“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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Guest Post: Laurence O’Bryan, Author

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Friend of the blog and prolific Irish writer Laurence O’Bryan debuts his new thriller, The Manhattan Puzzle, today!  Congrats, mate!  I’ll let him tell you a bit about it:

The Themes of The Manhattan Puzzle

By Laurence O’Bryan

 

What has been hidden in Manhattan by the most powerful people on earth?

What would you do to a Manhattan banker who treated ordinary people like slaves?

What magic is buried under Manhattan that allows it to rise again from anything the world throws at it?

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BXH Bank building, Manhattan, vehicle entrance visible under the arch.

Image © LP O’Bryan

 

These are the themes of The Manhattan Puzzle. The story sees Sean and Isabel (my characters from The Istanbul Puzzle and The Jerusalem Puzzle) reunited in Manhattan at the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks, BXH. There’s been some grisly murders, and now the plot takes a new twist. The contents of the book they found in Istanbul are revealed.

My personal journey with this story grew out of my disgust at the financial crisis that has brought many so low. I am interested in the myths and the beliefs of those who value money above everything.

But The Manhattan Puzzle is about other things too. For instance, what would you do if your partner didn’t come home one night? And what would you think if the police turned up at your door the next day looking for him?

Relationships are under stress everywhere, because of the demands placed on us by our jobs, but few of us will face what Isabel has to face when Sean goes missing.

There is violence from the start in The Manhattan Puzzle too, but the opening has a woman inflicting it on a man. I am tired of reading about men inflicting sexual violence on women. I think it’s time for the handcuffs to swop wrists. And they certainly do in The Manhattan Puzzle. You can download the first chapter here as a pdf. 

But don’t get me wrong. I love Manhattan. It’s a city in a snow globe of dollar bills. So look in your bookstore and on your E-readers and order it too, if you want.

To order The Manhattan Puzzle click here.

Or to visit my website click here.

And thanks for reading this and for buying The Manhattan Puzzle, if you do. I hope you find it entertaining and the themes interesting.

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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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: Imbroglio, by Alana Woods. Book Review by Shawn StJean

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Book Review by Shawn StJean

If the title of my review seems far less original than that of the novel it explores, that’s because there are some clichés that well-earn their familiarity.  For example, if overheard conversations, mistaken and assumed identity, and misdirected letters (nowadays more prevalent as lost or stolen e-mail correspondence and hacked computer files) are not fresh enough for your taste in fiction, then the entire suspense/thriller genre probably isn’t either.  Alana Woods deploys them all–there’s even a diary–but recombination is everything.

 

Far more compelling than these stock conventions are the book’s two main characters, David Cameron (you may need a pen handy to keep track of his several aliases,) but more especially Noel Valentine, a heroine worthy of a series–though Woods doesn’t appear to be setting us up for one.  Among all of fiction’s many self-made detectives, few are given a motive for their investigations–which lead them into all manner of professional and personal hazard–more credible than simple money.  The universal catalyst, serviceable for everyone from Sam Spade to Jim Rockford.  Oh, other reasons have been invented among the better writers: egomania for Sherlock Holmes, or the occasional impressment into service (Rick Deckard.)  Woods’ David, like Hamlet, was bequeathed the task by his dead father.  Good thing for audiences, too–for it doesn’t always wash, that the motives of those seeking truth are the identical ones held by those seeking to cover it up.

 

For Noel Valentine, the impetus necessary for the pursuit of semi-comatose David’s nearly successful assassins, leading to discovery of several convolutions of corporate wrongdoing, surfaces from the depths of her very plausible, damaged psychology.  “Why not go to the police?,” she’s asked at several points, and the answer simply lies outside the realm of logic and reason. 

 

Sure, she wants to ensure the man she dragged from a fiery car wreck heals, she wants a prestigious account at her PR firm, she wants the perks of her boss’ favor.  It all makes sense, yet none of it is really accurate.  In fact, one of the latent enjoyments of the novel is witnessing how many different misogynistic interpretations of her behavior can be put upon Noel by the old boys’ network, projecting their own malfeasance onto a vulnerable target.  “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a dirty, double-crossing dame,” says one of the villains of the Hollywood noir classic The Killers, and apparently little has changed in three-quarters of a century.  Woods’ heroine must also endure multiple layers of claustrophobic pressure: from the confines of her tiny flat invaded by her healing counterpart, to sexual pressure from her boss and a nefarious client, and finally to the crushing depths of the sea itself.

 

No, for Noel, investigation is first about living dangerously–perhaps subconsciously attempting to carry out a long-time suicide wish of her own–and later, about simply living.  In fact, when the bad guys provide her with the perfect opportunity to slip quietly into that good night, guiltlessly in the world’s eyes and her own, it’s only then can she recover the id-energy to carry on and survive that her efforts on David’s behalf have been attempting to revivify all along.  That scene of crucible is worth the price of admission alone, straying so far as it does from the strictures of the genre, and invoking naturalistic archetypes from more high-brow literary fiction like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and even some Hemingway.

 

What difficulties there are can be faced down within the first half of the novel, which gathers much steam afterward–though thankfully eschewing many of the predictable action-elements we may expect (no car chases, and just a little obligatory gunplay.)  Sex, naturally, plays its role, though not overdone.  Woods provides several of her majors with fully stocked families, and various minor characters fill out the cast, necessitating full attention to relationships.  As for the geography, the locales of Cairns and Sydney, while well-described, may feel less familiar to non-Australian readers than we’d like.  However, it’s exactly this transportation of time, place, and generally stretching beyond the constricting neighborhood of the known-comfortable, among landscapes ranging to the deep psychic, that many will appreciate most.

