An incredible book of poetry about DC's Legion of Super-Heroes

Illustration for article titled An incredible book of poetry about DC's Legion of Super-Heroes

Is this your first visit to the 30th century?
Those of you from a millennium past may experience disorientation.
Know that we have addressed our epoch to utopia.
Know that we looked to you when we designed the answer to the question of our future, a fiction.

—"Welcome Visitors," Raymond McDaniel (Special Powers and Abilities xi)

In his new book Special Powers and Abilities, Raymond McDaniel takes up the mythology of superheroes in a series of poems based on DC's Legion of Super-Heroes comics. Divided into "gold," "silver," and "bronze age" sections, these poems, by turns affectionate and furious, animate the loves and inner lives of the perpetual superteens who make up the Legion: "Consider us super-induced, added to that which is, enumerated perhaps to the point of being supererogative if never quite superfluous, each one of us supernumerary, all of us superhetrodyne, mixed, reactive, multiple, magical," a letter from the future informs us.


A random sampling of the characters McDaniel writes about would include Saturn Girl (telepathy), Lightning Lad (lightning), Cosmic Boy (magnetism), Duo Damsel (triplication powers), Phantom Girl (intangibility), Supergirl (traditional panoply of Kryptonite powers), Brainiac 5 (superintelligence), Shrinking Violet (diminution), Bouncing Boy (elasticity), Matter-Eater Lad (superdigestion), Element Lad (transmutation), Light Lass (cancels gravity), Shadow Lass (superdarkness), and Tyroc (super-weird yells).

Don't worry if you're not a Legion reader, though. McDaniel takes pains to open up the universe to those unfamiliar with it and many poems manage to function quite successfully as both exposition and poetry-no mean feat. McDaniel writes in the interstices of Legion's epic narrative-begun in 1958 and still running-often tempering the loud, primary colors of its various plots with unexpected secondary shades. For instance, a number of poems in the collection draw from the titles and themes of key issues in the series ("The Weddings that Wrecked the Legion!" Adventure Comics #337, October 1965 [29] and "The Sacrifice of Kid Psycho" Superboy #125, December 1965 [32] are two such.). The poems careen between clever rhetorical acrobatics ("of course death occurred to us/you could call it our antimotivator/but only now do we know what it is to be destroyed"["The Doomed Legionnaire!" 42]) and moments where language grows elastic, gorgeous, uncanny (I will become smaller than unregulated rain, I will fall between/drops, globes that adopt the size of whole and beautiful worlds" ["Brainiac 5 Models the Bottle City of Kandor" 12]). It's sometimes an uneasy mixture but never a boring one.

Special Powers and Abilities didn't arise from nothing. Poetry that meditates on science fictional tropes has been around for a while. Consider, for example, Tracy K. Smith's Pulitzer Prize winning Life on Mars (2011), which (in addition to treating history, love, and parenthood) dwells at length on astronomy, interplanetary travel, Stanley Kubrick, and, of course, David Bowie. Poetry and comics have also been cross-pollinating for some time. Monica Youn's Ignatz (2010) is one example — a collection of love poems written in the world of George Herriman's magisterial Krazy Kat. The intersection between poetry and the superhero genre of comics also has a sort of sketchy pedigree: in her biography of Véra Nabokov, Stacy Schiff writes of how the author of Lolita, inspired by his son's diet of DC comics, wrote a poem, now lost to the ages, about the Man of Steel's wedding night (Poets, the city needs your help! Please begin your reconstructions of Superman's-wedding-night-as-versified-by-Vladimir-Nabokov immediately.). And poets like Rae Armantrout, Jeannine Hall Gailey, D.A. Powell, Stephen Burt, Terrance Hayes, A. Van Jordan, and Bryan Dietrich have used the figure of the superhero to consider all sorts deep cultural matter: sexuality, gender, race, American hegemony. Powell's version of Batman and Robin is more subtly, effectively disturbing than anything Frank Miller has ever written and Armantrout's poetic summary of the first Iron Man movie is an utterly devastating critique of the stories America tells itself about itself.


Where does McDaniel fall within this-not quite a tradition-a confederation perhaps? That is, what's his relationship to his material? It's complicated. Not precisely sustained critique but also not the most slavish variety of fannishness. His obvious fondness for Legion is tempered by a rueful awareness of its defects: "even you can't blame those who wonder/how long you can solve more problems than you create" ("Computo the Conqueror" 36), he writes. Mythology can be as much a burden as a source of wonder-a reminder of what you should be and aren't, what you ought to have and don't, what variety of lie is large enough to blot out the sun: "I thought I could save you from death/even though you were dead before I was born. I found you,/even though you were never lost" ("Brainiac 5 Generates Autocritique" 85). McDaniel's superteens of the future yearn for everything-utopia (though they supposedly live there), justice (though they supposedly dispense it), and love (though they consistently forbid it). And it is these yearnings that are at the heart of Special Powers and Abilities.

