Worm is a science-fiction superhero web serial written by John C. “Wildbow” McCrae. It is the first in the Parahumans series. Wildbow published Worm installments of Worm from June 2011 until November 2013 on his website https://parahumans.wordpress.com/. The story is, in total, almost 1,700,000 words long, spanning multiple arcs in its telling. Its sequel, Ward, was published on the same site from November 2017 to May 2020. Below, you will find information on Worm’s primary setting, its power system, notable heroes and villains, some information about Wildbow, the story’s general plot, and how well the book was received.
Worm is set in an alternate-earth universe, meaning its culture, geography, and technology mostly resembles the real world with a few twists the authors implement. In Worm’s case, this means superpowers and the people who wield them. Books in the superhero genre generally are set in alternate earths, with the same history and events like the great World Wars or the colonization of America. Where they differ from our world is a “day zero” sort of event, where the first superhumans begin to reveal themselves or powers appear in the world. This event irrevocably diverges the course of history from our own. Other superhero stories have had superhuman abilities around for millennia, with no clear year or time when they first appeared. Often, ancient legends, myths, and gods are thought to be these superhumans.
Worm is the former of these two scenarios. The first superhuman appeared in 1982, hovering above the ocean. The golden man, whom the world called Scion, heralded a new era for the world. With his arrival, other superhumans, or parahumans as Wildbow dubs them, begin to crop up. From 1982 to 1989, parahumans flourished. Dozens of parahumans donned caps and masks and started work as heroes. It was called the “Golden Age of Heroism,” and the world celebrated their heroes.
In 1989, the veneer was ripped away when a hero dies while trying to prevent a riot. The heroes lauded as immortal, untouchable beings, were now revealed to be just as mortal as everyone else. The ranks of villains swelled, more and more parahumans turning to organized crime and wanton violence. An uneasy status quo now holds the world, a precarious balance between the Parahuman Response Team (PRT) and other government-sponsored parahumans peacekeeping agencies and villains and horrors yet untold.
It is in this world that Worm begins. The story is set in Brockton Bay, a fictitious city just north of Boston. Many parahumans call Brockton Bay home, the city having one of the densest populations of superhumans in the United States. Numerous superpowered gangs and criminals vie for territory, fighting against each other and the PRT team stationed in the city.
Worm’s power system holds to a few rules. Outside of those rules, powers are incredibly free-form and creative. The diversity of abilities, especially when compared to other works in the superhero genre, is one of the biggest creative draws of Worm.
Trigger events are what manifests a parahuman’s abilities. Trigger events are nearly always extremely negative times in a parahuman’s life. This negativity stems from the high stress and emotional responses needed to produce the “trigger.” A trigger event can be a physical or psychological event. The circumstances of the trigger indicate what type of power the parahuman will receive. If the trigger is a psychological one, then the parahuman’s powers will be mentally based. If a person undergoes horrific injuries or physical violence, then their abilities will be more physically based.
A good example of a trigger event is the main character, Taylor Hebert. In the worst moment of her life, up to that point, Taylor’s bullies shoved and locked her in her school locker. They filled it with trash and refuse, among other, fouler things. Her bullies had done so right before winter break started, allowing the trash and rot time to age and worsen. When Taylor was locked in there, the combination of claustrophobia, terror, disgust, and anger provided enough stress and emotion to induce Taylor’s trigger event, giving her access to her ability to control bugs.
The inherent negativity of trigger events leads to higher numbers of parahumans in third world countries and poorer parts of 1st world countries. Africa has untold numbers of parahumans, due to the awful conditions present there. More women than men have powers. The higher number of villains also stems from this; people in situations that induce trigger events are more likely to turn evil than good.
A phenomenon called second-generation triggers is when a person, most likely a child of a parahuman, incurs a trigger event. Those in constant close contact with a parahuman also have higher chances of being a second-generation trigger. A notable exception to this is a child-parent relationship where the child is the parahuman. The parent will never undergo a second-generation trigger. Second generation trigger events require much less stress and emotional response when compared to usual triggers. It is unknown why this is, but later in the story, the reason is revealed.
