John McCrae (AKA Wildbow)’s Worm is a superhero novel serialized on the web between 2011 and 2013.
Superhero may be a misnomer. Superhuman might be a better term.
Taylor Hebert is a seemingly unremarkable teenager singled out for a never-ending campaign of verbal and physical abuse from a trio of mean-girl bullies. Aware that school authorities are worse than useless when it comes to bullying, Taylor doesn’t complain. She grits her teeth and endures each painful day at school.
Luckily she has interests outside academia. She has superpowers, a nearly finished costume, and ambitions to become Brockton Bay’s newest superhero. Too bad that’s not quite how it works out.
Taylor can control bugs, from insects to arachnids. This is not a PR-friendly superpower. She dithers about what to call herself, eventually accepting the journalists’ nickname, “Skitter.” Her costume’s design is pragmatic rather than reassuring. As a consequence, her first superpowered scuffle leaves onlookers with the impression that she is an independent supervillain.
Youthful supervillains Undersiders believe they owe Taylor one for defeating their arch enemy Lung on Skitter’s first outing. They also recognize potential when they see it. The Undersiders offer Skitter a paid position with them. Skitter accepts, planning to use the inside knowledge thus gained to turn the criminals over to the law.
There are a few flaws with her plan. With one significant exception, the Undersiders become her friends. The local superheroes, in contrast, are dicks. Skitter is very good at convincing herself the ends justify the means, but not so good at extracting herself from the web of complications that follow. There is no assurance the white capes would accept her claims to be a hero and total certainty that to try would be to betray her friends.
This may not matter. Skitter’s world is one where the heroes and villains play nice with each other for the most part because there are greater threats against which all parahumans need to unite. The kaiju-like Endbringers, for example, have annihilated battalions of super-beings, and entire provinces. They are not the worst threats Skitter’s world faces.
Skitter herself may be.
One minor complaint: I find white print on a black background hard to read but couldn’t see how to change what I was looking at. Worm’s archive is huge, and it took a lot of eyestrain to get through it.
Worm begins as the story of a would-be hero out of her depth. Once the characters are established, the story begins to ascend through threat levels: a city-wide gang war, the occasional kaiju attack, a visit from wandering Joker-level superpowered psychopaths, and of course the ever-popular Impending End of the World. “Insect control” may not seem sufficient in a world filled with homicidal godlike beings. One might expect Taylor to get squashed like a bug.
Another way of looking at Taylor’s powerset is that she can control individuals comprising about half the animal biomass on Earth (although only those within range). Consider just spiders alone: there are usually a million or so per square kilometer. She is extremely good at multitasking, which means she can send her minions against enemies en masse or individually. She isn’t a coldblooded killer, so she doesn’t just dispatch billions of ants to eat the flesh off people’s bones, but she is extremely pragmatic, thus the whole “that time Lung got bit on the man-bits by dozens of brown recluse spiders .”
Yet Taylor is not just a collection of increasingly impressive powers; she’s a character that readers will … enjoy may be the wrong word, given the nature of her adventures… follow avidly. She is, to coin a phrase, sympathetically horrifying, just a kind-hearted teenager who through hard work and diligence becomes as terrifying a force of nature as any of the Big Bads she faces. But she meant well! And she does get a redemptive arc.
As long as the reader has a considerable tolerance for grimth, from mundane high school bullying to a death rate that would be excessive for a battlefield, Worm is an engaging story. Be warned: the archive is huge, and while there are arcs, readers may find it hard to stop reading.
Worm is available here.
1: Lung has a healing factor! Although not good enough, as it turned out.