Daredevil #253 was the first Daredevil comic I ever bought. It was just around Christmas, 1987, and I was 15 years old.
I bought it at a little comic store in Winnipeg that was originally called The Club Bookstore but by that time had changed its name to the flashier, geekier Nexus. It was a cozy store that occupied the main floor of a old house on Corydon Avenue that had been converted to retail space. You climbed a set of concrete stairs up to an old-fashioned wood and glass door to get in. The half of the store nearest to the door was devoted to used books. Paperbacks mostly. Then, on the left, there was a small section of bins that housed a meager selection of back-issues and second-hand girlie magazines in sealed plastic bags. Along the wall to the right stretched the rack of new comics, and at the back, beside the cash, the store opened up into a small room lined by shelves of comics that were no longer new, but not quite old enough to be consigned to the purgatory of the storage bins. It was cramped. It smelled of cigarettes. It had a dirty, threadbare carpet. The posters on what little wall space there was were battered, ripped, and sloppily tacked up. I didn’t entirely trust the owner, who was always putting comics in my box that I hadn’t ordered and didn’t really want. It was one of my favorite places to be.
Daredevil #253 was still on the new comics shelf and I must have had a bit of extra money that week. I must have been feeling sentimental about the holidays too because I can’t imagine what would have compelled me to pick that particular issue off the rack if not the cover copy announcing: “Merry Christmas Daredevil.”
As soon as I opened it, I knew I was going to buy it. I had always liked John Romita Jr.’s art on Uncanny X-Men, but it was even better here, inked by Al Williamson. The first page of this issue was a splendid burst of light and grit. I still marvel at the effect of the artists’ choice not to ink the light coming off the headlights and the street lamps in the background. This is what a street at night lit up by Christmas lights looks like—everything glitters and everything seems to be in motion. It’s beautiful and disorienting all at once. The opening pages depicting Hell’s Kitchen on Christmas Eve captured something real about the season. It epitomized Marvel at its grungy, luminous best. I was hooked.
The Christmas story in this issue is fairly standard morality-tale stuff: A pair of thugs are terrorizing the downtrodden citizens of Hell’s Kitchen and Daredevil steps in to teach them a hard-knocks lesson in Christmas spirit.
The real lesson, though, is learned by pint-sized skater-boy “Eightball,” who idolizes the thuggish “Wildboys” until Daredevil inspires him with the Biblical saying about “bread cast on the waters”: “If you spend your days giving to people whenever you can, some of that goodness may float back your way just when you need it most.”
The promise of the saying is confirmed for Daredevil himself when the stolen goods he rounds up from the thieves to return to the stores are donated by the storeowners to Daredevil to distribute as he sees fit. As Matt Murdock, he wraps them up and gives them out to his makeshift “family”: “The abused. The forlorn. The lovelorn. Junkies. Homeless kids. Bums. Runaways. Rebels. Outcasts”—the people that the Kingpin will later in this issue call “humanity’s dregs.” Meanwhile, “Eightball” gives his prized skateboard to Marla, a skater-girl he’s been teasing and taunting throughout the issue. As a counterpoint to this narrative, we are treated intermittently to an amusing set of scenes in which a Scrooge-like Kingpin has his criminal schemes stymied by Christmas and plots to make his revenge on Daredevil complete.
It’s a simple story, elegantly told. The writer of this issue, Ann Nocenti, went on to pen some of the most bizarre, experimental, and thrilling Daredevil stories I’ve ever read and this Christmas story has signs of all the attention to detail, theme, and tone that would distinguish her subsequent work on the title. (Nocenti’s tenure on this title is inevitably but unjustly overshadowed by Miller’s legendary run; it’s a real shame that her and Romita Jr.’s outstanding Daredevil work has yet to be collected.)
The principle fun of the issue is its playing of Daredevil as the Santa Claus of Hell’s Kitchen, and Nocenti has a great time with this conceit—a variation on the oft-rehearsed “guardian devil” theme. “Eightball” worries that Daredevil can see what he’s thinking and, like Santa, “knows when [he’s] been bad.” Matt Murdoch literally plays Santa at the end of the story to the homeless people and friends gathered at the Legal Aid office. Etc.
The inevitable religious subtext of the Santa Claus conceit is present in the story as well, but minimally. If you blink, you’ll miss the panel on page on page 13 where Daredevil crouches beside a stone crèche in the church awaiting the bad guys and announcing his role as “Santa,” just before beating up the Wildboys to a festive greeting of “Merry Christmas, scum.” I missed it at the time anyway, and that’s one of the reasons I like this type of story so much. Despite the biblical quotation and the baby Jesus, the story is more about community than about the religious meaning of the holiday. Despite its explicit religious subtext, it still verges on secular myth: Daredevil’s actions may literally be inspired by Christian morality, but the story does not feel like a Biblical parable. Not to a big fat atheist like me, anyway.
Maybe I’m just being willful, but what I take away from Daredevil #253 is a specific situation and a specific resolution, with an emphasis on the ethical value of Christian morality in situations where—significantly—its ethical content is largely separate from the context of organized religion. The real “church” of Daredevil #253 is Matt Murdoch’s Legal Aid office—an interesting substitution implying the replacement of sacred law by human law, transcendental (religious) ethics by more provisional, human choices. The story’s emphasis on Daredevil as Santa rather than as Jesus has a similar implication. What we read in these types of substitutions, I think, are not allegories but real secularizing transformations of the religious underpinnings of Christmas. That’s what I read, anyway, and it’s why I am able to enjoy Christian “allegory” (like Daredevil or Lord of the Rings or even Narnia) despite my discomfort with the premise upon which such narratives are based. Simply put: I don’t read these stories as allegories of an already existing master-story but as the parables of some new secular religion whose sacred book is constantly expanding and changing. This is a mode of reading that skates on the “surface” of superhero narratives and finds their meaning there, instead of plunging into the allegory they project “below.”
Beyond the innate pleasures of Daredevil #253 and beyond its secularizing of religious material, there’s a more personal reason that I love reading this comic during the holidays. Christmas is usually seen as a communal affair, and Nocenti's story certainly riffs on this perennial theme. But Christmas is not without its moments of privacy, secrecy, and stillness also. Leaving aside the issue of comercialism, the buying of gifts can be a splendid solitary pleasure, no matter how many encounters and exchanges one has during that process. And insofar as it brings us to reflect on what life means to us, who we love, and why we’re here, this time of year is filled with moments of quiet and solitude—or should be. When I look at the lights that seem to glow on that opening page of Daredevil #253, I am reminded of that feeling I had, standing in that cozy, wonderful, hole-in-the-wall comic store in Winnipeg, the snow on my boots melting in the warmth of the heated shop. It was a feeling of happiness and security and reflection. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the kind of feeling one might have when entering a church on Christmas. We all have our sacred texts and our sacred spaces, even us Christmas-loving atheists.
Yeah, I guess I’m feeling sentimental tonight. But hey. It’s that time of year. Merry Christmas Daredevil. Happy Hanukah. Peace on Earth.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Daredevil #253 was the first Daredevil comic I ever bought. It was just around Christmas, 1987, and I was 15 years old.
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Everyone knows that writers are thieves and criminals. Grant Morrison is one of my favourite criminals because he steals things I care about. What’s more, the allusions in his work that lead us back to the texts he plunders are more than just nods of acknowledgement for the spark of an idea. Morrison’s allusions have weight. Very often, they “interpret” the story we are reading in all kinds of interesting ways.
Such was the case with Emma’s Cuckoos in New X-Men, a clutch of girls based not simply on the John Wyndham classic, The Midwitch Cuckoos, but on Muriel Spark’s lean masterpiece, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a story of schoolgirls who worship and ultimately betray their charismatic teacher in a thinly veiled allegory about the seductiveness of fascism that, in Morrison’s hands, offered a wry commentary on the chilly allure of Miss Emma Frost.
Such is also the case with the wonderful opening scene of All-Star Superman #1 in which the Fantastic Four—er, I mean, Leo Quintum and the DNA P.R.O.J.E.C.T. scientists—manoeuvre their space ship, “The Ray Bradbury,” into jeopardy to “bring back a spoonful of sun” as Superman soars below the solar horizon outside. I’m not the first to point this out, but the reference is plainly to Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” a small perfect story that Bradbury wrote in 1953, which can be read in its copyright-flouting entirety below (at least until Bradbury’s industrious legal team compels me to remove it).
Now, yes, I know. I’m embarassingly late to the party. And in the meantime, Paul has made all priapic hymns to All-Star Superman #1 redundant with his inspired (and definitive) appreciation at Listen to Us, We’re Right. And, tragically for me, Steve Pheley has anticipated and pitilessly mocked everything I’m about to say about “future nostalgia” in a cutting parody of gushing Morrison-drones like myself over at the hilarious (but very mean) gutterninja. Nonetheless, I’ve been mulling over the Morrison-Bradbury connection for awhile now and can’t seem to let it go without setting down a few idle thoughts about the allusion to Bradbury in ASS #1 (an acronym that happily undercuts any critic of the book who risks taking it or himself too seriously—not that that’s going to stop me).
So: Why Bradbury? Why “The Golden Apples of the Sun”? I should warn you in advance that I’ll be taking a circuitous route to exploring the Bradbury connection because “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a favourite of mine. In Part 1, I revisit my first encounter with Bradbury’s story and reflect on the web of allusions it invokes before finally circling back to consider why Morrison’s nod to Bradbury seems so right at the beginning of his new Superman series in Part 2. Those with limited patience for rambling, digressive, belletristic self-indulgence had best skip ahead to the Superman stuff in Part 2. In fact, maybe they’re at the wrong blog.
1. Proleptic Nostalgia: Paths of Allusion in Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun”
Allusions are slippery things. The use of allusion is, self-evidently, a deliberate act on the part of an author who is building patterns of signification in their writing. The author’s encoding of their work with references to myths and stories of the past typically signals a complex and often quite specific relation between the current text and its antecedents—a relation that is intended to deepen or complicate our understanding of the present story. But our experience of encountering allusions when we read often follows a very different trajectory than the one implied by the process of the text’s composition.