 

 

 
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Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–Angelic Mother, Demonic Father

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For William Wyrd’s parents (both of whom are only seen in flashback,) we add an even more international flavor to the cast of a hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom.  Irish actress Susan Lynch (known in the U.S. as Maggie from Waking Ned Devine,) and currently working in the TV series Monroe, could well handle the role of Will’s unnamed mother, who, like the heroine of the novel and her daughter-in-law, Nexus, has to raise her son alone following the disappearance of his father (in this case, into North Vietnam.)  Earlier, she even defends the boy against his father at several points, doing her best in spite of a clear lack of power–so she functions as a foil for Will’s future wife.

For Will’s father, known only as Sergeant Wyrd to us, no particular actor is needed because we would never seem him very clearly onscreen.  A black operator, possibly, or perhaps even CIA, his shadow is imposing and threatens to suffocate both his wife and son, and his voice gritty and vaguely Germanic (Will’s grandparents were German and Irish immigrants to America).  I tried to write into the novel the psychological trauma of the strong father, from many angles: even when moral, as with Nexus’ father Lambert, the voice of Vader can be paralyzing.

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From out of the unconscious to Oedipus Rex to Star Wars to the latest video game, HE just keeps turning up. . .

Indie Authors: Beware Amazon’s Auto-Renew (and Miscellaneous Pitfalls of KDP Select)

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Activision’s Pitfall Harry finds a new way to get his heart broken

As a follow up to my post, Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market,  in which I joined the chorus of e-voices lamenting Amazon’s latest wave of review removals (I’ll return to this further down,) I’d like to draw attention, especially for the benefit of new and aspiring authors, to a few of the other potential landmines in your path, if you choose to go with a program specifically designed to benefit fledgling writers: KDP Select.

First, I want to be clear that you’re making a good choice. It’s a great way to get launched. I’m not embarking on some anti-Amazon crusade—my own books are published there, and likely to remain, no matter what other steps I take to sell them. But the system is not perfect—and its flaws are, without question in my mind and whether designed consciously so or not, biased toward the building of the Amazon monopoly.

So if they’re going to police us and our reviews, we’d better police them. While we still can.

There’s a “convenience” feature (their word, not mine) built into KDP Select that renews you for a second (and third, etc.) three-month period, which requires you to UNCHECK the default setting of “go ahead and do it.” This obligates you to publish your book EXCLUSIVELY through Amazon for that period. At first, I thought I was unique in my blunder at overlooking this. Once you’re aware of it, it’s easy to locate within your author’s dashboard—one might say, it hides in plain sight. You will not, among your dozens of other Amazon e-mails, receive a reminder. I’ve since discovered several other authors who’ve essentially committed the first SIX, not THREE, months of their book’s existence to the the giant bookseller by this same lapse in vigilance.

At the end of the first 90-day period, you may feel comfortable enough as an author/bookseller/promoter/agent to want to branch out with outfits like Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Lulu, Google Play, and a host of other players in the market. You may also have given away hundreds or thousands of copies through AZ’s program, and feel that’s plenty to get your toe in the door of the electronic marketplace, especially if you are channeling those readers in venues like GoodReads, LibraryThing, blogs, and forums like the UK’s Kindle Users Forum (you should be).

Now, should you stumble into an Auto-Renewal, it may occur you to shrug and just do as you like, anyway. If you feel like it’s too much trouble for Amazon to take legal action against you because you’re so little, just don’t forget they have other options. First, it’s their store: they can ban you and your works. Second, due to the royalty payout structure, Amazon will have custody of up to three month’s of your royalty money at any given time. If you breach, and they counter-breach your agreement (somehow your money doesn’t arrive,) are you willing to pursue legal action against them, given they’re so big? Oh, and if I’ve reviewed the guidelines correctly, the 72-hour grace period for withdrawing only applies to the first signup period. I found it all-too-easy, assuming all along I would not renew, to miscalculate the exact day I thought to withdraw, and became obligated for another (big holiday) term.

Perhaps needless to say, this really does look like another of the many, many moves it takes to corner a market, build a monopoly. And you may not really be selling that many books, but as long as you’re also not selling any through any other channels, well, Amazon doesn’t need to concern themselves about you, do they? You’re not contributing to their competitors becoming a threat.

A quick update on the review removals: I’ve confirmed through several sources that it isn’t just certain reviews that AZ’s software bans: it’s certain reviewers from reviewing certain books (products). So that means, if you as an author are in contact with a reviewer (very common, and often very legitimate) and can persuade them to reword or even completely re-write a review, even in strict adherence to the guidelines, it will not stick. I wish to emphasize the importance of this. In my view, it reveals that the official line about reviews violating guidelines is baloney. And in the final analysis, if you can’t get enough positive reviews (the fundamental, traditional means of selling books,) then aren’t you even more dependent upon the Amazon distribution machines, like KDP Select and its giveaways, or whatever they come up with next?

By contrast, if you get stuck with a one-star review by someone who obviously did not read your book, did not buy your book, and for perverse reasons of their own would clearly like to sabotage your book, AZ had provided a “report abuse” button for you to push. I have not discovered many authors getting justice this way, however.

As several sensible folks have already remarked, blenders and generators and computer motherboards are one thing—you NEED reviews to help make an informed decision—but as far as content like books and music goes, perhaps it’s time we began behaving, as consumers, in a non-traditional way: READ the SAMPLE. At least several pages—and decide for yourself. As a literate person, you don’t need Amazon’s robots, or friends and family of the Author, or some ex-girlfriend with a vendetta, telling you who, and what, and how, to READ.