The Fate of the Furious: A Superversive Review

On one level, The Fate of the Furious is the easiest movie to review:
1. Great fun. and 2. Leave your brain (especially the part that understands physics) at home

And now, folks, your seatbelts (HA!) because I will try to make this post deep. How deep? Glad you asked. I’m going to take the recent discussion of what qualifies as superversive fiction and apply it to this movie. If you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter, I don’t blame you. But stick with me here. Just because something is lowbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be superversive, at least in part. And if we can see superversive elements in this piece of schlock, maybe they would become easier to identify elsewhere. Thus, let the experiment begin!

Aspiring/Inspiring. Our heroes are far from being role models, that’s for sure. But are they reaching for something higher? Are they attempting to improve the world, what little of it is in their control? The opening segment includes a prolonged drag-racing sequence that ends with Dom Toretto acting with both generosity and honor towards a person who really deserves neither. Much later, when the villainess questions why Dom seemingly rewarded the man who tried to kill him, the response is, “I changed him.” Does it work like that in real life? Probably not. Thugs don’t choose to join the side of light because of one event, not commonly anyway. Is it possible? Yes, I suppose it is. Is it something we’d like to occasionally see in our art? Absolutely.

Virtuous. I can see how this requirement can be viewed as problematic at first glance, but we need to remember that superversive heroes don’t need to be perfect. They do, however, need to know right from wrong, and more importantly, the story itself must be clear on the matter. An advantage of a well crafted dumb action movie is that the central conflict is very clear. The good guys are… maybe not all that good, not all of them, but they are working for a good cause. And the villainess Cipher, played with obvious delight by Charlize Theron, is as cold and vicious as they come. Her purported justification sounds vaguely noble from throwing around words like “accountability,” but at no point are we sympathetic or thinking, “Well, she’s kind of right…” Nope. Not even close. In this story, shades of gray are non-existent.

Heroic. This one is easy. Unlike in some of the other entries in F&F franchise, the protagonists’ motives here are mostly pure: family, loyalty, honor and oh yeah, saving the world. There is revenge mixed in for some, and an opportunity for a second chance for others. In particular, Deckard (Jason Statham), a villain from one of the previous films, is at first hard to accept as one of the good guys, but he does redeem himself in one of the more spectacular and absurd scenes in a movie that’s full of them. In the end, they all rise to the occasion and do what they must to fight evil, no matter the cost. Additionally, in what to me is the stand-out moment of the movie, Letty bets her life, without hesitation, for a chance to reach and save her husband who appears to have gone rogue. It plays much better if you know the history of these characters, but it’s powerful in either case.

Decisive. Again, easy, as per requirements of the genre. The protagonists don’t have time to agonize over their choices, in part because there aren’t too many. Saving the world is a non-negotiable goal. While there are heart-breaking scenes, we see not a hint of the modern “why me?” angst that has infected even many of the superhero movies. They hurt and they grieve, but never stop moving towards the goal.

Non-subversive. You’d think a movie in a franchise built around essentially glorifying outlaws would be subversive by definition. Not so. This entry in particular has a villainess whose main intent is destruction of the current order, but there’s even more than that. In one of the obligatory Villain Exposition scenes, she’s intent on convincing Dom Toretto, the man who values family and faith, that he is wrong in his priorities. It’s not enough for her to use Dom’s skills. She has a need to destroy who he is, to prove that his life has no meaning, and by extension, no one’s life has meaning. This is an important point. If life is of no value, if family, faith and honor are but an illusion, then mass murder is a perfectly acceptable stepping stone to one’s goals. The villainess is a nearly perfect embodiment of subversion. She would not, in fact, be out of place in an old-fashioned fairly tale, from the time before our culture has developed a need to understand, justify, and sympathize with villains rather than to advocate and celebrate their unconditional defeat.

There were other things that are remarkable on that front. For all the banter and joking around, there’s not a hint of irony when it comes to good old fashioned values. Dom talk constantly about family as if it’s some kind of magic mantra needed to pull him back to the light. (One reviewer commented that at times the movie has a feel of a GOP convention, with the word “family” being mentioned over 50 times.) They pause before a meal to say grace. Crosses figure prominently, both in the visuals and once actually in the plot. Two young hot-blooded men are courting an attractive woman, but that’s where it stays. There is no obligatory danger-inspired hookup, but on the flip side, no blanket rejection of men or romance either. It’s a small scene, fun and light-hearted, but also old-fashioned. And in the end, for all the ridiculous special effects and action, I think this is one of the reasons the franchise has endured. These movies entertain and amuse without tearing down, and they leave you, if not inspired, at least satisfied with a simple tale that shows the world working mostly as you know it should. Not so bad for a piece of dumb action after all.

