I became aware of Raymond McDaniel’s book Special Powers and Abilities when I heard him being interviewed on a show called Living Writers, broadcast on the University of Michigan’s radio station, WCBN-FM. (If you want to listen, it’s the episode that aired on 2013-01-30.) I like to listen to Living Writers when I’m driving from one office to another at the end of my workday. I’m only ever able to catch the last half of the program (if I don’t miss it entirely) but I find it an intensely enjoyable experience – the guests are consistently fantastic, and the host is perfectly infuriating, a combination of nervous and eager to please that puts her guests just on edge enough to create some great moments.
As luck would have it, the show I caught that Wednesday was split into two segments – the first on Raymond McDaniel’s new book Saltwater Empire, and the second his other recent project, Special Powers and Abilities. I only caught the final third of the show, and was intrigued by an odd claim on McDaniel’s part. When asked about the topic of his third book, he said it was a book entirely inspired by the Legion of Super-Heroes, which is “… the longest running serial narrative of the 20th century.” That statement made zero sense to me (surely Superman, out of whose pages Superboy and, via Superboy, the Legion of Super-Heroes, was born, is a longer running narrative?) but McDaniel’s soothing voice kept going, informing me that he is a lifelong comic book reader, someone who buys the new issues of his favorite series every Wednesday at Vault of Midnight, someone who Knows About Comics.
That sense of authenticity (based in reality or otherwise) thoroughly permeates Special Powers and Abilities. McDaniel writes his poems as a person intimately familiar with the intricacies and stupidities of decades upon decades of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and at any given point it’s not quite clear whether he’s mocking it or lauding it. Ironically, I approach his book as the opposite of his anticipated reader – I am very well acquainted with comics and with the Legion of Superheroes, but I have only a passing knowledge of poetry. As such, I don’t feel comfortable writing a direct critique of the poetry in this book, because poetry is something I have very little experience with reading critically. I’m a casual reader of poetry at best, and while I have immense admiration for good poetry, I’m not quite able to vocalize what I like or don’t like about many poems.
I am able to say that McDaniel’s layout is both hilarious and compulsive. First, the book is exactly 100 pages long and separated into three “chapters,” Gold, Silver, and Bronze, in homage to the 100 page specials DC frequently used to compile old and new material. Short poems introduce each character individually, and are presented in boxes, echoing the “roll call” pages ubiquitous in comics of the period. Some of the poems represent narrative trends (“Braniac 5 Loves Supergirl”) and some represent individual issues (“The Hero Who Hated The Legion!” [Superboy #216, April 1976]). McDaniel is an adept poet, and the poems do a good job of introducing the simultaneous idiocy and ambition of the Legion stories. I like the poems best where they’re critical of their source material, as with “The Hero Who Hated The Legion!”
“…but here’s Science Fiction Liberia
whose lone hero is one angry black man
whose superpower is to raise his voice.”
The weakest poems for me are ones that try to explain inter-character relationships too straightforwardly. I’m often torn between thinking that McDaniel is satirizing the simplicity of these children’s comics and that McDaniel is honestly looking for true sentiment, but when I read,
“Braniac 5 thought of everything
he could think of Supergirl except what he was going to say
I can’t help reading it in the same sort of mental voice with which I read the early Mad Magazine parodies of children’s primers. It’s not that I think McDaniel shouldn’t point out the obvious ironies of the storylines he’s addressing, but when compared to some of the more investigative and critical writing in the book, I find it less interesting. I don’t think McDaniel’s missteps (if there really are any) have to do with a lack of understanding of these characters, of course. He obviously knows a lot more about the Legion than I do, and his knowledge and willingness to read into so many years worth of these comics makes him a fairly reliable guide through their universe.
McDaniel’s book is worth a read (or several) and I find myself returning again and again to his poetry. I would say the most incredible trick McDaniel pulls off is actually making me want to revisit the Legion of Super-Heroes books. Somehow, through his simultaneously mythic and satirical poetry, McDaniel makes me feel nostalgia for a series of books I found tedious even as a child. I would compare the tone of his book to Alan Moore’s farewell to Superman, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? McDaniel’s writing adopts much the same tone that Moore’s does, both of them full of earnest appreciation for and criticism of the source material, dressed in Curt Swan and George Perez trappings that evoke just the right sense of nostalgia in the reader. McDaniel’s writing seems to call back to a rich, diverse, fascinating universe that I don’t really believe exists, but his assertion that it does is enough. I recommend this book as an interesting fusion of artforms and as an example of some of the nicest and most thoughtful layouts I’ve seen in a poetry book.