Monday, February 01, 2016

Review: The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the second and third books in Ayize Jama-Everett's Liminal People series.  This was one of those cases where a book comes to you just when you need it the most.  As they've slowly taken over popular culture, I've found myself growing increasingly impatient with superhero stories, and with how the ones that show up on our screens choose to handle politics (see, for example, this series of tweets from last night in which I try to sum up my frustrations with the seemingly endless barrage of superhero shows and their messed-up politics).  It's been particularly frustrating watching what is, by now, the dominant genre in pop culture carefully and studiously avoid anything like a real engagement with issues of social justice.  For all that they claim otherwise, superheroes are about preserving the status quo, and that usually means siding with those in power, not those whom they oppress.

So Jama-Everett's books, in which opposing--and trying to dismantle--the status quo lies at the core of most of his superhero characters' stories, were just what the doctor ordered.  And as if that were not enough, most of the superhero characters in these books are people of color, and people whose ethnic and cultural heritage is central to their identity and to how they see the world, which is also something that mainstream superhero stories don't do enough of.  I might not have like these books as much if I'd read them five years ago, but I'm extremely glad that they exist now, and if you're like me and are finding the glut of reactionary superhero stories oppressive, I heartily recommend these books as an antidote.

17 comments:

Chris said...

Re your Daredevil tweet: looking back, the show would've worked better if they'd dropped the attempted commentary on gentrification altogether, and simply focused on the Kingpin's status as a mob boss. It's not like you can't still get plenty of commentary about class inequality out of that. The power men like that wield in poor and working neighborhoods. The authorities' indifference, corruption, or combination thereof that stops them from intervening - when they're not actually colluding with the kingpins, considering them a useful ally/hireling to keep order in the streets. The fact that that means people in these neighborhoods have no one to rely on. It would make a wonderful tie-in to Matt's lawyering, and his decision to become a vigilante, actually.

Re your Jessica Jones tweet: and speaking of indifferent/corrupt authorities, as you say, here we have a bad guy who's completely on SHIELD's turf but that they've somehow failed to stop. I'd actually consider that an excellent instance of television making a commentary on law enforcement biases and how they determine who does and doesn't get to count on their protection... If I thought the show runners had done it intentionally.

Oh, well. By the sound of it, I've got a worthwhile superhero book series to check out, so thank you!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Not to mix species, but I actually thought something similar to what you say about Daredevil while watching Spotlight last night. It's a movie that smartly avoids making its heroes brave crusaders against an implacable evil foe, and instead points out that it's an entire system (one that, at one point, included the very paper our heroes work for) that enabled and perpetuated the abuse, because, as you say, powerful men can do what they want to powerless people, and the authorities often turn a blind eye or even collude in it. And yes, Daredevil completely squanders the opportunity to tell a story like that, because like most superhero stories it's hung up on the notion of individual problems and solutions, rather than systemic ones.

As for Jessica Jones and SHIELD, I think what you're describing is true of most of the MCU shows where their handling of SHIELD and corrupt institutions is concerned. Winter Soldier shows us a SHIELD that has had its most powerful enemy embedded within it for decades. The heroes of Agents of SHIELD keep creating the very enemies they end up having to save the world from. Agent Carter's heroine is so caught up in her personal struggle to be acknowledged that she will end up causing millions of deaths. It could all be taken as a powerful statement about the security state and how it ends up perpetuating the situation it claims to be trying to solve - except that clearly none of it is intentional.

Tim Ward said...

I think it'll be a goodly while before the entertainment industry faces up to the fact that punching people in the face only takes you so far, even if you have super strength, and therefore that super powers are therefore at best a band aid and at worst actively counterproductive.

I think the issue the superhero genre has, aside from the endemic blindness to, and in some instances outright contempt for, social justice stuff in the entertainment world generally, is that superhero comics are pretty childish at heart (no disrespect to the medium or anyone who enjoys it, I like some incredibly childish stuff and apologize for nothing) and therefore when you try and turn them into serious stories, you have to do some correspondingly serious mental gymnastics for the world to even make sense. So, you get a lot of "why doesn't X do something about Y, and what does it say about X that they don't (spoilers: nothing good)" issues.

