“Sword and Flower” and Superversive Categories

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.

  • Thanks for the interesting post! Not only does it help clarify the idea of superversiveness, but also offers some good advice in terms of writing. In quite a few of my early attempts at writing, my main characters were not very decisive and the story just sort of happened to them. It took practice and critiques and analyzing the stories I liked to realize what a difference decisiveness can make.

    The aspiring/inspiring element seems a bit more tricky to me from a writing point of view, because it seems too easy to force it into a story to the point that it comes across as unnatural and cheesy or sentimental. It’s something I’ll have to pay more attention to in stories I like to see how others might handle it. Might you have any more examples of stories that you thought handled this element well?

    A digression, but I’m curious… can a story about an anti-hero ever be superversive? Or would that be impossible by definition?

    I look forward to a post on this “noumenal” element!

    • Bellomy

      Yes, anti-hero works can absolutely be superversive. Read “Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (on his website for free, or in “The Book of Feasts and Seasons”) if you want to read a superversive anti-hero story. The protagonist, Flint, is a total jerk and even a murderer, but it’s one of the most superversive stories I’ve ever read.

      Might you have any more examples of stories that you thought handled this element well?

      Absolutely. Watch some Miyazaki films. For this element particularly a good place to start is “Castle in the Sky”. Pazu starts off the movie more or less alone, doing basic labor work daily to eke out a living. Then Sheeta shows up, and Pazu and Sheeta race off on an adventure, Pazu putting himself in serious danger in order to help Sheeta. Sheeta, for her part, later gives herself up to the villain for Pazu. Both of them, previously living for themselves, inspire themselves to look towards something greater – each other. Love.

      And, incidentally, it spurs Pazu to leave his hometown for the first time and go searching for Laputa, something he had dreamed about for years.

      Miyazaki’s concept of love generally is of two or more people inspiring each other to live. Whether the relationship is a romantic one, a sibling relationship, or a maternal relationship, the idea is consistent: Characters who love one another inspire each other to greater things. It’s one of the reasons Miyzaki is possibly the most superversive director ever.

      • Lorenzo Fossi

        Pale Realms of Shade is also an awesome read all around, incredible inspiration for rpgs and amongst the most “realistic” (and I’m using scare quotes) tale of ghosts in recent memory.

        • Bellomy

          It’s my second favorite woek of his to his Night Lands xollection

      • Many thanks for the reply! I’ll check out John C. Wright’s story. (Interestingly it looks like it’s the story for Easter Sunday in “The Book of Feasts and Seasons”, surely a divine sign.) I love “Castle in the Sky”, but haven’t seen it in a long while… I’ll have to rewatch it with greater attention to this “inspire” element.

  • Lorenzo Fossi

    This post will be usefull I think the recent discussions with the pulps at Castalia are mostly a case of people speaking over each other due to different terminology.

  • Nathan

    “I believe the difference between pulp and slick writing is this: the pulp story springs from an action idea, and is motivated by action; the slick yarn at its best is conceived from a character idea, and is motivated by characterization.”

    -Allan R. Bosworth, Writer’s Digest, January 1947

    Anthony’s arguments have been more that Sword & Flower is not a character-driven story (which is true) than that it is not a Superversive story. Daredevil is a character story with action elements; Sword and Flower is an action story that stays true to its “Idol singer fights demons with chi” concept. So the question here is can a story display elements of character without being character driven to be considered Superversive, and, if so, how?

    • Lorenzo Fossi

      My instincts tell me yes: having multidimensional characters is not synonimous with character driven.
      In what way would sword and flower have become untrue to it’s concept If Dimity was shown developing her motivations?

      • Nathan

        The real question is how adding a third, internal conflict would not bog down the story and its two external conflicts, and why it is needed, as both the alternative world Japanese stories and the hero pulps it is patterned off of tend not to be bogged down by motivations to begin with. In both, the characters make a decision and ride the consequences to the end. Pulp is about action, and the morality plays of pulp are often about the consequences of choice, not the motivations. The superversive element there teaches the same lesson as Proverbs, where choices “in the end” lead to life or destruction, depending if they are good or bad, or wise and foolish. Sometimes the lesson is not Dimity made the right choice from her principles, but Dimity made the right choice and was rewarded for it.

