About Bradford Walker

Blogger, gamer, writer, historian, and fan of SF/F in multiple media.

The Superversive in Film: Ozamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis”

In 2001, the anime adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis released in Japan. It came to the West some time later, and–having watched both–I find the adaptation to a more powerful story because it relies even more on the bedrock of Western culture (Christianity) than the original.

The difference is the establishment of a reason for the erection of these skyscrapers and the industrial complex that drives that powerbase: the explicit attempt to create a second Tower of Babel. If you are at all familiar with that story, then you already know how this is going to end.

What matters here is the execution. Instead of our protagonist being the villain’s son, he’s an outsider who visits the titular city alongside his uncle (who’s there on a case) that gets wrapped up in a mess of a plot over a child-like gynoid that’s central to the villain’s plans. The brewing revolution, with ready revolutionaries, from the original is carried over and developed further into a vital subplot whose conclusion ignites the climax.

All of which serves to underpin a consistent thread that, as with the original, the industrialization that the city presents (and represents) is dehumanizing to everyone captured by it. Only our protagonist, being an outsider, retains the human humility necessary to see the folly in all of the plotting going on and implores with the one other character immediately able to stop it to do so- and, at the last moment, succeeds.

The story goes to the effort to show how the apparent peace and prosperity of the city and its inhabitants comes at the cost of subverting the population’s dignity, which they return in kind to the elites preying upon them as well as to the robots who often are the means of this dehumanization, which has exactly the effects that are known to happen to a culture over time: a downward spiral of degeneracy into savagery and despair as the real needs of one and all are unmet as they should, symbolized by the story’s setting degenerating into ever-meaner locations and ever-more-desperate maskings thereof before the pressure is too much as everything (literally and otherwise) blows apart. Fortunately, our hero’s essential innocence allows him the means to see through this tragedy and plant the seed of a better tomorrow.

While there’s no confounding of language, the result is the ruin of the attempt and its abandonment by the survivors in favor of reconciliation and reformation into something that this renewed humility in the (surviving) people can accomplish without dehumanizing themselves, their creations, or each other. As both an homage to the original that equals, if not surpasses, Lang’s film as well as on its own merits this is a story that ends in a bittersweet, but, hopeful mood after seeing great amounts of hubris result in self-destruction as pride goes before a fall. Recommended.

If you would like to see for yourself, you can buy a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis at Amazon. The soundtrack is also worth getting a physical copy of, as this playlist shows.

The Superversive in Film: Krull

If there is a movie I saw in my childhood, not already part of a major franchise, that I love whole-heartedly and would not hesitate to anyone looking for something Superversive in a feature film, that movie is Krull.

This was one of the last Hollywood films to mix fantasy and science fiction before the genre split cemented in film and television out of the West for over a generation, and as such you can see the influence of E.R. Burroughs and other classic writers of the Pulps in every frame, every line, every prop, every character, and every costume. It also featured a soundtrack by the late James Horner, with “Ride of the Firemares” becoming an iconic theme that still calls up the blood to this day.

It was one of those early ’80s classics, along with Excaliber and Conan the Barbarian,
thought it was only a cult classic for many years before being recognized as the great work that it is. Those other films, along with the original Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark stole its thunder at the time.

I can go on about it, but I think I’ll let the original trailer do the talking.

Like Legend, Krull has its roots in fairy tales and mythology. You have a tale of true love between the prince of one kingdom and the princess of another, whose marriage is interrupted at the final step and incites the adventure. This matters! The desperate men who become the prince’s companions find a way to regenerate their character or succumb to the degeneracy already afflicting them, with the later usually being why they die. The tale-within-the-tale told by the elderly mentor and his female counterpart shows what fate lies for the prince and princess if they don’t hold fast to their love, letting external forces overwhelm them instead. But what makes this story truly Superversive is at the climax.

Remember that marriage ceremony? The ritual is all about the fire of love, and how that fire–when shared between a man and his spouse whose love is true–can incinerate all challenges before it with its white-hot passion. Being a fairy tale at heart, this symbol is made literal and only together, remaining true all this time, is our hero able to destroy the Beast. The magic weapon is the fake-out; the real magic weapon is the firey passion of a lawfully-wed couple bound in marriage, facing down Evil together as one united front. Heart and sword in accord.

I have not seen a more pro-marriage movie in my lifetime than this, and that’s just the most obvious of the eucivic virtues prominently displayed in this film. This film ends with beauty, truth, and love trimuphant- though at great cost. Recommended. (You can get yourself a copy here.)

