Special Powers and Abilities takes its inspiration from a long (and still!) running comic series about super-powered teenagers in a distant future. Through the intricate use of assorted poetic structures or devices, McDaniels investigates everything from teenage love triangles and last stands to mythological parallels and the limits of poetry and comics.
The character Brainiac 5 stands in as both a model of “adolescent geek romanticism” and the figure of the poet; 30th century utopia becomes a counterpoint to our own time, and all the while music runs through the poems with as much spunk as the young heroes themselves.
Ben Pease Special Powers and Abilities has been a constant companion these past few weeks, and it has come at a serendipitous time when I find myself almost exclusively reading poetry and comics. Crisis of Infinite Words! Alright, so my first set of questions has to do with structural elements of the book—in terms of both form and content. When beginning the book, I found the arrangement of poems both magnanimous and exciting: each super-hero gets an introduction (more on these later), and the poems that follow directly involve the characters we just learned about. As the book progresses, a widening variety of types of poems enters the fray: the “What to Expect” poems, the Superhero X Loves/Does Not Love Superhero Y poems, poems that take their titles directly from issues like “Computo the Conqueror!” or “The Doomed Legionnaire!” and so on. What was the impetus behind these many types of poems?
Raymond McDaniel I’m glad the book is good company! I don’t know if anything I’ve ever done has been characterized as magnanimous before but you can bet I’ll be using that in the future. “I found this poem difficult … ” “Are you sure? It’s actually magnanimous!”
I think the number of types of poems increases to distribute the burden of the Legion’s unwieldy narrative. In terms of plot and tone, following the chronology ends up both arithmetic and asymptotic. So the types manage that complexity. Rather than throw readers in the deep end immediately, I try to help them acclimate by signaling, via repetition, what kind of thing they are getting. As the book progresses, readers can then accommodate more and more types. I hope.
Of course, the repetition of types also reflects the redundancy of serial comics. Someone will always be falling in love with someone else; members will die; new members will join; the Time Trapper will show up in his purple hooded monk’s robe and cause serious epistemic trouble.
BP You employ a variety of poetic forms throughout the book. The aforementioned introductions to the heroes are written in Anglo-Saxon verse (alliteration, caesura, et al!), Brainiac-centric poems are all in couplets, the poems named after particular issues sprawl across the page. How does form inform the poems? What about the poems that don’t fit within any of these categories?
RM As for the forms themselves, I want them to match their function in very straightforward ways. The introduction poems need to be placeholders, persistent, memorable: aural hooks and barbs. The single adventure poems need to match the heedless, headlong speed of the plots they report. But eventually these types and forms give way to less recognizable patterns, likely because there’s a moment at which the Legion ceases to be a collection of discrete characters and issues and stories and becomes a world, synthetic, complete. First the trees, and then the forest, and then both at once.
BP I want to use Brainiac 5 as an entry-point into a discussion of the characters within the Legion. In preparation for this interview, I read the 1982 Annual to get a sense of the comic. At that point in the series, Brainiac 5 was by no means the leader, but he seemed to hold an elevated level of respect. Does this have anything to do with your giving him the spotlight for much of the book? What qualities drove you to him? With Brainiac 5 and all of the other heroes, how did you find a balance between the characters that have already existed and those you set to put upon the page?
RM Ah, the possession of Danielle Foccart by Computo! It’s amazing that you chose that annual of all available Legion comics, because that is the exact issue I bought after having wandered away from LSH to spend years with the X-Men. But that issue pulled me back in, because it perfectly distills what fans love (and foes hate) about the Legion: enormous cast, deep sub-referencing, an inability or unwillingness to distinguish between drama and comedy. Delicious.
And Brainiac 5 has his couplets. Of course he does! He is a methodical man with a methodical mind. I’ve never been able to resist him. He’s the perfect avatar of adolescent geek romanticism: he isn’t strong, he doesn’t emit force beams or spit lightning. He just thinks about things. He thinks about things so well it counts as a superpower. You can’t illustrate him doing it, but you can elaborate how having such an awesome big brain can drive a plot forward just as easily as it can drive its owner insane.
He’s a good example, and I have great affection for him, but what’s true of him is true of all the Legionnaires: they aren’t persons but fifty years’ worth of relatively simple representations make it very easy to imagine what they would be like if they were. That’s the simple question I kept asking: what if this sprawling, ad hoc entertainment was true?
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.
Everyone’s like this where I come from.
No one’s left where I come from.
No one else leaves where I come from.
I just got lucky.
I made a potion and drank it.
My parents did this to me.
Everyone’s like this where I come from, but less so.
I got locked in a lab by a mad scientist.
Everyone’s like this where I come from.
Someone else made a potion and I drank it.
I got swallowed by a space whale.
Everyone’s like this where I come from.
Everyone was like this where I came from until a space pirate murdered them.