I also think the stuff you do occasionally where, instead of critiquing a specific work, you talk more broadly about stuff like this is really good and you should do more of it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think I'd phrase that a little differently. It's not that superhero stories are inherently childish (except, as I said in my reply to Chris, in the sense that they ignore systemic issues and assume that all problems and solutions are rooted in individuals - but then that's hardly a flaw unique to this genre). It's that their idea of maturity tends to be very immature. You see this most plainly in the vogue for "dark" storytelling whose writers are convinced that they're making powerful political statements, when usually they're just showing off their juvenile obsessions. But it's also obvious in more subtle ways, such as the fact that these shows often confuse becoming more powerful physically with becoming more heroic (this is particularly true of female characters - see, for example, the way that Agents of SHIELD's Skye surrenders her political beliefs and a good part of her identity to become a SHIELD agent, but her story is frequently described as a heroic arc because it involves getting superpowers).

If you look at at show like Supergirl, on the other hand, whose tone is distinctly YA-ish and whose storytelling is often extremely simplistic, you'll also find a much more nuanced take on maturity and what it means to grow into heroism. The most interesting aspect of the show is Kara's relationship with Cat Grant, who mentors her not only on how to become a responsible, mature adult, but on how to function as a woman in a man's world. It's still a show with a lot of political problems - there is, for example, a SHIELD-like secret organization that jails people without trial - but I find it a lot more mature than other superhero stories that crow about their supposed adulthood.

zahrawithaz said...

That is a fascinating commentary on Supergirl in the context of the current superhero boom. It would never occur to me to call its take on heroism more mature, because I think of it as on par with the Flash in terms of writing and writing problems (and investment in escapism), but you are completely right that Cat's mentoring is very much about maturing into an adult with a less simplistic idea of how the world works, and how to operate in it. Inherently that's about being Kara as well as Supergirl.

There's also shades of grey built into Cat herself, who is clearly meant to be a flawed character and often not a model feminist (see her snipes at Lois Lane and other women), but from whom Kara can nevertheless learn a great deal--another example of adult thinking. It makes me think about Cat's young son, who is clearly a classic male geek--bright but extremely socially awkward--and is treated with deep affection but also a very realistic sense of his limitations as a child. Much other superhero media is really about the childish male geek power fantasy, and I wonder if that character symbolizes a lot of what Supergirl does differently.

zahrawithaz said...

Another thing that you may well disagree with me on: I've noticed that a strong thread in your critiques of the recent wave of superhero stories seem less about the stories themselves and more about the newest form of franchise storytelling, the "universe" concept. At least, your criticisms of Agent Carter and Jessica Jones seem based on what I would call extra-textual elements--information from other stories in the Marvel franchise that changes those stories when applied to them. (Let's acknowledge that both these stories also have internal problems to critique, but those don't seem to be at issue here.)

As someone who hasn't seen most of what Marvel has produced (and would rather eat paint than watch one of their movies or Agents of SHIELD), I'm often confused by those critiques, or find them irrelevant. I realize this is inherently an approach that runs counter to the completist tendencies of geekery and fandom, and to what Marvel wants, which is complete buy-in. But by setting up their "universe" in this way, they are inherently speaking to multiple audiences, including completists, selective fans, and casual viewers. And I think each of these audience gets a very different set of stories.

Precisely because I haven't seen most of what Marvel has produced, I think there's an argument that the Marvel universe is a failed frame-tale--a structure that works against its parts and makes the whole much weaker than the sum of its parts. But as you seem to be thinking about these concepts along other lines, I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.

zahrawithaz said...

