on-screen superhero fare.
Kuhn’s Heroine series has female characters, relationships, and community in spades. The two most important relationships in the book are the ones between childhood besties Evie and Aveda, and sisters Evie and Bea. In the first case, Kuhn absolutely nails the complexity of a female friendship that has existed since adolescence and that has become unhealthy in some of its patterns, but is still very much based in love.
The other central dynamic, the one between Evie and Bea, is similarly complex, but in very different ways. Evie and Bea lost their mother when they were young and are estranged from their father. This strengthened their relationship, as they are the only biological family each other properly has left, but it also put an impossible weight on their dynamic in that Evie feels the need to fill a maternal role for Bea. Now that Bea is an adult, she is chafing against Evie’s overprotective support more than ever.
“Bea was a teenager in the first two books, but now she’s a little more grown up,” Kuhn told Den of Geek at SDCC. “She’s still pretty impulsive, she’s still kind of a problem child, she still has a lot of issues. She is trying her best and she wants to be a superheroine alongside her big sister.” It’s riveting stuff, you guys, and the kind of female-driven superhero story we rarely see.
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Women characters who are allowed to be angry.
Those who are socialized as women are strongly discouraged from expressing anger, but that doesn’t keep us from feeling it. Too often, that anger is turned inward, repressed and contorted into something ugly out of what can be a healthy, appropriate emotion. In our real world, we are starting to get better about giving women space to express anger and validating that anger, but we still have a long, long, long way to go.
One of the aspects of the Heroine series that is most refreshing is the way Evie and Bea’s powers in particular are connected to their emotions. Emotional intelligence has long been considered a traditionally feminine trait and is therefore undervalued by our society. In Heroine Complex, Evie is only able to properly tap into her superpower of setting shit on fire when she lets herself recognize her anger rather than suppress it.
“I always loved the idea that there’s power to be found in just acknowledging that you’re kind of a mess, because we’re all a mess,” said Kuhn at SDCC. “Let’s be honest, we’re all a mess. And I think a lot of the time we’re trying so hard to like tamp down on that or control it or make it go away, and I did like the idea that it is actually quite powerful to acknowledge emotions and process them and honor them.”
In a sea of superhero stories where dudes can throw stuff, hit hard, and run fast, it’s nice to see a superhero story that is so firmly based in the world of emotions, while not giving up any of the excitement or spectacle of superhero fighting that is so much fun to watch or read.
Superhero-ing in the social media age.
Outside of Batgirl of Burnside and Captain America fanfiction, superhero stories suck at incorporating social media and other modern technologies into their narratives. It’s not a storytelling problem specific to superhero narratives, but it feels like a particular missed opportunity in stories that are so tied to public identity and celebrity.
“If we had superheroes in our world, obviously they would be like celebrities,” said Kuhn. “Everyone would be trying to get that paparazzi shot of them. Everyone would tweet if they saw them eating lunch somewhere. And that’s kind of part of what played into what you were talking about before with women always sort of having to present this perfect image. I thought that, especially someone like Aveda, who is so invested in presenting a perfect image and feels like she can never mess up or make a mistake. I thought it would be interesting to look at how she kind of always has to be so on because everybody is watching.”
Spoiler alert from someone who has read the books: It is.
A new city to save.
I’m not sure how much help San Francisco needs in our real world—it seems to be doing OK?—but, in the world of the Heroine series, San Fran is ground zero for demon activity. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to see superheroes save not-New York City for a while. Really, I’m just ready for more superhero stories that realize setting in richer ways, making place and the ways it affects character more integral to the story. (Cloak and Dagger has done this well, as has Black Lightning.)
San Fran is also just a fun place to set a superhero series.
“The streets actually sparkle,” said Kuhn of the Bay Area, which she moved to attend Oakland’s Mills College and where she had a second coming-of-age. “There’s so many fun, interesting locations. There’s so much to do. There’s always people out and so I thought it would be fun to set it in San Francisco just because it’s such a vibrant city, but also because I felt like having a sort of twenty-something coming-of-age was something that I could really relate to and hopefully write authentically.”
We rarely get to see San Fran on screen, probably because it doesn’t have a film production infrastructure in the ways other American cities do. (I’m hoping Star Trek’s proposed Starfleet Academy series figures out a way to render future San Fran in rich ways.) A screen adaptation of Kuhn’s Heroine series would be the perfect excuse.
This world can support many stories.
The Heroine series is far from over. Kuhn will be writing another trilogy of books in the world, a sequel for each of her protagonists: Evie, Aveda, and Bea.
An on-screen adaptation could use the classic one book to one season structure, changing the central, POV protagonist a la Skam, or the series could extend the focus of each book to make it less specific to one protagonist and more of an ensemble piece. The world definitely has the room for it, with a well-realized group of supporting characters who appear in all three books.
Visually and tonally, the books are ripe for an on-screen adaptation, something Kuhn herself would be eager to see, saying: “Of course I would love to see a series focused on three Asian American women, three women of color who are superheroes and friends and sisters and it’s just sort of about that.”
What is the chance of us getting an on-screen adaptation?
“There’s definitely some interest and there have definitely been some discussions and we’ll kind of see where it goes,” said Kuhn. “But, honestly, it just makes me so happy that, that’s something that people are interested in, that, that’s something that they ask for because when I first started writing these books, I didn’t even know if they were going to get published. I didn’t know what was going to happen, so the fact that we are at that point is amazing to me.”