Alright, Fine: Thoughts on Joss Whedon and Black Widow in Avengers II

I put in a lot of effort to avoid senseless internet arguing and nit-picking and trolling and back-biting and rage-inducing-ly uninformed, reactionary commentary, but sometimes there is simply no escape. So I’m leaning into this one, mostly because there is one aspect to the now done-to-death argument that I haven’t seen brought up in other forums.

SPOILERS FOLLOW. Go to the theater, watch Avengers, and then come back if you’re not privy to the details.

For those blessedly unfamiliar with the vitriol recently directed at Joss Whedon, I beg your forgiveness for bringing you up to speed. In a nutshell, a lot of people got mad and yelled at possibly the last person in mainstream media that deserves a good shout-down (I’m talking about Joss Whedon, keep up guys) for daring to bestow thoughts of romance, womb, and young on Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, saying that it watered her down and made her weak.

A lot of the press so far as been dedicated to debating the many varying degrees of silliness and circular reasoning up for grabs in that line of thought, so if you want to read about those, hie thee to Google and find a few–I’m talking about something else: Theme. Something which few seem to consider, despite the fact that the argument is over is A STORY. WHICH HAS THEMES. VERY EVIDENT THEMES.

The question of reproduction is one that has been hotly debated for decades, well before high profile cases like Roe v. Wade hit the scene. Pro-life, pro-choice, contraception, family planning, and even the ability to decide when, where, with whom, and how readily one (particularly women and LGBT community members) has sex dominates political, ethical, and religious discussions all over the US, in every forum, so it is not surprising that this is what would be focused on when Avengers came out. It seems to be all people can see.

But the evident theme of the movie itself is the larger, more abstract concept of legacy, and folds in reproduction as well as the lengths some people will go to to secure a legacy when facing down their own mortality. Ultron’s violent reaction to a taste of Stark’s own very human fear and confusion, coupled with his desperation to end humanity’s eternal conflict as well as neutralize outside threats, is what brings about the larger plot, after all.

Said larger plot focuses a great deal on Tony Stark’s dread and looming guilt resulting from a pretty standard savior complex: after his attempt to subvert future trials fails so spectacularly that it brings those exact future trials about in spades, he grows despondent and says himself that Ultron and the growing murderbot-infestation are his “legacy,” “the end of the path I started us all on.” Despite his regret, he defends his methods and creations in the same way a parent defends an errant child at a PTA meeting (or like a writer when their favorite character comes under fire…not that I know anything about that) even after it becomes apparent that Ultron plans to enact the next global extinction event. He even goes so far as to continue with his original plan in an effort to fix the Ultron problem, and fights his own teammates when they oppose him (with perfectly prudent reasons). His methods—like children and even the spiraling iterations of technological advancement–become the cause of and solution to any number of problems. One generation fails, and the next one takes another shot at it. Call it progress, advancement, evolution, or futility, it remains one of the most organic themes one could expect in a plot. What keeps the plot from becoming hopeless is that eventually his efforts do pay off with the birth/creation of the Vision, who tips the scales in the team’s favor.

All that to say that Natasha Romanoff’s brief conversation with Bruce Banner about who can and can’t have babies is possibly the smallest piece of the plot dedicated to the theme of reproduction as a means of legacy, yet it’s all people can talk about because it involves a character’s very natural discomfort and wistfulness upon discussing what amounts to sexual violence–forced sterilization–which in its most reduced form is a denial of choice as well as physical injury, much in the same vein as rape, forced pregnancy, or even genital mutilation, which are ever at the forefront of women’s body and reproductive rights issues. From a technical standpoint, however, the conversation is there to add some backstory flavor to a flash-in-the-pan romantic subplot that in turn lends some support to the themes of the larger arc, and no more.

Hawkeye/Clint Barton emerges out of the woodwork to support the theme as well, and shows his true colors as an enthusiastic homesteading farmer with a wife, kids, and the predictable honey-do list. It’s a side we haven’t seen, and very much at odds with the desperado-solitary eagle-lone wolf vibe that many hero characters like Stark and Cpt. America offer. When Barton later prepares to sacrifice himself to save a child during the final battle, it’s because he empathizes with the boy’s mother so intensely that no other course of action is acceptable.

Ultron, likewise, replicates “like Catholic rabbits,” dramatically destroying himself with each new iteration, and monologues at length about humans bearing “children, designed to supplant them. To help them… end. ” Again, legacy is depicted as a balm to mortality, which is really what storytelling has always been about: leaving something behind, because you can’t take anything with you. In the conversation between the Vision and Ultron’s final battered and failing vessel, Ultron is forced to view the perfect humanoid body he had intended for his ultimate “upgrade” in the hands of someone else, and berates the Vision for his naïveté and idealism, sounding very much like a crotchety old man jealously disapproving of a youngster’s apparent waste of energy and potential.

The whole plot is crawling with the question of how to cope with mortality: do we give up and become so despondent at the impossibility of a perfect world that we just decide to get it over with and blow it all up (Ultron)? Do we rush toward an uncertain technological future to attempt a remedy to suffering and death (Stark)? Do we accept what has happened and hope for other means of fulfillment/worthiness (Romanoff)? Do we wander off into the proverbial desert to contemplate our various existential crises (Banner)? Do we accept that it’s never going to be perfect and simply protect what we have (Vision)? Or do we go Barton’s route: keep our heads down, have a few wee babes, and till the earth?