That Strange Horizons review was great--a very balanced assessment of the books that nicely puts them into context.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I certainly wouldn't want to oversell Supergirl, and you're right that it has a lot of similarities to The Flash (not surprising, given that the two shows share producers, and that The Flash's success is the template that Supergirl was clearly aiming at). I think The Flash also believes that it's about growing into maturity, and the reason why that's a lot less convincing to me than Supergirl's similar belief has a lot to do with gender. The Flash buys very heavily into a certain paternalistic ethos, where Barry not only gets to make decisions for everyone in his superhero life, but in his personal life. A lot of ink has been spilled about the character of Iris and the way that Barry and his foster father Joe feel justified in patronizing her, but that's kind of his baseline attitude to most of the women in his life (and the only woman who isn't a relative or a love interest, Katelyn, is also the most poorly-served character on the show). Supergirl is, as you say, a lot more willing to criticize and show the flaws of Kara's mentors, particularly Cat, and a lot more invested in the notion that she doesn't have the right to direct people's lives for them. It's not perfect - the last episode ended with her throwing one of her (human) enemies into a dark hole and feeling pretty good about it - but I've been finding it more satisfying than The Flash.

I also don't think we disagree about the problems of Marvel's shared universe approach, and how considering its components together makes them all weaker. I wonder, though, if this isn't an inherent problem of the superhero genre. One superhero in a very localized setting doesn't have to be problematic (basically the reason that Jessica Jones works so well, and only becomes problematic when you consider it as part of a greater story). A whole world full of superheroes that apparently functions just like ours, except with extralegal agencies kidnapping and experimenting on people, and aliens and supervillains routinely destroying cities, is a nightmarish dystopia. I think the more the MCU will insist on portraying such a world while pretending that it works and that its central characters are the good guys, the less convincing that story will be.

Chris said...

"except, as I said in my reply to Chris, in the sense that they ignore systemic issues and assume that all problems and solutions are rooted in individuals - but then that's hardly a flaw unique to this genre"

Traditionally, the After School Special/Very Special Episode TV shows' way of dealing with this was to make it clear that the story being told was only about tackling one manifestation of a much bigger problem. MacGyver would bring down a scam artist exploiting and stealing from the city's homeless, but the episode would end on the note that thousands of homeless people were still out there. The 21 Jump Street crew would expose a rapist, but he'd get off with a slap on the wrist and the sympathetic prosecutor would commiserate that they were lucky to even get that, given how many rape cases don't even come to trial. Etc.

That sort of story has mostly fallen by the wayside on account of excessive preachiness, but I remember John Rogers from Leverage saying something similar about his show - they make villains who epitomize a particular kind of problem, but clearly they're not addressing the larger flaw, just these individual abuses, because it's all they can do. It's the equivalent of "you can't solve world hunger, but you CAN feed a small group of people at the soup kitchen every evening, and that's better than nothing."

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The further I get from it, the more I feel like Leverage had a handle on how to do the superhero team idea that a lot of proper superhero shows don't grasp. Maybe it was because its heroes were only human and could only address a small aspect of the problem. When your hero has godlike powers, it's less justified for them to be thinking so small, and refusing to see the bigger picture from which the enemies they battle emerge.

Tim Ward said...

Abigail:

It's not that superhero stories are inherently childish (...)

I think there are two slightly different concepts in play here and I'm going to have a crack at unpacking them. For clarity, I am going to refer to what you're talking about as `immaturity` and what I'm talking about as `childishness`.

Immaturity in this sense is something I normally associate with teenagers rather than children: as a teenager you now understand all the elements of the adult world but don't necessarily know yet how to properly relate to them or put them in their proper context. Hence, "mature" and "dark" is now prostitutes everywhere and surly men killing people for no reason but never stopping to think about the causes or consequences of either. Sadly, many do not seem to develop much beyond this and apparently a lot of them go on to become screenwriters.

Then there's childishness by which I mean something having been literally and deliberately written for children, that is to say an audience that still doesn’t know how the world actually works. There are plot holes and problems not only in the stories but the entire premise of the work simply because the people creating it had absolutely no expectation that the people who were going to consume the story would notice or care. I'm not going to say that this is inherant to entire idea of superheros, but I would say that applies to the Marvel and DC universes. They drempt up these characters to sell comic books to children. As comics developed, they started writing for teenagers and then also adults and the stories became less childish and immature (or not, see above) but they couldn’t change the childish premise they started with, or at least didn’t wish to.