The Manton Effect:
The Manton Effect is perhaps the most constrictive rule in the Worm universe. Essentially, it disallows a parahuman from directly affecting living targets or inanimate objects with their power. A parahuman’s ability will let them affect one or the other, but rarely both. Even those parahumans who can directly affect living beings with their power, like Regent with his body control, have their limitations in what they can accomplish.
The Manton Effect prevents a powerful telekinetic from simply reaching out with their power and crushing the hearts of their opponents or flinging them hundreds of feet in the air. While they can say, throw a 500-pound rock at their opponent, they cannot directly affect their foe themselves. An excellent example of a physically-based power under the effects of the Manton Effect is Vista. Her ability allows her to stretch and compress space, a powerful ability allowing her to reform the terrain of a battlefield at will. Vista runs into difficulty, however, when the space she attempts to affect is occupied by living humans, as her power does not allow her to stretch and compress people. Her ability becomes slower and more laborious when more people occupy the area she attempts to change.
Inversely, those parahumans who can directly affect humans can rarely do anything to affect the physical world. Using Regent again as an example, his ability allows him to control a person’s nervous system. This ability is all he can do. He cannot control, say, energy in the physical world.
While the real reasoning behind the Manton Effect remains unknown, it is theorized that these restrictions are in place to prevent parahumans from hurting themselves. This restriction is just generalized to include all living things, rather than only the caster. For example, if Vista could bend and distort people, and she accidentally did it to herself, she could cause permanent damage to her brain and body. This damage would most likely cause her to lose control of her power and end up killing herself. The Manton Effect is thought by many to be a mental block put into place when a parahumans triggers.
As with all rules, there are exceptions, methods to get around the Manton Effect. The most common way is to undergo a second trigger event. A parahuman’s power will increase, or new abilities will be added to their repertoire, or the Manton Effect will be restricted to only themselves, allowing them to affect other people directly with their powers. An excellent example of this is the hero Narwhal, who can create and control crystalline forcefields. After she triggered a second time, she can create forcefields within her opponent’s bodies, bisecting them or chopping off their limbs.
While not necessarily a rule, all parahumans’ abilities have some application in combat in the Worm universe, with no exceptions. This bias leads to a severe lack of “healers,” those parahumans capable of healing and regenerating others’ wounds.
The best example of a healer in the series, Panacea, still can be deadly in combat. Her ability lets her manipulate the biology of anything she touches down the molecular level. This ability allows her to treat diseases like cancer and heal grievous wounds in extraordinarily little time. But it also allows her to disfigure a person, stop their heart from beating, and affect their powers to some extent. Her limitation is that she must be touching a person to harm them. Her ability still follows the Manton Effect rule because she cannot manipulate anything not biological, and she cannot manipulate herself. Another limitation she has was that she could not affect the brain. Panacea eventually broke past this limitation, however.
In any superhero piece of literature, power classifications are a must. It helps the reader understand different abilities. It also makes sense from a worldbuilding standpoint, as humans tend to organize and categorize things into easily understandable formats. Wildbow organizes his powers into twelve different categories:
Blaster: Those with a ranged, offensive ability
Breaker: Those that allow their wielder to shift into an altered state of being
Brute: Those with enhanced strength or durability
Changer: Those that can change form or appearance
Master: Those that can control others or create minions
Mover: Those with enhanced mobility
Shaker: Those whose abilities have an area of effect
Stranger: Those who focus on stealth and infiltration
Striker: Those whose abilities are melee-ranged or touch-based
Thinker: Those who are focused on information gathering
Tinker: Those who can create or alter things with futuristic technology
Trump: Those can affect or manipulate the powers of others
Parahumans can, and often do, have multiple categories assigned to them. A number next to the category designates the strength of each ability. The lower the number, the lower the perceived threat. The higher the number, the more dangerous the wielder. Factors like control, area of effect, and panic induction also play a factor in ratings. Most parahumans are within a 1 -10 grade for all classifications, though there is no hard limit on how high a power can be rated. Any ability with a rating above 10 is extremely rare and incredibly potent. Any power rating with a 15 or above is considered to be a world-ending threat.
The Protectorate is the parahuman division of the PRT. A team is assigned to many cities across the United States and Canada. The three most powerful heroes in the Protectorate form the Triumverate, a force viewed by many as unassailable except by the most powerful threats. The Triumvirate consists of Alexandria, Legend, and Eidolon.