Utopia is unfashionable, to admit to yearning for utopia even more so. McDaniel knows this. He also knows that the price of this yearning is more than shame. The stakes are a little higher than that. Superhero mythology, often dependent on some kind of utopic vision, is guilty of reinforcing any number of unpleasant attitudes about, for example, gender and race-and one of the collection's greatest strengths is McDaniel's refusal to ignore this legacy. See "Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires!" ("once upon a time on the planet Femnaz (yes)" [26]) or "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" [71]).


In the following interview—conducted by correspondence over the course of a month—McDaniel talks about (among other things) the complexities of loving and writing about Legion, his crush on Shadow Lass, time travel, poetics, brine shrimp eggs, Danielle Pafunda, Ada Lovelace, and Lava Heavy Duty Brain Cleaner.

Rebecca Ariel Porte: Although the collection is fairly even-handed with its ensemble cast, there's some way in which the inscape of the superintelligent teenager Querl Dox of Colu, usually referred to as Brainiac 5, seems to form the book's emotional through-line. He knows, as you write in "Brainiac 5 Pitches a Hypothesis Fit," "the dream train to every article, adjustment, and fault" & this knowledge seems to be his essential triumph and also his essential tragedy. What is it about Brainiac 5?


Raymond McDaniel: Let's imagine someone smart enough to be both a theoretical physicist AND an applied engineer. Which identity would get more use? The engineer. Brainiac 5 is a problem-solver because all anyone does is present him with problems. Who stops by his quarters to discuss xenoliteratures? No one. So what you end up with is an asymmetrical genius, one who has a gift for abstract reasoning that's perpetually subsumed by his gift for getting things done. As a result, it never occurs to Brainiac 5 that there's any kind of problem he can't solve. And when the range of abstractions that require solving includes things like Time, Death, Sentiment and God, you get some very, very weird and heartbreaking ideas. And a boy who is very bright but also, fundamentally, very confused.

RAP: Yes—and there's one of the central problems of possessing special powers and abilities—having the will and the way to look at the dark side of the moon doesn't mean you've eradicated all blind spots and forever. Somewhere, William Blake (one of the original Martian poets) writes that "All Genius varies Thus Devils are various Angels all alike." The characters of Special Powers and Abilities, from Brainiac 5 to Duo Damsel to Lightning Lad to Shadow Lass to Wildfire are bound at once to various devilish genius and to the torments of perpetual, angelic adolescence. The poems in this collection are often monologue (dramatic monologue would the technical term). That is, they think quite profoundly about what the inner lives of eternal teenagers might be like, what it might be like, moreover, if your most forcible psychological and emotional shifts were made literal: if feeling conflicted meant you had the power to split into two or more bodies, if your impulsiveness or your hair-trigger temper translated to a torrent of lightning bolts rushing from your fingers. Could you say a little bit about why you were compelled to animate the psychodramas of these characters, about what it was in the Legion of Super-Heroes comics that told you that these poems were there to be written? It seems to me an act of love.


RM: It IS love. Love of narrative abundance, if nothing else. The Legion contains so many stories, and so much of storytelling as a form, that the poetry just appears in the seams, the spaces between those stories. For example, the first poem I wrote for the book was "Sense Maps of the United Planets" and its origins are in sounds - Imsk, Daxam, Durla, Trom - all those planets, which are themselves secondary characters. I just love the excess, because it create eddies and inlets, more passageways than narrative itself can navigate. As far as the Legionnaires themselves are concerned, yeah, they are teenagers and/or young adults, but I think there comes a point in adolescence when you begin to pretend to adulthood in a more serious way than childish play-acting. You start to imitate or embody an idea of maturity, and that imitation sometimes allows for extraordinary acts. The nature of a serial comic book keeps these characters in that zone of possibility forever, but decades of narrative accumulation have also... weathered them, in a way. So I have a great affection for the whole team, even as I realize that in any given issue each of its members is absurd.

RAP: That's fascinating—that "Sense Maps of the United Planets" was the first poem you drafted—it's one of my favorites in the collection, partly because it's one of those that does the most with the least narrative, partly for the reason you name—its unrelenting barrage of textures, colors and sounds: "Naltor-that-dreams/mercurial moldings and sleep sweat/precognition glistens/your pillows and parted lips platinum and probable/come to bed with us." Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you wrote it—that "Sense Maps" would be the first of many such poems? Also, how did you become a reader of Legion of Super-Heroes in the first place? Did you know what you were getting into with that? How did you come to invent yourself, Raymond McDaniel?