So, to enjoy adult superhero stories as an adult you have to engage in some fairly herculean suspension of disbelief. I think the convention is with some things you don't ask questions, you just accept them. So with supergirl for example you watch a show and engage with its take on heroism and trying to get stuff done as a woman in a world that won't take women seriously. If it says something about those topics you don't agree with or doesn't sit quite right, you question it. But you do not question why the everliving fuck the colour of the sun would give an alien super powers. Mature ideas and stories but an astoundingly childish premise. In this case the premise and it's childishness doesn’t matter; you could tell the same kinds of stories with supergirl if the superpowers were justified better, or maybe even with no superpowers just an exceptionally gifted but normal individual.

My argument is that when you watch these shows and then take a step back and start asking questions like "why it up to just this one woman to stop this asshole running around horrifically abusing people?" or "hang on, what exactly gives the heros the right to do stuff like this and why does everyone in the story just accept it?" then you are also running up against one of those super-hero conventions that you're not supposed to question, just accept. But unlike the sun thing, they *do* matter, because it undermines the ideas the stories are trying to explore. Unless you just refuse to think about it, which ain't a good thing to have to do to enjoy a story if you ask me.

Chris said...

Yes, the human scale absolutely helps. Although I'd say the worst offender in comic books in terms of "why aren't you aiming higher?" isn't anyone with godlike powers, it's the mere mortal Batman, whose godlike power is money.

One other thing I really like about Leverage (and its grandfather The A-Team): it's nice to have a show that understands that if your heroes are going to be a self-appointed law unto themselves righting wrongs without any regard for the rules or the system, the proper word for such people is "criminals." It's amazing how much that simple bit of straightforwardness makes it taste better going down for me than Agents of SHIELD or [pick your show where the heroes are "doing what's right whether the law likes it or not!" but the good guys are cops, feds, or something else in that vein whose entire purpose is supposed to be to uphold the law].

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Tim:

I see the distinction you're trying to make, but I'm not sure it entirely works for me. Pretty much every genre story, after all, has a central premise that we need to accept as a sort of price of admission, whether it's the sun giving an alien superpowers, or a single girl being imbued with the power to slay vampires, or the ability to travel faster than light and meet aliens, all of whom look just like humans with a bit of face make-up. That's neither childish nor mature - it's just the buy-in for this genre.

That said, I do agree with your point that superheroes were originally invented as a story for children, and that we're putting more strain on them than they can tolerate with the kinds of stories we've been telling in their universe. Though again, I would argue that that's a problem that is common to a lot of genre storytelling. Take the first Star Wars movie, for example. To enjoy it, you have to accept a certain childishness in its tone that, for example, prevents you from asking why everyone isn't a lot more bothered by the fact that a planet was just blown up.

So I guess in the end the real question is, how much strain can you put on your premise before it breaks and makes all your characters look like monsters? As much as I enjoyed it - and, on its own, I'd call it the best of the MCU movies - I think that Winter Soldier is going to turn out to have been a mistake, because it forced the entire universe to shoulder questions that not only are its writers not interested in addressing, but that they probably couldn't address even if they wanted to.

Chris:

Good point on the "criminals" thing, though I think this is also a chicken and egg situation. The fact that the characters on Leverage are criminals means that they can't do things like kill people, or illegally jail them, or conduct medical experiments on them without their consent, because they don't have the gloss of legitimacy that the characters on a show like Agents of SHIELD do. And the fact that they don't kill, jail, etc. means that it's easier to accept their decision to act outside the law in order to punish wrongdoers, which ends up making them seem more legitimate than the SHIELD characters. Another show that does this well is Person of Interest, which begins with one of its heroes admitting to the other that they're probably going to end up in prison for what they're doing, and never loses that recognition.

Dean G said...

