“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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(Re)Awakening the British Spirit in the Star Wars Mythology

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By Shawn Stjean

No more basic example of cultural criticism exists than to recognize that the original Star Wars offered a subtextual retelling (in production during our nation’s Bicentennial,) of the American Revolution.  And even though it enjoyed success worldwide, US citizens, whether they thought consciously about it or not, had an extra layer of identification with Luke Skywalker and his outgunned band of rebels, battling the evil Imperials.

As the teaser trailer for the next iteration in the mythology has appeared, I’m reminded that there’s an even deeper subtext that runs through both trilogies, running counter to American mythology, that apparently will move forward.  I refer to the films’ far-less discussed British-ness.

The screenshot above from the The Force Awakens teaser invokes nothing so much as a knight, straight out of Arthurian legend, leaving the shelter and protection of court, to enter the wilderness with medieval broadsword, and fulfill his quest.  The hilted sword itself, while functional in its ability to turn an opponent’s blade from the wielder’s wrist, also in its time functioned as a readily identified icon for the cross, as carried by the Crusaders.  Do not underestimate the connotative power of this image, especially when featured in a 88-second text that reintroduces us to a whole new phase of George Lucas’ canon.

The 1977 original mixed in but downplayed, as much as it could, such elements.  Filmed substantially at Elstree Studios outside London, and employing many Brits among crew and cast, including a real knight (Sir Alec Guiness) as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Hammer films veteran Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, the story recounted not a civil war (as the opening crawl claims) but an open rebellion against a corrupt empire.  In finally defeating its ultimate weapon, the Death Star, everyman Luke employs a Force for humanism bequeathed to him by his father.  This is key.  Because I doubt there was an 11-year old boy sitting in those theater seats in 1977 who didn’t feel the strength of the thematic message of that climactic space battle.  When Luke puts away his computer, and freely chooses to use the Force to guide his hand, we not only witnessed the superiority of the human spirit over technology (expressed in cheers and standing ovations by the crowds as the orgasmic explosion of the space station filled the screen). No gimmick or special effect could have achieved such a response.  The film spoke to us at a much deeper level, told us that great feats of courage are possible by anyone, no matter how low their birth or background, no matter how small or weak their physical body, no matter how powerful the tech and resources arrayed against them.

Years later, as the second trilogy premiered with The Phantom Menace, commercial success welcomed it in arms of inevitability.  But die-hard fans made no secret of their discomfort and dissatisfaction–these are a matter of public record.  But the reasons cited were often unarticulated (“something’s missing”) or silly.  Jar-Jar Binks could not have sabotaged that film, any more than British-butler droid C-3P0 could.  I propose an alternate explanation: while catering intermittantly to an American sensibility, the Star Wars films progressively adopt disturbing (to us) trends from other cultures.  Here I’ll ignore the oriental, and direct my focus right across the pond.  PM‘s plot hinges on a search for The Chosen One–unnamed by prophecy–and we discover that he was fathered by the Force itself (immaculate conception.)  He’s a born noble, like Oedipus, hidden in obscurity.  Already this sounds much less North-American to me.  We proceed to learn that this universal cosmic force which “surrounds us and binds us, all living things,” as Obi-Wan had explained to Luke years earlier (or later, chronologically,) is in fact very elitist in its function: only certain special people have the gift, so much so that they are identified at birth and whisked away to be trained in the Jedi temple.  It undoubtedly served Lucas’ larger canvas to introduce slow compromises to the Jedi Order (beginning with Kenobi’s initial lie to Luke about Vader murdering his father.)  However, the audience’s sympathies shift more and more away from the unconscious/mythological level to the conscious, intellectual level.  Eventually the second trilogy pares down to a few moral characters with whom to sympathize, fighting on the side of internally degraded forces in a vain attempt to restore the principles of the Republic.  This may all be much more “grown-up,” and therefore more satisfying in a certain cerebral way.  But Americans, especially, would much rather look away and point the finger at corrupt forms of foreign democracy (see Jon Stewart’s 2014 Rosewater) than accept an allegory of the decline of their own.  Here, the Republic works!