Maine in The Princess Bride

Today, instead of a throwback, we have a new article by S. Dorman, who has been an occasional but long-time contributor to the Superversive Blog.

The house of Steven King
in Maine

he first thing I noticed about The Princess Bride was its intriguing frame. I was taken in both by the narrative frame, telling how it came to be written, and by the fantasy novel’s conceit that it was based on an early 20th-century story which was itself based on older versions. Apparently William Goldman and the author S. Morgenstern were treating this old tale, in part, as satire. I wanted to know: was this frame a sham? Was it real, a guess, a farce?

I began reading William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of Love and High Adventure for the first time earlier last year. I’ve wanted to read the novel and watch the movie for years. Then I found an online offering of Mythgard Academy a perfect opportunity to do both in community with an enthusiastic scholar.

Two paragraphs into this piece you may be wondering what this has to do with anything Maine. Often I begin a piece wondering how it’s to be fitted together and given unity, but here I discovered how to make it work—on coming to the novel’s addendum, written in the late 1990s, entitled, “Buttercup’s Baby.” In real need of its rather desperate framing, it’s a truncated story, which cannot even be called a novella. Did you know there was a Princess Bride connection to Maine? That latter section of the novel is where we find it.

It turns out that the notorious spookster, Mr. Stephen King, is in some way connected to this fantastic sword-and-sorcery—through his ancestry (no less). (As is Mr. Goldman himself.) And you must know that the master of horror is a Maine author. I can testify from experience that Bangor, Maine is one spooky place. And that the Bangor International (yes!) Airport is another. You don’t want to go walking through either after dark without someone like Mr. King to hold your hand. Please keep this in mind if you ever have to travel from one nation to another via this famous connecting airport and its dim and spooky old-town-sinking-down into the Penobscot River Valley nearby. Remember, this Gothic metropolis figured as the nearest town in the initial isolated coastal, glam-vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows (famously ushering in the current sexy vampire craze). Dark Shadows featured Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins. Beware.

Frames are one way a writer triples his fun in writing. And it’s apparent that this author was rolling on the floor of his study even as he wrote. Entertainment all to the good—he must from time to time, as all writers must, wrestle with writer’s block. But, this time, blockage is the reason for the rolling around.

(The Princess Bride in the early 1970s was a time when American writers did not roll around in cafes because there were no cafes then. Only coffee shops and diners. In Maine the inhabitants of diners would frown and make no eye contact if someone started rolling around between the booths and lunch counter of, say, Moody’s Diner on Route 1. If it happened in Bangor they might suspect Barnabas Collins had something to do with it and quickly leave, dropping a dime on the table and hastily settling up with two bits at the cash register. You don’t neglect to pay even if you are scared out of your mind. It is expected. In fact, I’ve heard it said you’re not even to enter any kind of establishment in this state without buying SOMETHING.)

Apparently, as a child, Mr. Goldman was introduced to S. Morgenstern’s story by his melancholy and perplexed barber father. Even though the story’s setting is quasi medieval—even pre-medieval, say, the dark ages—the Barbers do not figure in the story of the Princess Bride except in this rather oblique reference. Instead, readers rely on “The Machine” with its frightening blood-boiling gadgetry—and the Bangor International Airport—for the terror they are willing to endure that Mr. Goldman might at last complete his profound and massive struggles with writer’s block. I’m a writer myself. I know how these things play out. You should see my study after I get done with one of these essays. Or the Nomad Cafe in Norway, Maine. Yes, there is a Norway, Maine. Unlike Florin’s rival city-state Guilder, it’s not just some made up frame meant to deceive you the reader.

Mythgard Institute is also not made up in order to tear down a writer’s block. It’s a real Tower of Guard meant to look out over the sea through a very great distance. It is not rubble for academics to paw through after its demolition.

