First things first: I’m not trying to pick on “Sword and Flower”. I didn’t hate it, I think Rawle has potential, and I think he was definitely going for something in the superversive range even if he didn’t hit the mark.
But the discussion by the pulp revolutionaries afterward is helpful in the sense that it helps clarify what we mean by superversive. I honestly didn’t realize there was so much confusion surrounding the concept, and this is as good an opportunity as any to clear things up.
Corey McCleery, author of the popular serialized novel “Fever Blood” on Wattpad and a regular columnist here (as well as a fellow Whippersnapper co-host), recently listed the five main categories of “basic” superversion (we’ll discuss what it means to be “noumenal” superversive later).
There was some shock and confusion expressed that I considered “Daredevil” superversive, but not “Sword and Flower” (at least, I considered “Daredevil” more superversive). I do stand by that, and to see why, let’s go through the five categories.
Before I start, it’s important to note that there are degrees of superversion, that is, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk of something being more or less superversive than another thing.
It’s also important – maybe even critical – to note that this isn’t a science. Much like with pulp, part of the qualifying criteria of superversive is that you know it when you see it. This doesn’t mean superversion doesn’t exist, but it does mean that if a work meets this criteria in a technical sense but just…doesn’t seem to “work” as a counter to subversion, so to speak, points are at least going to get knocked off on the sliding scale of superversion, you know?
And without further ado:
Aspiring/Inspiring – These mean that the characters aspire to something greater than themselves, and inspire others to seek greatness, and not remain where they are.
In “Sword and Flower”, there are hints of this, but they’re not very strong. What should have been the obvious turning point of Dimity’s character arc comes after she kills a powerful demon and is, to her surprise, rescued by the people of Weatherford. She is touched by their concern.
She decides she is going to help them find and kill the “head” demon, for lack of a better phrase. Normally this would work as a fine example of somebody else – the people of Weatherford – inspiring someone to be better than they are, but Rawle shoots himself in the foot a bit with this section:
“Here. You must be hungry,” Mash said as he handed Dimity a biscuit. The beige, rough square looked and felt like concrete, but it was either eat this or eat nothing. Though it punished her teeth, she ate it, and it tasted bland rather than bad; a small price to pay to gain the respect of Weatherford. Once the demon hive crumbled into dust, she would never have to worry about rejection by Weatherford again.
Dimity is still calculating at this point. It’s not really about helping the people of Weatherford, but about making life easier for her. This is a subtle but key difference.
There are examples where the characters inspire each other to do better, of course; mostly Rawle goes for romantic love, with the problem – to me, at least – that his relationships weren’t particularly well developed (part of this is less the relationship itself, I suppose, and more that the characters didn’t act particularly like real people, but now we’re going outside of the scope of this particular criticism a bit). Even so, it feels as if there’s something missing here.
Contrast that with “Daredevil”. An excellent example of exactly this sort of quality comes in the second (and best) episode of the series, “Cut Man”. Daredevil, who is severely injured, is being taken care of and hidden from bad guys by a nurse who found him in a dumpster. When he asks her why she hasn’t just called 911, she tells him that she’s heard stories of a mysterious man in black going around rescuing people from attackers, and suspects (correctly) that he is that man. She wants to believe in him and his mission, and so yields to his wishes and helps hide his identity.
Claire later ends up helping Daredevil figure out where a kidnapping victim has been hidden, and becomes a constant aid throughout the season. She is a perfect example of a character who, inspired by somebody else’s heroism, becomes a hero herself.
Daredevil himself fights not for himself, but for his city, a constant theme of the season. It’s a core concept of “Daredevil”.
Let’s move on.
Virtuous: This means that there is a right and wrong in the world. This does not mean there can’t be moral complexity and ambiguity – in fact, when done well this can be incredibly powerful – but even then there needs to be an understanding that there’s a difference between right and wrong. The characters themselves don’t necessarily need to be virtuous, but the concept of virtue must exist in the framework of the story.
Virtue is more or less assumed in “Sword and Flower”, which is as it should be. I have nothing to criticize here.
Even so, “Daredevil” is superior on this point. The Kingpin serves as a dark mirror for Daredevil; he claims to have the same end goal as Daredevil – saving Hell’s Kitchen – but has absolutely no limitations on the means he’s willing to use to accomplish that goal. And Daredevil himself does some disturbing things throughout the show, to the point where “We’re not so different, you and I” actually becomes a serious plot point. This connects to the “virtuous” category in the sense that it explores the idea of whether we can talk about right and wrong in terms of individual actions as opposed to broader goals. Daredevil suggests that at the very least discriminating against who we’re hurting matters, while the Kingpin considers such a strategy ultimately ineffective. The dueling philosophies makes for a compelling conflict.
Next up, Heroic– Closely entwined with the second category, the Heroic category means that there is a standard of heroism. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have a hero, it means that the protagonist has a code of ethics under which they work, a code of ethics that marks them as something more than a villain.