The initial resistance to The Empire Strikes Back is telling in this connection, for it stands as a film with a much less romantic, more “grey,” European aesthetic: life as a series of disillusionments, defeats, and loss, sometimes compensated by survival.  Many throughout the world welcome this sort of philosophical realism–but it is far from the “Everything will be alright” handholding that define 90 percent of American films (including Return of the Jedi, with its childish proposal that Vader could find redemption).  Living Americans never have had to live under sustained aerial bombardment and blockade such as the English did during the mid-twentieth century, or occupation such as the French endured, or the sacrifice of many millions to outlast invasion, as the Russians, or had weapons of mass destruction unleashed upon them, as the Japanese.  We have the luxury of our illusions, observing the world in exclusive terms of “the dark side, [or] the light.”

So the six films increasingly reveal that the Force, like the truth itself, really resides in the custody of the few elites, to be employed against non-sensitives in such forms as mind tricks, telekinesis, and dueling/acrobatic skills.  Anakin finds the Jedi order itself to be very hierarchical, in which padawans answer to knights who answer to masters who ultimately answer to the Council (or just Yoda, or even the Chancellor.)  I’m not claiming that the United States is without its elitism or its class system–but we are very fond of telling ourselves that, and films defy that collective ego-image at their peril.

It isn’t authentic British-ness (if there is such a thing), then, that undergirds the films, so much as the American vision of that entity: unquestioned authority and hierarchy by birth, elitism, exclusionism, expansionism, and a sense of racial/moral superiority, versus American democracy, inclusiveness, and tolerance.  Obviously, to claim this “Yank vs. Brit” dichotomy is real would be absurd–but it certainly is what young people learn from Hollywood film and television.  These dubious truisms may be more visible in Disney’s Pirates of the Carribbean franchise, though no more palpable than in Star Wars.

Even though Lucas’ films are truly postmodern, mixing languages, racial and cultural traditions, and visual iconography (Mark Hamill, for example, trained in Kendo for his lightsaber duels, and Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Japanese director Kurosawa), it’s useful to unpack the various elements, to separate the less- from the more-meaningful.  Will U.S. audiences embrace an even further push east as the Empire rises again, or will they insist on a return to their own cultural values?

link to the teaser trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erLk59H86ww

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Issues For Indie Writers: Complicating the Plot Structure of Your Story / Novel

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By Shawn StJean

Shakespeare inherited from the Greek tragedians a 5-part plot structure, which functions to keep the writer on track concerning the overall trajectory of the work, and from getting lost in the details.  English teachers know this structure as Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid: Act I—Exposition, II-Complication, II—Climax, IV—Catastrophe (Reversal), and V—Denouement (“Unraveling”).  In today’s faster paced, Hollywood-aligned writing environment, the formula is often shortened to the left half of the pyramid, or simply three components: Exposition, Complication, and Climax.  Credits roll.  And although crucial elements can be lost in this truncation (reducing the pyramid to a two dimensional line, as it were), that’s a concern for another time.  More important for the moment, is that in its short form, the Complication (often oversimplified in diagrams as “rising action”) assumes even greater importance—in fact, it can truthfully be called the “guts of the story.”

Even so, not enough modern writers understand the pivotal function of Act II.

Reviewing briefly:

Act I—Exposition.  The best narratives begin “in media res,” (in the midst of things)—at an interesting point in the overall action.  This requires that the audience be briefed, by means of flashbacks or dialogue, on the conflict that brought the characters to this high pass, and quickly introduced to the individual characters themselves.  In a film, this act consumes the initial 30-40 minutes of viewing time.

Act II—Complication.  30-40 more minutes.  Many folks intuit that, here, we’ll “get to know the characters better.”  They’ll make friends and/or develop antagonisms, either against each other, themselves, or the environment (in the case of Hamlet, all of these).  But a complication only deepens plot, by mixing the element of characterization with it, so to speak.  Think of it this way: Things go from bad to worse.  Example: A soldier’s gash on the foot at first causes a mere limp, but left untreated, induces sepsis.  How do the characters react?  How does action lead to reaction?  What ironies and motifs and themes begin to emerge?  Does the narrative take on a tone of inevitability, or are choices still available?