This is simply because, very often, we do not know the stories to which the text in front of us alludes. Or if we do know them, we know them only by reputation, and only in the most hazy and elusive terms. We have all had the experience of passing over a reference to some text or other, to some author, or to some story or event in a text that we are thoroughly enjoying on its own terms, and paying this allusion very little heed. It matters little to our enjoyment of the story, we think, even if we may (briefly) be assailed by the niggling feeling that we’ve just missed some shadow of meaning.
But we have also had the experience of pausing for a moment over that obscure reference to Gibbon or The Faerie Queen or some hero from the Peloponnesian Wars and making a mental note to investigate it once we’ve closed the last page of the book in which it’s embedded. So have many of us come to literary “classics” or myths at second hand, through allusions to them in more popular works that we read simply “for fun.” This inversion, whereby allusions point us not back to a common history of reading shared by writer and reader but “forward into the past” towards our own future reading of literary “classics” that we are discovering for the first time, is especially common in science fiction. This is not because, as a genre, it draws more deeply on myth or allusion than any other type of writing (though in some of its variants, it seems to). It is rather, I think, because it is a popular form and because, for many of us, was read so voraciously in childhood and adolescence that its range of allusion outpaced the exposure to a canon of “Great Books” that we were just beginning to receive in school. Moreover, even if it did not immediately entice us to read the original stories to which it refers, the impression formed by our reading of allusion-laden SF makes our future chance-encounters with those original texts no less wonderful because we still come to them now with an uncanny sense of familiarity.
When I first encountered it in my early twenties, Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” performed such a function for me. It is a story that positively overflows with allusions to golden ages, Edenic temptations, and Promethean quests, some of which were familiar and some of which were new. In the end, it made such a powerful impression on me that it continues to color my reading of the poems and myths it references to this day—poems and myths that in many cases I did not encounter directly until much later. It has, in short, become inseparable from the stories out of which it grows, and in this regard, the story’s own apparent ambition has been realized. The skilfulness with which Bradbury synthesizes myths of hubris and decline has become the story’s entry-point into posterity—at least, it has for this reader.
In broad outline, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a grandly mythic story about a solar mission to collect a cup of fire, set aboard a rocket that has not one, but three significant names: Copa de Oro (a flower), Prometheus, and Icarus. As the ship reaches the sun, the first mate suffers an ironic variation of the inevitable Icarian fate: his space suit tears and he is instantly frozen to death by the extreme arctic temperatures within the rocket, which must be kept at 1000 degrees below zero for the crew to survive their encounter with the sun. The first mate’s death balances all accounts in advance: it happens just before the captain uses the ship’s robotic arm to steal a cup of solar matter that will provide energy for the earth, and it pays the cosmic debt that the captain incurs for his mission’s daring. According to an impeccable narrative logic, the first mate dies, suffering Icarus’s fate, so that the Promethean captain may succeed, may steal the cosmic fire, yet escape the fall that awaits all overreaching light-bearers. In this way, the story celebrates the heroism of human striving and softens the cautionary moral of the original Icarus’s solar flight.
The title’s allusion to Hercules’s quest for the golden apples of the Hesperides is also significant in this regard, for en route to the golden apples he liberates Prometheus, the fire-stealer, from his punishment at the hands of Zeus (chained to a rock, vulture eats his liver, which grows back every night—ugh), and Prometheus in turn bequeaths Hercules with valuable information on how to acquire the golden apples successfully. In other words, the allusion of the story’s title already anticipates the way in which Bradbury will follow the Herculean path through the Prometheus story, emphasizing the (eventual) happy outcome of hubristic daring rather than Icarian or even Promethean catastrophe.
Yet, despite Bradbury’s generally sunnier rewriting of the “middle flight” moralizing of the Icarus story, the final effect of “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is neither simply celebratory nor strictly melancholy, but something that is more difficult to name. This “something” stems, I think, from the way that Promethean daring and the myth of a fall or of a Golden Age in decline are simultaneously evoked and juxtaposed, entering into a tension that is nearly, but never fully resolved, a tension that manifests itself in the ingenious North-South contrast that frames the ship’s approach to and departure from the sun. Here is how the story begins:
“South,” said the captain.And here is how it ends, as the ship pulls away from the sun, a cargo of “gold” in its belly:
“But,” said his crew, “there are no directions out here in space.”
“When you travel on down toward the sun,” replied the captain, “and everything gets yellow and warm and lazy, then you’re going in one direction only.” He shut his eyes and thought about the smouldering, warm, faraway land, his breath moving gently in his mouth. “South,” he nodded slowly to himself. “South.”
“There’s only one direction in space from here on out,” he said at last.South, into the warmth of the infinite; North, towards cold mortality. This is a surprising and subtle qualification of the mission’s success. Yet North is, of course, also a journey “up”—a “fall” away from a Golden Age that is nonetheless simultaneously an ascension. It is therefore no contradiction that the story’s last line is not melancholy about this northerly journey: “And they all smiled, as if a wind had come up suddenly in the middle of a hot afternoon.” The luminous pathos of Bradbury’s tale emerges precisely from this paradoxical collapsing of fullness and loss, rising and falling, heat and coldness, freedom and constraint, transcendence and mortality. It all boils down to the fall “up”: felix culpa. Bradbury’s story, so laden with allusion, is ultimately a sumptuous SF poem, a Space Age ode to the great poetic evocations of Golden Ages past. And like Bradbury’s story, these poems combine achievement and loss in startling, unforgettable ways—often seeming elegiac but actually producing the very “lost” object they appear to mourn. In this way, the act of remembering some distant Golden Age of childhood becomes synonymous with an act of poetic composition that recreates the Golden Age within (and as) the timeless realm of art.
They waited. They waited as the ship moved swiftly into cold darkness away from the light.
“North,” murmured the captain. “North.”
Bradbury’s debt to this pastoral poetic tradition of overlaying of failure and success, loss and plenitude, is clearest in the story’s title, which is not simply an allusion to the Greek myth of the Hesperides but even more directly to the final line of William Butler Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus. In this poem (which is explicitly mentioned in the story), the speaker, now an old man, searches for a magical “glimmering girl” with “apple blossoms in her hair” that he knew briefly in his youth:
Though I am old with wanderingHere, the loss of the “glimmering girl” becomes the pretext for the “Song” and for the gorgeous cadences of Yeats’s art. A fortunate fall indeed.
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
A similar structure of feeling organizes the work of two other poets whom Bradbury does not reference directly, but whose work he had certainly read: Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas. Frost in particular was an important reference point for me because when I read Bradbury’s story for the first time in my early twenties, aside from the general mythic references to Icarus and Prometheus, few of the explicit allusions meant much to me at all—and this despite the fact of an English degree in progress (I didn’t really discover Yeats until 4th year, don’t ask me how, and even then it was his later Crazy Jane poems—Morrison again!—not the early Celtic Twilight stuff upon which Bradbury draws here). I was not an obsessive reader of SF as a teenager as many of my friends had been (I preferred horror and fantasy), but I had read quite a bit of science fiction nonetheless, and I fell instantly in love with Bradbury’s singular vision of a Space Age infused with the strangeness and wonder of childhood. The current blurb from the back cover of a new collection of Bradbury’s stories describes the appeal Bradbury held for me very precisely: “his disarming simplicity of style underlies a towering body of work unmatched in metaphorical power by any other American storyteller.” “Disarming simplicity” and “metaphorical power.” It was this feature of his writing that I loved, and I loved it not only for itself, but because it reminded me of my favourite poet, Robert Frost.
When I was very young—just 8 or 9—I spent many hours reading and rereading the small selection of poems by Robert Frost that were included in Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics—an old poetry anthology of my mother’s. Frost’s poems were some of the few that I could understand. But when I studied Frost for the first time in high school, it became clear that the “simplicity” of his poems was not only “disarming” but deceptive: the rural romantic had both a dark side and a formal and metrical complexity that was dizzying when you looked into it. Bradbury’s story possessed exactly the same kind of deceptively “simple” vision, and what’s more, his story resonated powerfully with the mood and themes of two Frost poems, one of which I had read as a boy and both of which I was particularly fond.
When envisioning the scenario of peril aboard a frozen ship stealing fire from the sun, Bradbury, it seemed to me, must almost certainly have been thinking of Frost’s wry “Fire and Ice” in which the speaker muses:
Some say the world will end in fire,At least, Bradbury’s story made me remember this poem, and also another short poem by Frost called “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Nature’s first green is gold,Bradbury’s nostalgic mythmaking is not quite as melancholy as this poem, but both are nonetheless deeply invested in the motif of decline and fall, and their tones are not entirely dissimilar, despite the buoyancy generated by Bradbury’s boyish faith in progress, a faith which leads him to the conclusion that even if “nothing gold can stay,” Eden can possibly be recaptured by the future daring and industry of the human spirit.
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The tonal complexity of Bradbury’s story and its profound debt to the poetic tradition I’ve been discussing are telegraphed most directly in the fragment of poetry composed by Bradbury that he attributes to the rocket-Captain and has him remember as the ship reverses course and heads home:
Sometimes I see the sun a burning Tree,Bradbury is a better prose writer than he is a poet, but the shade of feeling he strives to capture here is the same one to which Dylan Thomas aspires in his magnificent Fern Hill, the final stanza of which is one of the towering achievements of pastoral verse. This is a poem to make grown men cry. And its effect is identical to that which permeates Bradbury’s story. In both cases, it is an effect rooted in the representation of time.
Its golden fruit swung bright in airless air,
Its apples wormed with man and gravity,
Their worship breathing from them everywhere,
As man sees Sun as burning Tree...
The captain sat for a long while by the body, feeling many separate thing. I feel sad, he thought, and I feel good, and I feel like a boy coming home with a handful of wild flowers.
