Review: Special Powers and Abilities

2013 was not a good year for the Legion. The troubles began when Keith Giffen took over the art duties on Legion of Super-Heroes, reuniting him with writer Paul Levitz. But the legendary team didn't produce the same results as their previous collaborations, or at least not the ones readers were hoping for. Giffen stayed on the book for all of two issues, but that was enough time to kick off a plot that saw technology failing across the United Planets (which had also been the plot of "The Magic Wars," the storyline that brought volume 3 to a lackluster end) and to kill off a couple of Legionnaires along the way. Sales stalled, and by the end of summer Legion of Super-Heroes was canceled. The Legion hasn't had a regular series since. Their most prominent appearances in recent years have been wildly out-of-continuity crossovers with Batman '66 and Bugs Bunny.

2013 was also the year that rekindled my interest in the Legion. That was when Coffeehouse Press published Raymond McDaniel's Special Powers and Abilities, a book of poems about the Legion of Super-Heroes.

The genre of superhero poetry isn't as small or as desolate as you might think; Stephanie Burt offers a good rundown here, which is where I first heard about Special Powers and Abilities. Burt said that if the finished work lived up to the early excerpts it would be the best book of poems about superheroes yet, and McDaniel does not disappoint. His poems tease out the surrealism that was always present in the Legion, taking something that became dulled through overfamiliarity and making it strange and wondrous again. Even poems about the banality of the Legion's vision of tomorrow ("Somehow there is money without poverty and somehow without poverty people still want to steal") manage to conjure the delicate balance of growth and stasis, maturity and immaturity, that gives the Legion its power. ("We will grow up. But we will never grow old.")

These are poems about adolescence, but adolescence as viewed by a rueful adult. McDaniel finds the gravitas in the Legion as well as the humor, and many of his poems strike an elegiac tone: not just for comics past or their faded visions of future worlds, but for our teenaged selves with all their fleeting passions and false certainties. Young love is on McDaniel's mind; one poem is called "Roll Call Speed Date," but that's more of an inventory in which the Legionnaires recite their origins in the most stripped-down and ridiculous manner possible:

     Everyone's like this where I come from.
     No one's left where I come from.
     No one else leaves where I come from.

and, of course

     I got swallowed by a space whale.

Teen romance comes to the forefront in poems called "Saturn Girl Loves Lightning Lad," "Brainiac 5 Loves Supergirl," "Superboy Does Not Love Duo Damsel," "Nobody Loves Chameleon Boy," "Sun Boy Loves Anything That Moves," and on and on, tracing every possible romantic permutation: the frustrations of unrequited love, of not requiting love, of not being in a relationship, of being in one. A series of poems by and about Brainiac 5 charts the pangs of being too bright, not bright enough, or, as is so often the case, both at once. (McDaniel has a great explanation for his fascination with Brainiac 5 and the Legion more broadly in this interview for io9.)

The real strength of this collection, and its special joy for a Legion fan, is that McDaniel understands his characters, though it would be more accurate to say they aren't his characters so much as ours. Every Legionnaire up to Polar Boy and Sensor Girl (but not Tellus or Quislet or Magnetic Kid) gets at least one short free verse poem, and while I'm sorry to report that McDaniel seems to favor the mimbo interpretation of Ultra Boy--even Homer nods--the rest of his sketches are so sharp and their insights so astute that they remind you why you liked these kids in the first place.

It feels odd, to describe insights into people who never existed, characters who for much of their existence had little characterization other than Generic Boy or Cookie-Cutter Lass. But McDaniel presses down below the surface, revealing unsuspected depths even in characters who never made it to the modern era of comics. Here are a few of them:

     Invisible Kid I: "our sane salutatorian"

     Star Boy: "the weight of your devotion to her / collapsing on itself until hole / a singularity"

     Brainiac 5: "smug in his elaboratory"

     Supergirl: "the dead world's last girl / subjective perfection / she doesn't like you that way, ok?"

     Sun Boy: "within every charismatic waits a hateful flare"

     Matter-Eater Lad: "Matter-Eater Lad can turn anything / into more Matter-Eater Lad"

     Wildfire: "lacking a face / he's mastered the expressive gesture"

     Dawnstar: "she can find anything and she wants nothing"

     Tyroc: "how is it that now some of his best friends / are you?"

     Invisible Kid II: "he fades to the occasion"

     Polar Boy: "he lowers the standards / but he carries the flag"

Some of these are lovely turns of phrase (a poem needs nothing more), a few arrive at more general truths, but they all cut to the bone.

McDaniel doesn't stop at the Legion roster. His wide-ranging collection encompasses all the landmark stories from Computo to the Great Darkness Saga ("If basalt-headed gods of apocalypse...") and surveys the worlds of the United Planets in imagistic, elaborately alliterative verses ("and murdered Trom..."), touching on all the elements that give the Legion its charm. There's a lovely poem about the Mordruverse Andrew Nolan, but its loveliness only obscures the more remarkable fact that somebody wrote a poem about the Mordruverse.

And that, unfortunately, is where the collection ends. Presumably this focus is tied to McDaniel's own reading, though I admit I would be hard pressed to wring a book of poems from what followed. Such detail would be largely irrelevant anyway; for all its attention to the minutiae of Legion continuity from Satan Girl to Medicus One, this is a book about the Platonic Legion that exists in the heads of its readers, especially those who don't read the Legion anymore--which, these days, includes us all.

Special Powers and Abilities ends with "The Persistence of Espionage," a mysterious vignette tied to no particular continuity and set after the wreckage of its history, an apt metaphor for the place all Legion readers find themselves sooner or later. But for the last word on this strange and haunting collection, I have to turn to McDaniel's clinical and proleptic obituary for Kid Psycho:

                                      after all, what is life worth

     if you must sacrifice your youth to save it?

Marc Singer is an associate professor of English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics and a new book on the academic discipline of comics studies, due out later this year.
Review: Special Powers and Abilities Review: Special Powers and Abilities Reviewed by Marc Singer on Wednesday, March 14, 2018 Rating: 5
Powered by Blogger.