Act III–Climax.  Second hour.  A sad truth about contemporary storytelling, whether oral, filmic, written, or graphic, is that Act II gets short-circuited and far too much attention gets lavished upon the action of climax (recall how much of the finest elements of Tolkien’s work have been jettisoned by Peter Jackson in service of gory spectacle).  People say “it picks up,” as if this equates to “gets better.”  True, this presents a mighty problem for the chronicleer: how to present a high significance of action, and not just a high and unsustainable level.  But the truth is, a finely wrought set of complications will dictate the climax to a large extent, and no artificial resolution should be needed (such as a deus ex machina, aka miracle ending).

As ever, pop culture provides a ready resource for illustration.  As a contained–hopefully visual and entertaining–example of structure and the energizing role of Complication, I’d like to use an unusual text–a performance of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Gimme Shelter.”  Lyrics, naturally, form our primary, but not exclusive, focus here.  To simplify matters even further, we need only examine the chorus (a term aptly take from Greek drama,) of the song, which not coincidentally divides itself into three, similar couplets:

 

1-War, children,

It’s just a shot away.

 

3-Love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away.

I’ve intentionally left out Act II here, to dramatize its effect later.  Taking the first and third parts, we see the speaker has created a parallel structure, at both the local/grammatical-sentence level, and the overall plot level.  And while technically speaking, it’s hard to say this is “plot,” so much as allegory, it certainly becomes one when we add the aural and visual elements of a performance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctrC9FtkmYA

If you’ll invest five minutes watching the video, you’ll see not only a great song performed by its creators, but even its flaw serves a wonderful purpose.  Dividing it roughly into thirds, we initially see Mick Jagger and the boys doing professional, if run-of-the-mill, work—not exactly phoning it in, but doing what’s proven, in a fairly uninspired way.  But what follows changes everything (Act II): an unfamiliar element, Lisa Fischer, for whom the term “back-up singer” would be a gross injustice, descends from the background, takes center stage, and electrifies the performance, raising not only the audience’s interest level, but galvanizing the other band members: Watts’ drums, Richards’ and Woods’ guitars, and Jagger’s vocals.  And now we’re in a position to hear those lyrics Fischer is responsible for:

2-Rape, murder,

They’re just a shot away.

These lines complicate the basic conflict: that we’re all living, in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, under the delicate balance and precarious threat of war—just a simple misstep from Armageddon (recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.)  But there’s a choice—peace, too, that can be embraced, through an act of love, not fear and hatred.  If we ask ourselves, what structurally ought to come between the black and white, the right and left, we’ve confronted one of the most basic intellectual challenges in life.  It isn’t always as simple as “Grey,” when the choice lies between wrong and right.

Instead, the Stones have chosen another route.  Because “war” is such an abstract, monolithic concept, the 2nd stage of the chorus both amplifies and specifies what it entails: not just bloodless “killing” in defense of ideals, but the vicious and selfish ending of human life–murder–always a by-product of war, as well as the brutal stripping of the precious: land, children, women.  Rape.  These lines give the song flesh and blood, in the same way Fischer’s blood-curdling ability to hit the high notes thrill the spine and appall the senses.  In terms of the performance in the video (enhanced by the camerawork, lighting, and editing) Fischer adds an important female presence, and more than a hint of controlled sexuality, which makes her repetition of the word “rape” very resonant.

