So, you pick up a poetry book with an unlikely subject: a long-running comic featuring teenage superheroes in a futuristic utopian universe in which the teenage superheroes struggle with the relatively quotidian issues of teenagers: poor communication, trying to understand the universe, loss, love and lust. As a poet who has been accused of writing “superhero poetry” herself, it was with a peculiarly protective interest that I picked up Raymond McDaniel’s Special Powers and Abilities from Coffee House Press. One of the things I was discussing with fellow “superhero poet” (author of the excellent Hide Behind Me and now New York Times-bestselling-fiction-author of The Returned, as well) Jason Mott recently was how excited we always are to find other writers who choose to work with this particular kind of subject matter, because when we starting writing poems with superheroes in them, there were very few other poets doing it. Geek-dom had not yet become fashionable. Reading this book was kind of a wonderful confirmation that this subject matter is indeed as worthy of writing a poem about as, say, a sunrise, or a classical statuary making you change your life, or any other “higher” culture.
So, you may wonder, how does this book differ from other poetry books about superheroes? For one thing, this tightly-woven, thematically-linked collection revolves only around characters from The Legion of Super-Heroes, a complex but never-entirely-popular DC series in which the aforementioned super-powered teenagers live in a far-off Utopian future around the 30th century in a reborn new Metropolis. (If you were reading X-Men or Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns in the mid-1980s, like I was, then you probably missed the series at its high point, and it always seemed, not to insult fans of that universe, a little sillier, a little more camp, than the darker-toned comics that were popular in the time of my childhood and early teenage-hood.) McDaniel’s poems delves into these characters by way of persona poem – using characters like Colossal Boy, Shrinking Violet, Light Lass and Element Lad, just for starters – and inner struggles with, yes, their special powers, their strengths and weaknesses, their love lives, and their existential crises. Even McDaniel’s section headings (Gold, Silver, Bronze) and length (100 pages) pay homage to the DC’s special editions.
McDaniel uses these somewhat obscure characters, particularly Brainiac 5, to simultaneously critique and examine the universe of the comic, and also the human frailties common even to superheroes (Brainiac 5, for instance, has a lot of angst when it comes to the ladies.) So, inside this limited scope, how do the poems perform? McDaniel does some interesting things with form, using traditional forms such as prose poems, sonnets, versets, and list poems, as well as a more innovative, fascinating sort of “box form” in which the author creates character descriptions, associations, and lists inside boxes. These “box poems” provide data but not narrative, groupings that might relate to each other but not directly. It’s the kind of poem I imagine a math or physics major, or computer programmer, could really relate to. Raw data bits, grouped together in ways both incomprehensible and intuitive – just like a computer spitting out code!
His best poems are those that reflect his speakers’ teenage grandiloquence and penchant for irony and insecurity. This is here we see McDaniel’s ability to capture a common humanity in his super-teens. Here’s an example, from “Roll Call Speed Date:”
I was the head of my class.
I was a world-class ballplayer.
I got attacked by lightning beasts.
Everyone’s like this where I come from…
…I’m pretty average, actually.
His droll admission that in a world where everyone is above average, his “special abilities” don’t seem quite so special, showcase the writer’s tongue-in-cheek ability to poke fun at and inhabit his characters at the same time.
In one of my favorite poems in the book, “Brainiac 5 Cracks His Head against the Iron Curtain of Time,” the dramatic monologue reveals the vulnerabilities of Brainiac, his longing for romance, and a certain sense of doom:
What do you get for the girl who is everything?
…I worked so hard to be half in love.
Like all ages and eras, you had a set span. I broke the universe
to cross it. All the troubles, all the troubled, but you first.
His characters sometimes deride the settings of their stories, their utopian ideals, and their belief systems (from “Possibility Trumps Brainiac 5:” They say God always provides. Who are they? What is God?”) Occasionally, McDaniel allows himself space to ponder the whimsical clichés of his chosen comic book world, at the gadgetry and pageantry of the imagined future, the obscure details a casual observer might overlook, as in poems like “What to Expect: Gadget Catalog” and “What to Expect: Future Ecology.” From the latter, a description of the comic book’s landscapes: “Beautiful, but sterile./ / Still, no suburbs, only cityscapes./ Clean, neat.”
But the love poems that infiltrate and punctuate the narrative of this book (“Shadow Lass Loves Mon-El,” “Superboy Does Not Love Duo Damsel,” and so on) turn away from mockery, towards the search for something larger – for a real connection, even among the super-powered. McDaniel’s affection for this comic-book world allows the reader to enter it with affection, too, and enjoy the poems whether or not they are familiar with the specifics of The Legion of Super-Heroes, or even comic book archetypes and tropes.