I like the fact that you comment on popular culture in relation to the bigger picture and themes that are important to you. I suspect the trends that are popular reflect a subconscious need on the part of the audience, at times. Our cities and economies are complex and dwarf the individual, so it makes sense that an escape would be superhero stories that give its protagonists fantasy powers as an antidote to feelings of powerlessness. I am not one of the powerful in society, so superhero movies provide some of this escapism for me, if I'm being honest.

Another show that has been a morbid fascination, is the popularity of Walking Dead. I feel it reflects subconscious fear about less certainty, less hope for the future than previous decades: more social isolation (in modern North American cities), less job security and environmental decline. It may also reflect the feeling that everyone or everything is out to get you: the fear of terrorism and the "other".

Regards,

Dean (Vancouver, BC)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I try not to go too far into the whole "what does it say about our culture that we're all into X" discussion. In general, I think these kinds of trends reflect market forces a lot more than cultural ones. Superheroes have been a dominant strain in pop culture for 80 years, and there have been superhero movies for nearly as long. Right now, we're at a cultural moment where there are a lot of superhero movies because someone worked out how to make them consistently successful. So everyone is making superhero movies and TV shows, and audiences are flocking to them because they're very nearly the only game in town. But it doesn't necessarily say anything about our culture in its present moment - no more than the general popularity of superheroes over the years does.

If fact, I'd say the influence goes the other way around. That it's the current preoccupations of the culture that are reflected in the dominant genre of the day. Distrust of government and the security state are hot button issues, so you get stories like Winter Soldier in which the war on terror turns out to have been a false flag operation masterminded by secret Nazis. The problem is that these approaches are only ever skin-deep. They can't (or won't) work through the inherent conservative nature of the superhero story, and actually challenge some of the genre's basic assumptions.

Tim Ward said...

Abigail:

I see the distinction you're trying to make, but I'm not sure it entirely works for me (...)

To me, the difference is that normally there's effort put into Bullshit Containment, so it's only the initial premise you have to swallow and usually nothing that directly contradicts your day to day experiences. For example, Buffy or SG1, being set in the present day, explain how the fantastical stuff in the story is kept hidden from the world. Despite these explanations being paper thin at best, they're there for good reason: to shut your brain up when it asks "how could all this possibly be going on without mass riots and social upheaval?"

But comics are just "yeah nah superheros operate openly and sometimes lay waste to cities but everyone tolerates this and continues their lives as normal". Not having people act like people is probably the worst sin of all because that takes you into the uncanny valley. Children will accept it but for adults it creates an incongruity that pulls them out of the story, whereas things that ignore e.g. basic physics are much easier to blot out. We're hardwired to understand other humans on a pretty profound, subconscious level and that's something writers mess with at their peril.

Take the first Star Wars movie, for example (...)

Indeed. Movies depicting mass killings then having the characters display less reaction than to someone shooting their dog is rapidly becoming a pet peeve of mine. I think there's a difference between childishness in tone and having it right there in the kernel of the story, though. The original Battlestar Galatica was also very childish for much the same reason but the new one took the tone in the opposite direction and still retained the core story of the original without difficulty. You could probably do the same kind of 'gritty' reboot of Star Wars (any Hollywood producers reading: don't even think about it), but I don't think you could reboot comic books in the same way and successfully expunge all the childishness. I mean, thats basically what the MCU is and yet we're still having this conversation.

So I guess in the end the real question is, how much strain (...)

Yeah, it's an odd experience watching this stuff sometimes. Even if there are no direct contradictions between the lore and the ideas of the particular story, it's a bit much being asked to simultaneously engage and disengage your brain.

pangloss said...

I'm rading this with a great deal of interest as a tired old cynic who is also. Law professor and a privacy and surveillance expert and yet srill finds genre especially superhero genre enjoyable and actually gave a paper on Winter Soldier....
But it's late and. I have RSI so I will just say one thing : Marvelman; and after Moores take with that there really is almost no need to go on elaborating on the fascist eu/dystopian natural outcomes, or alternately, unbelievability, of superhero worlds. Reductio, c'est moi.

Post a Comment