The Books Briefing: Costume Party

Witches and werewolves and clowns, oh my! Your weekly guide to the best in books.

Toshifumi Kitamura / Getty

Halloween is an opportunity for many people to step outside of themselves, donning costumes inspired by favorite fictional figures. Children and adults roll out a litany of popular ensembles around this time of year to channel their inner heroes, villains, and everything in between.

It’s due to the imagination of their creators that many of these classic characters reemerge throughout the decades with fresh layers of complexity. Marvel’s Black Panther, who’s become wildly popular since the release of the 2018 film, was given new life in 2016 through a series of comics written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His revival explores the original character’s home of Wakanda, a mythical African nation and technologically superior world power, alongside the real histories of pre-colonial Africa and the American Civil War.

Spider-Man, created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, remains so beloved in part because his other identity is the relatable teenager Peter Parker—a crime fighter by night who faces high-school drama by day. And the infamous Joker from DC’s Batman comics is portrayed with depth in Alan Moore’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (a key influence for Todd Phillips’s recent Joker film), which provides a sentimental backstory for the villain’s madness.

Witches, another staple Halloween costume, were depicted almost exclusively as “mad” women before books such as Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière—and later, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series—popularized a more positive representation of them as a symbol of female autonomy. Princesses have also been reinvented in a similar way. Gail Carson Levine’s retelling of Cinderella in the young-adult novel Ella Enchanted, for instance, represented a new kind of princess whose value wasn’t dependent on physical beauty.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The comic that explains where Joker went wrong
“Despite the critiques, The Killing Joke endures as a milestone in the industry, an exercise in brutality that stood out in a more family-friendly comic-book world.”

📚 Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore

The Wizard of Oz invented the “good witch”
“Delving into the provenance of Glinda’s character reveals a lineage of thinkers who saw the witch as a symbol of female autonomy.”

📚 La Sorcière, by Jules Michelet
📚 Woman, Church, and State, by Matilda Joslyn Gage
📚 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

The return of the Black Panther
“In Black Panther there is a simpler question: Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?”

📚 Black Panther, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Princesses don’t have to be passive
“[Gail Carson] Levine’s Ella is everything [a critic] asks for in a Cinderella; she’s resourceful, brave, determined, and wins her Prince mostly through her mind and personality.”

📚 Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

Why Marvel’s moody teenage webslinger still matters
“Everyone knows what it feels like to have someone else’s expectations sitting on their shoulders, and that’s part of why Spider-Man works so well.”

📚The Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Jeff: “I’m looking for some good suggestions for (don’t laugh) werewolf fiction. There has to be a Frankenstein/Dracula equivalent of a werewolf story out there somewhere, right?”

Werewolves certainly have a long history in literature. You may want to try one of the earliest major werewolf novels in English: George W. M. Reynolds’s Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf, a gothic tale about a man making a deal with the devil that was first serialized in 1846 and is available online in full. The philosopher John Fiske wrote about these mythical creatures for The Atlantic a few decades later, in 1871.

Although the main character in Hermann Hesse’s 1927 classic, Steppenwolf, doesn’t literally transform into a wolf, the story’s symbolism is believed to have inspired many werewolf novels. Some of the short stories in Angela Carter’s 1979 collection, The Bloody Chamber, use werewolf narratives to explore sexual and gender politics. And Glen Duncan’s 2011 novel, The Last Werewolf, which contains a lot of graphic violence, is elevated by the werewolf protagonist’s playful prose and poignant existential questions.

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading right now is Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb.

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