Alexandria is the leader of the Los Angeles Protectorate Team and a leader of all the Protectorate. She is the epitome of the “flying brute” type of hero. She is thought to be invincible, can fly well past the speed of sound, and lift thousands of tons. Alexandria is one of the most powerful parahumans ever recorded. She also possesses incredible intelligence and memory. She has perfect recall and has accelerated learning processes.
Legend leads the Protectorate team in New York City and a leader of all the Protectorate. He comprises the “flying artillery” package. Legend shoots blue-white lasers from his body. He can imbue these lasers with a variety of effects. Most used are the freezing and heating aspects, allowing him to freeze or melt whatever the laser hits. He can also bend his lasers around corners and split them into smaller lasers. Other effects of his lasers include disintegration, cutting, invisibility, and impact. These effects can be combined but take considerable effort to do so. Legend is also the fastest hero in the world, capable of accelerating with no known upper limit. As he accelerates, his body gradually turns into living light. While in this state, injuries to his physical body heal through the absorption of any energy types around him. His thinking is also somewhat impaired while in this state.
Eidolon is widely regarded as the most powerful parahuman in the world. The only beings ahead of him are Scion, and the three Endbringers. Eidolon’s abilities are curious. He has access to a nearly limitless array of abilities he can choose. Generally, he holds three at once. He can hold more, but the potency of the powers he holds decreases the more he accesses. When he first chooses to hold onto a new ability, that ability is relatively weak. Its power ramps up quickly until it is exceptionally potent, comparable to upper-tier, veteran users of the same power. He does not have full control over what powers he accesses. Instead, his ability tends to choose for him, giving him the abilities it thinks he needs most based on his situation. A drawback to his power is that he is not as proficient in any one power’s use. Due to frequent switching, his proficiency level is nowhere near as high as other parahumans with their finite abilities.
One of the biggest draws of Worm is the villains. Wildbow writes some incredible evil into his story, personified by the parahumans are perpetuate it. Many of these villains are genuinely terrifying, while others are more nuanced, committing criminal acts out of desperation rather than a desire to do evil. This section will focus more on villain groups and organizations than individual villains, with a few exceptions.
Racism is a very present evil in our world. It is no different in the Worm universe. Empire Eighty-Eight is a white supremacist villain group based in Brockton Bay. They are focused on purifying the world of any they deem inferior. In this case, inferiority means anyone not white. The Empire is very organized. They have access to the highest amount of parahuman muscle due to their leader, Kaiser, recruiting across the country instead of limiting himself to Brockton Bay. The best way to advance in their group is to commit extreme violence against those of another race.
Notable figures within the Empire include their leader, Kaiser, Purity, and Hookwolf. Kaiser is a ferrokinetic, meaning he can create and control metal. Purity is like a combination of Alexandria and Legend. She hits hard and blasts incredibly powerful light rays capable of toppling buildings. Hookwolf is an interesting case. The inside of his body is comprised of spinning blades, hooks, and metal, which he can bring to the surface of his body as a sort of lethal armor. He can also assume the form of a wolf, albeit one comprised of the same spinning blades and sharp metal.
The ABB, or the Azn Bad Boyz, are a gang of criminals based in Brockton Bay. They do not have the same racist agenda as the Empire but only recruit Asians of any nationality. Their gang colors are red and green. They reside primarily in the area known as the Docks.
The ABB had three parahumans: Lung, Bakuda, and Oni Lee. Lung is one of the stronger parahumans in the world. His ability allows him to become stronger the longer he fights, with no apparent upper limit. As he fights, he transforms into a pyrokinetic, winged dragon man with intense regenerative powers. At his peak, he stood toe to toe with an Endbringer. Bakuda is a Tinker whose specialty is bombs and explosions. She is capable of creating highly advanced ordinance and trigger types. Oni Lee is a teleporter with a twist. Whenever he teleports, he leaves behind a copy of himself that will act autonomously for a few seconds before disappearing. This ability allows him to essentially become a one-man army, fighting on an immense scale.
Coil is another villain based in Brockton Bay. He is the only parahuman in his faction. His subordinates are hired from ex-military and special forces. They are highly trained in combat and in fighting other parahumans. They can hold their own with weaker parahumans but are wholly outclassed by more powerful ones.