Mr. Goldman, though a very tolerable writer, had to—I say HAD TO—humble himself and approach the great Master of Horror in the Bangor Maine International Airport, begging for the opportunity to retell Buttercup’s Baby as a complete story… because the publisher (who held rights) wanted to give it to…. Yes, the bloodsucking publishers had lost faith in Mr. Goldman, presumably because of his now infamous colossal writer’s block … and had given these precious rights, along with the baby and its bathwater, to—Mr. Stephen King.

Why would they do this?! you ask. (I presume here. I presume you are still with me even though my framing appears to be bogus and I’m dragging out this awful essay by stuffing it with excessive wads of heavy padding. Why doesn’t she just get on with it? you’re saying. Again, I presume. You aren’t saying any of this, are you? Really I’m just making this up? You’re just in my head. I’m only imagining you, right?

In other words, you’re not really laying down your tip and slowly backing away. (You will, of course, stop nonchalantly at the cash register on your way out.)

So why would those publishers do that too poor Mr. Goldman after all his success, in which, btw, they shared?

In the Bangor Airport, Mr. King chastised Mr. Goldman for being afraid to do his research properly in Florin, where all the materials of this old story are neatly filed and collated and cross-referenced, lexomically analyzed and algorithmically vetted; and where the real landscape, ancient fortresses and towers, pathetic hovels still stand for the writer’s scholarly or fictive paws.

“Why is it, Bill,” said Mr. King (they knew each other from before; having worked together on a screenplay about another writer smitten with writer’s block and tied up by some maniac woman inside a spooky mansion in Beverly Hills, California right next to the LA Regional Airport).

“Why is it that you’ve got the gumption” (Yes, he used that rather old-fashioned word that nobody knows what it means any more) —”You’ve got the gumptions” (in the plural so we can know which part of the anatomy he’s really talking about) —”Why is it,” (etc.) “that you’re here in the Bangor International Airport, but you’re scared to get on a plane to go to Florin to research your heritage and the rest of this story? Tell me. Why is that?”

So that’s my essay on framing Maine in The Princess Bride. Since I presume much here, and no one else is raising a hand to stop me, I’d better just block myself there for now.

Dorman writes speculative Maine, and Otherworld science fiction. Her current-world story, “Pilot of Varying Lights” is slated for the June issue of Sci Phi Journal.

 

Sex, DC Comics and wtf?

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion on comic books, be they from Jon del Arroz discussing the politicization of Marvel comics, or JD Cowan’s discussion on how bereft of ideas comics have been.
My problem came in with their “New 52” in 2011. This was a particularly stupid idea after they had already created 52 new alternate universes in their 52 storyline — which was a 2006-2007 story line that was actually quite good, focusing on the B-list superheroes, and giving them a chance to flourish, and even starting new, and popular, storylines. It was even character-driven.
So of course they screwed it up within four years.
But I knew they went off the rails when they decided to “reboot” characters for sex value.
I have already discussed my opinion on sex in writing.  I’d say my opinion on sex in general is very Catholic, but since no one understand that, I’m not even going to bother. However, I can sum up my thoughts on sex in fiction very easily: who needs it? We all know the mechanics. What possible reason is there for a blow by blow description? Pardon the pun, but you know what I mean.

I’ve written a few sex scenes …. by “few” I mean two, and they were in the same book.  However, the “sex scene” was in someone’s dream, and the protagonist was having a conversation with his dead wife through most of it. The sex was incidental, and mostly has to do with the fact that she was killed on their honeymoon.  The second sex scene was so vague, any less detail would be as clear as a Salvatore Dali painting, only with words.

Yes, I brought in Dali to an article on sex. I’m weird. However, there is a point.

Even during these scenes, there’s no blow by blow description. (I’m going to stop apologizing for that phrase, just roll with it).  They aren’t necessary, unless someone’s writing porn.  Even something as intimate as noticing a tattoo on someone during sex doesn’t necessitate that much detail — the audience does not need to know what specific act the individual was doing when s/he noticed the tattoo.  It’s sex. Nudity happens.  Next chapter.

In the case of DC Comics, they decided to go back to the 1990s, where the artistic style was summarized as “Big boobs, big guns.” The current version seems to focus on women and sexuality, with an overemphasis on the sex.

