Archive for April, 2014

April 24, 2014

Twenty-five(ish) ways we killed Archie Andrews

This happened, and so I wrote a silly thing.

 

**********************************************

We killed Archie Andrews in April 2014, when we announced that he was going to die, in an issue a couple of months hence, sacrificing his life to save a friend.

We killed Archie Andrews in July 2014 when that issue was published.

We killed Archie Andrews long before that, when we wrote futures in which he grew up and got married (in parallel storylines, to make you think there were alternatives. There were no alternatives) and so made him mortal and subject to time.

We had been planning this for a long time.

We killed Archie Andrews twice, when you think about it, because those two parallel stories converged and two Archies died that day.

There were still many Archies to kill. One for each Christmas, birthday, summer holiday that the character didn’t age; hundreds of new worlds branching off each double digest, thousands of dates with women out of his league, more than could possibly fit into one lifetime.

We wrote the death of Archie a hundred times over.

Cheryl Blossom killed him in the Chocklit Shoppe with the meat grinder. Jughead could never eat the burgers there again.

His car exploded. Look, it was a really old car, it’s totally plausible.

Betty and Veronica finally realised they’d only been seeing him to get one another’s attention all along. Most people were very happy for them. Archie died of (we think) shock.

Archie was abducted by aliens. He’s probably dead by now. We don’t know.

One of the Archies from the caveman storylines was eaten by a dinosaur. Perhaps they shouldn’t have relied on the Flintstones to research that series.

One of the Archies from the future was killed in some sort of spaceship war. It was unoriginal and not very interesting.

There was a temporal paradox. It was messy.

Cheryl Blossom killed him in the Chocklit Shoppe again with the meat grinder. Jughead continued to eat the burgers this time. That storyline was considerably darker than the earlier one.

A crossover story with the Sabrina the Teenage Witch series went horribly wrong.

The plane on which the Archies were travelling to another big show crashed. Most of the band survived.

During a show, Betty accidentally brained him with a tambourine.

We wrote a choose your own adventure style novel. Every option you could choose ended in his death.

We invited Reggie Mantle to write a few issues.

We reintroduced Little Ambrose and it turned out he was really angry at having been forgotten.

Like, really angry.

Dilton Doiley caused a zombie apocalypse. He was very apologetic about it.

Big Ethel went on the rampage and had her revenge on every character who had ever belittled her or suggested that being attractive to men was the sole measure of her worth. We lost a few of our writers as well, but most of us were on her side.

Someone asked what it was about Archie that qualified him to be the protagonist of all of these comics. Decades of comics vanished in, per Douglas Adams, a puff of logic.

One day Mr Weatherbee woke up at his desk and there was no Archie and it had all been a horrible dream.

**********************************************

All pictures stolen shamelessly from the Archie Out of Context tumblr.

April 14, 2014

On Divergent and self-definition and specialness

In theory, I like heroines who can kill, be morally imperfect, participate in revolts against the state, and movies that have young women hitting stuff and being heroic. A number of YA reviewers I read really like the Divergent series, and it is probably in my best interests for more women-centric action-y movies to exist.

Naturally, therefore, I’m going to whine about how bad the book and movie are. A version of this was in Saturday’s Indian Express.

**********************************************

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” says Albus Dumbledore to a young Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series often raises this question of choice versus destiny, always coming down on the side of choice; we’re told, for example, that Harry’s position as Voldemort’s nemesis is not so much the result of a prophecy, as of Voldemort’s believing it.

Of course, all of this takes place within a system in which children are divided into school houses based on their abilities. The cunning ones go to Slytherin, the clever ones to Ravenclaw, the brave ones to Gryffindor and the nice ones to Hufflepuff. That Harry himself is given a choice (the context for the quote above) is due to the special circumstances of his past; we’re given no hints that normal children, not the subjects of prophesy, have this level of control over the ways in which they’re to be categorised.

Then there’s Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a movie adaptation of which has recently been released. In Roth’s future Chicago the Hogwarts house system is the policy of an oppressive state. Society is divided into five ‘factions’, namely Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, each faction composed of those who strive towards the value after which it is named. At sixteen, children take aptitude tests to help them to determine in which faction they wish to spend their adult lives, and once they choose a faction they must stick to it or risk becoming one of the “factionless” who live outside society altogether.

The audience isn’t told how any of this is supposed to work (or, indeed, why the ancestors who named the factions were unable to tell the difference between nouns and adjectives). It’s a fundamentally silly premise, only really there to facilitate the story of its heroine.

