Friday, December 23, 2005

On Christmas: An Atheist Reads Daredevil #253

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.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

On Allusion: All-Star Superman and “The Golden Apples of the Sun”

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.

“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.”
And here is how it ends, as the ship pulls away from the sun, a cargo of “gold” in its belly:
“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.”
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.

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 wandering
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.
Here, 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.

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,
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.
At least, Bradbury’s story made me remember this poem, and also another short poem by Frost called “Nothing Gold Can Stay”:
Nature’s first green is gold,
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.
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.

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,
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.
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.

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?

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.
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.

Ray Bradbury

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.

“Watch it!”


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.”

“Start it!”

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,
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.

“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.