Take, for example, the character of Starfire. She’s an alien with red hair, green eyes (and I don’t mean with two green irises, I mean the entire eye is green), orange skin, with measurements somewhere in the 36 DD battery range.
Normally, I would stop reading at green-eyed redhead (I grew up with a crush on the female lead in Riverdance, leave me alone).  The character has always been sexually relaxed, it was mostly a cultural thing.  And, for the most part, it was used properly — as comedy.  For example, in the classic Crisis on Infinite Earths, Starfire walks in with Nightwing, meets an old friend, and introduces him as “This is Nightwing, my lover.”

Nightwing’s reaction is such that you suspect he’s glad that he has to go and face the end of the world.

And that was it.  One panel. Move on. It was played for comedic effect. The alien culture was very much what is referred to as “serial monogamy.” Starfire would FALL IN LOVE with a fellow and they would actually have a relationship. Sadly, today, the most startling thing about this is that she fell in love first, THEN started with sex.

DC decided to fix that.

OW! MY BACK!

When they rebooted everything with their “New 52,” DC spent far, far too long on having Starfire posing.

And by posing, I don’t mean “for seducing the guy she’s targeted for seduction.” I mean in weird, contortionist-like ways that are only useful for modeling.

Modeling what, I’m not entirely certain, but, still ….

What was the point of that scene?  Aside from “we’re pandering to hormonal males who can’t buy Playboy“?  Anyone? Anyone at all? Bueller?  Bueller?

“Baywatch” has its own comic book now?

Someone ran out of room for a plot in this issue, didn’t they? Starfire is a woman who can quite literally level city blocks.  And DC decided to dedicate a whole page to her trying to jump someone’s bones, with another page dedicated to “Gee, she looks good in a bikini.”  Really? They couldn’t think of something she could blow up?

Notice I have not pointed out her barely there costume.  The “reasoning” is that she absorbs solar energy through her skin, and the less she wears, the more surface area is used…..

Funny, twenty years ago, when Superman just came back from the dead and needed an enhanced recharge from the sun, he had to wear a form-fitting black suit to increase his solar intake.

But then, that was before 300 and chiseled, CGI generated 8-pack abs were “in.”

Also strange: she needs to bear more skin for more solar energy absorption, but she wears thigh-high boots, covering a lot of that surface area. If her powers honestly worked like that, it’s time to invest in sandals.

So, to recap: Does this entire setup tell us anything about the character? Nothing new.  Does it add anything to the plot?  Is it amusing? No and no.

If we’re lucky, comic books last 32 pages, without counting the ads.  If we’re not, it’s more like 25 or 27. But they’ll blow anywhere from 6%-10% of the book having Sunfire posing?  Who the hell is writing this crap?

This is the very, very short version of just some of the stupidity in this issue.

For the rest of how stupid this issue was, see the review below, or at the original webpage.

 

But then, things got even worse. How?

Enter: Catwoman.

Yup, the one in the really tight-fitting outfit.  As opposed to Halle Berry, the one in no outfit … that was more CatHouseWoman than anything else.
Granted, in some ways, I think Catwoman’s outfit is more practical than Batman’s — there’s no loose fitting articles of clothing to be caught on nails, screws, the vents she crawls around in, etc.  And, leather is good in knife fights. Batman’s outfit seems to have only recently made the cape practical, but I don’t keep up with these things.

The cat burglar and antihero has had an on again, off again relationship with Batman since Julie Newmar played her in the 1960s Batman tv show.  Maybe longer.

But, no, decades of jumping Batman — sometimes literally — is apparently, too subtle.

Let’s have a full-on sex scene!!!!

Really?

Yes. Really. They went there. 

Then again, I have a problem; I look at these images, and my first thought is “Why is her skin green? Has she been hanging out with Poison Ivy too much, or is it really odd mood lighting?”

So, what, exactly, does this entire sex scene add?

Another two to three pages eaten up by something that could probably be implied in one panel, and — oh, yeah — the next issue is called …. wait for it …. The Morning After.

Nope, still too subtle.

A whole splash page?

What do these pages add?  Oh gee, Catwoman is taking his gloves off with her teeth. She’s a little frisky …. um, she dresses up in skintight leather and carries a whip, I think we got that part.

So …. what was the point of this exercise? Obviously, they’re going to continue this as a story line into the next issue.  Good for them. So what? Why did they need two or three pages on this? Any one of you out there, reading this article right now, could have come up with a way to tell the audience that, yes, they are copulating. I suspect you could have done it in … what, half a page? With some internal monologue?

