Superpowers UK coverIt’s all about what you know, and what you don’t. For instance, I don’t know how much David J Schwartz’ first novel has in common with the rest of the recent mini-glut of prose superhero stories; I haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, or Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, or Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, or any others. But I have read a fair bit of Schwartz’ short fiction, so I know that Superpowers displays most of the virtues of stories like “The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons” or “Five Hundred and Forty Doors”, including an admirable sure-footedness when it comes to handling the fantastic, a gift for efficiently capturing the essentials of a situation or character, and an emotional directness that, if it catches you unawares, can knock you down. (I should also say that I know Schwartz himself a little — enough to ask him to write reviews for Strange Horizons, and to play the occasional game of Scrabulous with, at least.) And I know that, while not everything in Superpowers works, enough of it does to indicate that David J Schwartz is a name worth knowing.

If you read the first couple of pages of his novel, what you’ll know is this:

Fact #1: The party took place on Saturday, May 19, 2001, at 523 West Mifflin Street, Apt. 2, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703.

Fact #2: Five people attended the party, all of them inhabitants of 523. Charles Frost, age twenty, and Jack Robinson, age nineteen, hosted their downstairs neighbors Caroline Bloom, twenty, Harriet Bishop, twenty, and Mary Beth Layton, twenty.

Fact #3: Of the five, only Charles Frost was available to be interviewed in the aftermath of these events, and except for the events witnessed by your intrepid reporter, the following is based on his account alone.

The guy telling you this is Marcus Hatch, conspiracy nut and self-styled “editor” of Superpowers, though there’s every indication he wrote the whole thing. This is not a book that wastes time getting going, so before long, you know what happened after the party — c’mon, deep down you knew it already — which is that everyone woke up with a superpower. Mary Beth got super-strength, Harriet got invisibility, Caroline got flight, Jack got super-speed, and Charlie Frost got telepathy. We get to know the characters as they explore and/or come to terms with their new abilities.

Schwarz’ style is extremely approachable, and emphasizes character through action or reaction far more often than it does through introspection. This means that Superpowers stands or falls with its character dynamics; and in the manner of its standing, I’d say that Joss Whedon’s influence is evident, for Whedon’s strategy is also to present us with types who are later complicated by the things that happen to them. Moreover, though Schwartz’ dialogue doesn’t recall Whedon’s stylistically, the way that characters display their emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), and the way a ready vein of character-based humour is mixed with moments of sudden, sharp pathos, is a familiar tactic. The scene in which our five nascent heroes get together for the first time to discuss what they’re going to do is a case in point; the serious personal and moral questions that get raised are counterpointed by the fact that Mary Beth has gone to the trouble to put together a handout titled “Options for Superpowered Individuals”, and punctuates the conversation by writing down what people say on a flip-chart. Some members of the group aren’t initially interested in crime-fighting (notably Caroline: “My first thought upon finding out you all had developed strange abilities was not, ‘Oh goody, now we can all fight crime together,'” she says, with just a little echo of Cordelia Chase). But it’s Charlie who gets down to brass tacks, with an argument we’ve heard before:

“I think we should help any way we can,” Charlie said. “I know I wish I had.”

“What do you mean?” Mary Beth asked.

“I mean Marsha Tanner,” Charlie said. “The guy who killed her — the first day I went outside, I got inside his head. He was thinking about killing her then, and I didn’t do anything about it. He looked normal, you know? Sometimes when I’m angry, I might think about hurting someone. But he meant it.”

“You didn’t know,” Harriet said.

“I was the only one who did know,” Charlie said. “That’s my point. We can do this, and to me that’s reason enough that we should. It’s not about whether there’s enough demand. It’s about what’s right.” (76-9)

Charlie’s determination and sincerity are all the more affecting for the fact that his Peter Parker moment has been going on largely in the margins of other people’s scenes, and it’s only here that (for me at least) the parallel clicks into place. A lot of Superpowers is similarly referential; above and beyond the journalistic frame, it’s a very knowing book, a book that’s eager for you to play along. Some of the references grate a little — such as when Caroline refers to the Madison All-Stars as “your friendly neighborhood superheroes”, because the contrast between the place these heroes look after, which really does feel like a smallish community, and the franchise-emptiness that goes with Spider-Man saying it in a big city was already implicit — but a lot of them are nicely underplayed, because Schwartz knows that any modern superhero story is going to be expected to jump through certain hoops. The question of costumes, for instance, or — more important to the novel — the question of how normal people cope with superpowers.

But Schwartz brings a number of things to the table that stop his book being too second-hand. First and foremost is an apparent determination that his normal people will in fact be normal, and will live in the world we know. His superheroes joke and bitch and celebrate and recriminate and get horny just like normal college students. They are not captured or experimented on by the government, nor do they really live in fear of their true identities being discovered. (That kind of knowledge turns out to be a power that doesn’t matter as much as you think.) They focus, as I’ve already mentioned, on local, day-to-day crimes such as convenience store hold-ups. Which is the second and more important thing: there’s no supervillain. This sounds trivial, but in fact isn’t; it highlights just how much most super-teams are defined by who they strive against, and the uncertainty this absence creates is underlined in a couple of ways. The more conventional one is that the All-Stars uncover evidence of a World War II superteam, and feel perhaps slightly jealous that their predecessors had such a clear enemy to fight; the less conventional one is the looming presence of September 11th over the story.