Thomas’s imagining of time is so powerful in “Fern Hill” not because time is personified, but because Thomas collapses the position of the knowing speaker (who is aware of his own mortality, and whose perspective structures the poem’s many ironies) with that of the speaker as an innocent child (before he has acquired this moral knowledge of death):
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
The collapsing of time inherent in the oxymoronic formulation “green and dying” stabs us in the throat in that second-last line. Bradbury’s topsy-turvy North-South reversal accomplishes something similar for me—it is the compression of childhood and adult time represented through the coordinates of an imaginary geography, a transformation that doesn't make it any less affecting.
Still, it would be a mistake, I think, to read “Fern Hill” merely as the speaker’s lament for the days when he was “young and easy,” in the same way that it would be a mistake to see Bradbury as merely a prophet of humanity’s technological achievements. Bradybury’s art and Thomas’s art are inverted mirror images of each other that touch on the surface of the glass: Thomas is obsessed with the myth of a fall that he ultimately tempers with the consolations of knowledge; Bradbury is a singer of human progress who is haunted by myths of decline even as he imagines a renewed golden age.
This, at least, is how I read the end of “Fern Hill” where, rather than being simply nostalgic, the final unforgettable images bring the perspectives of past and present into permanent, uncomfortable contiguity. They suggest that as beautiful as the period of childhood innocence might be, it is not the place of safety it appears, but exists only as a state of ignorance (at the time) and in imagination (retrospectively). We are never “green” only, but always “green and dying.” And for Thomas, this mortal knowledge makes the thought of greenness more precious, not less: “I sang in my chains like the sea.”
For Thomas, this earthly music is the baseline of the human condition—and however much we might idealize some period of innocence prior to our awareness of these mortal chains, it is the chains that define not simply our limits but also the potential glory of our song. Thus, the point of Thomas’s paean to “innocence” is not straightforward nostalgia, just as the point of his demystification of that innocence is not tragedy, much less cynicism. The poem ends with the hoary Romantic discovery that knowledge is always fatal, always a fall. And yet, in the same breath, it affirms this “fall” into knowledge (of mortality, of death, self-consciousness) as a necessary condition of our humanity and our grace. Thomas, whatever his melancholy, is, like Yeats and Frost, a poet of the fortunate fall.
To be held “green and dying.” To sing in one’s chains like the sea. These transcendent images of time, of innocence and knowledge yoked together—the apple before and after it’s been plucked—are the informing core of Bradbury’s vision too, even if he comes to it by a slightly different path and inflects it in slightly different ways. In fact, the science fiction settings of Bradbury’s work elevate this powerful convergence of temporal categories to an entirely new level. The fundamental human experience of time as both loss and gain is thus not only thematized in “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” but rooted in the structures of the genre itself so that it takes the form of what might be called “proleptic” or “future nostalgia,” an aesthetic structure that projects the deepest emotional content of childhood into a science fiction future. Of course, in the current era of biopunk and other offshoots of the Gibsonian “revolution,” this Bradburian “Space Age” future has itself become quaint, an object of nostalgia. And this has made his “future childhoods” even more strange and touching because they exist now in an even more unfathomable and paradoxical relationship to our past—and our present.
Earlier I said that allusions point both back to the past and forward into the future and that science fiction was a genre that was especially prone to creating this dual temporal movement because of the way its popularity positions it as prior to so-called “serious” literature in our personal archaeologies. The proleptic nostalgia of Bradbury’s stories provides the formal and thematic counterpart to allusion’s curious phenomenological doubleness, and the intense allusiveness of “The Golden Apples of the Sun” marks that story in particular as the SF ur-text of poetic future nostalgia.
2. “Science Fiction Folk Tales”: Morrison’s All-Star Superman
So why does Morrison begin his Superman with an allusion to Bradbury and to this story of Bradbury’s in particular?
In part, and most obviously, the story has supplied him with the basic vocabulary of his comic—and it is rather fun (if you’re me) to speculate about the degree to which the images and situations of Bradbury’s story could be said to inform what we read in All-Star Superman #1. The solar mission of the opening scene, of course. And as in “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” where the first mate pays Icarus’s price so that the captain can get away with his Promethean gambit, there is doubling and substitution at work in the Icarus/Prometheus images of the approach-to-the-sun scene in All-Star Superman #1 as well.
Here, Mister Quintum plays the Promethean Captain (“I refuse to let a little thing like engine failure hold me back!”) to Superman’s doomed Icarus who discovers the fatal dangers of flying too close to the sun. This doubling, one suspects, also has the quality of a substitution (a magical narrative solution, as in Bradbury’s story, where one character will be scapegoated, symbolically suffering a punishment so that the other, similar character may survive unscathed to be eternally-Super). Presumably, before the series ends, we will see a reversal of the successful-Prometheus / doomed-Icarus roles in which Superman will be the ultimate narrative beneficiary of Quintum’s overreaching ambition—albeit not before considerable weirdness and mayhem ensue. (The motif of substitution also has a subtler and more significant correlate—the substitution of the fascist interpretation of Superman for what I think is Grant’s more innocent interpretation of Superman—which I’ll return to below.)
Still on the topic of simple borrowing from Bradbury’s story is also, perhaps, Leo Quintum’s bizarre psychedelic jacket which recalls the following remark from a crew member during the pileup of allusions to describe the ship’s journey to the sun that begins Bradbury’s story: “‘Cup of Gold?’ Steinbeck. ‘The Crock of Gold?’ Stephens. And what about the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end? There’s a name for our trajectory! Rainbow!” Perhaps the infamous “Willy Wonka” jacket (I’m sorry, I can’t remember where I read that) isn’t a Morrisonian non sequitur after all. There certainly is a logical correlation between the trajectory of the Prometheus/Icarus/Copa de Oro and the Captain of a mission that seeks to map the sun. Indeed, Leo Quintum’s Technicolor dreamcoat appropriately marks him as a refractor of the sun’s light; the rainbow’s display of the spectrum could thus be seen as a sign of Quintum’s desire to meticulously map and name the ineffable. Or maybe I’ve just tumbled into the infinitesimal yoctosphere of interpretation. (Wouldn’t be the first time.)
In any event, we are already moving from mere correspondences in image and situation in Morrison and Bradbury into deeper correspondences in tone and theme, and this level of correspondence is undoubtedly the richest of all. In Part 1, I suggested that Bradbury is the SF prose-poet of “proleptic nostalgia” whose faintly melancholy future childhoods are essentially optimistic tributes to the power of the imagination and ambition to transcend most human limits—working the same “fortunate fall” territory as Yeats, Frost, and Thomas, but with an even brighter outlook. (This could, in fact, be a summary of the “moral” of “The Golden Apples of the Sun.”) Morrison’s Superman captures exactly this tone of nostalgic Bradburian optimism through its evocation of “wonder”—a word which connotes both a perceptual category of childhood (past) and the act of imagining something as yet unrealized (future), and thus hints at the collapse of temporal categories that is as basic to his vision of Superman as it is to Bradbury’s vision of his Promethean, boyish captain.
Frank Quitely distils this feeling with breathtaking precision in what may as well be the last Superman cover—it is that archetypal. On a suggestion from Morrison, Quitely draws Superman as a boy perched on a cloud watching the sun rise over Metropolis.
William Blake could have painted something like this—in fact, he did in Songs of Innocence and Experience, a collection that also begins with a little boy floating into the scene on a cloud. What Quitely has given us with this cover is rapture (1. The state of being transported by a lofty emotion; ecstasy. 2. An expression of ecstatic feeling. 3. The transporting of a person from one place to another, especially to heaven.). A boyish, folksy, conspiratorial rapture, to be sure. But no less sublime for all that. This cover is pre-eminently an evocation of Morrison’s innocent Super-myth, but it is also a metaphor for the imagination—and it is so perfectly composed I can’t quite get tired of looking at it. What I love about it especially is its strict division into three horizontal planes: the cloud-eclipsed city, the clouds themselves, and the sky above them—all of which meet at the horizon defined by the rising sun. It’s an image that announces a momentary escape from the worldly chains Dylan Thomas wrote about in the last line of “Fern Hill”—in other words, unvarnished nostalgia. And Superman looks over his shoulder like a boy, inviting us into this privileged space of unshackled thought, this moment outside of time.
But is that all? Something about the picture makes me a little sad. For once, Superman is not in flight. Despite the hint of smugness in his curled lip, this is a contemplative, human Superman. His cape, like the apples of Bradbury’s “burning Tree,” is heavy with gravity, capable only of the slightest ripple. Maybe I was wrong to say that what this cover gives us is rapture. Perhaps if Superman was looking at the sun we would have real transcendence. But instead he looks at us. The heavy world of the city may be partly eclipsed by the weightless clouds, but we are not. And Superman’s smallness, his modesty, the implied kinship of the shared glance—all of these things suggest his mortality and vulnerability, lending the image the undercurrent of melancholy that it will be the story’s burden to develop. And develop it, it does: “What a bizarre irony if the source of my powers winds up killing me, when everything else has failed.”
The final image of issue #1: Eden, the fall. Transforming knowledge and spilled fruit. And not the golden apples of the sun, either, but very earthly oranges, scattered in the street, “wormed with man and gravity.” It is a sly anti-climactic note on which to end a story whose major action is to rob the hero of his immortality—to travel “North,” outward from the sun. Moreover, as with every singer of the fall into the knowledge of death, Morrison’s song is not quite as sad as it might be because death has become the occasion for the artwork itself, and in this case, literally the generator of story.
In its rich and subtle ambiguity, the cover image of All-Star Superman #1 thus echoes and “interprets” “The Golden Apples of the Sun” more subtly and more completely than any critic could hope to, and as in Bradbury’s story, Morrison and Quitely’s Superman gives us nostalgia for the future. Here is Morrison from his newsarama interview on All-Star Superman:
Frank and I are keeping modern sensibilities in mind while trying to make sure that each of our stories addresses some basic human fear or need in a big, colorful, comic book way. We hope to produce a collection of science fiction folk tales with Superman at the heart of them. I like to think of these stories as ‘relevant’ to the human condition although not necessarily relevant to the current headlines, if you see what I mean. The All Star Superman is intended to appeal to a wide audience of diverse people for a long time, like the Greek myths.What better intertext for the launch of a mythic series of “science fiction folk tales” than Bradbury’s encyclopaedic reinvention of the Greek myths of the golden apples, Icarus, Prometheus, and the intertwinging legacy of these myths in the pastoral poetry of the twentieth century? Especially when this story is a paradigm of the very sort of allusive, synthesizing, pop-cultural mythmaking to which Morrison himself is aspiring with this series.