That a “professional author” has done it this pathetic.

Obviously, someone at DC has decided that its readers are either (a) functionally retarded, and subtlety would go over their heads, (b) too young to get legal access to get this stuff on their own or (c) the author used to write fan fiction before this.

The author, Judd Winick, is one of the masterminds behind resurrecting Robin #2, Jason Todd — who was so despised, fans voted to have him beaten to death and blown to kingdom come.

Winick’s brilliant idea: resurrect Todd, and make him crazy. So, I suspect we can’t expect too much from this guy. His claim to fame also seems to be LGTBQ awards and praise.

In short: this was no way to treat halfway decent characters. Catwoman has had a long run by dancing on both sides of the law, and living in a gray area that makes her more interesting than Batman at times … and more sane (I think Batman was on his fourth nervous breakdown before the reboot, last I checked).  Starfire, for all the oversexed portions of her nature, has been entertaining for reasons other than that — she had a run on Infinite Heroes, where she had some great character moments, and anytime the oversexed nudist part of her came out, it was a source of quick entertainment, and then we moved on to the plot.

Pity DC comics has no memory.

This was only the beginning of DC’s New 52. Is there any surprise that this “All-New” format is already going the way of the dodo? Seriously, DC’s massive, world-shaking events had reshaped the universe repeatedly, up to 2011. Then they screwed it up, and they are desperately trying to undo all of it. They started their series with lowering their standards, aiming for the slow, the stupid, and the shallow. I would even say that they were subversive, but that would require DC to put some thought into it. It started stupid, and it will end in stupid.

DC should have aimed higher. They may not be scrambling right now to fix everything.

Writing Superversive Romance

Can we have an honest talk about romance in novels?

Now, I’ve done romance before in my books, but mostly as a subplot. As most of us have figured out long ago, most men would rather go see John Wick on Valentine’s Day than the latest Twilight movie. So this isn’t rocket science.

With my novel Codename: Winterborn, for example, there were two romance subplots going on — though not at the same time.  One was between main character Kevin Anderson and his wife. Yes, I know, a romance story between a MARRIED COUPLE– gasp! Shock! Horror! SURELY, THIS IS THE END OF ALL THINGS!!!!!!

… Sorry. Can you tell I’ve been reading Daddy Warpig articles lately?

The second romantic subplot in Winteborn was between with hunter and prey, and even then, it was odd. It was very, … Laura, really.**  Though the main plot is heavy on the action.

[**Laura, a murder mystery in which a detective falls in love with the victim through her portrait. In the case of Codename: Winterborn, it was via files and seeing him in action]

With Codename: Winterborn, however, this took place over the course of months.

But the average romance novel takes, what, days? A week or two? Then the male and female leads jump into bed like sex-starved hyenas during mating season?  I think the longest courting period that I recall in romance fiction was a Sherrilyn Kenyon novel called Fantasy Lover where holding off on sex was a massive plot point, and involved breaking a curse from Geek deities. No, I’m not kidding.

Let’s just say that when I did something similar, it was with my novel A Pius Man. And you have no idea how much effort I put into trying to make that believable.

Then I worked on a Catholic Vampire Romance novel called Honor At Stake …

And that takes place over the course of 9 months. There’s a reason for that. Why?

Because I want a flipping love story. Something that looks real.  Something that feels real. Something that takes time to develop. Because no one — and by “no one” I mean any rational relationship — jumps into bed on the first date and expect the relationship to go anywhere. If you do, please stop kidding yourself.

The next challenge you should be considering is: I’m still a guy. How does a guy write romance? (While not being John C Wright, he can pen whatever novel he wants.)

Anyone who doesn’t know me is probably considering the easy answer: “Well, Declan, you’ve been in love before, right? Use your actual love life.”

To which I must sadly inform them: “Have you read my blogs about my love life? It looks like a train wreck.”

Yeah.  Fun fact: any relationship of mine that survived in real life for any length of time was unreal in so many ways, I can’t even describe it without people calling me a liar. I don’t even believe my own love life. I think if I wrote it up, it would look like fiction.

Besides, I suspect that a love story that is a blow by blow of a real relationship would probably bore the crap out of most people. Granted, I have an unfair advantage in my novels: I have vampires, Vatican Ninjas, and grenade launchers.