Coil’s ability is unique. Essentially, it allows him to live in two parallel realities at once. At any point he wants, he can “annihilate” one of the realities and tread the path of the more favorable path. Coil retains the memories and experiences from the annihilated reality and allows him to move forward, armed with the knowledge and power this brings him. This ability lets him decide the outcome of any situation he is in. A simple example of his power is when he chooses realities until every coin flipped by some of his allies comes up as heads.
The Slaughterhouse Nine:
The Slaughterhouse Nine, also called the Nine, is the most feared villain group in the United States. They also have worldwide notoriety. Their modus operandi: chaos and death. Their membership has incredibly high turnover due to death at the hands of heroes and villains alike and because of infighting. They like to visit cities with a lot of hurt and pain in them already, like ones reeling from the aftermath of an Endbringer attack. When they are first introduced in the story, they have eight members and are looking for a ninth.
Their members are as follows:
Jack Slash: The leader of the Nine. His ability allows him to project and expand blades over vast distances. Meaning if he slashes at a person from hundreds of feet away, that blade will still cut the person. He also has minor Thinker abilities allowing him to understand parahumans and their abilities.
Bonesaw: Bonesaw is a Tinker unlike any other. Where most tinkers work with metal and machines, Bonesaw excels with flesh and tissue. Her abilities allow her to accomplish feats like combining two dead parahumans into one. The new body has access to both bodies’ powers.
The Siberian: The Siberian is invulnerable. She is just as strong and robust as Alexandria and is the only known parahuman to injure her. She can also pass on her invulnerability to a touched object.
Mannequin: Mannequin is another Tinker. His specialty is sustaining life and ecosystems, particularly in their creation and preservation. He once was a benevolent man, using his powers to solve problems like world hunger. He went crazy after an Endbringer attack killed his family. He turned his powers onto himself, turning his body into a closed, incredibly tough ecosystem. He is an incredibly flexible suit of armor that has many tricks and traps built into it.
Crawler: Crawler is unkillable in the purest sense of the word. His ability affords him extremely rapid regeneration. Beyond that, he adapts to anything that hurts him, slowly making him invulnerable to nearly every form of damage. His ability has transformed him into an inhuman monster.
Shatterbird: Shatterbird’s ability allows her to control silicon and its derivatives through high-frequency sound. Her ability’s range spanned across entire cities. Her range is due to her ability to project her power through any bit of silicon she controls. She favors glass most of all and takes the job of announcing the Nine’s presence in a city through shattering every bit of glass she could reach.
Cherish: Cherish is an emotional manipulator. She can bend people’s feelings toward her or themselves, even making them kill themselves if she so wishes. She can also detect and read others’ emotions are incredibly long distances, making her a competent tracker.
Burnscar: Burnscar is an incredibly powerful pyrokinetic. She can create, control, and affect flames within a large radius around her. A quirk of her power allows her to teleport through fire.
Like any good superhero story, there must be outliers. Outliers that are so far beyond the scope of a normal superhuman as to seem god-like. In the Worm universe, Wildbow includes four such outliers: Scion and the Three Endbringers.
The first and greatest of the parahumans, Scion appeared floating over the ocean. A cruise liner approached him, but no one could get him to speak. A few people touched him. Multiple people who encountered him were healed, some of incredibly deadly, fatal diseases. For years, no one could get him to speak, until, when asked his name by a woman he saved, he replied with “Scion.” It is the only record of him speaking to date.
Scion spends him time zipping around the world, helping people. He stops natural disasters, puts out fires, and saves lives in every conceivable manner. His abilities place him above even the Endbringers in power. He is the only individual other than Eidolon capable of fighting with them head-on.
Scion has a multitude of abilities. His greatest ability is called ‘Stilling’. Essentially, it allows him to negate any type of wavelength utilizing golden light. This ability allows for disintegration, dispersal of kinetic energy, power interference, and many other effects. It manifests as beams and orbs of light, an aura, force fields, or through touch. Stilling has a lingering effect, whatever Scion willed it to do continuing for some time.
Scion is also capable of flight, far faster than any, including Legend. He has supernatural senses and intensely fast regeneration. He is also immune to many types of powers, including precognition, power mimicry, and mental influence. Scion has several other abilities that come into play later in the story.