As I have been endeavouring to show, Morrison’s and Bradbury’s projects are deeply invested in the same mythic material and have a similar configuration of concerns. But Morrison is also concerned with developing his future nostalgia in ways that are slightly different from Bradbury. Bradbury’s optimism about human daring and imagination may be infused with an ambiguous tone thanks to the death of the first mate, but, at the end of the day, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” seems to affirm the virtue of a heroic refusal of limits by casting the first mate’s death as a necessary cost of doing business and (at most) as an abstract lesson in mortality for the triumphant captain. Morrison’s Superman is treated, if anything, even more affirmatively than Bradbury’s captain. He is purely and transcendentally “good.” And yet, one gets the impression from the first issue that this innate “goodness” is the result of a conjuring trick, whereby Morrison has dispensed with the spectre of the “fascist” interpretation of Superman by offloading the burden of “fascism” (the term is used very loosely here) onto either Leo Quintum or Luthor or both. This is obviously the significance of Luthor’s shrieking, “You have no right to limit my ambitions, fascist!” as he throttles Superman through the agency of his genetically modified human suicide bomb. Apparently the irony of this preposterous statement is lost on Luthor, whose Promethean demand for “no limits” is precisely what leads him to “misidentify” Superman as the fascist. In this way, Morrison neatly dispels the political cloud that has always dogged Superman and offers him up as a more innocent modern myth.
Of what, exactly, does Morrison’s innocent Super-myth consist? There are some clues in the newsarama interview:
NRAMA: Well, let’s hit that angle – the mythology of Superman. You’ve alluded to it before - is Superman a Christ-like figure for the mythology of the 21st century?Clearly, what Grant’s “progressive” Superman might say “to those of us living in the secular 21st century” remains to be seen. But if the tone, style, and allusions of All-Star Superman #1 tell us anything, it is that Morrison associates his secular myth with the creative power and optimism of youth and with a kind of recalcitrant innocence that survives the transition to experience. Fundamentally, for Morrison, “Superman...does not kill. That’s the essential core. He always finds a way to solve every single problem without anyone being hurt.” Not surprisingly, then, the first issue is a battle between the confident but vulnerable boy-Superman of the cover and an “old man” like Luthor, whose motive for killing Superman is pure ressentiment: “I’m getting older and…and he isn’t.” Youth battling age at the edge of a ball of energy as destructive as it is sustaining—this is Morrison’s twist on the “future nostalgia” formula he finds in Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun.” It’s a lovely, inspiring vision, and I for one can’t wait to see how it plays out.
GM: In the sense that he inspires us towards our best, yes. I don’t want anyone to think I’m taking this literally - it’s not like Jimmy Olsen’s one of the disciples or Lois is the Magdalene - and imagine how diffferent Western religion would be would be if God had rocketed Jesus to Earth so that he could escape the destruction of Heaven...brrr... Superman is very different from Christ in that here we have a powerful redeemer who doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice himself to get his point across. No-one has to die in Superman’s name. Superman is a much more progressive figure than Jesus, and as a science fiction savior rocketed to Earth from a world of wonder, I think the character has the potential to transcend his humble origins and say something quite profound to those of us living in the secular 21st century…. Of course, one way of looking at ‘Superman’ is that Clark wears the costume because it makes him faintly ridiculous and non-threatening. He’s colorful like a circus strongman. And that costume is like the flag of a one man country that the whole world can recognize and trust.
The Golden Apples of the Sun
“South,” said the captain.
“But,” said his crew, “there are no directions out here in space.”
“When you travel on down toward the sun,” replied the captain, “and everything gets yellow and warm and lazy, then you’re going in one direction only.” He shut his eyes and thought about the smouldering, warm, faraway land, his breath moving gently in his mouth. “South,” he nodded slowly to himself. “South.”
Their rocket was the Copa de Oro, also named the Prometheus and the Icarus, and their destination in all reality was the blazing noonday sun. In high good spirits they might almost have packed along two thousand sour lemonades and a thousand white-capped beers for this journey to the wide Sahara. But now as the sun boiled up at them they remembered a score of verses and quotations:
“‘The golden apples of the sun?’”
“‘Fear no more the heat of the sun?’”
“Shakespeare, of course!”
“‘Cup of Gold?’ Steinbeck. ‘The Crock of Gold?’ Stephens. And what about the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end? There’s a name for our trajectory! Rainbow!”
“One thousand degrees Fahrenheit!”
The captain stared from the huge dark-lensed port, and there indeed was the sun, and to go to that sun and touch it and steal part of it forever away was his quiet and single idea. In this ship were combined the coolly delicate and the coldly practical. Through corridors of ice and milk-frost, ammoniated winter and storming snowflakes blew. Any spark from that vast hearth burning out there beyond the callous hull of this ship, any small fire-breath that might seep through would find winter, slumbering here like all the coldest hours of February.
The audio-termometer murmured in the arctic silence: “Temperature: two thousand degrees!”
Falling, thought the captain, like a snowflake into the lap of June, warm July, and the sweltering dog-mad days of August.
“Three thousand degrees Fahrenheit!”
Under the snow fields engines raced, refrigerants pumped ten thousand miles per hour in rimed boa-constrictor coils.
“Four thousand degrees Fahrenheit!”
Noon. Summer. July.
“Five thousand Fahrenheit!”
And at last the captain spoke with all the quietness of the journey in his voice:
“Now, we are touching the sun.”
Their eyes, thinking it, were melted gold.
“Seven thousand degrees!”
Strange how a mechanical thermometer could sound excited, though it possessed only an emotionless steel voice.
“What time is it?” asked someone.
Everyone had to smile.
For now there was only the sun and the sun and the sun.
It was every horizon, it was every direction. It burned the minutes, the seconds, the hourglasses, the clocks; it burned all time and eternity away. It burned the eyelids and the serum of the dark world behind the lids, the retina, the hidden brain; and it burned sleep and the sweet memories of sleep and cool nightfall.
Bretton, the first mate, fell flat to the winter deck. His protective suit whistled where, burst open, his warmness, his oxygen, and his life bloomed out in a frosted steam.
Inside Bretton’s plastic face-mask, milk crystals had already gathered in blind patterns. They bent to see.
“A structural defect in his suit, Captain. Dead.”
They stared at that other thermometer which showed how winter lived in this snowing ship. One thousand degrees below zero. The captain gazed down upon the frosted statue and the twinkling crystals that iced over it as he watched. Irony of the coolest sort, he thought; a man afraid of fire and killed by frost.
The captain turned away. “No time. No time. Let him lie.” He felt his tongue move. “Temperature?”
The dials jumped four thousand degrees.
“Look. Will you look? Look.”
Their icicle was melting.
The captain jerked his head to look at the ceiling.
As if a motion-picture projector had jammed a single clear memory frame in his head, he found his mind focused ridiculously on a scene whipped out of childhood.
Spring mornings as a boy he had leaned from his bedroom window into the snow-smelling air to see the sun sparkle the last icicle of winter. A dripping of white wine, the blood of cool but warming April fell from that clear crystal blade. Minute by minute, December’s weapon grew less dangerous. And then at last the icicle fell with the sound of a single chime to the graveled walk below.
“Auxiliary pump’s broken, sir. Refrigeration. We’re losing our ice!”
A shower of warm rain shivered down upon them. The captain jerked his head right and left. “Can you see the trouble? Quick!”
The men rushed; the captain bent in the warm air, cursing, felt his hands run over the cold machine, felt them burrow and search, and while he worked he saw a future which was removed from them by the merest breath. He saw the skin peel from the rocket beehive, men thus revealed running, running, mouths shrieking, soundless. Space was a black mossed well where life drowned its roars and terrors. Scream a big scream, but space snuffed it out before it was half up your throat. Men scurried, ants in a flaming matchbox; the ship was dripping lava, gushing steam, nothing!
The nightmare flicked away.
“Here.” He worked in the soft warm rain that fell from the upper decks. He fumbled at the auxiliary pump. “Damn it!” He jerked the feed line. When it came, it’d be the quickest death in the history of dying. One moment, yelling; a warm flash later on ly a billion billion tons of space-fire would whisper, unheard, into space. Popped like strawberries in a furnace, their thoughts would linger on the scorched air a long breath after their bodies were charred roast and fluorescent gas.
“There!” He stabbed the auxiliary pump with a screw driver. “So!” He shuddered. The complete annihilation of it. He clamped his eyes tight, teeth tight. Lord, he thought, we’re used to more leisurely dyings, measured in minutes and hours. Even twenty seconds now would be a slow death compared to this hungry idiot thing waiting to eat us!
“Captain, do we pull out or stay?”
“Get the Cup ready. Take over, finish this. Now!”
He turned and put his hand to the working mechanism of the huge Cup; shoved his fingers into the robot Glove. A twitch of his hand here moved a gigantic hand, with gigantic metal fingers, from the bowels of the ship. Now, now, the great metal hand slid out holding the huge Copa de Oro, breathless, into the chemical furnace, the bodiless body and the fleshless flesh of the sun.
A million years ago, thought the captain, quickly, quickly, as he moved the hand and the Cup, a million years ago a naked man on a lonely northern trail saw lightening strike a tree. And while his clan fled, with bare hands he plucked a limb of fire, broiling the flesh of his fingers, to carry it, running in triumph, shielding it from the rain with his body, to his cave, where he shrieked out a laugh and tossed it full on a mound of leaves and gave his people summer. And the tribe crept at last, trembling, near the fire, and they put out their flinching hands and felt the new season in their cave, this small yellow spot of changing weather, and they, too, at last, nervously, smiled. And the gift of fire was theirs.