RM: I had no idea what I was doing. But I had so much fun with that one poem that I started applying the same technique to the characters themselves, and once I went down THAT rabbit hole, I wanted to play with other tones and styles, and next thing I knew I had 100 pages and an upset tummy. Perfectly enough, my first exposure to the Legion was a 100-page "DC Super-Spectacular": Superboy #202, a flat-bound anthology edition. It included stories from 1966 but had framing material from the year of publication, 1974. One of the supplements was Legion Lore, a sequence of brief origin stories for several of the members, and because I was only four years old I couldn't quite figure out how THESE people (who were dressed like they belonged on Soul Train) were the same people in the '66 stories (straight up American Bandstand). That wonder, compounded by subsequent decades of accretive complexity, has never faded, simply because I assumed at the time that all these versions were contemporaneous.

That's also the clearest answer to your other question: I didn't invent myself so much as err my way into being.


RAP: A precocious beginning! Would you say Legion was your primary geek touchstone or were there others that entered the mix? What are some of your current geek poisons?

RM: There's geeky and there's Oh my God, you must be joking geeky, and the Legion has always, always been the province of the shameless hardcore fan. Children who consumed JLA by the pallet would scoff at the Legion. Of course, I came of comic reading age after the form had lost its Pop cachet but before it established DIY fringe credibility. So while I am old enough to have bought early issues of Love and Rockets, I was already inculcated in superhero books, and was and will forever be the kid who once had a crush on Shadow Lass.


And of course "geek" as a category now poses serious epistemic challenges, because what once was geeky is now so normalized, so well-distributed, that one cannot distinguish the geeky from the non-. The Doctor just made it onto the cover of TV Guide. Buffy is a multi-generational point of reference. The President is big on Spider-Man. Who could have predicted this?

That said, I am working on a verse book about architectural and linguistic recursion and the tradition of the anchorite, so maybe the path to geekery just grows more and more baroque.


RAP: Would you say a little more about this work in progress?

I can't say too much about that book because it doesn't quite exist (cf. "Possibility Trumps Brainiac 5"). But I can tell you what feeds it. I have very poor eyesight, a problem compounded by the fact that I'm not even blessed with a symmetrical affliction - one eye is far worse than the other. So when I was a kid, before this was diagnosed, I was always closing one eye and opening the other, so as to create a kind of rough cinema effect: here/there, near/far, dim/bright. I paid attention to my focal range as a field of experimentation, but since I couldn't explain what I was doing, I just came across as touched.


Coincidentally, my father was losing his vision to cataracts, and so he too was experimenting with ways to manage partial blindness. It was an urgent matter, because he was am engineering draftsman, and if he could not see precisely, he could not work at all. (Fun dad facts: he was a self-taught engineer. By which I mean he actually holed up in the public library and taught himself engineering from books and standards manuals. Yeah.) He kept the tools of his trade around the house, and so I developed an interest in extreme close-up drawing at the same time he was forced to do the same.

In order to explain ideas of focus draftsmanship to me, he would have me copy Escher prints, many of which depend on recursion for their effect. But there's one print, named "Castrovalva" after the village in the Abruzzi that it depicts, that always confused me - I couldn't see the patterning that was so apparent in the others. And then one day I realized that as a perspective drawing it had depth without sacrificing detail, which is the kind of formal "error" that approximated how I had been piece-assembling my visual map of what the world looked like. For some reason, I associated all the planar effects of those other prints with the interiors of the village of Castrovalva, and years later I read a review of the original that said something to the effect of "this is Castrovalva from without, but even more so it is Castrovalva from within," and that really struck me as elemental, paradoxical, true.


When I found out there's a Doctor Who episode called Castrovalva it was simply icing on the cake of fate, of course.

RAP: Sounds a little like a Douglas Hofstadter book! Our excitement about this germinating collection beggars words—and we'll hope for at least one icing rosette—a Whovian riff. Speaking of, time travel! Backwards, forwards or I'll-none-of-it?


RM: No thank you. Time travel is bad news. I don't know why people focus on the potential threat to "history" or worry unduly about "timelines" (though Abed's Darkest Timeline on Community is proof of the ubiquinerd previously discussed).

Here's the problem: even limited to the subjective experience of linear progression, you can think about prior and subsequent points. That alone creates monstrous data. You have a head full of perpetual re-inscriptions of a conceptual past; these, and projections of the future, constitute the unmanageable clutter of the present. Now imagine how that mess would be compounded if you could actually occupy prior moments. You would preserve the effluvia of the previous present but its referents would increase exponentially with every addition of occupied moments. The information would jump into orders that sorta defeat the very idea of a conscious present. You would go batshit insane. No, no, I have past and future enough already.


Also, the production values in the past are terrible.

RAP: This answer is revealing, perhaps more than you know. Perhaps not. Perhaps you have been reading Charlie Jane Anders?