Beatrice (eventually Tris) Prior has been raised in Abnegation, where they eat plain food, wear baggy grey clothes and are allowed to look in the mirror only once in every few months. Unable to entirely embrace Abnegation’s selflessness, she isn’t sure she belongs in this faction. Her test results, when she takes them, prove inconclusive. As Tori, the woman who administers her test explains, Tris is Divergent, a rare subset of the population who cannot easily be slotted into a category, and whose deviation from the norm is seen by those in power as dangerous.

It’s Tris’ trainer and eventual lover, Four, who articulates Divergent’s critique of its system. “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” It’s never very clear how this oppressive state would derive tangible benefit from preventing any of this. But one way of reading the teenage-protagonist-versus-oppressive-state novel is as a sort of coming of age, a defining of one’s own identity, and a setting of boundaries. Perhaps this is why Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy is angriest when she is used as a pawn; plots like these literalise a struggle for the right to self-determination, for a physical and moral integrity. It’s fitting that Tris begins her story by leaving Abnegation and giving herself a new name, and the movie makes good use of mirrors, allowing her for the first time to look at herself and claim herself. I suspect Divergent wants to be a story about this claiming of self, and of the right not to be limited by externally-imposed boundaries.

Unfortunately, there’s also the problem of the Very Special Hero. “You don’t fit into a category”, says Tris’ mother, emphasis mine. Just as the Harry Potter books are about the important ‘choices’ of the already-marked-out-before-birth hero, Divergent focuses its argument for self-definition free of categories on a character of whose specialness we are reminded of at every step. Tris can’t be easily slotted into a category, not because people are human and multifaceted (though by having its villain constantly rant about the awfulness of human nature the story nods towards this idea) but because she is part of so rare a subset of humans; later books in the series raise the ways in which she is superior to the level of the genetic. It’s an approach to storytelling that grants full humanity only to the extraordinary. Does it matter that Tris is physically smaller than most of those she has to fight if we’re constantly having it hammered into us that she is fundamentally better than them?

And yet Tris, and Divergent, are underdogs in some ways. Even in the wake of The Hunger Games it’s an uphill battle to get the mainstream movie industry to realise that action movies starring women might be successful, or that stories for teenaged girls needn’t be immediately dismissed. Without closing my eyes to the ways in which Divergent is generic and often silly, I’d like to see the pleasingly ruthless, by no means self-abnegating Tris punch her way into box office success.

I’d also like the occasional Hufflepuff hero, but one can’t have everything.

**********************************************

 

April 13, 2014

Happy Families redux

Last weekend’s column, drawing rather heavily on this piece on Blyton’s families from a couple of years ago.

 

**********************************************

A young couple have twin children, male and female. Preferring boys to girls, they care far more for their son than for their daughter, so that even as a toddler the unloved child retreats into herself. When both the children are three years old the son dies, and the parents resent his sister for surviving. They allow her to forget that she ever had a brother, send her to boarding school when she is old enough, and choose never to visit or write, or even to send birthday cards.

There’s still something a bit transgressive about the idea of parents who don’t love their children—it is, for example, the aspect of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin that seems the most discussed. Parents are unlikely to admit even to having a favourite child. Mothers in particular are expected to be the source of magical, selfless love, and made monsters of when they fail to do so. Fairy tale retellings over time morph uncaring mothers into evil stepmothers to soften the blow.

The story above is not, however, from a literary work about damaged children, or if it is it’s an unlikely one. It is from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School, and the life story of Joan Townsend, the best friend of that book’s protagonist.

Parents in the Blytonverse range from criminally negligent (oh, are you having an adventure again? they ask as their children once again entangle themselves with internationally-operating and well-armed gangs) to the openly villainous. The first of these is generally a narrative necessity; the second is rarer. The books often get dismissed as comfortable stories about comfortable middle-class children and most of the time this is true, yet occasionally something surfaces that makes one wonder if all is really as it seems.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the incident in The Naughtiest Girl in the School is not that Joan’s parents have been treating her badly for years. It is that, when Mrs Townsend explains to her daughter’s headmistresses that she wishes said daughter had died, everyone around her seems to accept this as normal. Even Joan herself understands and accepts her mother’s neglect once she has heard the facts.

Joan is not the only one of Blyton’s fictional children who has a lot to forgive her family. Barney, of the series of novels that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, is the son of a circus girl and a man whose family, we are told, mistreated Barney’s mother until she ran away taking her child with her. Carlotta, of the St. Clare’s series of books, has a similar family history. Then there’s Margery, also of St Clare’s school, whose father wishes for sons and so sides with Margery’s stepmother (and the mother of his sons) against his daughter until her school friends intervene by writing to him to prove that she is worthy of his regard.

