The Beautiful Stories of Life: Six Greek Myths, Retold. By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrations by Carson Ellis. Harcourt. $16.
Enemies & Allies: The Dark Knight Meets the Man of Steel. By Kevin J. Anderson. William Morrow. $26.99.
Some tales stand the test of time – thousands of years. Other stand the test of time – dozens of years. It seems that in both cases, some sort of retelling and recasting is considered necessary in order to keep the stories relevant and interesting, as both these books try to do. Cynthia Rylant’s approach to the legends of Pandora, Persephone, Orpheus, Pygmalion, Narcissus and Psyche is an odd one: she starts (not ends) each tale with a moral or a summing-up of its message. “Pygmalion was a coward. …Perhaps it was not love that Pygmalion wanted so much as notice.” “There are those who fall in love with someone and something and are destroyed by the experience. …So it was with Narcissus.” “While heroism always involves the fight for something, the battle can take place within oneself as commonly as it can without” – this for the story of Psyche. The angles that Rylant takes on these tales sometimes help readers, including ones who already know the Greek myths, see the stories in a new light; but they equally often wrench the characters and actions in directions that do not quite fit. The story of Orpheus shows this most clearly. It has long been a tale of great love and great loss, and of music so beautiful that even the netherworld is moved by it. Not here: “There are some who cannot face reality,” Rylant writes at the start. “Orpheus was one of these, and the inability to accept and live the truth eventually destroyed his life.” Eurydice is not even named in Rylant’s retelling, and Orpheus’ fateful decision to turn around and look at his wife walking behind him from Hades is not the mistake of a lover but just a mistake: “She was still just within the doorway of darkness.” This is an oddly unpleasant version of the Orpheus tale; and although the other stories here are better handled, they too are somewhat strangely skewed. Psyche’s story is essentially a catfight between the mortal girl and the goddess Aphrodite. In Pandora’s tale, Hope does not remain within the famous box – it escapes with everything else, until Pandora puts it back inside; and Zeus comes across as wanting to destroy humanity – “”Hope would not survive in a world so filled with suffering,” Rylant says the wise god unwisely believed, “and he knew mankind could not survive without hope.” Rylant has certainly thought the Greek myths through, but her interpretations of them are somewhat on the odd side. And her words often stand in stark contrast to the very lovely, flowing illustrations of Carson Ellis, who apparently sees more gentleness and warmth in these tales than Rylant does.
Fast-forward a couple of thousand years, to the legends of our own time, and you will find the comic-book characters Superman and Batman, who have long since outgrown their pulp origins to become stars of stage, screen and story – including Enemies & Allies, in which they co-star. Forget what you know about the characters from the comics – or the movies, for that matter. Kevin J. Anderson reimagines them here as Cold War crusaders in the 1950s. This is a time of fear of both nuclear weapons and aliens – and Superman is, of course, one of the latter. There is some cleverness to the setup and to the contrast between the brightly costumed hero of Metropolis and the darker denizen of Gotham City. Bruce Wayne’s attempts to analyze how Superman could possibly do the things he does are a high spot in the book – Wayne, remember, is an ordinary (if rich) human, relying on his wits and analytical abilities to fight crime, while Superman has all those otherworldly powers. Enemies & Allies is silly fun, with Superman trying to cope with his role as Earth’s protector and Batman copying his playboy image from Ian Fleming’s early James Bond books. Lex Luthor, Superman’s longtime arch-nemesis, is the primary bad guy here, conspiring with one of those dastardly Commies (Soviet general Anatoly Ceridov) to ratchet up international nuclear conflict so the U.S. will have to buy Luthor’s company’s atmospheric defense equipment. Holy Star Wars system, Batman (and Superman)! Sputnik, Area 51 and space scientist Wernher von Braun all figure into Anderson’s plot, which flails around quite a bit while making sure that well-known names from the Superman and Batman comics make appropriate appearances: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Alfred the butler are all here. The best thing about Enemies & Allies is the ongoing suspicion that its author is not taking the whole thing overly seriously – that just as these comic-book heroes have recently been rethought in darker, more introspective ways, Anderson is now rethinking those new versions of Superman and Batman in a more straightforward, action-oriented manner. “President Eisenhower had entrusted him with the protection of America, and Kal-El took his job seriously. He needed to do more. Clark Kent asked for a few days off from the Daily Planet, ostensibly to visit his mother in Kansas. But he had other plans.” How can you not enjoy such superficiality, such childish naïveté? About the only thing missing from this comic-book view of the 1950s is…well, the illustrations of a comic book.