Dina Recommends: Super Powereds

Hello and welcome to another installment of Dina Recommends! I’m Dina, and I’m here to recommend books, movies, series, podcasts or whatever that I like and think deserves more attention by the general public!

People who have read earlier blog posts from me might remember how I’ve mentioned being sick of superheroes, especially superhero comics… but it’s not so much the concept of superheroes I’m sick of, as it is the attitudes surrounding them. The oversaturation of superheroes and the superhero aesthetic in American comics is one thing… but also the fact that the genre is trapped by its own conventions to such a degree that it severely limits the stories it’s allowed to tell. Marvel and DC have both been stuck in a rut for ages, even if they keep pretending that THIS new huge crisis and shake-up will change EVERYTHING… guys, you’re not fooling anyone anymore.

And people outside Marvel and DC who try to tell superhero stories tend to go one of two routes: Either they try to copy the “Watchmen” or “Dark Knight” formula, making everything as dark and gloomy and “realistic” as possible… or they just go back to the Silver Age type plots and aesthetics, with cackling mustache-twirling villains, damsels in distress and incredibly simplistic problem-solving. That last one often comes with some subversions which makes me suspect that the writers think that all superhero comics are still like the old Adam West Batman show. (Yes, I’m talking to YOU, Brad Bird and your Incredibles. “Superheroes’ jobs making their personal and family lives harder” and “superheroes get sued for collateral damage” and even “powers as reflections of character” are NOT ORIGINAL IDEAS. Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were doing this in the SIXTIES.)

There is a third route, though, that seems to be getting a little more traction as of late, and which at least isn’t totally played out by now: The superhero school. The idea that superpowered teenagers go to school to learn how to be heroes. It’s not a new idea (I mean, Professor X’s academy has been there since the sixties too), but it seems to have risen in popularity with independent creators as of late… probably thanks to the success of series like Harry Potter and of course My Hero Academia. Supernatural or superheroic schools are in… and frankly, I find that combining superheroics with school stories and coming-of-age narratives don’t seem to be quite as overplayed as a lot of other things.

Which finally brings me to the recommendation of the day: the Super Powereds series, by Drew Hayes. 

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Super Powereds is a series of four books (five books, if you count the spin-off book “Corpies”), which started life as online-published stories but have since been published as proper books and e-books… there’s also an absolutely amazing audiobook version, read by Kyle McCarley, which is mainly what I’m basing this review on. I’ve been trying to get more exercise this summer and listening to podcasts and audiobooks makes long walks a lot more entertaining… and listening to Kyle McCarley’s inspired reading of Drew Hayes’s story has been quite fun. 

The series takes place in a world much like ours, except for the fact that a small percentage of the population are born with superpowers. These people are classified into two subgroups: the Supers and the Powereds. Supers are like the standard superpowered characters who can control their powers perfectly, or can at least learn to control their powers perfectly; they can choose exactly when and how to use them, or NOT use them. Powereds, by contrast, don’t have that control, either because their power comes in uncontrollable bursts, or because they’re tied to a specific internal or external trigger… or they’re just always on and the Powered can’t stop them. To illustrate: Under this system, characters like Superman, Ms Marvel or Kitty Pryde would count as Supers since they can control their powers… characters like the Hulk (at least the classic “you won’t like me when I’m angry/Hulk smash puny humans”) or Cyclops would count as Powereds since they don’t have that control.

Because Powereds lack the necessary control… and frankly because there’s rampant (but understandable) discrimination against them… in this universe only Supers can become Heroes. Which in this world is an actual job with a steady paycheck and everything; “Hero” is a legitimate career choice for a Super… even though not all Supers can be Heroes. In order to qualify for the job they first have to go through four years of “superhero college” in the Hero Certification Programme (“HCP”), and then a few additional years as an intern/understudy to an established Hero or a team of Heroes. 

Got it so far? Okay! Now, the main characters of the Super Powereds series are five (or six, depending on how you look at it) college-age teens who join the HCP… these five have a secret, though: They used to be Powereds. They volunteered for an experimental treatment to turn them into Supers, and are essentially “guinea pigs” to see if this kind of thing works.  Through four books, each covering one year in the HCP, we get to follow them as they learn the ropes, grow as people, develop their powers… and of course get involved into some big conspiracy thing, solving old mysteries, and have to save the day from hidden sinister forces. 

The five (six) teenagers are:

Vince Reynolds, an orphan with energy absorption powers, who ran off from the foster system at an early age when it turned out they couldn’t handle a kid who was in constant danger of accidentally draining the energy of every appliance, battery, fire or even power station he accounted… and worse, releasing the energy again in dangerous bursts or blasts. He was largely raised by a mysterious homeless drifter who didn’t mind that he was a Powered. Vince is surprisingly kind and upbeat for someone with his backstory, but is afraid to accidentally hurt people if he loses control of his powers again.