It took all of four seconds for the huge hand to push the empty Cup to the fire. So here we are again, to-day, on another trail, he thought, reaching for a cup of precious gas and vacuum, a handful of different fire with which to run back up cold space, lighting our way, and take to earth a gift of fire that might burn forever. Why?
He knew the answer before the question.
Because the atoms we work with our hands, on Earth, are pitiful; the atomic bomb is pitiful and small and our knowledge is pitiful and small, and only the sun really knows what we want to know, and only the sun has the secret. And besides, it’s grand, it’s a chance, it’s a great thing coming here, playing tag, hitting and running. There is no reason, really, except the pride and vanity of little insect men hoping to sting the lion and escape the maw. Look! See! We’ll cry we did it! And here is our cup of energy, fire, vibration, call it what you will, that may well power our cities and sail our ships and light our libraries and tan our children and bake our daily breads and simmer the knowledge of our universe for us for a thousand years until it is well done. Here, from this cup, all good men of science and religion: drink! Warn yourselves against this night of ignorance, the long snows of superstition, the cold winds of disbelief, and from the great fear of darkness in each man. So: we stretch out our hand with a beggar’s cup…
The Cup dipped into the sun. It scooped up a bit of the flesh of God, the blood of the universe, the blazing thought, the blinding philosophy that set out and mothered a galaxy, that idled and swept planets in their fields and summoned or laid to rest lives and livelihoods.
“What’ll happen when we pull it inside? That extra heat now, at this time, Captain?”
“Only the good Lord knows….”
“Now, slow,” whispered the captain.
“Auxiliary pump all repaired, sir.”
The pump leaped on.
“Close the lid of the Cup and inside now, slow, slow.” The beautiful hand outside the ship trembled, a tremendous image of his own gesture, sank with oiled silence into the ship body. The Cup, lid shut, dripped yellow flowers and white stars, slid deep. The audio-thermometer screamed. The refrigerator system kicked; ammoniated fluids banged the walls like blood in the head of a shrieking idiot.
He shut the outer air-lock door.
They waited. The ship’s pulse ran. The heart of the ship rushed, beat, rushed, the Cup of gold in it. The cold blood raced around about down through, around about down through.
The captain exhaled slowly.
The ice stopped dripping from the ceiling. It froze again.
“Let’s get out of here.”
The ship turned and ran.
The heart of the ship was slowing, slowing. The dials spun on down through the thousands; the needles whirred, invisible. The thermometer voice chanted the change of seasons. They were all thinking now, together: Pull away and away from the fire and the flame, the heat and the melting, the yellow and the white. Go on out now to cool and dark. In twenty hours perhaps they might even dismantle some refrigerators, let winter die. Soon they would move in night so cold it might be necessary to use the ship’s new furnace, draw heat from the shielded fire they carried now like an unborn child.
They were going home.
They were going home and there was some little time, even as he tended to the body of Bretton lying in a bank of white winter snow, for the captain to remember a poem he had written many years before:
Sometimes I see the sun a burning Tree,The captain sat for a long while by the body, feeling many separate thing. I feel sad, he thought, and I feel good, and I feel like a boy coming home with a handful of wild flowers.
Its golden fruit swung bright in airless air,
Its apples wormed with man and gravity,
Their worship breathing from them everywhere,
As man sees Sun as burning Tree...
“Well,” said the captain, sitting, eyes shut, sighing. “Well, where do we go now, eh, where are we going?” He felt his men sitting or standing all about him, the terror dead in them, their breathing quiet. “When you’ve gone a long, long way down to the sun and touched it and lingered and jumped around and streaked away from it, where are you going then? When you go away from the heat and the noonday light and the laziness, where do you go?”
His men waited for him to say it out. They waited for him to gather all of the coolness and the whiteness and the welcome and refreshing climate of the word in his mind, and they saw him settle the word, like a bit of ice cream, in his mouth, rolling it gently.
“There’s only one direction in space from here on out,” he said at last.
They waited. They waited as the ship moved swiftly into cold darkness away from the light.
“North,” murmured the captain. “North.”
And they all smiled, as if a wind had come up suddenly in the middle of a hot afternoon.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
As I confessed in my previous post, my resistance to Harry Potter has flagged recently, and under the pressure of direct appeals and subtle gambits by fellow bloggers, I've decided to go all the way and crack open Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. As I throw away my jealously guarded Potter virginity, however, I'd like to invite all those Potterphilic Muggles who haven't yet taken the plunge to crack open the first and/or second volume of a considerably earlier classic children's series: Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising.
As I mentioned in the comments section of the piece on Potter, I'll be posting a review essay that compares Cooper's fantasy to Rowling's in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts of their own about either or both of these series, please post them here or send me a link to the entry on your own site, which I'll post below. What are the aesthetic virtues of each series? What, if any, are their weaknessness? Which is the superior "classic"? How unfair is this comparison?
Most importantly, will Jim really follow through on his latest promise to actually read one of these books? Will he ever stop lying about his intention to read Rowling? Find out in Stone v. Stone: The Susan Cooper - J. K. Rowling Challenge!
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Maybe it’s just that time of year. You know, what I mean. November. Everything’s just a little bit depressing: the leaves are gone, the sun is gone, the skies are grey, real snow isn’t here yet, vacation is immanent, but not immanent enough to be consoling. And you’re tired. Deeply, achingly, down-to-your-bones, tired. Maybe I just finally got worn down. I don’t know how else to explain it.
I saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire last night. And I liked it.
I’ve been resisting Harry Potter for what feels like forever. “But it’s so good,” my friends would cajole. Smart friends. Friends with good taste in books, with opinions I trust. “It’s not just a kid’s story—really. Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down. They’re addictively good. Much darker and more sophisticated than you might think. Besides, you of all people should like this sort of thing, Jim. You read comics and The Wheel of Time for goodness sake! It’s better than all that!” And always, eventually, this last-ditch appeal to what was ultimately chalked up to my literary snobbery: “It’s very well written.”
Uh-huh. Usually I’d make that sour face I make when confronted with things that wound my delicate aesthetic sensibilities. Invariably, I’d grouse about the novels’ ugly, childish cover art. (My wife tells a wonderful story about an architecture professor who once protested the bylaw requiring him to place wheelchair ramps in front of his austere modernist buildings by declaring: “We all have disabilities. My disability is that I cannot bear ugliness.” I feel a certain kinship with this vain idiot.)
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I’d be told apropos the Potter books. “Besides, there are editions with different cover art, designed for adults.” Sigh. Occasionally, if I was feeling magnanimous, I’d pretend to give in. I’d smile faintly. I’d make noises of acquiescence to indicate that yes, yes, eventually I intended to read the books, it was only a matter of finding the time to do it. I was lying, of course. And I suspect my friends knew this, even though they were too kind (or too exasperated) to press the issue.
What was my problem, exactly? Why did I despise Harry Potter without ever having read a word of J. K. Rowling’s prose? What was it about the prospect of this little darling wizard-in-training that made me want to retch?
Well, to begin with, it all seemed a mite…precious. I mean really: Muggles? That’s fine for seven year olds (barely), but when I hear sane adults pronounce cutesy nonsense words like this, I want to tell them, politely but decisively, to kindly fuck off. Also (and this admission is not as ugly as it sounds), I’m a bit of an Anglophobe. Not a real Anglophobe, mind you. Just someone prone to knee-jerk intolerance for North American Anglophilia, which sometimes unfairly, and prejudicially spills over into an irritation with British fantasy proper. (People of Britain: I mostly love you. Okay not you, Margaret Thatcher. Not you either, Mr. Blair.) Perhaps this is my ex-colonial ressentiment talking, but I’ve come to find the Canadian and American fascination with the dream of a British childhood more than a little cloying. So when Rex Murphy’s acerbic jeremiad against Harry appeared in The Globe and Mail earlier this year, I was only too happy to have my prejudices confirmed. Suddenly, I had more fuel to add to the fire, a neat quasi-political justification for my irritation with bespectacled British wand-wielding moppets. Yes, Rex’s bombast was overblown—even I could see that. But when you develop an spontaneous hate-on for something that the herd seems unequivocally to adore, the contrarian pundit is your friend, and it’s all too easy to forgive a little hot air, especially when you’re puffing a bit of it yourself.
Problem is, as much as I hated Harry and the myth of a “magical” English childhood he embodies, I’m also a total hypocrite. You see, I bought into this myth—deeply—a long time ago, I’m still in it’s grip, and, truth be told, most days I don’t really want to be released.
When I was about eight or nine, a very close friend of mine introduced me to a book by Susan Cooper called Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), the first book in a genuinely magical British series of contemporary Arthurian adventures that also includes The Dark Is Rising (1967), Greenwitch (1974), The Grey King (1975), and Silver on the Tree (1977). Set in Wales, Cornwall, and Buckinghamshire, and focusing on six British children, the series infuses the secret world of childhood with danger and a haunting evocation of myth and legendary history that remains a touchstone for my own memory of what is most valuable about the melancholy innocence of that time.
The foreignness—the Englishness—of Cooper’s setting was important. It made for a kind of grave play, a serious innocence that is more difficult (though not impossible) to achieve in North American settings. And of course, behind this feeling is the sense of historical depth—the deep temporality of Celtic myth and Arthurian legend—that animates the entire proceedings and which is unavailable within a North American scene. At the time, the English settings of Cooper’s fantasy were somewhat estranging, making my identification with the children in those stories incomplete, opening a gap that—phenomenologically-speaking—gave me a taste of melancholy separation from childhood that I would later experience as an adult. Ultimately, the gap created by the foreign British setting expanded. In adult memory, the geographical distance between myself and those children came to stand for the now unbridgeable temporal distance between past and present. Nostalgia, it would seem, is amplified when it concerns geographically distant adventures.