Childhood means not having power. We’re told that one reason baby animals (including baby humans) are cute is in order to make the adults look after them, since they are helpless to look after themselves. Children of all species are reliant on the benevolence of the adult world for mere survival. If they cannot make themselves loveable, they are doomed.

This is all rather more brutal and nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw than one expects from what are, let’s be honest, not very good books. But if you read Blyton’s fictional universe as one in which these truths are known and understood, where your dependence on your parents for survival is not buried in platitudes about loving families (or at least, not so deeply buried that it isn’t widely known and understood), a lot of things begin to make sense. Carlotta earns tips from her formidable grandmother when she is appropriately ladylike. Barney and his father and grandmother find each other and live happily ever after. Margery and her father are reconciled and presumably go home and determinedly act out happy familial relations. Joan forgives her mother—what were her alternatives?

**********************************************


April 3, 2014

March Reading

 

Arthur Ransome, Missee Lee, The Picts and the Martyrs, Great Northern?: These were the Ransome books I hadn’t read, apart from a quick skim of Missee Lee some years ago. A thing I’ve been discovering over the past couple of months is how little serious Ransome criticism there is; and that little is generally more interested in the early Lake District books. But there’s something about these three later books, and I feel like I may end up as the lone voice in the wilderness championing Great Northern? in particular. I spoke last month about how impressed I am by this series, and that sense has only intensified.

Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki: I had hopes for this, brought on by that amazing cover (seriously, illustrating this post with that cover even though these reading round-up posts are never illustrated, because pretty), by the fact that I admire Harris’s writing (and approve of her being a Mervyn Peake fan) and by the narrative possibilities of a revisionist retelling with Loki as narrator. Plus, at a signing/talk by Harris she said that she imagined her Loki being played by someone like Paul Bettany. So it’s a pity the book itself felt so thoroughly unambitious. I’m reviewing it, and a longer piece about it will be on this blog at some point.

L.M. Montgomery, [all the Anne books]: Except the one about the Blythes that was published only quite recently. I needed to reread the first book for a discussion at university, and fell into the series as a result. A piece on Rilla of Ingleside, here.

Angela Thirkell, High Rising: I wrote about this here.

Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, The Far Distant Oxus: Apparently Hull and Whitlock were friends in school who decided to write a novel in alternating chapters, sent it to Arthur Ransome, and he loved it. It’s great– it does for its landscape what the Ransome books do for the Lake District, it’s a lot rougher around the edges in terms of plot and style; it’s tempting to think of it as really compelling fanfiction, and yet. The characters come across far more strongly as people, and there’s an undercurrent of sexual attraction that runs through it that makes it somehow nothing like Ransome’s work.

Gladys Mitchell, Tom Brown’s Body: Boarding school story murder mysteries are a genre that feels like it was made for me, so I was always going too enjoy this one. One of the things you see quite a lot of in school stories of this time is Asian and African upper-class students attending the same boarding schools as upper-class Europeans (as of course did happen quite frequently)–think of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh in the Billy Bunter stories, for example. The school in Mitchell’s book has an ‘African prince’ named Takhobali (helpfully named “tar baby” by his peers, because there’s a pleasant phrase to read). It was interesting to read this at the same time as Missee Lee, because Miss Lee is another wealthy colonial child sent to English boarding school for her education. And both characters embrace English boarding school life and the assumption that this is great culture; Miss Lee plays hockey and lacrosse, learns Latin, has fixed opinions about marmalade*, but being Chinese (hilarious!) she cannot pronounce her “r”s. Takhobali eats fish pie even when it makes him sick and learns to play rugby but (hilarious!) cannot overcome his barbaric roots and bites people when he’s tackling them. Neither of these things are in fact hilarious.

Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how genre histories are constructed and reinforced and what they exclude, and of the necessity of alternate canons and alternate histories, a result of both my own reading and some of Jonathan McCalmont’s Future Interrupted columns. Afrofuturism is engaged in a similar project, I think. I don’t think Womack is trying to create a definitive text on the subject, I’m sure (knowing nothing at all about the subject) that there’s a lot left out that I’ve missed, and I’d have loved to see a deeper analysis of certain particular examples of Afrofuturism that she chooses–but to ask that this collection be both wider and deeper is to ask for more than a single book could do. But what a single book can’t do a wider intellectual tradition can, and Womack’s book both gestures towards the conversation that already exists and consolidates enough of it to make for an entry point. Sofia Samatar describes it as a “primer” to the field; I think that’s exactly what makes it most valuable. I really enjoyed this, and nominated it for a “Best Related” Hugo award. I hope it makes it to the shortlist, at least.

Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones: The Islands of Chaldea: I’ll be writing about this elsewhere. Enjoyable, and solid, and a satisfying end to DWJ’s career, but not great. Which is probably for the best, in some ways.

Athena Andreadis (ed), The Other Half of the Sky: A big part of my reading this month was dictated by things I wanted to read and think about before the Hugo Awards nomination deadline. I’d been wanting to get around to this anthology for a while; it had some impressive names in the TOC. To the anthology as a whole my reaction was mixed, but there are some good stories, and one of them (Vandana Singh’s “Sailing the Antarsa”) was one of the best things I’ve read so far this year.

Djibril al-Ayad and Fabio Fernandes (ed), We See A Different Frontier: This anthology I loved, even though some of the stories felt considerably weaker than others. I think I’ve said elsewhere that while I understand intellectually the importance of seeing oneself represented, I rarely feel deeply moved by it when I am. WSaDF did something better; I hadn’t realised that a collection of stories working around issues that I think about a lot would feel as invigorating as it did.

April 1, 2014

A.L. Krishnan and Supriya Mitra, Psuperhero

Regular column may have been affected by the first of April, a bit.

 

**********************************************

When it was announced that Sebastian Faulks would be writing a Wodehouse-estate-sanctioned Jeeves and Wooster book, I don’t think anyone (including Faulks himself, possibly) thought it would go well. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was published last year, and if the reviews weren’t uniformly terrible, neither were they good. Wodehouse is easy to parody; it seems to be impossible to imitate him well and in a sustained narrative.

Perhaps a Wodehouse tribute needs to be done slantwise if it is to be done at all; unexpected and outrageous, and containing the implicit admission that paying tribute to Wodehouse by recreating Wodehouse isn’t possible. In that case the most successful tributes are the unlikeliest (presuming they are done well); consider the ridiculous and wonderful “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss” section from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, in which our heroes face a creature from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Or, closer to home, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, which feels suspiciously like a Blandings novel set in Haryana.

And then there’s A.L. Krishnan and Supriya Mitra’s graphic novel Psuperhero, which feels at once both completely unexpected and completely obvious, and which pays tribute to Wodehouse in part by going back to his sources.

Wodehouse famously based his greatest character Psmith on Rupert D’Oyly Carte, the owner of the Savoy Hotel and proprietor of the D’Oyly Carte Opera company with whom one of Wodehouse’s cousins had been to school. Psmith first appears in Wodehouse’s school story Mike and Psmith as a wealthy, monocle-wearing, too magnificent to be pretentious schoolboy. Unlike D’Oyly Carte, however, he falls upon hard times in the later books, having to (horror of horrors) work for his living in a bank, as a journalist, and eventually as secretary to Lord Emsworth.

None of these events befall Rupert Pirbright (his name a reference to another minor Wodehouse character), the hero of Psuperhero. A suave and superbly dressed man about town, he uses his considerable wealth in charitable causes; a more outgoing Bruce Wayne. By day. By night, he rids the town of the scourge of a sinister cabal of fish suppliers (the original character, it will be remembered, worked for a brief and unhappy period in that industry).

Naturally, this is a superhero story. Pirbright would never wear his underwear over his trousers and reserves capes for visits to the opera; his disguise, in a nod to the superhero canon that made me laugh out loud, is simply to remove his monocle. But the superhero tradition isn’t the only one Psuperhero draws on; comic opera of the sort D’Oyly Carte’s company popularised is frequently referred to. Krishnan and Mitra are clearly part of India’s massive Wodehouse fandom and there are references to this as well, including a minor character who is clearly intended for a version of Shashi Tharoor. And then there are Wodehouse’s own books.

And it’s in this last area that Psuperhero reveals its weakness. Wodehouse wrote over a hundred books, many of them containing great moments that have come to be loved by fans. Krishnan and Mitra make great use of some of these; there’s a little interlude involving a fascist group and ladies’ underwear, and a glorious moment when Pirbright finds an umbrella for a beautiful young archivist. They even almost manage to capture Psmith’s voice. But it is simply impossible within a mere 150 pages to allude to every incident that one loves, and in trying to do so the authors lose control of plot, structure and character. By the end of the book it’s all rather a mess, loosely-connected Wodehouse gags overwhelming the clever central conceit.

It’s a frustrating conclusion, because there’s so much promise in Mitra’s clean lines and Krishnan’s absurd dialogue, as well as in the sheer scope of their joint project. Perhaps if the duo had been more irreverent, or someone had had the discipline to cut out the dross. It’s a pshame, though.

 

**********************************************