Five summers ago, me and three friends–Nathan Muhly, Dan Strelow and Tim Smith–decided to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That’s the NaNoWriMo formula, except we did it during the summer rather than during November. It was a grueling exercise, one I wouldn’t recommend to anyone wanting to keep their sanity. Others have told me they enjoyed doing it, but for each of us, who took the project so seriously (way too seriously, in hindsight), it was a costly grind.
I started writing a novel based on an idea that I had for a graphic novel, and it took all of two weeks for it to fall apart. I had written under 9000 words in 14 days, and I called it quits. Instead, I started writing essays and smaller pieces of non-fiction, all the while keeping my change of course from my fellow writers. It wasn’t until the last weekend that they all learned that I had abandoned ship. I did cross the 50,000 word threshold, writing 40,000 words in the remaining two weeks, but it was a jumble of fiction, meta-fiction, memoir and mindless meanderings. This small sample shows where my mind was at, and what had become of my book.
Is this book really about not-writing a fictional novel? Or is it a fictionalized account of a guy writing a non-fiction novel about his failure to write a fictional novel, which really ends up making it a fictional novel after all? And then my head really starts to swim. Are all stories autobiographical, or absolute fiction? When does the writer begin to lose control of his reality? At what point does the story take over and the author lose his freedom? Can he or she take it back? Did they ever have it in the first place? Is all of human existence just meta-fiction? When people talk about God being the author of the world, is this supposed to make us feel comfortable or scared shitless about our autonomy?
Yeah. Cuckoo. But it counted toward my word count!
As a whole, the book I wrote, called Palimpsest, is only valuable as a “how-not-to-do-this” manual, but I have been able to go back, re-read, and see some value in some of the parts. I have never edited any of the pieces; nor have I ever made them public. My wife, my fellow summer writers, and a few close friends are the only people who have ever seen any of it. Until now.
Inspired by my friend Karen Unland, and her tweeting today about an NPR podcast on superpowers, I have decided to post a piece I wrote on superheroes and superpowers in July of 2005. It’s raw, amateurish, unedited, and some of the references make better sense if you’ve read all of what I wrote that summer. But I think it will make sense for the most part, particularly with the explanation I have just provided, and I hope people enjoy it. Excelsior!
July 19, 2005- 8:00 p.m.
The Life! A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very neon Renaissance-And the myths that actually touched you at that time-not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses, and Aeneas-but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Plastic Man, The Flash-but of course!
-Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
I have been obsessed with superheroes my entire life. When I was two years old, I took popcorn strings off of my aunt’s Christmas tree and threw them around the house pretending I was Spider-Man. When I was four or five, the only toy I wanted for Christmas was a stretchy Hulk. My Dad, as Dads will do, kept the Hulk away from me until the very end. I got angrier and angrier as I opened my gifts (in true Hulk fashion), and was on the verge of tears in the knowledge that Santa had not brought me the one gift I wanted more than any other. When I finally saw my stretchy Hulk, I was ecstatic. I lost that toy somehow- I probably lost it in a marbles match or traded it for a Wilf Paimont hockey card- and I still get misty-eyed thinking about it.
When I was eight or nine, my parents bought me Superman pajamas. Not only did the shirt have the distinctive “S” on the front, it also had a red cape flowing off the back. I remember whipping around the house fighting crime while my parents and their friends got drunk and high listening to Allman Brothers records (play “Whipping Post!”). I didn’t just wear the shirt to sleep, though. I also wore it to school, and showed it off to everyone. I wore it so much it actually fell apart, despite my mom always stitching and sewing it back together for me. It was probably for the best. I was born a Batman. If I had stayed with the Superman costume, I would have just ended up hero-confused, been forced to run away from home after coming out of the Batcave, and found myself in a Thai medical facility with some butcher replacing my red boots with a utility belt. I don’t need that shit. Then again, I still have dreams where I teach myself to fly, so maybe I am actually bi-super?
This all of course led into a teenage obsession with comic books, an obsession I still have today. I cheated on the supes for a brief period, having a tryst with some hot sports cards at the age of sixteen, but I eventually came crawling back to the comics’ loving, forgiving arms. I love comic books and superheroes so much that one of the great questions of my life, one that I constantly engage in with Socratic-like ferocity, is as follows: if I could have any superpower, any one superpower, what would it be?