This dynamic, I suspect, is not unique to my experience and perhaps reveals something about the insatiably nostalgic Anglophilia of US and Canadian readers, about that strange overlap between childhood and Great Britain in a certain “North American” imagination. (Scare-quotes around “North American” are necessary because clearly this “imagination” cannot be attributed willy-nilly to some sort of transcultural North American groupmind. And of course one could provide other, more depressing reasons for the continued prominence of British fantasies centered on the heroic destiny of white children in the context of “global culture,” but it’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m trying not to bum myself out unduly.)
So how could I have loved Susan Cooper without ever giving J. K. Rowling a chance? Are their fantasies really so different? Or is it just that I’m too old to be moved by children’s stories (even sophisticated, well-written ones) that can, at best, only remind me of my own (more perfect) memories of the distant geography of childhood?
Well—for starters, they do seem different. Very different. Arthurian legends and enchanted objects in the English countryside are one thing. Schools of wizardry with preciously-monikered professors that turn into cats are quite another. And I genuinely don’t “get” the English boarding school setting of the Potter books. What the Potterverse seems to lack—from my totally uniformed point of view—is privacy. There may be a belfry where Harry can go hang out with the owls, but the adventures themselves do not appear to perform the fundamental Peanuts-like excising of the adult world that marks what are, for me, the most pleasurable childhood stories. (Granted, I don’t think Susan Cooper does this completely either, but the private nature of magical tutelage in The Dark Is Rising is fundamentally different from the Grand Hall setting of Hogwart’s Academy, from what I remember.) And yes, I probably am too old to have any unmediated or uncritical experience of new children’s fiction. If it can really take me back to Cooper’s Wales, then I’ll happily hitch a ride, and perhaps I can suspend my disbelief for few minutes. But if the fit isn’t quite right, it’s liable to make me cranky. At least, that’s what I thought until last night.
Yes. I liked Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It’s a sweet, well-made movie. It ably captures the awkwardness of adolescence (especially the abject horror of the school dance), and it generates more emotional involvement than I was expecting—partly because the characters themselves are appealing and partly because it so ingeniously exploits the symbolism of its material. The final image of the departing students from other schools, with the boat sinking below the sea as the carriage drawn by winged horses rises into the clouds is sublime. Quite simply one of the loveliest images of death and transcendence that I’ve seen in a little while. (The ascending carriage seems almost to become a coffin.) Likewise, the movement through the maze with its terrific grail imagery and the climactic encounter in the graveyard with a scary, noseless Ralph Fiennes are magnificent.
Granted, I still haven’t read any of the books, and quite frankly, am unlikely to embark upon that 4000-page quest anytime soon. At this stage, I’m more likely to be able to sustain a hit of nostalgia from the spectacle of film than from a 500-page doorstop anyway. I have, at least, stuck my pinky toe into the bathwater at Hogwart’s and found it, on the whole, more inviting than I expected. Whatever its darkness (and certainly the promise of a “darker” installment of the fantasy appealed to me), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an optimistic story. Like Susan Cooper’s eerie recreation of the Arthur legend, it is a work of Romance—that genre that is at the root of so much storytelling, if not of story itself. Sometimes, for better or worse, such a return to myth is exactly what one craves. Especially in the bleak days of November.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Marc Singer paid me the compliment last week of writing a collegial critique of my own rather scattered musings on the politics of multiplicity that I saw (or hoped to see) in DC’s Infinite Crisis. Marc’s reply to On Multiplicity: The Pleasures and Politics of Infinite Crises on Infinite Earths was both thought-provoking and fair—in fact, I wish that all academic interlocutors were as generous about disagreeing with someone as Marc is in Multiple Articulation. As Marc’s essay makes clear through its numerous asides and qualifications, our positions are not always as far apart as they might seem. Nonetheless, he raises two significant (and interrelated) objections to my argument that I can’t resist exploring a little further here. As will quickly become evident, Marc’s essay stimulated a lot of thoughts, and although I begin each section by responding to some of his concerns, I usually end up wandering off along tangential paths that are no longer direct responses to his critique, and sometimes circle back to common ground.
Marc’s first objection to my reading of the DC multiverse concerns my claim that comic book representations of multiplicity could have genuine political value. “As a scholar of popular culture I wouldn't dismiss [such arguments] out of hand,” Marc writes, but it’s “a pretty big leap” from the insular world of comic book Hyperverses or Multiverses to “political manifesto[s]” about multiplicity because what such imaginary stories give us is “multiplicity without any practical effects.” I’ve written about my critical method before, and I could simply take the coward’s way out and say that I’m not doing pure criticism here so much as using Crisis as a sounding board for my own tedious preoccupations, as I so often do. But that wouldn’t be entirely true, since I really am interested in thinking about the political implications of popular culture—particularly in what are regarded as its most conservative forms. On this point, Marc and I agree on one thing at least (maybe more); as he acknowledges throughout the essay, I share his scepticism that “any particular narrative framework guarantees any particular type of politics.” But I would frame the issue in a slightly different way, and this has to do with that slippery word, “guarantees.”
Marc’s warning about the danger of seeing something like Infinite Crisis as politically subversive takes issue with what I would call “strong” formulations of the relation between culture (“narrative frameworks”) and politics. His argument here is really with Will Brooker, who, by Marc’s account, does appear to offer a genuinely “strong” formulation to the culture-politics relation (in his discussion of Hypertime’s political frisson) and thus seems to leave himself vulnerable to the accusation of naïve wankery that haunts all avant-garde criticism. Of course, my own blogging courts precisely this accusation as well! But my starting point is quite different from the one that Brooker stands accused of adopting: I’m asserting only a “weak” formulation of the culture-politics relation on the grounds that, with the possible exception of pure propaganda from either the left or the right, most forms of popular culture are ideologically uneven and contradictory, containing both reactionary and subversive political messages and that this ideological unevenness is especially visible in popular forms like superhero comic books—mass market yet strangely subcultural fantasies which do not simply mythologize but also interrogate the cultural/political contexts in which they are produced. Certainly, I agree with Marc that no narrative framework “guarantees” politics, but narrative frameworks do constantly “register,” “reflect,” “map,” or “model” ways of conceptualizing political thought, even if they do not overtly or primarily “intend” to—though, as every fan knows, mainstream comics have had ambitious, explicitly political content for a very long time now. What this might mean for interpretation is that even mainstream, continuity-driven events like Crisis contain alternative forms of political modeling that strain against their overt (corporate) aims, and exist in tension with what Johanna Draper Carlson has recently called the innately conservative nature of all superheroes.
Are images of pluralism (even pseudo-pluralism) in superhero comics simply an example of “multiplicity without any practical effects”? Perhaps. But that depends in part on how one defines “practical effects.” Again, I would offer a “weak” formulation of this concept rather than a “strong” one. If comic book multiplicity has any “practical effects,” these would necessarily be pedagogical, long term, and probably unconscious (which is not to say inconsequential, particularly if you believe, as I do, that our political choices are profoundly determined by unconscious investments and not simply by our dispassionate weighing of options on the one hand or by media-manipulation on the other). Moreover, many forms of cultural production, comics included, are capable of providing optics through which to view the world in which we live with fresh eyes. Like Brechtian drama, in other words, comic book representations of postmodernity might have a defamiliarizing effect, something about which Mark Fossen has recently reminded us.
Of course, these are all somewhat airy speculations, and whether or not they really illuminate the new Crisis is highly debatable, not only because we’re talking about a work that is only half started, but because its ideological investments may end up swinging so far in the direction of 1950s values as to negate any meaningful “multiplicity” at all (though I doubt it). My main point is simply that in the context of the current depressing ascendancy of strong ideologies like nationalism, imperialism, and religious fundamentalism (both within “the West” and outside it), I’ll take my multiplicity where I can get it. (Yes, even if I have to make it up!) In all seriousness, though, the circulation of even very basic and decontextualized representations of multiplicity can only be said to do “nothing”—to have no “practical effects”—if we accept the premise that cultural artifacts must be free of the taint of a dominant (conservative) ideology to achieve political purchase. This is a question I think a great deal about, and to be honest, I have yet to answer it to my satisfaction. Still, I’m not prepared to accept the argument that superhero comics are an inherently conservative form, if only because this isn’t true to my own experience of reading—something about which I apparently have no shortage of things to say. (And just for the record: I don’t think that Marc is claiming that they are either—I’m just riffing here, as usual.)
Marc’s second and more serious objection to my reading of Infinite Crisis concerns the value of “multiplicity” as a political concept, and this may be a point on which we genuinely disagree, though even here, I’m not sure our positions are all that far apart. His concerns about my “celebration of multiplicity for its own sake” stem primarily from the extent to which he sees my position overlapping with Will Brooker’s euphoric brand of relativist postmodernism (a celebration of multiplicity as “empty pastiche” or “fluidity and play”) and, more tenuously, with what can only be called the appalling hijacking of “minoritarian” rhetoric from the Culture Wars debates of the 1990s by the cynical and opportunistic architects of the “Intelligent Design” lobby. As Marc acknowledges, the comparison of my take on the virtues of multiplicity to the obscene, depressing appropriation of a legitimate and necessary multicultural politics by religious fundamentalists is not just “unfair” but “completely unfair” (whew!). Nonetheless, I take his point: “a point that too many left-wingers and academics ignore,” namely that “openness and diversity are not always worthwhile goals in themselves, and certainly not the only worthwhile goals. They don’t automatically guarantee a progressive politics, or even a diverse politics.” To the charge of being a left-wing academic, I can only plead guilty, and of course, Marc is absolutely right about the dangers of an uncritical celebration of “multiplicity.” Anyone who argues for “multiplicity for its own sake” will inevitably get a bloody nose when they run up against the brick wall of such “diverse” viewpoints as fascism and fundamentalism.
So, what do I intend (beyond simply amusing myself) when I say hyperbolic things like “bring on a politics of Infinite Crisis. It’s past time to make an ‘infinite’ peace with multiplicity”? This certainly sounds like “multiplicity for its own sake,” but that’s not quite what I mean. In general, what I was alluding to were several different notions of multiplicity that I rather clumsily lumped together in an obfuscating rhetorical flourish.