To return to Hollywood terms, then, the Complication amplifies the basic conflict, by doubling or tripling it, by raising or personalizing the level of threat, by adding a previously unseen dimension.  In Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended upon the city of Thebes, and a soothsayer reveals the gods have brought it on because a murderer roams free in the city.  The king vows to find and punish the culprit: basic conflict established.  However, we in the audience slowly come to realize, through layered ironies, that the murderer is Oedipus himself.  Thus, a complication can often be expressed through a question:  How can a man administer justice for the community and himself at the same time?  Today’s films, even comedies, as simple as they often are, are no different.  Take Jack Black’s School of Rock, for example.  In Act one, we find a N’er-do-well ejected from his band, his job, and his apartment all in the same day.  Basic conflict.  He falsely assumes the identity of a middle-school substitute music teacher in order to make ends meet.  Thus, complication: How can a man who knows plenty about music, and nothing about teaching, inspire a motley bunch of youngsters to play, appreciate, and love music?

The Complication, if well done, will rise above the Climax in its interest level.  It’s here, after all, that protagonists struggle with the details of their challenges, suffer setback and defeat, and prepare to (potentially) grow, or devolve, in the final act.  When you’ve seen enough Hollywood films, in fact, Climaxes begin to bore you, with their gunfire and car chases, somehow contriving to sell you on the dubious idea that violence always solves complex problems (try Divergent for a recent, disappointing example.)

What does this mean for writers, as a practical issue?  First, Aristotle’s famous remark that “plot is the soul of tragedy” still holds true, especially if you take a generous definition of tragedy: a struggle (often failure, but an occasional success) of human beings to reach their potential.  Western culture’s first critic insisted that events and our responses to them define who we are—we do not shape events.  This may create an uncomfortable view of free will for the modern viewer, but it helps in storytelling immensely.  Ask yourself: how is my protagonist both a representative of, and an amplified example of, humankind?  What trials will represent and dramatize this best?  How will s/he have it worse than the average person?  What bits of key dialogue will support this plot?  Which elements are worth repeating–with variations–to clarify my theme?  Most importantly, what actions will the protagonist(s) take, or fail to take, when adversity arises?

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A lot gets lost in those parentheses, but “Rising Action” or Complication provides the real enjoyment of a story or novel.

Humanism Lives Long, And Prospers: Star Trek Continues Review

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 By Shawn StJean

Who says it takes a hundred million dollars to do Star Trek right?

Under the wing of Farragut Films and Dracogen Investments, Vic Mignogna and crew have launched the second episode of their wonderful fan webseries, Star Trek Continues.  It takes place during the final three years of the original five-year mission that ended prematurely when the network cancelled Star Trek in the late 1960s.

All due respect to the rebooted mega-budget studio feature films–sorry, but this is where it’s at: no one is going to get resurrected by “Necrotic-Tribble-Cross-Superhuman DNA,” either.  That kind of technobabble/solution nonsense is for fans of Next Generation and its ilk.

I screened the just-released second episode in the webseries, “Lolani,” with a smile on my face the entire time.  This reaction was part nostalgia, part admiration, and part gratitude for Vic and the gang who’ve devoted themselves to continuing a great tradition of truly humanistic storytelling, even amidst the most technological setting.  I thought it bettered the excellent first episode (featuring the return of old nemesis, Apollo, reprised by Michael Forest).

As with the original series, the episode “Lolani” takes a local incident and extends it not only to allegorical proportions, but retains the Trek romanticism while it resists succumbing to the sentimentalism of dozens of silly imitation shows over the years.  An Orion slave girl, taking advantage of a dispute among her recent purchasers, kills the new owner who would have raped her.  The Enterprise rescues her from the drifting Tellarite vessel, and she proceeds to enchant the crew (Kirk included, naturally) with her pheromone-enhanced wiles.  The rhetoric of gender relations undergirds the script, and the threat of female power remains inescapable, but the story somehow escapes radical feminism and balances its themes in a way that would have made Gene Rodenberry proud.

The episode also does an excellent job creating moral ambiguity: given the laws of the Federation and perhaps even the Prime Directive, the crew is forbidden to interfere with her return to the slavemasters who sold her.  And yet, she gives a face to the thousands still under the thrall of the homeworld’s patriarchs.  Lolani herself, like so many women characters in literary fiction, remains a mystery until the end: part liar and manipulator, part sincere and helpless girl, worthy of the genuine love one crewman gives her.  Of course, the Captain wouldn’t be Kirk if he failed to make a pass at her along the journey.  In fact, many of the old tropes are present for the fans: the Vulcan mind-meld and neck- pinch, for example.  I have to admit to being disappointed that Kirk’s shirt wasn’t ripped during the fight scene–but then again, with a budget smaller than that of the original 45-year-old episodes, and adjusting for inflation–well, those things aren’t cheap.