However, I was a follower of one of the better romances on television: Castle.

Yes, Castle.  It has character development, a relationship that grows out from mutual attraction, to partnership, to friendship, and then to love. They even get to love long before leaping into bed, and only 1 YEAR of that before engagement.

Which is sadly, an improvement over what we usually see on screen. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen: First Date, Sex, Friendship, love, and Marriage, in that order. Just once, I would like to see the order be: friendship, courtship, love, marriage, sex.

To give Castle it’s due, where else do you see friendship actually develop in the romance genre? The phrase “Let’s just be friends” is usually much the end of any romantic relationship — in romance novels, and in my own experience — but shouldn’t a man and a woman at least shoot for being friends before they leap into bed together? Radical notion, I know, but consider it for a moment.

Another technical that pops up in the occasional romance novel, and in in Castle, almost everyone around the main couple sees this relationship coming. This is traditional in the standard Nora Roberts novel, this is usually represented by the “plucky best friend” of the heroine, trying to push her out of her comfort zone to risk enough to actually end up with her heart’s desire.

Yes, risk and romance. If you think that the concept is merely for conflict within fiction, I suggest you reflect on a simple concept: at the end of the day, marriage is all about investing yourself totally and completely in another person. Each spouse belongs to the other, bound by a full commitment– spiritually bound, biologically bound, connected on all levels. Seriously, read Ephesians 5, and I mean all of it, not just the “approved” readings.

If this concept doesn’t even remotely scare you, please reflect on it some more. It should come to you shortly.

There is also another problem that comes in occasionally in fiction, that is, surprisingly enough, a factor in some actual relationship considerations. This is a belief by some people have that they are unloveable — “Seriously, what sane person could possibly love a creature like me? Only some broken psycho would express any interest — only the psychos have expressed an interest. And why would any “normal” person give me the time of day?”  If you think this is only reserved for fictional characters on angsty CW shows, then I applaud your confidence in how perfect you are.

In my execution of it, with my Love at First Bite series, my leads are Marco Catalano and Amanda Colt. And oy, these two have got relationships baggage that look like Samsonite, or maybe a Haliburton. One is a blood thirsty killer, the other’s a vampire. So you have two creatures of the night — would would rather be feared rather than loved, and one who eats people.

Now, I’m not going to say that this is the most unlikely duo I’ve ever created. The main couple in my Pius novels were pretty much the most opposite I could design two people while still making them human.

But when it comes to writing romance, I like little things. Little details. Little innocent things that can be taken the right way if characters looked at them really hard, but don’t because neither one thinks the other wants to go there. Little looks and touches, and smells and “if she hugs me any closer she’s going to realize I’m having a not-so-innocent reaction,” and “stay calm, or the increased heartbeat will give the game away.”

You know, things like that.  I’m told I do that well.

The short version is that in all things, there is a proper order. For a romance to be truly romance, sex should come last, and commitment should be more important than the sex. Because if two people aren’t joined in a blessed union, it just becomes one more carnal relationship, and what romance comes from that?

If you want to see a guy write not-bad romance, try the  Love At First Bite Series
.

“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.

The Bosom-Jiggle Factor

Today’s Thursday Throwback is one of our more popular Superversive articles:

A post explaining the concept of the Needs of Drama vs. The Needs of Culture using visual aids.

Normally, I avoid things quite this tacky, but it is such a simple way to make the point. I hope my readers will for give me for the lapse.

(Originally, I thought of calling this post The Boob-Jiggle Factor Index, but I was reminded that my Facebook feed ends up in many people’s living rooms, where their kids are. Thus, the slightly less tacky title. For the rest of the post, I will use BJF, and you may decide, in your own imagination, whether the B stands for breast, boob, or bosom.)

So, to refresh, my theory is that there are two forces at work creating a story. The forces at work are:

The Needs of Drama—the qualities that make a story dramatic, eye-catching, intriguing. Sex, sizzle, bang, POW! Seduction! Explosions! LOTS OF CAPTIALS AND EXCAMATIONS!!!!!!

The Needs of Culture—the desire to use the story to teach lessons needed to participate in the culture, like an Asops Fable or a morality play. These stories include topics like: How to behave. How to treat friends. How to treat strangers. What is and is not moral. – the message of the work.

It is not my opinion that one of these forces is better than the other. Rather, I believe that there needs to be a harmonious marriage of the two of a work to be really great.