1. In one sense, it’s true, I was taking multiplicity to simply mean “pluralism” or even simply a clash of ideologies. And on this point I would reaffirm Marc’s warning that an uncritical pluralism has many pitfalls and can lead to some dangerous impasses. But there is a difference between pluralism (as a social practice) and relativism (as a philosophical postulate), and I don’t think that the former can necessarily be reduced to the latter. The thorny question about pluralism obviously concerns how one adjudicates situations in which a respect for cultural diversity runs up against cultural practices that are either morally repugnant (according to one’s own cultural values) or which directly challenge the viability of the social contract. Within the context of civil society, institutions like the law ostensibly operate as a brake that prevents “pluralism” from become an anarchic clash of values with no common basis for appeal. There are all kinds of problems with this, of course, since the law is always someone’s law rather than a neutral bearer of “universal” values. My point is only that “multiplicity” in this social sense does not imply a sort of nihilistic “postmodern” relativism (and, as I will suggest below, postmodern multiplicity should not be reduced to this shorthand caricature). In a certain sense, superhero comics could be said to exemplify this kind of tension in the productive conflict that emerges between the multiplicity signalled by their main motifs (superheroes, sometimes thematized in explicitly minoritarian terms, as in X-Men) and their controlling themes (justice, right, the nature of good and evil—themes which have happily been complicated by the “dark” turn that DC has recently taken). In a work like Crisis, this tension is heightened further: the issue of multiplicity becomes more explicit and thematically central, even as, in a curious way, it is juxtaposed with the sort of simplistic 1950s morality that we have come, with good reason, to mistrust. Difference and sameness, multiplicity on common ground. In Culture and Imperialism Edward Said speaks eloquently of the need for a “new humanism” that would not eradicate or ignore genuine cultural differences, but would nonetheless provide the basis for a common language through which to negotiate urgent questions of global justice. It would be naïve to think that any contemporary society has achieved that “new humanist” dream of multiplicity on common ground, but it is not impossible to see such a utopian paradox represented (in a yet imperfect and contradictory form) in the weird hybrid genre of superhero comics, absurd as that may sound. Moreover, the fact that DC’s (formerly) “infinite” earths draw attention to the global dimension of these questions is, to say the least, suggestive.
2. But “multiplicity” has also acquired another set of connotations in postmodern thought that really pose a fatal challenge to the multiplicity of the sort that I’ve been describing so far. Whereas the more traditional way of thinking multiplicity as “pluralism” or even “cultural relativism” tends to emphasize the boundaries between cultures (to treat cultures and cultural viewpoints as if they were organic wholes), postmodern multiplicity (as it is articulated by Deleuze and Guattari or Judith Butler, for instance) challenges the idea that it is either accurate or desirable to speak of “multiplicity” on this level at all because, at the end of the day, “identity” (be it cultural, sexual, or whatever), is a falsifying projection. Human beings are really composed of a sort of micro-multiplicity that obtains at the level of both mind and body, now imagined as split, fragmented, polymorphous, and criss-crossed by diverse, often conflicting social codes and desires. This suspicion of “identity” arises from many sources, but it emerged especially as a challenge to the type of identity politics that animated (and some would say stymied) the Culture Wars of the 90s. The critique of identity this branch of modern theory offers is typically complemented by an endorsement of a notoriously idealist “micro-politics” that emphasizes somewhat dubious but sometimes effective forms of culture jamming and political protest organized around temporary fluid alliances based on shared interests, rather than on universalizing political programs based around a single unifying idea (eg. Marxism or feminism). This type of multiplicity might be signalled abstractly through the language of “crisis” and “infinity” in DC’s current crossover, but it is probably most evident more generally in the representation of the mutant or superhero body as a site of constant movement and transformation. I could multiply examples on this point, but I’ll save that discussion for another day.
3. Finally, this version of postmodern multiplicity is itself multiple, for it has another dimension that acknowledges the simple fact that identities are not simply “ours” to shape and control but are often (indeed inevitably) imposed on us by social codes and practices whose operation can be more or less violent, but is certainly not voluntary. Human beings, no matter how internally “multiple” they might be, have no choice but to engage with the power structures that address them and to demand recognition within those structures. For this reason even the most utopian postmodern tributes to the liberating annihilation of conventional identities often contain precisely the sort of caution that Marc’s essay eloquently provides against the dangers of uncritical multiplicity. The following parable is one of my favourite passages from A Thousand Plateaus, a book of postmodern philosophy by Deleuze and Guattari that for the most part extols the liberating virtues of demolishing conventional notions of identity and politics (which they associate with “striated space”) to create a “smooth space” of perpetual movement, flux, alliance, and transformation. Note the all-important qualification at the end:
What interests us in operations of striation and smoothing are precisely the passages or combinations: how the forces at work within space continually striate it, and how in the course of its striation it develops other forces and emits new smooth spaces. Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth spaces: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller. Movements, speed and slowness, are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.“Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.” This is how Marc concludes his essay too, and it’s a caveat that I took to be implicit in my own musings about making “infinite” peace with multiplicity, even though it was murkily conveyed. It cannot be repeated often enough. As for the larger issues: how do these three forms of multiplicity fit together? can they be reconciled? do superhero comics provide a useful sounding board for thinking about multiplicity and its relations? These are not easy questions, but they’re certainly questions worth exploring further...
Saturday, November 05, 2005
In 1985, my DC Universe was three-tiered. At the top was a trio of utterly transcendent books: The New Teen Titans, Batman and the Outsiders, and Swamp Thing. Below these were DC books that I enjoyed and bought occasionally (the quirky Blue Devil or pseudo-science fiction titles like Legion of Superheroes and Atari Force) as well as recently cancelled, proto-Vertigo masterpieces (Thriller and Night Force). Finally, below this middle tier was a whole sea of titles featuring iconic DC heroes that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern: two of my three favorite titles were team books, and on the whole, I preferred teams to individual heroes, so it’s little wonder that I wasn’t interested in these graying heroes who all seemed so stodgy and flat anyway. Of the old guard only Batman exerted a mild gothic tug of attraction. (I had, after all, bought the occasional issue of Detective Comics in the days before I styled my 13-year-old self a “collector.”) But even Bats was only ever really palatable to me as part of an ensemble like the Outsiders. In fact, “my” pre-Crisis DC Universe was rigidly and snobbishly “new.” This is why, despite my love of team books, the venerable Justice League of America and even ostensibly “newer” teams like All-Star Squadron, and Infinity Inc were completely unreadable to me back then. The latter two were tied to an incomprehensible history (the history of my parents’ generation at that!) and JLA was made of heroes I didn’t care about. If Superman embodied everything that bored me about the classic pre-Crisis DCU, Batman’s resignation from the JLA on the cover of BATO #1 was, in retrospect, emblematic of precisely the direction I intuitively wanted my DC comics to take.
As it turned out, DC editorial was way ahead of me, for this was exactly the direction they did take in 1985 with the launch of Crisis on Infinite Earths. At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to buy this “maxi-series” at all. I had heard about Crisis before The New Teen Titans #6 (vol. 2) came out, but it wasn’t until I read Marv Wolfman’s terrible confirmation in the letters page of that issue that George Perez was leaving the just-launched “hardcover” Titans series to work on Crisis that I really made up my mind to see what all the fuss was about. If I couldn’t have Perez on Titans, I may as well at least enjoy his art on this new book (which had the added attraction of being written by Wolfman), even if the premise didn’t completely hook me and despite the lousy in-house ad featuring a silhouette of the Monitor that (inexplicably) did everything possible to hide the fact that Perez had drawn it. Crisis was the first book I ever decided to buy, sight unseen, on the strength of the creative team that was producing it.
I wasn’t disappointed—Wolfman and Perez’s work was sensational and involving. But the experience of reading Crisis on Infinite Earths—particularly the early issues—was very, very strange. Suddenly, I was reintroduced to characters that I hadn’t thought about for years (The Crime Syndicate?) that I had never associated with the universe in which the Teen Titans operated (Blue Beetle? The Freedom Fighters? Captain Marvel?) or had never heard of at all (Psycho Pirate? Kamandi? Solovar?). As a reading experience it was truly uncanny—the floor of “my” DCU had just dropped out from under me, and beneath it was a deep, puzzling history that I had been, until that point, quite successfully ignoring. Reading Crisis was therefore both exhilarating and unsettling, familiar and strange—my very small DC Universe was being given extraordinary depth and complexity at the very moment that this complexity was about to be collapsed to a fresh new singularity.
Of course, the “uncanniness” of Crisis stemmed not just from the confrontation of my own self-created mini-DCU (Titans, Outsiders, Swampy) with the “repressed” (i.e. ignored) contents of its history (Superman, the JSA, the Golden Age, etc., etc.), but was a basic structural feature of the series’s paradoxical premise. On the one hand, it was written to solve a problem that I (without realizing it at the time) embodied utterly. As everyone knows, Crisis came about in the first place to simplify a universe whose continuity had become unmanageable and was costing the company readers—specifically, new readers like myself who weren’t interested in the adventures of geriatric supermen whose books looked and felt like the remnants of an older generation’s diversions. Crisis on Infinite Earths was written specifically to get people like me to buy something other than Teen Titans. And yet, by its nature, the story (despite a cast of thousands), had to revolve around two unappealing groups of characters: those iconic characters that interested me the least, whose books I did not buy, and those obscure characters that I had never heard of, but was at least beginning to discover in the pages of Who’s Who, which DC had cunningly begun publishing at exactly the same time with exquisite crossover-implied Perez covers. For the first few issues of Crisis, I found myself looking (in vain!) for Titans and Outsiders among the panels, but ultimately the story won me over, and I found myself moved literally to tears by the deaths of characters that I had never cared about, and in some cases of whom I had barely even been aware. A strange experience indeed.
