What Dr. Tyson Saw: Krypton, Superman and the “Death” of Pluto

I’ve not met Dr. Tyson. I don’t know him other than through his work and the numerous documentaries and specials he’s appeared on. The astronomy geek writhing on the inside of me is to blame for that, just as surely as Dr. Tyson is among those who I blame for opening my mind to the idea of finding meaning in looking at distant suns. But I don’t know Dr. Tyson. To me, he’s just about as mythic as Superman himself.

Dr. Tyson appears in “Star Light, Star Bright…”, the backup story in Action #14 released yesterday. And like every backup story appearing in the rebooted Action, writer Sholly Fisch manages to weave a hauntingly moving, deeply beautiful tale in the space of just a handful of pages. But the high note, is Fisch and artist Chris Sprouse’s, poignant depiction of the theme of wonder. It’s a theme that seems to come built-in with a character like Superman. Yet in a canny move, Fisch and Sprouse animate the transition of science-fictional wonder that comes with Superman, to become the science factual wonder that Dr. Tyson represents.

The story starts off on an emotional low, and in a strange twist, sees Superman reach a somber moment before the end. At the opening, Superman is in a kind of lull, he’s busy with the usual, everyday business of defeating an alien invasion alongside the Justice League. It’s at the very moment when Superman darts off to keep an important appointment, that we realize just how bad things have grown. Clouds gather in Superman’s wake, threatening to cover his contrail, and relativistically, stars whizz by in the deep, dark, night sky. And Superman himself? He’s nothing but a pale blue dot, near, but tantalizingly out of reach.

In just a single panel Sprouse captures the enduring problem of Superman. A fiction about a being on the horizon of human capacity — just beyond what we can imagine ourselves one day becoming, one day being. And as a fiction, Superman seems somehow to fail us also. He’s too bright, too good, too dedicated, too gifted, too much of the best of us all to be narratively interesting. He can’t seem to hold our attention in the way more flawed characters like Batman or Wolverine or Iron Man seem to be able to.

The problem with Superman is a dual-speed problem. At the speed of scifi, Superman is too Super for us to imagine being able to catch up to him. At the speed of literature, Superman is almost the Perfect Man, one whose struggles often happen at a level we can scarcely relate to. The New 52 reboot of DC’s fictional universe proves really necessary after reading “Star Light, Star Bright…”, if for other reason than it served to reboot Superman as well. And in the space of just a single panel, Fisch and Sprouse prove that Superman really, really needed to be rebooted. Not because he was old and tired (as a concept), but because he was bright and distant.

This problem is resolved over the eight pages of “Star Light, Star Bright…” inasmuch as by refocusing the deep narrative of Superman, as by bringing Superman in contact with Dr. Tyson. In distinction to Superman appearing tiny, and bright, and distant, about to be engulfed by the dark, yet having great fortitude to shine against it, Sprouse depicts Dr. Tyson’s eyes as bright and large, soaking up everything there is to be seen. Even if what he’s looking at is the destruction of Krypton.

It should be a low moment, and it is. But it isn’t a crushing, immobilizing one. By the final page of the story, Superman stands side by side with Dr. Tyson, both looking up at the last moments of Krypton. Before we catch a glimpse of what Superman and the astronomy team are looking at, we’re treated to a panel focusing on Dr. Tyson in close-up. His eyes are big, and bright, soaking up every last photon of light. His head is tilted up in wonder. And we see nothing of the destruction projected onto the observatory’s dome, but instead, we see the road that led us to being able to see those pictures.

The real story at the heart of “Star Light, Star Bright…” is the story of the nearly three decades of collaboration needed to be able to watch those images of a dying Krypton with Superman. The telescopes in orbit that needed to be re-tasked, the supercomputers that needed to run calculations night and day, the hope in the eyes of a man who already demolished one planet.

Not so much “demolished”. The “planet” itself is still there, Dr. Tyson simply redefined Pluto as no longer being a planet. The problem with Pluto, bright and distant a thing as it is, is a classificatory one. What is our lowest criterion for meeting the definition of the idea of “planet”? And did Pluto meet it? Dr. Tyson correctly assessed that Pluto had be apprehended as a planet, at a time when our understanding of the universe was incredibly primitive (we hadn’t yet even conceived of there being other galaxies). Like Copernicus before him, he shuffled off the yoke of received tradition, and instead looked directly at the facts.

Dr. Tyson’s own journey, and his own conviction, mirrors that of Superman’s. And both remind us of the same thing JJ Abrams suggested in last year’s Super 8, that there can be good times again, even after the worst of times.