What we know — and what none of the characters know, although one of Marcus’ early editorial notes confirms that it’ll be an issue — is that for a novel set between May and October 2001, the spectre of 9/11 is inescapable. The impersonal undertow of geopolitics is the only supervillain Superpowers will give us, and though it may not be a surprise, it’s still a little terrifying how quickly the event is seized on by various parties as a way to give their narratives sense and coherence. This is of course exactly what, on a larger scale, Schwartz is doing with his novel, but he’s doing it, I think, to point out how dangerous it is; “This was the worst of the American character,” someone thinks to themselves towards the end of the book, as anti-Muslim violence comes to Madison, “People nestled so deeply in their own comfort zone that they could not even distinguish between unknowns” (343). Indeed, in the last hundred pages the light-heartedness of the early chapters vanishes almost entirely, and serious costs start to be asked of all the characters.

It’s a choice that makes Superpowers the only story I’ve come across that extends in quite this way the familiar superhero narrative of powers not being enough to deal with personal crises, such that the novel ultimately becomes a story about powers not being enough to deal with the impersonal forces that shape the world we live in today. (There’s J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man #36, I suppose, but I think most people would agree that’s best forgotten.) It’s a little miraculous that Schwartz manages to pull this off as well as he does; the end of Superpowers is by no means perfect, but it successfully writes about 9/11 without asking for too big a loan from the reserve of shared sentiment the mention of that day still carries. We’re left to recognize most of the ways in which the event refracts the first part of the novel for ourselves, such as the parallel between the description of the TV coverage as “crayon-bold” and the primary-colour exuberance of the All-Stars’ costumes. And there are a handful of serious emotional wallops in the last 50 pages, stuff that grows organically out of the All-Stars’ characters and the changing situation they find themselves in – when they know as little as anyone else, they’re as powerless as anyone else – that make you realise exactly how precisely controlled the tone is throughout. Similarly, the novel repeatedly overcame one of my big reservations about prose superhero stories – the feeling that superpowers are so much better suited to a visual medium – by emphasizing the subjective experience of his heroes. This is particularly affecting in the case of Jack, who may be able to stretch his subjective time further and further, but can’t turn back the progression of his father’s chronic illness, and in the case of Charlie, whose power escalates such that he becomes not unlike a human Cerebro, able to surf the mindstream of the world (which explains how Hatch is able to present most of his manuscript as a third-person narrative based only on Charlie’s testimony) when he’s not being overwhelmed by it.

Marcus warns us early on that a lot of questions — how the All Stars got their powers, for instance — don’t get answered and, in the end, despite Charlie’s near-omniscience, Superpowers is all about what the All Stars don’t know and can’t do, as much as it is what they do and can. Which means that when the answers the All Stars think they’ve found about themselves are overturned by events, it hurts; and means that what Superpowers says to its readers is, playing along should never be mistaken for the real world. You know?

8 thoughts on “Superpowers

  1. I haven’t read Superpowers, but the absence of a supervillain (or, if my impression is correct, any villain who acts as the team’s nemesis) strikes me as an eminently rightheaded move. I’ve been thinking recently about the advent of so-called adult superhero films and the reasons that I’ve found them so overwhelmingly juvenile, and it occurs to me that the insistence on supervillains is a big part of the problem. No matter how much effort is expended on making the hero a believable, three-dimensional human being, the villains are invariably cartoonishly deranged. I suppose that pitting a superhero against the actual ills of the world, messy and complicated as they are, is too unsatisfying.

  2. Absolutely, Abigail. One of the reasons Iron Man worked as well as it did is because we had vast swathes of movie that _didn’t_ have all that much to do with the villainous storyline.

  3. I’m not at all convinced by this slew of literary takes on the superhero genre.

    I’m just not interested in any story that begins with characters with kick-ass powers going out and doing stuff. Regardless of the take you use to approach the question or the language you use in the process, it just seems a fig leaf over a form of story telling that is fundamentally silly at best and a form of cryptofascistic adolescent power fantasy at worst.

    Even acknowledgement of the genre’s moral problems (which seems to feature quite prominently in this book) not only reinforces how silly the genre is, it’s also treading over ground that was pretty well trampled a good 20 years ago.

    Nope. Don’t like it. Don’t like it at all.

  4. Abigail/Gwenda: yes, agreed on all that.


    adolescent power fantasy

    Well, yeah. But I think a big reason superhero stories have gained such traction is that, when you get down to it, adolescence is a time when a lot of people (without wishing to be corny) suddenly discover that they have power, whether of intellect or athleticism or sexuality, or whatever. (It’s the basis for the end of Buffy, apart from anything else.) I think it’s possible for a superhero story to be about that aspect of the idea without endorsing or unavoidably being contaminated by the skeevier versions.

    This actually comes from a brief discussion of the book with Farah last night; I was wondering where superhero stories would fit in her taxonomy, and she argued that if they’re about people coming to terms with their new powers then it’s essentially a portal fantasy: the characters have moved from one world into another. She hasn’t read Superpowers, but I think there’s a lot to be said for thinking of the book’s characters as moving through such a portal of knowledge and self-knowing.

  5. here’s a lot to be said for thinking of the book’s characters as moving through such a portal of knowledge and self-knowing

    Yes. But you’ve now got me thinking about how closely Farah’s taxonomy maps onto The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which is not good.

  6. Niall,


    However, I think that any emotional traction that that story might once have had has long since been eroded away by the fact that it pops up so often. It’s formulaic and stupid and lazy and trite and obvious.

    Anyone who sits down and writes a gaining super-powers = growing up story needs to take a long hard look at whether they’re cut out to be a writer. For example, Tad Williams’ current behemoth trilogy has that exact plot line. Nuff said.

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