Too much drama leads to meaningless sex and bloodshed. Too much culture leads to boring message fiction.

Without further ado, The Needs of Drama vs. The Needs of Culture, as illustrated by the BJF Index:

The Needs of Drama:

Lara croft 5  Lara_Croft_17_by_Nicobass

(And we can’t even see the jiggle factor here.)

The Needs of Culture:

lara-croft-2013

Here’s a comparison:

laracroft

For the second one, we move to Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel. For those who are unfamiliar with comics, all the pictures below are of the same character: Ms./Captain Marvel.

For this second one, I am only discussing the straight out physical appearance—things like elegance of form vs. difficult to draw but easier to cosplay—not the race, religion, or any other aspect of the character.

Just the BJF.

The Needs of Drama:

ms_marvel_avengers_age_of_ultron

The Needs of Culture:

Ms Marvel

(I’ve seen some really cute cosplay costumes for this new Ms. Marvel outfit. Ironically, the real dresses look better than this drawing.)

An elegant mix of drama and culture, perhaps?

Ms. Marvel cap 2

Any questions?

 

More on “Sword and Flower”

Jeffro has an interesting post up on the Castalia blog where the pulp guys discuss my “Sword and Flower” review. It more or less stands for itself, but I want to respond to a few points.

Disclaimer: If this sounds harsh, it’s only because I’m being direct. I’m not angry or anything. I’m just trying to cut to the heart of it here. At any rate, I’m hardly more harsh than they are towards me (which I have no problem with).

Its story beats are only a surprise because they haven’t been seen in decades and/or the vast majority of culture creators are constitutionally unable to do them with a straight face.

So? When did I ever deny that? For that manner, when did I mention my surprise or lack of it one way or another?

This thing with “the story is crying out for a redemption arc” bit. I have no idea what that is about. I mean the point of a pulp story is to have somebody punch evil and kiss the girl, right?

Well, in my original review I said that my big problem with the story is that the characters don’t act like people. And they don’t.

The redemption arc is an attempt to solve that problem by giving the characters motivations beyond “survive”. And it’s a superversive motivation that is even suggested by the setting. You can have a more pedestrian motivation that can work perfectly well too, but it would at least be shooting for a lower mark.

Star Wars didn’t have a redemption thingy in the first movie.

“Sword and Flower” isn’t “Star Wars”.

Even if you grant that whatever Anthony is talking about is essential, I just don’t see why you’d absolutely have to have it in the first installment.

It’s not essential. Characters acting like humans? That’s essential.

Still, if the Daredevil television show is more supeversive than Rawle’s story… then I don’t know what superversive is anymore. I just have no idea what they’re talking about!

This is correct. He doesn’t.

“Sword and Flower” never tries to look beyond itself. Sure, it’s set in lesser Heaven. Sure, the protagonist fights demons. But everything is motivated by self-interest; either that, or none of it makes any sense. Dimity admits several times that she doesn’t try to escape because that would be even more dangerous than staying. She fights the demons because she has a stake in it just as much as the Puritans; she says herself that she’s doing it to “never have to worry about rejection from Weatherford again”; they’ve been trying to kill her the whole novel, after all. Jeffro even ADMITS outright that Rawle isn’t shooting for superversive:

I mean the point of a pulp story is to have somebody punch evil and kiss the girl, right?

Right. That wasn’t the point of Daredevil. It was far more than that. It’s about a deeply flawed and weak human being who overcomes all of that to be a hero. “Sword and Flower” may try for this (and I give Rawle credit for that!), but with cardboard cutout characters that don’t act like real humans and have thin motivations, it just doesn’t work.

Remember, my original review didn’t mention lack of superversive as the main flaw. It mentioned lack of realistic or interesting characters, with the exception of the (briefly appearing) Elizabeth. Plus the egregious oversight of mentioning the dead Elizabeth but not the team of dead warriors at the end of the story.

Later on:

P. Alexander: Usually when a Japanese show is about redemption, the [stuff] went down prior to the start of the story, and the whole show is about trying to make up for whatever the hero failed at, which may be shown in a series of flashbacks.

It’s too bad I didn’t mention a specific character who could literally have that exact arc.

Oh, wait, I did. Mash.