I got attacked by lightning beasts but then I met Dream Girl.
Um, it’s congenital?
I taught myself.
I’m enjoying my royal prerogative.
I’m the last of my matriarchal line.
I’m just special like that, I guess.
My dad experimented on me.
My body was destroyed and this is what’s left.
I don’t know, I just am.
I’m the best.
I’m the last.
I’m the next.
I’m pretty average, actually.
I’m getting better and better.
We’ve met before.
BP You say, “As the book progresses, readers can then accommodate more and more types,” and the end of the book has a number of poems that, in my mind, stand apart or break from the serial poems.
“Orphans,” “Roll Call Speed Date,” and “The Persistence of Espionage” are three that break from the serial nature of some of the other poems. “Orphans” stands out especially because it uses apostrophe to address a superhero who has abandoned its home planet, but it could be one of many. In much the same way that The Legion travels back in time to find themselves inspired by Superman, this poem highlights how the comic-book creators can’t help but fall into a predictable pattern where eventually “even orphans are only one of many.” Could you talk about this and other places where you felt the need to criticize aspects of the comic?
RM In general, comics like the Legion very nearly criticize themselves. The people who work on a title like that know full well that it is at least a little bit ridiculous, and even—if you have a deep enough archive—offensive. But there’s no point in making those obvious, freestanding criticisms, because the book is self-repairing. Every issue of the Legion of Super-Heroes is struggling to remediate the whole franchise, which is the best way to express loyalty to it.
So I don’t think of “Orphans” as critical. Cruel, maybe, in that it is cruel to force someone to recognize that their singularity is the most common of all experiences. The hope, however, is that awareness of that fact allows other stories to occur. One orphan does take on mythological properties (you can almost see the capitalization snapping into being: The Orphan) but a bunch of orphans, well, that’s a musical. There’s a point at which multiplicity stops reinforcing the pattern it reveals. It’s true that the pattern persists, inevitable, inexorable, but that also presents an opportunity to look at the weave and the substance itself more closely. A few artists have exploited this in the Legion itself via the perspective-boggling powers of Shrinking Violet, whose scaling up and down makes literal how you can see a pattern and get lost in the thickets of its making.
BP While “Orphans” at first seems like an opportunity to criticize the comics, it also hearkens back to “Brainiac 5 Drops the Plot” and comic books’ place in mythology. In this poem, Brainiac 5 brings on this comparison by thinking about himself in terms of Orpheus. How do comics carry on this tradition? How do they fail? How does poetry intervene?
By the end, he states, “In rending, I render. I always, I never.” This line to me conjured up Iago both in terms of its paradoxical nature and haughty assertion of destructive power. This brought me back to “adolescent geek romanticism” and how the win-it-all or lose-it-all notion is kin to both comic-book plot lines and teens. I’m getting a sense of the allure of The Legion: the struggle with new found sexual awareness and superhuman ability (or one in the same).What drew you to this theme? What were you surprised to find?
RM As for myth, hmm, well. Brainiac is definitely deploying a mythological reference for strategic purposes, but one of the things I’ve always loved about the Legion is how it confuses myth and history simply by virtue of great temporal distance. Camelot strikes the teenagers of the 30th century as exactly the same degree of mythological as Olympus. That matters, because it reveals how powerfully they are locked into their present. Superboy fascinates them because he’s right at the border of what their culture remembers as history and what it enshrouds as myth. Now, many smart people have insisted that superheroes are our modern myths, but I think this is wrong, because myths are stories; the Legion is a bunch of stories about characters, who begin as types but over time achieve such bizarre specificity that they could never inspire the kind of faith myth requires. They don’t hover over our world and they don’t derive from its chthonic depths. They exist adjacent: mirrors, not models.
Haughty as you rightly identify him as being, Brainiac has an awkward relationship to the teenage dynamics you mention. He thinks he’s above them, which is of course the kind of mistake teenagers are prone to make. But he’s genuinely smart enough to see what he’s implicated in. When he says I always, I never, he’s simply admitting that his very resistance to Doomed Love and Last Stands and Heroic Postures is a perpetuation of the same. Orpheus was a fool. A sympathetic one, but a fool nonetheless.
I’ve only recently realized that part of what has always appealed to me about the Legion is that its premise is utopian. I’ve been trained to resist even the idea of utopia as totalitarianism in disguise (at worst) or cottony self-indulgence (at best) but as it becomes increasingly apparent that we are committed to a course of action that guarantees dystopia, I’ve found it interesting to look at a word that presumes we are good. And good here refers to sanity, prudence, compassion, virtues that create an environment that doesn’t require evil. This isn’t to say that the Legion has no villains or that its plot isn’t dependent on adversarial forces, but you can imagine—however dimly—a Legion that does nothing but handle accidents, avert natural disasters, endure malfunctioning machinery and flirt. This doesn’t work with, say, Batman, who needs and endless supply of derangement and murder.
