Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Box of Daylight

Raven had been kicked out of his father's house up in heaven because he ate all the food. His father sent him through the hole in the sky to go down to earth, with some supplies such as salmon roe, berries, and a raven skin so he could fly.

The world is all dark, and Raven is sick of that. So flying along he finds the hole in the sky that leads back to the heavens. There, he takes off his raven skin and finds a spring outside the house of the chief of heaven. He transforms himself into a pine needle and floats on the water. The chief's daughter comes out to get water from the spring, and she inadvertently drinks the needle. Soon she gives birth to a baby boy, who is Raven. This made the daughter and chief very happy.

The boy grows and begins to cry, "Hama, hama!" He wouldn't stop crying, but nobody knew what he wanted. One of the wise men figures that the baby wants the box of daylight, called ma. The boy stops crying and plays with the ma, rolling it around the house. The chief soon forgets about this--until the boy runs away with it. He was pursued, but made it to the hole in the sky, put on his raven skin, and returned to the earth.

It was still dark. Raven flew up the Nass River. He finds some people, called Frogs, fishing with bag nets, and asks them to throw him one of the things they've caught. The people refuse four requests, so Raven threatens to break the ma. The people still refuse, naming Raven Txa'msem--the liar--, so Raven breaks the ma, bringing daylight to the world. This caused the north wind to blow, driving the Frogs down river where they stick to a rock and become stone.

This is a popular story in the Pacific Northwest. Here I've summarized a Tsimshian version (which can be read here in full I'm really not doing it justice), but the Tlingit version is perhaps more well known. There's a nice video with a dramatized retelling of the Tlingit version:

In many versions, the baby unleashes first the stars, then the moon, then finally the sun to light the world. In these versions, Raven starts out white. But when he is fleeing the house after releasing the light, he gets stuck in the smoke hole at the top and soot from the fire turns him black. The Tlingit version retold in Erdoes and Ortiz's American Indian Trickster Stories starts like this...

Raven was there first. He had been told to make the world by his father, but we do not know who his father was or how he looked. There was no light at that long-ago time, a time of beginning. Raven knew that far away in the North was a house in which someone kept light just for himself. Raven schemed, thinking of how best to steal the light to illuminate the world.

There's a pretty great picture book version by Maria Williams and  Felix Vigil.

Here's a couple of videos on vimeo that delve into the story (based on the video above), with one of its tellers named Walter Porter, part 1 and part 3. (part 2 is the story, which on vimeo is of better quality than the one embedded here) He gets into the variation (such as what kind of pine needle Raven becomes (spruce, hemlock, cedar, even a speck of dirt). He also talks about how the chief's daughter can't conceive a child, and is distraught. Part 2 is essential to understanding the story.

Important to the story, interestingly, is Raven's cry. He cries to get the sun, and he cries whenever he does something significant.

Believe it or not, there's also a rock song that retells this story. Also, this. I was surprised to see how many different versions there are on youtube.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? For one thing, the numerous versions all work on their own, telling the story in ways that make sense but differ in aspects such as Raven's motive for stealing (sometimes curiosity, sometimes he wants to be able to hunt with light, sometimes he wants people to be able to see how beautiful he is). For another, lots of people love this story. You can get jewelry based on it. This story has and still does inspire wonderful art, too. I love it because it can be a creation story if you want it to be, or it can be just an odd little story. And for whatever reason, the transformation into a pine needle is satisfying.

by Tommy Joseph

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A few more Superman links...why not?

All-Star Superman has been getting some scholarly attention recently. Here's "Making and Breaking the Superhero Quotidian," by Frank Bramlett. It was published by ImageText, an online journal of interdisciplinary comics studies. It's a pretty good journal. They also published an article on Alan Moore's Superman a while back as part of an entire issue on Moore's work.

Then there's this four-part examination of Morrison's Superman that spans decades' worth of stories. Very thorough, by Jim Dandeneau.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Superman and Lois Lane Links

ComicsAlliance has been posting a lot of Superman material lately. There's this appreciation of Superman, and this one of Lois Lane, and most recently this look at the electric phase (which seems to be a series).

Then there's this Vulture article about the occasional conflict between Superman and Batman.

This one's pretty interesting: A virtual tour of the Cleveland Superman sites. It's a Google Earth sort of thing, street view.

Hey, anybody read those new Lois Lane novels? I'm thinking I might check them out. They're by Gwenda Bond. 

Speaking of which, there's an edited volume of scholarship about her called Examining Lois Lane. Looks pretty good. I'll have to track down a copy.

It's been 10 years since Superman Returns? Really? Here's Brandon Routh talking about it.

That'll do.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Ylla

This is really just an excuse to include The Martian Chronicles, but that's more than one story. So..."Ylla." I've read this story a lot, maybe once every couple of years. I just keep coming back to it, to the despair and hope it captures. It's a reminder that someone's dream may be someone else's nightmare. Not kidding about the nightmare part--you ever see The Honeymoon?

See, there's this martian couple, and the wife keeps having this dream about a space ship landing, and the man who emerges. It begins like this:

They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfulls of magnetic dust, which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play ah harp. And front the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.

From that you can probably tell whether or not you'll like Bradbury's stuff. He certainly doesn't hold anything back, in terms of his style. That one paragraph establishes tone, history, and setting while hinting at character.

