Comic book superheroes have become the dominant money-making vehicle in Hollywood the past decade or so, and we’re become accustomed to seeing them in spectacular, big-screen set pieces that boggle our eyes. But sometimes it’s nice to shift perspective a bit, not just to give our senses a break from the noise and sound and spectacle, but also to allow for a more intimate relationship, a more thoughtful one, one that evokes other emotions beyond “wow.” And that’s just what is offered by the anthology Drawn to Marvel, a collection of several hundred poems by over a hundred poets, edited by Bryan D. Dietrich and Marta Ferguson. Amongst the big-name contributors are: Albert Goldbarth, Sherman Alexie, John Ashberry, Lucille Clifton, Hilda Raz, and William Trowbridge, but if some of the other names are not as easily recognized (if one can even say that about poets nowadays), many boast an impressive portfolio of Guggenheim’s, literary awards, laureates, and the like. Add in some wholly fresh, strong voices, and this anthology is a wonderful achievement. (I should note that despite the title, the poems are not limited to Marvel superheroes — Batman, Superman, and others not in either the DC or Marvel world are represented as well.)
Structurally, the anthology is divided up into several sections, including “Origin Stories (self explanatory),” “Bang! Pow! Zoom! (superheroes in action)”, “Doomed . . . Doomed” (supervillains get a voice) “Sidekicks Anonymous (self explanatory),” “Oh No! I’m swooning! (superheroes and love)”, “In the Gutter (superheroes depressed), and “The Bronze Age (superheroes grown old). The poems run the gamut in form, style, and tone. You’ll find a few prose poems, some laugh-out-loud poems, poems that hit you in the gut, poems that call up childhood, poems in classic form and meter and not, poems that rhyme and not, poems that call up the innocence of childhood and poems wielded like razor-sharp knives against society. Like any collection, Drawn to Marvel, has its stronger and weaker selections, but more than most collections I’ve read, this one is strong across nearly the entire board. I obviously highly recommend it, and so I’m just going to point to a few of my favorites to give you a taste and leave it at that.
Many of my favorites had a social criticism aspect to them. In “Luke Cage Tells It Like It Is,” Gary Jackson takes a bit of the shine off the pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-having-a-black-character:
No Matter how three-dimensional he seems,
know that behind every jive turkey uttered,
there is not a black mouth, but a white one,
one that dictates who he calls Nigger,
to temper the perfect tone of black.
This is the cruelest trick.
even now, I’m defined by the borders
of my panels, the hue of sienna ink,
an assembly of lines, a rendering of man
splayed across your page.
It’s a poem you wait to turn the page on, the kind you want to let sink in a bit and work its uncomfortable magic on you. But beyond the bite of the lines’ meaning, it’s not merely making a statement (why not choose the essay form if that were the goal?). You can see the attention to the form in the sounds that play across the lines: the internal rhymes and half-rhymes, consonance and assonance. The long –e of “three” and “he” and “seems”, the long –I of “behind” and “jive,” the –t and hard –c/k that run throughout “to temper the perfect tone of black” and on into the next stanza to bridge the gap: “the cruelest trick.” Sound and sense, as they say.
Dane Cervine evokes a warmer, more sentimental emotion in “The Fantastic Four,” which has a speaker recalling after a phone call “Our childhood, the four of us pretending to be the Fantastic Four… confronting the hidden villains of quiet suburban streets.” And just as you think this is a poem about nostalgia, about turning into adults (and it is that too), the poet veers into the reason for the call that precipitated the memory:
As now: phone cradled, silent,
mother’s stroke menacing our horizon,
but the telepathy still working,
the call springing us into action—
an invisible force-field to bind us, together,
in flame, the irreducible strength of stone,
the heart stretching, stretching.
I enjoyed the subtle comic-book language and imagery in here: the phone in the cradle (shades of the Batphone, but really any of the myriad of signals to call out our heroes), the word “menacing” (NYC, Gotham, Metropolis, the world, were always being “menaced” by some supervillain or another), the right-from-the storyline “spring into action.” And like as well the lovely sound of “irreducible strength of stone,” how the Fantastic Four came back in at the end — called up from childhood to once more save the day, even as our adult self reading this knows that they can only make the day tolerable, and how that sad truth is implied and yet also ameliorated by that final repetition — Mr. Fantastic stretching, stretching — no end to what we can contain.
Really, I could go through a slew of poems like this: the heartbreak at the end of Collin Kelley’s “Wonder Woman,” whose speaker recalls his dad’s reaction to his announcement as a boy that he preferred Wonder Woman to G.I. Joe. The poignancy of a Flash slowed by time in Ryan G. Van Cleave’s “The Flash, in Old Age.” The warmly fond portrait of Stan Lee in Charles Hatfield’s “Greetings, Culture Lovers!”, a work of gratitude and love.
If you like comics and/or superheroes and think you don’t like poetry, or won’t like poetry, this is a collection that will welcome you gently into the fold and perhaps surprise you with not only how much you enjoy it but by its accessibility as well (not all poems are like “The Wasteland” excerpts you read in high school). If you like comics and/or superheroes and like poetry, this is the collection you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended. Excelsior!