So the utopian aspect raises an interesting question: how would children behave if they knew they were going to grow up in a world that was good?
Brainiac 5 Pitches a Hypothesis Fit
No one is only ever clever. No form is merely function.
An experiment isn’t a test. How high do you think IQ can go?
Count on your alien fingers. If necessary go to your toes.
I’ll memorize pi for awhile. It’s fine, I’m fine, why do you ask?
I am a genius trapped in a bottle. Do I exasperate? So do you.
You are inadequate to even crap mathematics. I want you to think
about how I feel but you cannot think and I do not feel. Oh well.
Ditch the idiom, chum. My mood’s as considered as my diction.
I gave you rings with which to fly while I sit still
in this industrial grove, alone, smartening steel, asymptotic.
I take incomparable care, while you planet smash and grasp.
Who isn’t my patient? I do not acknowledge anything latent,
I haven’t the patience. Go to play, go to space. I’ve robots
to plot. Immersion in emptiness destroys distance. Distance begs
limit. But you cannot get it, the limit I cannot admit. Let me
tell you about a dream I have. The new Metropolis train accelerates
down its magnetic track while I’m held fast, point punctuation
on the high-speed line. I deduce its blueprint in my head and shunt
the momentum into exploded view. Its engineering releases.
Forward momentum radiates neatly, parts part, A decouples from B.
Disassembled, its waits in my mind, done and unknown then known and undone.
I understand it to bits and pieces. Do you know what this portends?
I know the dream train to every article, adjustment, and fault.
I know the real train just as well. So tell me: why doesn’t it halt?
BP When you said, “Every issue of the Legion of Super-Heroes is struggling to remediate the whole franchise, which is the best way to express loyalty to it,” it got me thinking that your book is also remediating and expressing loyalty in its own way. It then leads me to the question, what were the literary/poetic antecedents for Special Powers and Abilities? How did you see yourself interacting with those particular franchises?
RM In 2003 Daniel Nester published a book called God Save My Queen, which is really just a literary extrusion of his (justifiable) obsession with Queen. And then in 2004 he turned around and did it again with God Save My Queen II: The Show Must Go On. There are many things about these books that I love, but what I love most of all is that they even exist, that Nester just took this thing he adored and paid attention to it until it rendered forth, until his affection took shape. It was the devotional act that was so inspiring, not Queen itself, though Queen is as good a subject as any and better than most.
There are other explicitly super-heroic books of poetry, including Bryan Dietrich’s Krypton Nights, Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Mete Zina Walschots’s Doom, and these are inspirations, as well—not least because they reveal that many, many poets know way, way too much about comic books.
I guess I feel an affinity for any artmaking that doesn’t assume certain subjects are beneath consideration, just as I treasure anyone who sees that content doesn’t have to predict tone. All of hip hop rests on the idea that you can find anything in anything, that you can—like Matter-Eater Lad—turn any substance you consume into more of yourself.
BP The appeal of utopia seems natural after writing a book like Saltwater Empire. Is there a common ground between the devastatingly-real dystopia growing around us and the flawed-but-shiny utopia found in the 30th century? After your exploration of this long-running fantasy, did you arrive at a different vision of humanity? What do you think changes when the rising generations are convinced the world they are inheriting is good or bad?
RM Have you noticed a nostalgia for the Soviet Union in Westerners of a certain age? It isn’t a “true” nostalgia in that any of its practitioners desire the return of the USSR or valorize the hysteria and murder and lunacy of the Cold War. It’s nostalgia for a doom of which the average citizen is a witness, not an agent. Had two, uh, superpowers tripped themselves into nuclear-inflected oblivion, well, that would have been bad, but it would have been easier for the viewer at home to believe it wasn’t their fault.
Now, however, we know that our decay and our advancement are A) completely intertwined and B) absolutely a matter of personal choice, magnified by X. Our collapse won’t be epic; it will be a gradual encroachment of shittier and shittier conditions, all of which will arise from bad bargains that will nevertheless seem reasonable at the time. That’s bleak.
However, that bleakness actually activates a certain kind of utopia, because now that we don’t have to worry about the risk of an applied utopia, we can return to the purely conceptual ones. It’s worth noting that the Legion doesn’t deny wickedness and folly: some poorly-detailed catastrophe does befall Earth between now and then. But the assumption is that we learn from that disaster. And I think we now have considered what it means to have proof that we are, en masse, incapable of learning to a degree that would, say, upgrade our ethos. We don’t need the Time Trapper or the Legion of Super-Heroes. We can’t even contend with ourselves.
Poems reprinted by permission from Special Powers and Abilities (Coffee House Press, 2012). Copyright © 2012 by Ray McDaniel.