Soon enough, we learn that Mrs. and Mr. K are not happy these days. Their problem seems to stem from Mrs. K--Ylla--who is restless, waiting for something that's just not happening. She's tired of their life, I guess, and Yll neglects her. So she dreams of a man, obviously from Earth (at six feet he's a giant to the Martians, and his blue eyes are an absurdity to them, who have eyes of gold). The couple discuss her dream, dismissing it and at the same time Ylla wonders if it could be true that someone from Earth will come. She begins singing strange songs, talking in her sleep, dreaming the man in the rocket. And Yll becomes desperate, trying to pay attention to her like he should have before. He's jealous.

On the day her dream has predicted that the man from earth will arrive, Ylla says she's going to visit a friend beyond the green valley--the location the rocket is supposed to land. Yll makes an excuse to keep her home, then goes out "hunting." Ylla, at home, becomes agitated, waiting for something to happen. She feels it: "There was a warmth as of great fire passing in the air. A whirling, rushing sound. A gleam in the sky, of metal."

She dismisses it as a trick of the imagination. Then...

"A shot sounded."

There's more, of course. But it's better to read it in full then to endure my butchering summary.

Yeah, Bradbury has written better stories, more iconic stories ("Sound of Thunder" anyone?), but it seems trite to include one of them. "Ylla" doesn't get as much attention, though you can read an excerpt at It's also been adapted to theater, television, and radio. Martian Chronicles is my favorite of his books. Lots of good stories there, many of which were published independently. "Ylla" was originally titled "I'll Not Ask for Wine" and published in Maclean's in 1950. That's from Wikipedia, so make of it what you will. Like I said, there's not much on the Internet about this one.

So what makes it one of the best in the world?In thirteen pages, Bradbury combines just enough world building with character work and a satisfying conclusion. Maybe "satisfying" is the wrong word. It's more like a punch in the gut.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Heroism and Superman

I think about Superman: Earth One a lot, primarily because I do not like it at all. But in light of recent Superman stories, maybe I'd be better off rephrasing: These days, Superman isn't for me. Smallville, the various DC comics, Man of Steel--looking at what the stories have in common is instructive, leading me to figure out why I don't particularly care for Superman these days.

What's the biggest difference between George Reeves in Adventures of Superman and Tom Welling in Smallville? What separates Earth One from All-Star? Man of Steel from Superman: The Movie?

The answer could be multi-faceted; we could talk about mood and tone, about narrative sophistication, about musculature, about time frame, etc. But for me, the difference comes down to conflict. George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Grant Morrison, Richard Donner...all these versions of Superman are confident in their role, they don't have any internal conflict over what they should do. Tom Welling, Henry Cavill, Zach Snyder, and J. Michael Straczynski...they all show us a Superman who hesitates, equivocates, and sometimes just plain doesn't want to be a hero.

I'm not saying that Superman shouldn't be allowed a few moments of doubt, or of weakness. Neither am I saying that there shouldn't be stories about heroes who are reluctant or who flinch in the face of difficult choices.

What I'm saying is that I don't care for Superman in that role. I don't need to see him trying to figure out his morality. I don't need to see him wandering, second-guessing himself or his place.

But that's just me. My Superman was fully formed after a single page of exposition written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster. Even when they had chances to expand--such as in the Superman ongoing series that debuted soon after, or in the newspaper strips--they didn't depict Superman as hemming and hawing about whether or not he'd be a hero. He just is one.

Apparently, a sizeable chunk of the audience does want to see him trying to figure things out, questioning himself. Evidently there's a market for a Superman who is also Spider-Man. That's fine; it's just not for me.

The interesting thing about this, about the current versions of Superman, is to place him into larger contexts. What can we infer about, say, the mentality of the United States based on the version of Superman that dominates pop culture right now? 

For one thing, the United States has a confidence problem. It's no longer sure of its identity. It wants somebody to tell it what to do. Sadly, that somebody seems to be military in nature. This lack of self-confidence and the military nature of our appeal for help  probably reflects the origin of the nation in both genocide and civil war. When in doubt, charge into battle. This nation is not missionaries, it is not compromisers, it is not negotiatiors.

A while back, when I was in full research mode, I went through All-Star and counted up the total number of panels devoted to violence. It's something around fifty (though I'm not going to look for that page of notes within the thousands that are weighing down my filing cabinet). It's not a story about fighting. It's about finding other ways to solve problems, through unity and sympathy. Whole issues go by without a single punch thrown.

In short, I don't think the United States has always been this way. It's tied to 9/11, of course, and reflected in the dominant stories of our time (as stories have always reflected their tellers' situations). Stories like Superman/Batman and Civil War seem to be meditations on how the United States should use its power. As far as I can tell, they're literally arguments between people about this topic that turn into violence.

Wait a second. Are these movies really about gun control?

I guess I'd have to watch them to find out. I might just reread All-Star instead.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Superman Links

A couple of interesting statements about Superman came on the radar this morning.

First, a look at the death and return by Chris Sims. I've read lots of statements like this one, emphasizing the real, felt absence of Superman, and the affecting return. My only thought on the story is that it's not as effective reading it with the ending in mind. I didn't read it when it came out, but it's hard to avoid spoilers. So when I worked through it a couple of years ago, I knew that none of the four replacements were genuine. I also knew how the original came back. So there was no suspense, no mystery. I guess this is just one of those things for which you had to be there.

Second, a short documentary about the enduring appeal and meaning of Superman. The filmmaker, Sami Jarroush, gets interviews with lots of people with academic, professional, and personal interests in Superman. Worth watching. The main point of the documentary is that Superman as a character is only boring if he's written without imagination. It's a counter to people who think that his powers and morality make him less compelling than other characters.