And I recommend adding the soundtrack to your collection. Have a listen for yourself to see why.

The Superversive Gundam Series: Gundam Unicorn

“Superversive” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” doesn’t get associated often. Over the course of the history of this giant franchise of Japanese science fiction, there’s been a strong note of despair and incidents of nihilistic excess that cannot be ignored. (If Yoshiyuki “Kill ‘Em All!” Tomino is involved, be ready for it.)

This is not universal, and recently a series not only shook itself loose of that legacy but managed to be Superversive. That series is Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096, and you can watch it free and legal here (subtitled into English) or (for American readers) on Adult Swim’s Toonami block on Saturdays (dubbed). If you prefer (and you can find them, and read Japanese) there are print versions; Unicorn originally was a light novel before its series adaptation.

The reason I mark this series out as Superversive has to do with the subject of the story, which concerns itself with the origin of this setting’s creation and the corruption that took root at the beginning to subvert the real potential for the uplifting of Mankind into a more perfect form- Newtypes (i.e. psychics, telepaths). The conflict of the story revolves around those seeking to maintain the undermining lie upon which all of this meta-narrative’s conflict revolves, or expose the truth to all of Mankind and thereby risk the collapse of a corrupt order into utter chaos in the effort to restore the original intention of the founders of the Universal Century era.

And by saying that much, I likely spoiled some of it. My apologies.

This is a series featuring giant robots fighting battles where our protagonist is reluctant to fight, tries to love his way through it all, and–especially once he gets a literal princess at his side–actually manages to pull some measure of it off. Why? Because that desire to love his enemies leads him to the truth, and that truth is the means that leads him to achieve his victory in the end despite facing down multiple superweapons and just as many black-hearted antagonists who’d throw billions to Baal (not so figuratively) than admit that they serve a lie.

While many Gundam series conclude with bittersweet success for the protagonists, if they succeed at all, this time it’s properly uplifting. There’s a reality to it that isn’t present in others, and a decided lack of nihilism despite all of the suffering and death that occurs. While I’ve yet to watch a Gundam series that lies to me, this is the first one that ended in a way properly uplifted me, like after I watched Star Wars the first time lo those many years ago.

In short, this is a beautiful series in all ways possible. Short of a Miyazaki masterpiece, it is rare to get such a treat in most franchise anime. Recommended.

The Iconic Hero and the Superversive

I make no bones about the fact that I prefer Sean Connery when I’m talking about James Bond movies. It’s not merely that his take on the character is consistently entertaining, but that it’s consistent period from film to film. This is a man who knows who and what he is, does not apologize for it, and has no issues with what he does; he lives for the mission, and believes in the mission. It’s nothing like Danial Craig’s Bond at all. Robin D.
Laws identifies this as “The Iconic Hero”, and explained in this 2012 post why this is a valid characterization choice:

While a dramatic hero follows a character arc in which he is changed by his experience of the world (examples: Orpheus, King Lear, Ben Braddock), an iconic hero undertakes tasks (often serially) and changes the world, restoring order to it, by remaining true to his essential self.

Prevailing creative writing wisdom favors the changeable dramatic character over his serially unchanging iconic counterpart, but examples of the latter remain enduring tentpoles of popular culture. It’s the clear, simple, elemental iconic heroes who keep getting reinvented every generation. Each such classic character spoke to the era of its invention, while also evoking an eternal quality granting it a continuing resonance. We are going to create a new set of heroes who speak to the contemporary world while evoking the inescapable power of the iconic model.

An iconic hero re-imposes order on the world by reasserting his essential selfhood. The nature of his radical individuality can be summed up with a statement of his iconic ethos. It is the ethos that grants higher meaning to the hero’s actions, and a clue to his creator’s intentions. An iconic hero’s ethos motivates and empowers him.

The first paragraph in particular is the mission of a Superversive hero: to restore order to the world. What he does is how he makes that happen, that assertion Laws speaks of, is where the variation lies. In the quoted post, Laws goes over several iconic characters and shows how you can summarize their stories in a sentence by identifying their ethos and how they assert it to restore order to their world time and again. What he doesn’t identify, but nonetheless shows, is that this summary also serves as the basis for every story outline you’ll need in writing stories about those characters that are true and faithful additions to their literary corpus that the readers will accept.

There’s something else that this post, and the concept in it, reveals: how the Enemy subverts the culture. They do resort to making Iconic Heroes into Dynamic Characters, putting them through “arcs” that denigrate their ethos and thereby degrade the characters into agents of subversion to further the Enemy’s agenda. (One need only look at what goes on at Marvel and D.C. Comics to see this in action.)