My memories of Crisis on Infinite Earths are thus not the memories that a slightly older fan might have, a fan who had some investment in the question of which of his or her childhood favorites would live or die, or of how the unruly multiverse would be “rationalized” and reordered. Rather, my memories are a curious mix of intense, but relatively contentless affect. I was moved by the nobility of Flash’s death, but I didn’t really know who Barry Allen was. I mourned for Kara, like everybody else, but really, she was just an image of a pretty girl, brought momentarily to life by the sublimity of Perez’s rendering. The into-the-sunset happy ending given to the old Superman and his Lois, to Superboy and young Luthor, was genuinely touching, but aside from Luthor, these were all characters in which I had no substantial investment. Emptiness and affect. It would be fair to say that, for me, the emotional payoff of Crisis on Infinite Earths was all form and no content.
Or nearly so. Several characters did excite me, aside from my perennial favorites, and these were, not surprisingly, the new ones: Harbinger, Pariah, Luthor, and Lady Quark. This remarkable group now embodied the uncanny dead history of a multiverse of which I had barely been aware, and as such, were immediately supercharged with an unusually intense spark of being. In other words, when the dust had settled, these new characters were Crisis: they gave form to the intense but non-specific affect the series produced (through its relentless representation of death, through the strange absence of an object for a young fan like myself to mourn). I was thus genuinely disappointed that they all but disappeared from the DC Universe after the Crisis had been resolved.
The reemergence of some of these characters—particularly in the pages of Gail Simone and Dale Eaglesham’s exuberant Villains United—is one of the reasons that the build up to Infinite Crisis over the past few months has been such transgressive good fun. The original Crisis became, in effect, a new sacred text for DC, a rewriting of history so profound that even the characters who had been introduced through it became strangely taboo. How else to explain, for instance, why Lyla has never really been revisited? why the Anti-Monitor has never returned? why even a relatively straightforward character revamp like the female Doctor Light has never been able to generate more than a glimmer in the post-Crisis DCU? (Did Lady Quark show up again in L.E.G.I.O.N.? I can’t remember.) Crisis served its purpose and clearly the company’s writers felt that to revisit these characters in any significant way would be too much of a reminder of the very history that DC was trying to convince a potential new readership to forget.
As a reader whose enjoyment of the original series was rooted precisely in the way that these Crisis-survivors (especially Lyla, who becomes the recorder of DC history, a double of the Monitor and a sort of prototype for Oracle) embodied both a rich but mysterious past and the thrilling affect of the series itself, I’ve been delighted by the reintroduction of Luthor, Pariah (all too briefly!), Lady Quark, and the Crisis-era Dr. Light in various DC books over the past few months—reintroductions (in the case of Pariah and Luthor) that are thrilling precisely because they violate a taboo.
Blasphemy is always welcome, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s high time that DC returned to its sacred text (complete with a Kara/Christ and a Superman/Pieta) and radically desacrilized it, lovely as that Christ/Pieta reversal is. If Infinite Crisis is going to reopen the Pandora’s box that the original Crisis slammed shut, so much the better. As much as I enjoyed the promise of coherence when I was thirteen, and of course I still love “continuity,” these days I prefer a comic book universe that is nonetheless complex, multiple, labyrinthine, and contradictory, because such a universe gives us better tools for thinking about the world in which we live than a universe that gives an illusory sense of unity and simplicity. We live, frankly, in a world that would profit from less piety and more multiplicity, a world in which the metanarratives that structure how people think and behave—be they religious, national, or economic, though often all three—have ossified into catastrophically regressive and murderous ideologies of singularity that only masquerade as something like a respect for “multiplicity” (I’m thinking, of course, of “globalization,” “the free market,” “the global village” and other such code words for imperialism, still the dominant singularity of our time, albeit in an altered, “postmodern” form). We live, in short, in a world that is genuinely multiple, but caught in the grip of extremely powerful, sometimes overlapping ideologies that always present themselves as singularities. Only in such a world could multiplicity be considered a “crisis.”
I know that some readers are irritated by the so-called “dark” turn the DCU has taken lately, symbolized most iconically in the “breakup” of the so-called trinity (the trinity for heaven’s sake!). But I say, break it up, let it all burn down. Shatter the old familiar unities and create a situation in which genuinely new sorts of relationships will have to be forged, relationships that are not pre-given or ideologically neat. This is what alliances look like in the real world where people who do not necessarily share the same world view must nonetheless come together and find ways to coexist, negotiate, and even forge strong relationships across difference. We all live “in” multiplicity just as multiplicity lives “in” us too, at the level of our own selves and our most intimate relationships. If we are really reading a story that is going to “undo” the work of the first one, DC will be poised to tell more interesting and more relevant stories as a result of its return to the language of “crisis.”
Significantly, moreover, as both of the Crisis series have shown, the term “crisis” does not simply signify catastrophe in the obvious negative sense, for what “crisis” actually becomes—through our experience of reading—is a form of pleasure (our delight in imaginary catastrophe) that projects both a version of our world (as all science fiction does) and thus, necessarily, projects an ethical or political vision that corresponds to that “world” as well (a wish-fulfillment, a satire, or as is usually the case with superhero comics, something in between these two poles). I can’t do justice to how this process might work in either series here (especially since the new Crisis has just started), but my sense at the moment is that the ethico-political implications of the two main DC Crises are diametrically opposed.
Wolfman and Perez’s Crisis ended up projecting a fairly conservative ethical vision in its reduction of the multiverse to a single universe, represented synecdochally by the singularity of earth itself. Johns and Jiminez’s Crisis promises a restored multiverse, or perhaps something even better: a single universe that is more internally riven, contradictory, and multiple than ever before. An Blakean “Infinite Crisis” within a single earth. Either way, this “blasphemous” story is about opening up artificially closed off spaces (the last panel of issue #1), about revisiting stories that had seemingly been “settled” (the happily-ever-after that wasn’t), and about shattering the (misleading) unity of personified abstractions like Justice (the JLA’s “trinity”). This is not a catastrophe but the basis for a vision of ethical and political complexity that refuses simplistic or totalizing solutions. It is also, potentially, a fortuitous (I don't claim that Johns and company "intended" this) symbolization of the critique of unity and identity that in some quarters is called anti-humanism, in others postmodern ethics, and in still others postcoloniality.
This, at least, is the Infinite Crisis I want to read. And if Grant Morrison were writing it, I suspect that it’s the Infinite Crisis I’d actually get. (Oh, wait, he is writing it—it’s just called Seven Soldiers. Never mind.) Despite the fact that Johns’s superheroes are more firmly rooted in a specifically American iconography than, say, Wolfman’s were, and despite the fact that Johns appears to have a more conventional political vision than Morrison (it would be hard not to), his political stories are always more complex and penetrating than one expects. Still, I have to admit that I get a little nervous when the thrilling subversive energy of a trinity in tatters is abruptly contextualized by the image of a dead (?) Uncle Sam. Is THAT what the shattering of the trinity must be reduced to? How else are we to read this panel? Or to read the earlier one in which Uncle Sam is struck down by Black Adam who announces: “So much for Freedom.” Johns’s earlier work on Black Adam was more subtle and interesting than this jingoistic caricature. (Though there is another way to read this: Black Adam as ironic commentator on America’s recent international adventures whose “so much for freedom” comment curiously echoes the Golden Age Superman’s own judgment on Uncle Sam as fraud, which I discuss below.) Beyond the specific issue of the politics of representation at play in such images of otherness, what I am wondering more generally is: will Johns take the progressive but abstract multiplicity of Infinite Crisis and immure it within by a much more conservative (nationalist) political aesthetic—even if this walling-off takes the form of an ambivalent critique of the “Spirit of America” as it seems to do here?
I hope not. I loved Johns’s blue collar take Wally West and was impressed by the Black Adam-JSA stories, but even though Johns’s work frequently juxtaposes a beautiful—indeed utopian—fantasy of America as “justice society” with the real thing, its critical impulses usually feel merely gestural because his stories remain so deeply attached to a dream of the American way—an ideal America that never was and is, to say the least, very far from being realized in the present. This, at least, is my impression. But the politics of Johns’s stories remain elusive and it may be that the question is undecidable in any absolute sense because there is simply a radical contradiction between the liberalism of the stories’ content (eg. the original Superman, the “real” Spirit of America will step in for Uncle Sam who, in Superman’s words in issue #1 only “believes he represents the American way,” only “claims he’s as old as the country itself”—in short, “claims a great deal”) and the radicalism of their form (the genre of superhero fantasy, the plot’s shattering of unity, the emergence of difference, the release of flows, the reproduction of multiplicity). Contradiction is fine, of course. Most works of popular culture contain precisely this kind of mix of reactionary and revolutionary elements, and such a mixture does not negate the exciting ethical or philosophical questions that Johns’s comics (and superhero comics in general) bring into representation through the extravagance of their fantasy. Still, I’m glad that DC’s justly prized “continuity cop” will be shadowed at Dan Didio’s DC by criminal mastermind Grant Morrison. (Who Watches the Watchmen? Morrison!) If ever there were two figures who could bring the singularity of Apollonian form and the multiplicity of Dionysian energy into perfect Nietzschean conjunction, Johns and Morrison are that pair. Gail Simone, of course, does it single-handedly.
Back in 1985, I didn’t know enough to care about the implicit political (or perhaps I should say “ethical”) messages my comic books were sending, much less notice them. And of course, I am in a sense wildly “overreading” what is simply a fun adventure epic, driven not by some nebulous impulse towards political allegory but simply by the twin forces that drive most mainstream comic writing: the desire to increase market share and to tell a good yarn. (Sorry, it’s what I do.) But the fact remains that comic stories, like all stories, mediate our relationship to the real world, become part of our consciousness, afford us imaginative places to work out ethical and political questions, and over time (often without our being aware of it) subtly shape our way of responding to and understanding the brute materiality of history. We can’t get away from politics in our art. So I say bring on a politics of Infinite Crisis. It’s past time to make an “infinite” peace with multiplicity.