Nicholas “Nick” Campbell, also an orphan, but one who was raised by his aunt who not only runs a casino in Las Vegas but also heads an extended family of organized crime… which means that his power of dealing out good or bad luck comes in handy, especially after he becomes a Super and actually can decide who gets the good luck and who gets the bad. Nick is a shrewd, calculating and ruthless person, but he hides it behind a mask of laid-back goofiness.

Alice Adaire, the daughter of a retired Hero who’s now a mega-billionaire businessman. Alice has gravity-based powers, which essentially means she can fly… as a Powered she would lift off the ground when she felt happy, which meant she couldn’t go outside in case she’d fly too high. Having lived a luxurious, but sheltered and restrained life where she had all the material things she wanted but no friends and an emotionally-distant father, Alice at first appears as spoiled, shallow and haughty, but quickly reveals herself as a sweet and sympathetic girl.

Hershel/Roy Daniels, the son/sons of the legendary hero Titan (who left the family in disgrace after a scandal… he was discovered cheating on his wife with a man). Hershel is an out-of-shape, wimpy and insecure nerd with no powers of his own, who can transform into the super-strong, super-tough, super-suave and fearless Roy. With different personalities, opinions and even physical appearances, the two view themselves not as one person with two forms, but as two separate people who take turns being in control.

Mary Smith, an incredibly strong telepath and telekinetic who when it comes to raw power is probably the most formidable of all the main characters. Mary is also the only one of the five who has two perfectly normal parents, though she doesn’t really keep in touch with most of her family… spending your childhood years uncontrollably reading minds and knowing exactly what a freak distant relatives think you are and how much they pity your parents will do that to you. Despite, or probably because of this, Mary is incredibly patient and understanding, treating the others with something like motherly concern… even though she’s actually the youngest of them.

These five are the core characters, though there are a lot more chars in the series; several of their classmates and fellow Supers get almost as much development and screen-time… such as Alex Griffen, an empath and telekinetic who INSISTS he’s actually a Jedi who uses the Force, or Camille Belden, a healer with a crippling shyness who desperately wants to be stronger and more confidant and who’s constantly trying to push herself into situations she’s not comfortable with as a result.

This all is the greatest strength of Super Powereds: The characters. Now, most of them ARE grounded in stereotypes: Vince is the nice guy who’s afraid of his own strength, Alice is the poor rich girl, Nick is the shifty schemer who pretends to be stupider than he is, Mary’s the calm and understanding telepath, and Hershel’s the stereotypical LARP nerd with Roy as his stereotypical “jerk jock” counterpart. But the characters don’t STAY in these roles; they grow and change as people, and if some of the lessons they have to learn take time to sink in, at least they learn them in the end. 

It’s also refreshing to see that pretty much every character here, even the minor ones, have their own personalities, opinions and even histories. While not all of them are all that deep, you won’t find anyone here who’s evil “just because” or people who act a certain way because the plot needs the main characters to suffer; everyone has a reason for being who they are… even if the reason isn’t always the most objectively sound, at least you know there IS one. The glimpses you get of the world outside the HCP and the lives of adult Supers and Heroes acknowledge that things aren’t always easy, and not everything is as it appears… certainly not when you’re dealing with superpowers.

(In fact, the spin-off novel, Corpies. is all about that world outside… it stars Hershel and Roy’s father Titan, who is trying to make up for past mistakes and get back into the game… and who ends up on a team of “Corpies” — which are essentially corporate-sponsored Supers who for various reasons didn’t make it through the HCP to become licensed Heroes, and as such have taken jobs doing minor heroing and are allowed to play cleanup crew or occasional assistants to the “real” Heroes, but not to go out and fight crime themselves. It’s a self-contained story that takes place at the same time as the third Super Powereds book.)

The series isn’t perfect, mind. Occasionally its early life as web-published fiction is very apparent… like the overuse of epithets. I lost count of how many times the narrative saw fit to use “the silver-haired young man” instead of “Vince” or “the pale blonde girl” instead of “Camille.” It does get slightly tedious after a while… yes, I KNOW their hair colours, you don’t have to say it every chapter. Also, what’s even worse, like a lot of online-published fiction it can be INCREDIBLY slow-paced and wordy. Sometimes entire sections just seems like they’re only there to up the word count, and this tendency just gets worse as the series go on. By the fourth book, I was actually skipping several chunks of the story because nothing was happening… fight scenes tend to drag when the characters somehow have the time to form multi-paragraph inner monologues, or even long uninterrupted conversations, between every single punch. I usually don’t like abridged audiobooks, but in this case I can’t help but think abridging would have helped this story immensely.

Bloated storytelling and overly many epithets aside, though, I will say it’s still a lot more tolerable than your average Marvel or DC comic where you have to wait for a year or more to get an actual story. And unlike Marvel and DC, this story actually feels like it’s GOING somewhere…. though I will say at the end there’s enough loose threads hanging that I’m hoping that the “sequel series” Drew Hayes has teased becomes a reality.

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