The scripts of the old Trek were the reason for its longevity among fandom, and this tribute series follows suit.  While some may find the style hokey, I personally applaud the refusal to give in the cynicism and parody that invests so many of today’s remakes.  The production values: sets, costumes, special effects, music, lighting, and even a few stunts–really cannot be faulted by any reasonable viewer.  Some may wish for more professionalized acting, or folks who more closely resemble the original cast members–but naturally this would defeat the purpose of a fan-series, being both cost-prohibitive and elitist.  No one in the troupe’s ensemble cast fails to deliver competence, anyway, and guest stars like Sci-Fi vets Erin Gray and Lou Ferrigno are always welcome.  Naturally, such pros also deserve the thanks of fans everywhere for their contribution to keeping the Enterprise flying.

Visit the Official Site:

http://www.startrekcontinues.com/

And Kickstarter page:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/125377036/star-trek-continues-webseries

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“Static”: Synthesizing Bad Reviews

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By Shawn StJean

Another one star review on Amazon, bringing the reviews of Clotho’s Loom there in, as the novel approaches a year since publication, exactly split down the middle (ignoring the five-star reviews that were taken down). Seven positive, and seven negative. I doubt you’ll find a more even spread, anywhere. And enough of a sample to signal a love-hate trend that may always continue.

So based on this uncanny balance, I’m awarding myself an official Most Controversial Novel of 2012 title. No, there is not a lot of sex. There is, rather, a lightning rod that brings together diverging assumptions over what good writing is in our culture, and is not.

Rather than present both sides–lest this be seen as a promotional piece–I’d like to re-consider here only the negative comments. As always, I’d prefer anyone contemplating buying the book to read the sample first. Positive reviews can be as equally misleading as negative ones. Though bad reviews tend to be shorter, and not particularly informative–often due to the fact that the reviewer has neither bothered to finish the book, nor bothered to say so. However, there are a few recognizable trends, and a gap between what I expected and what I’ve gotten (SPOILER-FREE):

I expected folks to have a bit of sympathy for a veteran who learned to hate war, yet got sucked in to fighting another one and endured a brutal moral crisis over it. I had in mind the entire generation of Vietnam vets that history has tried to forget ever since they returned home, not in a wave or to a mass welcome, but individually and isolated, and to mistrust and apathy.

By contrast, several readers have found Will Wyrd cowardly–though they haven’t said that directly. “Spineless” and “without a backbone” seem to be the preferred expressions for a sniper who eventually discovers he can’t follow orders, and (unlike most Hollywood heroes,) is not vindicated by unqualified success.

I expected readers would enjoy reading about a strong woman (co)protagonist who is neither a vampire succubus, werewolf, or derivative, but rather, a career woman facing more lifelike challenges at home and work–though I have rendered them in as dramatic a fashion as realism allows.

Instead, she’s barely been mentioned in the bad reviews. Perhaps I should have expected this, given the gender biases of our culture, and shortened her skirts/augmented her breasts. But this overlooking her to focus nearly every remark on the male really is shocking to me, given that 90% of the book-buying public are women.

I expected people to have trouble accepting the ending, knowing that Americans prefer closure, and hearts-and-flowers affirmation.

What I didn’t expect was pretty clear evidence that half the readers aren’t making it to the ending at all, but many that do are resentful when they fail to understand it. Comments like “What was the point?,” “doom,” and “no resolution” leave little room for doubt there.

I expected quality of prose to matter; another mistaken assumption–perhaps my biggest.

But even for the “baddest” reviewers, one can sense the spectacularity of Clotho’s Loom’s failure for them: “Reads like complex history and literature,” “sensory overload,” and “it wanted to be mythology.” These are indeed some of the very qualities that other readers enjoy.