There have been people who have really wanted art—poetry in particular—to act like a time machine (T.S. Eliot was one)—that is, they have thought about the poem as a field of moving parts that, when activated by the conscious act of reading, produces an exact replica of an emotion, a state of mind, a train of thought impossibly preserved beyond its natural expiration date. A butterfly in aspic. Or do I mean a fly in amber? Do you have any sympathy with this view of how poems work?

RM: All self-revelation is accidental (the interview subject demurred).

I have been reading Charlie Jane Anders, but I will not have been when you asked if I had. Thank you for pointing me in that direction!


The poem-as-time-machine: eh. I empathize with the impulse insofar as I periodically share in the desire for perfect dominion, the wish to make something the specific operation of which is inexorable. But that desire is thoroughly gross, isn't it? Art that makes one obey. What's worse? I wouldn't want to be at the finely-machined mercy of some versifier's art-trap and I don't want to plot those munitions at (or upon) anyone else. That degree of control would exclude accident, mystery, chance. It would deny fun. The problem with a fly in amber is that the condition in which the fly is preserved is already the most stable of states: dead. I prefer the metaphor of brine shrimp eggs, or prog rock, or the Masada date palm seedling: anything that goes dormant and then, given the right trigger, pops to, all present and correct, and proceeds to all the uncontrollable, futile, messy adventures characteristic of life.

RAP: By all means, let us refrain from denying fun. I fear, by the by, that you have just elucidated what some might call a poetics. It's wonderfully brave of you! We'll call it the mandate of the brine shrimp eggs. What poems or cultural artifacts do you see as performing that sort of work, fulfilling that mandate? Your answer cannot fail to be local, ephemeral, and subjective and in this will lie its virtue.


RM: Did you just accuse me of a poetics? That's even worse than mistaking me for brave. Wash your mind immediately with Lava Heavy Duty Brain Cleaner.

Of course, were the abovementioned blatherings constituent of a poetics, then the task of locating examples would thwart what you call the mandate. The quality of Fun can't inhere in the artifact itself. Ask any kid, if kids are allowed outdoors these days, if dirt is Fun. Well, the child is having Fun, sure, but is that Fun a property of the dirt? I suppose there are some things that completely prohibit Fun, but I can't think of anything that irresistibly enforces it. And that's how we get to local and ephemeral, I suppose.


But: Adventure Time. Algorithms. Ancient abecedaries. Once you get me started, I'll never stop. You might also want to directly access persons who are both sources and filters of Fun: for me, that currently includes Danielle Pafunda of the living and Ada Lovelace of the dead. The Fun awaits activation! That's as nerdy a call to arms as I can muster. But it's true.

RAP: Now I'm imagining what a conversation between Danielle Pafunda (living poet) & Ada Lovelace (dead programmer) would look like. (The dead girls speak in unison, after all.)Your position on fun is somewhat Neo-Kantian (which, of course, you know). In any case, congratulations, you have delivered up exactly the kind of particular-peculiar local ephemerae an interview is designed to elicit—that all may profit by a specialized case of delight. Delight has its own economics. You know this also. We paste three metaphorical gold stars on your impeccable bald pate. Two final questions. What will you call the next poem you're going to write? Does Lava Heavy Duty Brain Cleaner cause excessive pain?


RM: I can say with some confidence that Danielle would be as happy to speak with the dead as with the living. Maybe happier. As for me, well, I keep a summer home in New Kantia, where I am working on an illustrated monograph titled My Position on Fun.


I will call my next poem "Maze A" unless it fails to answer to that name, at which time I will consider either a new poem or a new title.


And I don't know if Lava Heavy Duty Brain Cleaner causes excessive pain (as opposed to the just so amount); you cannot imagine I've ever lathered up and applied it to myself, can you?

Two final questions for you: For which Legionnaire do you feel a special affinity? And into what century do you project your personal utopia?


RAP: O, me? Well. I'm the bottle city of Kandor. Unless you can think of an avatar more apt. (I fear, suddenly, that we have entered Exit Through the Gift Shop territory.) My personal utopia can barely interest you (or anyone else for that matter) but a cursory projection would involve an explanation of a dangerous, old philosophy called hylozoism. But that isn't what you asked. I will plead the etymologist's deceit: a utopia (mine, in this instance—& so not mine) is no place & therefore no space. Space & time are one or, not quite one, but indivisible. The utopic implies therefore (or even is) the uchronic or ukairic & no century will attach it without incurring the dubious burden of an indefinite sequence in which no progression is possible. (Which possibly explains why the pleasures & the follies of Legion of Super-Heroes persist in the fashion they do.) I can't quite bear to launch such a weight at some poor, unsuspecting century—no, really, I can't. I'm a sadly inconsistent creature: like a snail, I carry my pocket universe on my back. Nonetheless, I believe in traveling light.

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Annalee Newitz

I pretty much live for posts where Doctor Who and Neo-Kantianism are both discussed. Along with poetry and DC comics.