While stories that have characters changed by the experiences of the narrative are necessary and valuable, this is not a universal requirement. Just look at what’s been done with the Arthurian Mythos to see (a) that it’s not necessary and (b) it’s often done to subvert, degrade, and destroy a targeted culture- and therefore, not to be trusted anymore.

Consider an Iconic Hero when you’re next sitting down to create something, especially if you’re looking to do so as part of a series–writing, gaming, etc.–because you may find it better suited to your objectives than you might think.

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Using The Medium to Your Advantage

It is no secret that tabletop RPGs, by their nature as a medium, grant far more power to the users at the table than other gaming media. If you seek to play Superversive games using tabletop RPGs as your medium of choice, then it is necessary and proper to employ this fundamental feature of that medium to make this happen.

The first thing you do is talk to your players. Before you talk rules, before you talk setting, before everything else, you talk to your crew to see what they’re willing and able to agree upon. If they won’t find a thing fun, they’ll walk. If enough walk, you have no game. People will not work for their entertainment. That’s your limiting factor.

Once you’re all on the same page, then it’s time for the details. Some of this will come up in discussion, or will be known from previous discussions, so this isn’t as daunting a thing as it seems.

  • Rules: You want a ruleset that everyone at the table knows well enough to not have to think about it during play. You want that degree of familiarity so that you can keep play moving fast. Your time is precious, and if you are not resentful of time-wasters, you’re doing it wrong. Looking up rules at the table wastes time better spent playing, so avoid that. Also, avoid people who treat the rules as a machine and their PCs as robots; send the mech pilots to the BattleTech tables.
  • Setting: Whatever you agree to, commit to it. No half-measures. Your quality of play depends upon the investment–especially emotional investment–you put into it. Fun had directly correlates to commitment made.
  • Rulings: Be prepared to issue them early, often, and repeatedly to cover circumstances that your rules do not- and do not let anyone undermine your authority as the Game Master to do so. (So, never play with Raven McCracken.) This does require that you cultivate a familiarity with your ruleset and setting that gives you the comfort to do so easily, so don’t skimp on doing so away from the table. Time spent in preparation pays off on execution.

So, how does the medium allow you to do so easily? Simple: the tabletop RPG medium puts all of the tools normally reserved for game designers or developers into your hands. You’d think this was obvious, but it’s not. We’ve had decades of demonstrations by untold numbers of people through letters to publishers, magazines such as Dragon, and online message boards (starting with dial-up BBSes in the ’80s and ’90s) that this is far from obvious. It’s foreign to the thinking of many in tabletop RPGs. They are used to be followers and not shot-callers. We see that reflected in what succeeds commercially in RPGs in all media where they exist.

What this means is that you should not think of any tabletop RPG as a finished product, especially when it’s explicitly sold to you as such. Instead, it’s like buying a kit that you have to assemble into the finished thing you want, such as buying a kit car and assembling it in your garage into a working hot-rod. You will need to put in some work to get the results you want during play. Do not shirk this duty.

This unfinished quality is where the liminal space exists in the medium, and it is this space that creates the great advantage I speak of: you are in the position to take something boring and make it awesome, and all you need to do is employ the tools at your disposal to create and adjust rules, setting, or both as required to achieve the results that you want. Embrace that power and you too can consistently enjoy one of the most fantastic hobbies to ever come from the brilliant brain of Mankind.

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Space Opera Edition

It’s Space Opera Week. While a lot of people who love this style of story are content to read or watch them, a significant number of us want to make our own. There’s plenty of writing-specific advice around, so I’ll focus on those of us who want to game them instead.

So, you want a Superversive Space Opera? Where do you start? Well, if you’re not doing GURPS Lensman, you still want to have that book (or the novels it’s about) handy. That example will be the model you’ll find easiest to adapt for gaming purposes.

Your players play characters who champion their cultural traditions and institutions. This means you’re some sort of Galactic Patrol, formally or otherwise, because the standard gameplay scenario involves dealing with predatory actors seeking to undermine your people. As active agents, you have reason to seek out such trouble and put a stop to it.

Your players play pro-active characters. Be it by acting on orders from another, or one of the players coming to the table with a plan, a Superversive Space Opera relies on the characters being the ones driving the game and that means acting according during play. This is not a place for passive or reactive people; that’s for other media.