I have thought about this question way more than is probably healthy, and still don’t have a firm answer. I can easily tell you what powers I don’t want to have, but narrowing it down to one answer in the affirmative is a difficult chore. Super strength isn’t really my cup of tea. Too uncouth and uncivilized. Neither do I care for shape-shifting, laser beam eyes, ice creation, fire creation, telekinesis, size-altering, stretching, invisibility, or teleportation. All fine superpowers, don’t get me wrong. They just don’t suit my sensibilities. No, my wish list of superpowers is five deep, and my favorites vary depending on my mood. They are: flying, breathing under water, superspeed, web-slinging, and super intelligence.
Flying would be awesome because you could get anywhere you wanted to go quickly, and it would be very popular with the ladies (I bet if you polled women on their favorite superhero, Superman would be the overwhelming favorite. And my guess is that it has to do more with his flying ability than his super strength). There really isn’t a downside to flying, except for the fact that if you were super fast you could also fly, along with other things, and if you were super intelligent you could just figure out a way to do it. This is an important criterion for choosing any superpower, by the way. I think this is the only criterion I have come up with, so be sure to note it: It is a detriment to your chosen superpower if you could have chosen a different superpower which would have allowed you to perform the superpower you wanted plus additional powers.
The ability to breathe underwater is great because you could hang out with dolphins, discover Atlantis, and pull off impressive party tricks like pretending to drown in a pool so that the girl you have been eyeing all evening, who just happens to be a lifeguard, can give you mouth to mouth and bring you “back to life.” The downside is that you can’t fight any battles unless you are near a harbor or out at sea, you end up smelling like tuna, and the girl will assuredly slap your ass silly for trying to pull that drowning stunt off.
Superspeed allows you to do three things: run fast, fly, and time travel. Plus you could run so fast that you could essentially breathe under water. The downside is that your particles may actually dissipate and kill you, and I think it is also safe to say that women don’t usually appreciate men who are “too fast.”
Web-slinging is wicked for pretty much the same reasons that flying is. If I think of all the superheroes with girlfriends, Superman and Spider-Man definitely have the hottest. This must have something to do with their powers. I am sure of it. The problem with web-slinging is that without the spidey-sense and the wall climbing, it pretty much limits you to being an urban Tarzan. Not cool.
Now, super intelligence is a fucking phenomenal power. Anyone who has read Secret Wars (not Secret Wars II!!!) will agree with me on this one. Reed Richards owns the Marvel Universe in that series, and it is all due to his brain. Super intelligence allows you to solve crimes no one else can solve, basically read people’s minds, and create any vehicle or weapon that you wish. Essentially, super intelligence allows you to fight God (ie. The Beyonder) and come out on top. This is what brains can do for you.
On the other hand, being a giant nerd doesn’t usually have much upside. Sure, people pay lip service to intelligence, but if you placed Stephen Hawking and a lobotomized Colin Farrell in a police lineup, told all the girls in the world they could only choose one as a partner, and told all the guys they could only choose one person to become, 99% of both genders would pick Farrell. Even if Hawking was walking and talking, this would be the case, although that really shouldn’t matter. I could eliminate world poverty through a calculus formula, and I would still get sand kicked in my face. The other downsides to being super intelligent are that you would become paranoid through your prescience and that, unless you built a super suit in a super fortress to protect you, you would be vulnerable to surprise attacks in the night time. Sorry, brainiac, but you still bleed like any other man (unless, of course you replace the blood in your body with some alchemist’s quicksilver that allows you to live forever. Then those fools will never defeat you! HAAAHAAAAHAAAA!!!).
All of these powers rule, and truth be told, I wouldn’t turn any of them down if they were offered to me. But I think, for all of us, our choice of superpower will ultimately be determined by some of our deepest cravings in life. I know my sister would choose breathing underwater as her superpower, because she loves dolphins and whales, and has always wanted to swim with them. Danny came up with an interesting superpower some time ago, when I brought up the question (I often do. It is a great conversation starter.). Danny suggested that he might choose the power of mojo, the power to be undeniably attractive to women. Is this because Danny wants to get laid all the time? Well I know this is part of it. Who doesn’t? But another part of it may be that Danny just wants to be noticed by the other sex. Appreciated and desired. Hence the want for something that will give him those things. I know for myself, my ultimate choice would end in a choice between flying and super intelligence. On the one hand, these choices reflect surface desires, like the exhilaration of sailing the sky and loving to learn. On the other, I think they get back to my earlier assertion that my life is dominated by two basic impulses, to be noticed and to be left alone. Both powers serve both these impulses. What I also know is that a flip of a coin would have to decide my super power for me. I have no desire to choose either path on my own.