The Endbringers are a plague upon the world. No one knows why they appeared or what their real purpose is. They appear periodically among places of high population density and kill as many as possible. They wreck the landscape of the areas they attack and devastate all infrastructure. The Endbringers always appear alone.
The Endbringers have atypical biology, rendering them immune to many powers. Despite their unique makeup, they are subject to the Manton Effect, disallowing parahumans like telekinetics to affect them directly. The three Endbringers are Behemoth, Leviathan, and the Simurgh.
Behemoth, also called Hadhayosh and Prathama, was the first Endbringer to appear. In 1992, he devasted the Marun Field, Iran. Behemoth is over 45 feet tall and is, by far, the most durable of the Endbringers. He is shaped like a cross between a man and a bear and is covered with obsidian like crags and spikes.
Behemoth is incredibly physically strong, capable of taking and delivering blows on a staggering scale. Behemoth is also a dynakinetic, meaning he can create and control all types of energy, from electricity to radiation. This ability allows him to sunder the land he attacks, rendering it uninhabitable within a few hours. The deadliest part of his dynakinesis is that the Manton Effect does not bind him. This means he can directly attack and control energy within people within a specific range of himself. Of the three Endbringers, Behemoth incurs the most casualties among his parahuman assailants.
Leviathan, also called Jormungand or Jörmungandr, was the second of the Endbringers to appear. He first attacked Oslo, Norway, in 1996. Leviathan is over 30 feet tall, has scaly green skin, and a top-heavy appearance. He lacks a mouth, nose, and ears, but has four, glowing green eyes.
Leviathan’s primary ability is macro-hydrokinesis. Essentially, this means he can manipulate water on an incredibly massive scale. He uses this ability to herald his arrival with a gigantic tidal wave. He continues to send these tidal waves as he fights, each one stronger than the last. He also uses water to rupture structural plates deep beneath the surface. If allowed to continue, he can sink entire landmasses. He successfully did so in Newfoundland, Canada, and Kyushu, Japan. Leviathan also has an After-Echo, meaning water shoots out with the same speed and momentum his limbs and body had whenever he moves. This ability, combined with his super-speed, makes even being around Leviathan a death sentence.
The Simurgh, also known as Ziz, was the last of the Endbringers to appear. She first attacked Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2002. Her appearance is that of a waif-thin woman about 15 feet tall. She has asymmetrically placed wings all around her body and has white hair extending down to her feet.
The Simurgh is the craftiest of the Endbringers. What she lacks in physical might she makes up for with precision. Her abilities include precognition, postcognition, macro telekinesis, psychic manipulation, the ability to copy mental power, particularly Tinker abilities, within a certain range and use them as her own. While this may not seem as powerful as the other two Endbringers, the Simurgh’s abilities allow her to continue to affect her victim’s lives well past her initial attack in deviously insidious ways.
Not much is known about Wildbow’s personal life. He has often referenced family struggles or relationship struggles with friends and significant others. Wildbow was born in 1984 and has lived in Canada his entire life. Besides Worm, he wrote Pact, Twig, and Ward, the sequel to Worm. He is currently working on a project called Pale, a story set in the universe of Pact, though not directly related to it.
Due to its length, numerous twists and turns occur in Worm. At its heart, the main character, Taylor Hebert, is a person trying to do good amidst a world of hurt. Taylor has a bad life. She is bullied in high school quite severely, to the point of manifesting superpowers. Taylor can control bugs and other things with simple enough minds. While not directly powerful, Taylor learns to use her ability to significant effect.
Her story revolves around Brockton Bay, her home for her entire life. The story follows her as she tries to become a hero, fails, and still tries to do good even as the cruel world she lives continues to worsen. Wildbow creates a character in Taylor that is strong, focused, and steadfast in the face of danger, though these traits come at high personal cost.
Reception and Popularity:
At first, Worm was something of a sleeper hit. Web-based publication of books was incredibly new when Wildbow first started writing Worm. It rapidly gained popularity, retaining hundreds of thousands of fans to this day.
As web-based publication continues to grow in popularity and more of the general public becomes aware of it, Worm’s popularity and reputation increases. It is the go-to first read for many an internet reader. By 2020, it has amassed millions of unique readers, topping the charts on many websites for years after its publication.