Your game has a solid moral core to it. Just like playing Pendragon Superversive Space Opera requires that the players engage with a solid moral foundation. This is best made explicit to the players at the beginning (again, like Pendragon) so you can have everyone on the same page and not waste time doing that after you’re underway.

Do that, and you’re golden. Now you see why I recommended having those Lensman books handy. These elements are not only present, but front-and-center where they can’t be ignored, which is what you want when you’re looking for a model to adapt to your game at your table. There’s plenty of others out there, so pick what you want to use and commit to it. The fun you have will depend on the work you put in, so have at it.

The Superversive in Tabletop RPGs: Why Is It So Rare?

There aren’t many tabletop RPGs, or supplements thereof, that are clearly or explicitly Superversive. However, many such games (and the official settings sold so eagerly for them) contain that potential. The publishers explicitly sell their games, and those settings, with a slant of “Be the good guys against the bad guys!” Yet it is increasingly rare for actual Superversive play to occur, something that’s been a known issue in gaming forums and sites for over 20 years.

Well, there IS an explanation. Dragon Award winner Brian Niemeier made a post his blog today regarding this sort of discussion as it applies to the Big Two of the American comics world, D.C. and Marvel. As those two big giants routinely miss the point, so do their fellow travelers in the tabletop gaming world. As I know first-hand that SJWs in comics, gaming, film, television, and SF/F publishing all network via the convention scene it’s not hard at all to see how this moral malaise spread to all of these cultural subsectors.

(Brian’s post contains the over-arching conversational thread, and I encourage you to read it before you come back here, because I’m explicitly building upon that thread as it relates to Superversive RPGs.)

There are two key observations to be had here. The first is by Jeffro Johnson (said here):

If you want people to employ traditional virtues in service of civilization, they first have to be able to imagine them. Heroism and romance were suppressed specifically to make it easier to destroy a people. The poindexters hold loyalty in contempt and sneer at sacrifice. They think goodness is for chumps. And they have held the reigns of culture for decades.

By the time that Dungeons & Dragons exploded into the mainstream around 1980 (there’s that timestamp again), this degree of cultural subversion had already occurred. If not for the brief turnaround in the zeitgeist by films like the original Star Wars through to the mid-’80s (e.g. Flash Gordon, Krull, Raiders of the Lost Ark) the degeneracy would have concluded well before the turn of the century. Instead, one last generation had the opportunity to have the Superversive shown to them in their early years.

In short, without examples of the Superversive to fire our imaginations, many of us will never even think to play that out in our fantasy adventures when we play tabletop RPGs no matter how well either the rules or the settling allow for it– and that, right there, is a major factor for why explicitly Superversive tabletop RPGs such as Pendragon remain niche games in a niche hobby.

Following that aforementioned thread, this observer nailed why the very publishers that comprise the thought-leaders in tabletop RPGs constantly undermine the Superversive potential of their own creations:

But they can’t imagine that. Reason number two is because of their self-imposed lifting of hypocrisy as the “ultimate” sin. It is better to not have a code at all than to have one and fail to live up to it. This is reflected in the method by which they try and tear down icons – hell, they even said it in Spider-Man 1 (Toby MacGuire), “the thing people like best is to see a hero fall.” (Paraphrased). They cannot fathom that the (a) the purpose of a code, even an unreachable one, is to set a goal for all people to strive to achieve, and (b) that you can’t live up to it all the time is because we are flawed, fallen, and human. However, (c) that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying.

I’ve seen this first-hand. They can’t conceive of it at all. The non-stop mockery of virtue, of the pursuit of a moral or ethical standard, and the misunderstanding (often willfully so) of what “hypocrisy” means all contribute to this subversion of the ostensible claim to “heroic adventure” (which they also misunderstand).

You see this in the long-form when the rules for games in strongly moral settings, such as Star Wars, keep getting watered down to allow for that demoralization to feed upon itself at the table. You see this in the creep of their Pink Slime amorality into their rules and settings, and the pushing of clearly subversive messages (i.e. yet more virtue-signalling) into every part of their business output- product and service alike.

While there are some people left in tabletop gaming who haven’t been fully converged, most long ago bent the knee and drank the demon’s blood- they are part of the cult, and they hate you. This is why the Superversive is rare in tabletop RPGs: they hate it. Don’t give them your money, or your children.

Just as readers closed their wallets and walked away from The Big Two in comics, and do so to the Big 5 in SF/F, this is necessary in tabletop gaming. Close the wallets, and walk away from Omelas- it’s YOUR child they forsake.

(And yes, this is much the case for videogames as well.)