Oh, one final note: if your novel is long, that will only amplify people’s love or hate of it.

So based on my own, admittedly limited experience as a writer and educator for about 20 years, I’m concluding that we truly have reached the point at which some authors–me–will need to choose between what they expect from readers, and what the buying public expect of a novel. If you are, like me, one for whom those two sets of expectations stand on either side of a very wide chasm, you’ll need to either adjust your sights in toward conservative, commercial viability, or stick to your guns as currently zeroed.

Will my next book be different? Possibly. But as for my first novel, for better or worse, I wrote the book I always wanted to read. I wouldn’t change a word.
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The Con of the Coin: Shouldn’t Batman Go Independent?

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By Shawn Stjean

One of the unsung virtues of independent film is that, as miraculous as any production seeing the light of day is in the first place, they rarely suffer from the Hollywood strain of sequel-itis.  Thankfully.  It seems that barely two, let alone three or more, entries into a successful franchise can bear the weight of sustained storytelling.  Give a series enough rope, and it will begin to show inherent contradictions, and self-deconstruct.  For the sake of coherence, I’ll confine myself mostly to the most fully realized of the three 21st century Batman films, The Dark Knight, while referring obliquely to its excellent predecessor, Batman Begins, and its pale follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises.  Together, a half-billion dollar story to make.

Since Batman’s first appearance in comics in 1938, readers have grown accustomed to a self-made hero, one who traveled the Earth learning from the best instructors, honing his body to Olympic-athletic condition, and his mind to that of a world-class detective.  In stark contrast to Superman, then, the Caped Crusader’s thematic popularity consists in the realization of the everyday potential of normal human beings. In the conclusion of the recent film trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his position, his fortune, his butler and friend, and for a time, even the use of his body.  But, it doesn’t matter to police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman,) because of the symbolism: “anyone could be Batman.”  However, this sentiment runs counter to nearly all the major signs in the previous films–as Carmine Falcone rightly put it, Bruce Wayne is “the Prince of Gotham.” Christopher Nolan does not present us, visually or narratively, with a democratic hero.  Contrarily, this Batman is truly a feudal knight, in that he’s not only the inheritor of a seemingly endless fortune, but, like the military itself in any age, he relies far more on technology and its exclusivity than on human ability.  His adversaries (villains) are less fortunate.  In fact, THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS OF THE DARK KNIGHT FALL ON A CONTINUUM OF GOOD TO BAD BASED ON THE LEVEL OF THEIR INVESTMENT IN THE WHITE, CAPITALIST SYSTEM.  The richer, the better; the less material wealth, the greater the evil.

Beginning with the hero himself, among Batman’s other problems, he must contend with vigilantes inspired by his own image, but without his vast resources for support.  They masquerade and attempt to bash criminals in home-made versions of his high-tech body armor (developed at Wayne Enterprises from scratch—a very conservative estimate might put this suit, rubberized muscles and all, at one-hundred thousand dollars.)  When the real McCoy rescues one of them and warns him to stop, the humiliated imitator angrily demands “What gives you the right?”  Batman’s reply: “I’m not wearing hockey pads.”  Two resonant lines of dialogue, which might paraphrase: “If you’re not privileged with a Batmobile, Batcomputer, and a combat-surgeon-turned-butler for a nurse, your only right is to be safely escorted to your day job.”  In a world where we can suspend our disbelief over the constant jumping off rooftops, Batman’s later, willing destruction of his own bat-radar system to satisfy the ethical demands of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman,) a priceless and unique invention which merely invades the privacy of citizens on cell-phones, is among the most unbelievable premises we are asked to consume.