        Right now, your guidelines are set up to show good people trying to do good and their internal conflicts prior to a choice. However, much of classical storytelling also feature bad people getting their just desserts after making a poor choice in stories utterly lacking heroes.

        Slicks show motivation, pulp shows consequence. Make sure you’re adding the right character arc to the right type of story.

        • Lorenzo Fossi

          As far as I understand nobody here actually wants a third internal conflict.

          • Nathan

            The fixes when Anthony was “booking the territory” suggested otherwise. But even adding an internal dimension instead of an internal conflict still runs counter to much of pulp storytelling. Decisions without deliberation are common, as befitting the nature of action.

          • Bellomy

            I attempted to find a superversive solution to the issue of characters acting unrealistically and with little agency.

            Perhaps my fix would fail, but even if it would, saying”Well, pulp, man” doesn’t excuse you from having your characters react to things like actual human beings.

          • Bellomy

            At any rate, specific fixes for Sword and Flower aren’t really the point here. I tried to posit a superversive way to fix the story’s problems in an earlier (surprisingly controversial!) post.

            This is more about identifying where the work diverges from being superversive; that this also happens to line up with a lot of the story’s technical issues tells me that when Rawle gets a better handle on how to write characters and conflicts he’ll probably veer more towards superversion as well.

    • Bellomy

      This is not an entirely incorrect point, and I’ll respond more in depth later, but fwiw I don’t think it needs to necessarily be character driven entirely so much as have characters who act realistically. Iron Chamber of Memory was early on praised by Jeffro as extremely pulpy, and it was also extremely superversive. Die Hard is also probably superversive in the most basic sense.

      • I explained how it fit into the context of Appendix N– specifically the overtly Christian writing of Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, and C. L. Moore that has virtually dropped off the radar. People that think that Tolkien and Lewis were some kind of outliers are just plain wrong. Overtly Christian sff is normal. This is sort of a secret now.

        Note that people that embrace the term “Pulp Revolutionary” are not necessarily into reviving this sort of thing in the way that John C. Wright has. They see pulp as being more in the Burroughs, Merritt, Howard, Brackett, and Tubb strain of writing which is a little different.

        The main thing is… Appendix N is extremely diverse. It runs from Dunsany to planetary romance and weird tales and science fantasy and sword & sorcery and post-apocalyptic fantasy on into new wave works such as Moorcock and Zelazny. “Pulp” as we use the term is a little more specific. P. Alexender, being an actual Pulp Editor and all, tends to have more influence there. But it’s a subset of Appendix N and not synonymous with it.

        • Bellomy

          Understood.

  • Robert Blume

    I have to disagree with you, Wilson Fisk as portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil is not a believable character. Second this is exactly what people were complaining about with regards to superversive critcism not being consistent. You laud daredevil for the exact samething you criticise maleficent for.

    • Bellomy

      I have to disagree with you, Wilson Fisk as portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil is not a believable character.

      Well, I guess we’ll need to disagree.

      Second this is exactly what people were complaining about with regards to superversive critcism not being consistent. You laud daredevil for the exact samething you criticise maleficent for.

      I was going to ask you to explain, but you know what? No.

      This is just wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

      The Kingpin had a tragic backstory, but they make a point to show the little old lady the Kingpin blew up in his attempts to “clean” the city. They made a point to show him squeezing Ben Urich to death for the crime of speaking to his mother. They make a point to show him blowing up half the city in an attempt to divorce means from ends and gain control.

      You’re absolutely, 100% incorrect here.

      • Robert Blume

        So he stays evil, so what, so do all the other villains disney retcons into sympathetic characters. Your just talking the difference between pg and r characters. They still turned a traditional villain into a victim of his circumstances.

        • Bellomy

          So he stays evil, so what, so do all the other villains disney retcons into sympathetic characters.

          Maleficent? What she did was take revenge on the people who wronged her. She was broken by the supposed “good” guys. The story was completely twisted around; good was evil, evil was good.

          That isn’t what happens here.

          The Kingpin kills innocents. He claims to be different from his father when he murders and destroys worse than his father ever did.

          They still turned a traditional villain into a victim of his circumstances.

          He is absolutely not. Even after his father dies, even when he’s no longer in danger, he still turns into a murderous thug. The choices are entirely his.

          The contrast with Daredevil is intentional. Daredevil should be a villain. But he isn’t. Kingpin could be a great man. But he isn’t.

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