“Sword and Flower” has a villain who’s obviously evil, a literal demon and a psychopath. Dimity is better than him practically by default, as are Mash and the other Puritans. The problem here all goes back to that problem of a lack of realistic characters, and the earlier issue of the lack of inspiring/aspiring characters. Dimity’s code of ethics isn’t really that much more than “survive”. Eventually it turns into “Survive and also help Mash survive”, but even then she hyperfocuses on Mash to an almost sociopathic degree, completely ignoring the deaths of an entire team of warriors who are ostensibly her allies.
Does she reject the evil demon’s offer to also become an evil demon? Yes, she does, but on the other hand, this offer is made by the same man who implied he might have raped her just a few minutes ago. Why would she listen to anything he has to say?
So Dimity is more than a villain, but it’s not because she has any sort of code of ethics so much as she wasn’t born a sociopath, or at least, she wasn’t born AS sociopathic.
Daredevil’s code of ethics is a major theme of the show: What is he willing to do to stop the Kingpin? Would he be willing to kill him? Should he be willing to kill him? At what point is beating up on the bad guys not heroic but just wrong? The show uses the conceit of Daredevil speaking with his Priest as a tool to explore the issue of what it means to be a hero and to avoid falling into villainy. Again, this is a major theme of the show.
And onward again, we have Decisive – This means that the characters are active; their actions matter. They are not bereft of agency, at the whim of fate, or purely reactive to the things going on around them.
This is actually a major problem in “Sword and Flower”. Dimity dies. No choice there. She goes into the Lesser Heaven. No choice there. She is discovered and kidnapped by the people of Weatherford after killing a demon (who was trying to kill her). No choice there. She attempts to escape, can’t, and is rescued by the people of Weatherford. Her choice is robbed; the decision she tries to make is thwarted. When she does FINALLY make the choice to help on her own, the decision is couched in self-interest, in making life more pleasant for her in the town as opposed to doing it simply because it’s the right thing.
Mash, though not the protagonist, is a little better here; at least he makes the choice to defend Dimity, and this has consequences. Elizabeth is a great example of this category in action. She does the right thing at great cost to herself, ending up first with imprisonment and later a violent death, but after she accomplishes her goals. Unfortunately, Elizabeth is only a subplot in the story. While this definitely is a contributor to the category, the book isn’t very strong here as a whole
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve started remembering more and more how season one of “Daredevil” was practically a textbook example of superversive fiction. “Daredevil” is all about decisive characters. Daredevil doesn’t need to do any of what he does, and his actions have huge ramifications, positive and negative, on himself and hid friends. But he does it anyway, and as a result, Wilson Fisk is arrested and his criminal empire dismantled. And he’s just one of several characters who make similar choices.
Moving on again, we have our last category, Non-Subversive. This is probably the most subjective of the five categories of standard superversion. It simply means that the work does not attempt to subvert the paradigms of healthy culture, and doesn’t mock and criticize needlessly.
“Sword and Flower” is pretty good on this score. It has a clearly Christian cosmology (the historically dominant religion of western civilization since the fall of Rome), masculine heroes, and feminine women (once again, Elizabeth rightfully looms large here). It isn’t perfect; for all of the praise of its female characters, Dimity doesn’t actually act very feminine at all. She takes a major leadership role and heads directly into battle right along with the men – and Mash, her supposed love interest, volunteers her. Now, he has an excellent reason for volunteering her, but…it still doesn’t really sit right.
Even so, I can’t fault “Sword and Flower” on this one. It is very much supportive in general of western civilization.
“Daredevil”, once again, is excellent in this regard. Daredevil is a warrior; the Kingpin is a violent thug; Claire is a nurse, almost a literal helpmeet. Karen’s main skill is convincing other people to join the fight. Daredevil goes to see his Priest on a regular basis, something played completely straight. The Priest is not a Father Just-Call-Me-Bob, but a real preacher, a traditional Catholic loyal to the Church and her teachings. Again, it’s not perfect; the sight of little old ladies throwing people across the room is a bit silly. But a good 90+% of the show is shockingly “traditional”, for lack of a better word.
So there you have it. You don’t need to necessarily agree with me, but hopefully this helps you understand my thought process. It doesn’t come out of nowhere.
And if you’re wondering why I picked “Daredevil”…don’t blame me. Apparently there was confusion over how “Daredevil” could be considered superversive, but “Sword and Flower” couldn’t. This struck me as a self-fulfilling prophecy: Supposedly, the big issue with superversion is that we need literal angels to come in and save the day in an obvious way. But then I said that the gritty street-level superhero story “Daredevil” IS superversive and “Sword and Flower” – a story that does, in fact, have literal angels in it – was, if not entirely non-superversive, much less so. Thus, we didn’t know what we were talking about and superversive meant whatever we wanted it to mean.
Hopefully one can see how it’s at least a little unfair to say that if we don’t define superversive specifically in a way that makes it sound narrow and limiting, than any definition we use makes no sense or is arbitrary.
Even though this is the first time it was all codified like this – after careful observation of the various books in the supeversive recommended book list, and teasing out what they had in common – this has in its essentials been what superversive meant from the beginning. There’s a reason one of my first articles here was about “Daredevil”, and there’s a reason why a new analysis of the show from our more refined modern perspective confirms that original analysis with flying colors.
Superversion as a concept makes sense, and even if it’s a categorical variable, as Corey put it, that’s not the same thing as not being a variable at all.