 And, there is a redemption bit. I’m not sure how fighting demons can be seen as anything other than an act seeking redemption for people condemned to a lesser heaven.

Survival? Dimity doesn’t seem particularly concerned with being a demon hunter until Mash convinces her, and Mash convinces her because the demons are threatening their town. There isn’t a hint of redemption there.

And, this continual comparison of short works to full novels or even whole seasons of a tv show just isn’t a fair comparison as to how much can be achieved in a given space.

All right. Then don’t bring that up to me when asking for a specific comparison.

As for “The Wish List”, it’s not very long. It’s also much better, and very pulpy itself. Seriously. Read it. Not to sound like too much of a jerk here, but it’s MUCH better than “Sword and Flower”.

P. Alexander: From now on, I’m gonna read “Not Superversive enough” as “Literal Santa Claus didn’t show up to hand out plot items.”

I’ll leave you all to judge whether or not this is a fair reading. For my part, since I never mentioned anything remotely like that, it just comes off to me as as ridiculous a strawman as anything I’ve seen so far. Come on, man. do better.

Nathan Housley: The funny thing is I can see Jagi Lamplighter recognizing Sword & Flower as a different type of superversive than Anthony is trying to make it. (Anthony is misreading genre and beats here. Sword & Flower is not the type of story he wants it to be.)

Yes, the type of story with characters that act like people.

“Sword and Flower” might try, but it tries in the same way “Suicide Squad” tried to be superversive: When your writing isn’t up to snuff, you’re inevitably not going to hit that mark as well as you should. Rawle tries, but there’s a noumenal level there he misses; perhaps he can hit it in his next book. Or maybe he doesn’t go superversive at all, and just improves generally.

I really want to emphasize here that the bigger issue is the characters. They just don’t work.

Like symbolism, it exists, but in recognition, it usually reveals more about the what the reviewer sees in the text than the text itself. And when fundamentally and intentionally subversive works are held up as superversive, it makes me wonder if superversive is not short for “I like it.”

I will note that this is the exact issue the superversives had had with the pulp rev all along, and now you’re going to pull that same thing on us? Seriously? Without batting an eye or seeing a hint of irony there?

Look, if you think we’re calling subversive work superversive, then yeah, you disagree with us that the work is superversive. It happens; we don’t always agree on everything.

With that said, Nathan is also just wrong. We DO, in fact, have guidelines for what makes a story at least noumenally superversive. Here it is. And here’s why Daredevil meets those guidlines, by the way. If you want to know what makes a story “simple” superversive, you can always read Tom Simon’s original essay.

Jeffro: It’s the first time in years that you see a female character (a) operating in a helper role and (b) not surrounded by a Greek chorus of cheerleaders. It’s astonishing. The fact that she did something “wrong” in order to do something right… the fact that she puts herself at odds with society to do the right thing… that makes her instantly likable in a way that no characters on Iron Fist or Jessica Jones ever achieve.

No argument there. Elizabeth was great.

Jon Mollison: The Superversives want to remind people to do the right thing by having literal angels show up in their stories. I want my stories to remind people to do the right thing.

Full stop. You don’t need angels.

Wait. Were you even taking part of the same conversation? My original example was Daredevil.

Hey, remember that scene from “Daredevil” where the literal angel shows up to help Daredevil?

No?

Me either.

Look, I respect the pulp rev guys. We won’t agree on everything. That’s okay! But when they directly contradict themselves (how can you possibly say my idea of superversive has to do with “literal angels” showing up or “Santa Claus bringing presents” when earlier in the same conversation you’re complaining that you don’t see how Daredevil is more superversive than “Sword and Flower”?) to accuse us of things that nobody has even hinted at (where on earth did any of us hint that “Santa Claus had to being presents” for a work to be superversive? How do you even get that reading?), I don’t think it’s unfair for me to call them out on it.

Rawle has potential. He can improve. But “Sword and Flower” wasn’t good because his characters didn’t act like real people, or were two-dimensional cut-outs; the problem could have been solved by giving them stronger character arcs and goals, and a powerful one, hinted at by the setting, even, is a redemption arc.

That was my case.

You should read the work; a lot of people are disagreeing with me, after all. Let it speak for itself, and decide whether I’m totally off the mark or whether I have a point. Who knows? Maybe it really is JUST me.

And also, read “The Wish List”. I’ll have to do a write-up on that one day.