Next, the film conjures and disposes of a half-dozen minor villains, not coincidentally all minorities/of ethnic descent: Gambol, a black gangster-type; Lau, a Chinese mathematics wiz; Maroni, an Italian Mafioso; and the Scarecrow, a homosexual readily identified by visual cues.   This leaves the struggle for power in Gotham City to be fought exclusively among white patriarchs.  Harvey Dent, a conspicuous (“White Knight”) if unpedigreed double for Bruce Wayne, has half his body burned by the Joker, and thereafter adopts a two-headed coin, scarred on one side, to decide whether to support good or evil in any case.  The suggestion here is that money is morally neutral, depending on its use for its value.  This is, in fact, a luxurious position.  To quote Oliver Stone’s black corporal, King, from Platoon, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.”  Director/Writer Nolan insists Dent suffer a more tragic demise than the other rogues: a clean-cut, politically ambitious, right-wing, upper-middle class WASP, he deserves better.  What a waste that, because of partial immolation, he should turn his back on a career as agent for law-and-order.

And lastly, the poor folks.  How did such an anarchist as the Joker (Heath Ledger) come to be?  He explains to Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) that his wife had been attacked and her face disfigured: “We got no money for operations,” so the husband mutilated himself  in sympathy.  Rejected in horror because of his inability to provide the conventional solution of plastic reconstructive surgery, he turns to destruction (“Dynamite is cheap,”) and crimes like extorting the mob–“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  But he does do it for free, and the glee.  If Batman stands for defense of the established order, the maintenance of the status quo, the Joker stands–archetypally, and in this film–for chaos and the rejection of systems.  He amasses his loot into a Marxian unfinished pyramid—the apex missing  (a figure familiar to film buffs from Blade Runner, and which represents the base power structure of working proletariat supporting the upper classes by their labor, further oppressed by the military, church and schools, and the government) which he proceeds to burn down, to the horror of the assembled spectators.  Once captured, the police find no labels in his clothes (no Armani or Gucci or even Bill Blass as Bruce Wayne would own.)  He’d apparently like to hide his true identity, but he’s also refusing to support the marketplace—very un-American.  And as a white man whose face has been reinscribed in bleached “whiteface,” (thus only “playing” white,) his “evil” seems very non-specific: the robbing of banks and demolition of a hospital, not to mention murder—none of these is as bad as his betrayal of capitalism.

As for the later sequel, neither Ra’s al Ghul, Thalia, nor Bane shows any interest in established wealth–when not pursuing utter chaos and destruction, they redistribute property and power to the lower classes.  This third entry redresses the subtextual racism of its predecessor, but amplifies the classism: Socialism=Evil (and false socialism=even worse.)  Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, who issues Bruce a dark, Marxist warning about “liv[ing] so large, and leav[ing] so little for the rest of us,” seems more interested in stealing a new identity and start for herself, which she eventually gets—again, by accepting proprietary Wayne Enterprises tech–and becoming Bruce’s traveling companion, essentially “selling out.”

The three films not-so-subtly endorse the values of consumer capitalism by casting their hero in the role of billionaire by day, and. . .what do you know?, billionaire by night.  This Batman is the sum of his parts: the toys, the cave, the computers, the vehicles.  His most worthy adversary, a working class victim of an industrial accident incarnated as a grotesque clown, by his refusal to buy into bourgeois principles even with unlimited wealth in his grasp, is written off by everyone as insane.  After all, who would burn a giant stack of money but a madman?

Because indie films, like the productions of self-published authors and unsupported artists of all types, are not themselves “sold out” to the formulas and packaging of the marketplace, they can “afford” not to promote the dominant cultural values it patronizes.  Meanwhile, Hollywood, always quick to imitate its own success, and with no public outrage or boycott of $10 seat prices, exacerbated by the intermixture of TV-type commercials with its theater trailers, continues to chronicle for us the adventures of another billionaire industrialist: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, who got his start as a crusader against stereotypical Arab terrorists.

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2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–2,000 of 10k New Books Advance to 2nd Round

Image10,000 books have been entered by their authors and publishers, in five categories.  Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean, published under the Glas Daggre Imprint, is among 400 in the General Fiction category selected for the second round, and will attempt to move on to the quarter-finals of the ABNA (100 will be selected from each category, announced @ March 12, 2013.)

List of 2nd-rounders:  http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011  Congrats everyone!

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