(Side rant)

It is disappointing that so many feel the need to personally attack Whedon (or patronize him with comments about his “misguided feminism” coming from a good place) when the conversation and ultimately the whole depiction of Black Widow’s grief manages to be compassionate, realistic, and sympathetic while still subverting the usual “female saved by romance-and-babies” trope that so many viewers have justifiably become tired of seeing: as others have pointed out, she goes on with her life, draws satisfaction from her work, and focuses on other things still within her control, as we all must do after loss or trauma. There are no after-credits scenes of her binging, obsessively Pinning baby pictures, weeping over the birth control that she only takes to regulate her periods, or any other stereotypical expectations of how women in particular deal with grief. Still, the certainty with which so many internet warriors comment to this effect makes me wonder if they maybe know something about some deleted scenes I don’t, or perhaps they watched a different movie altogether and this whole debate is all just a big mistake.

The argument that Joss Whedon is singlehandedly oppressing women by portraying one character who regrets her inability to bear children has not a single leg to stand on. It also directly insults women who have lived through similar traumas by deeming it weak to have even subtle emotions about those experiences after the fact. (I mean, doesn’t that kind of sound like…misogyny, perhaps?)

Kickstarter Update

Well, the Kickstarter wasn’t fully funded in the end, but that’s ok! I learned a lot, got a little more (much needed) social media arm length, and have an updated game plan for the next time around. I’m taking some time to work on the story, the plan, and a pesky reboot of those previous health issues, but I’ll be bahhck with more info soon. :)

Thanks to everyone who shared, liked, and pledged! <3

Kickstarter Campaign Launched! (Holy crumbs.)

Super daunting, but super exciting!

Finally launched my Kickstarter campaign to fund the Storyteller and the Silent God! Right now, I have 29 days and $2,300 to go! Check out the details on the KS page, and you can read the first two chapters here.

For the curious: funds will go toward the cost of hiring an editor for content and proofing, completing the cover art, and professionally formatting/distributing the ebook. Stretch goal specifics will be decided soon, but I’m planning to expand the release to include paperback (and possibly hardback) books if the initial funding is exceeded by a good margin. But in general I’m trying not to put the cart first on that. Fingers crossed, though!

Check out the backer rewards on the campaign page – those will also be expanded if initial funding is exceeded, possibly to include a custom plushie modeled after one of the creatures in the story. (Really hoping for that!)

As always if you can pledge, that would be wonderful, but if you want to just help out by sharing this notice or the KS page, I would be much obliged! Thanks, all! <3

Better Late?

I’m appalled at my lapse here, folks, but I just realized I never properly shared the final installment on that cover art from Anna Dittmann Illustration for the Storyteller and the Silent God. I shared it on my Facebook page, but that’s not the same as sharing it here (WordPress and the blog community is my main squeeze, while social media in general is really more of a necessary evil).

But enough with that. FEAST YOUR EYES.

Nell Final

Lookin’ pretty elegant, no? Those colors, amirite?

People keep asking if I designed Nell’s image after myself. While I guess I could take their confusion as a compliment, the answer is a resounding “Nah, man. Nah.” (It’s the glasses. I wear glasses. But not Windsors. I’m not classy enough for Windsors).

Anyway, I super-love how she turned out, and I also super-loved working with Anna on the design and color scheme. Obviously she does beautiful work, but she was also very easy to work with, incredibly professional, and punctual to boot. If you’re looking for striking cover art, fellow writers, you can’t go wrong.

Speaking of punctuality, I’ve been dealing with some health bizz recently that has taken front seat, but I’m soon to be back on the social media warpath with writing updates and essays as I get back in gear for that Kickstarter. Soon!

thoon-dog

Tho thoon.

Art Nouveau Character Portraits!

While I am focusing on producing The Storyteller and the Silent God, I’m also in the long process of gathering character and concept art for my in-progress trilogy and its prequel, The Worldscar. The character below is Hazel, the main character of the prequel.

Since the bulk of the story is set in Edwardian times, in the aftermath of the arts and crafts revival and the heyday Art Nouveau movement, I’ve commissioned some art reflecting that. And here is the latest installment!

Up next is the color stage, but I am already absolutely in love with the stylings by the artist Helen of Give Dreams Wings on DeviantArt. Check her out!

Work in Progress: ‘The Storyteller and the Silent God’

I’m excited to announce that a new work in progress is underway!

‘The Storyteller and the Silent God’ is a story I’ve been sitting on and incubating for about five years. It’s always been there, skulking around in the back of my mind and shaking its fist when I write anything else. And for its persistence and long-suffering, I’ve decided that it will be the first novel I self-publish.

A Kickstarter to fund editing and production costs will be launched in the next few weeks. Illustrator and graphic designer Anna Dittmann has been attached to supply the cover art, and Ingram Spark and Createspace will be used for distribution. I’m still researching freelance editors and firms, but will have that in line shortly as well. Even if pledging is not your bag, I can’t tell you what a help it would be if you reblogged, retweeted, shared, or otherwise helped me get the word out to anyone who might enjoy the project. Circulation is key and my arm is only so long.

The story is now fully plotted and well on its way to completion. It will be a one-shot/standalone novel, rather than a trilogy, and even as much my scumbag brain likes to succumb to scope creep, I’m happy to say that it’s staying that way!

Even from its inception, I have pictured this novel taking place between two locations: the East Texas piney woods–in an area like the one where I spent much of my childhood–and an empire based on ancient Mesoamerican myth and culture.

The story itself is meant to be a new angle on the classic Hero’s Cycle, and explores a largely untapped source of mystery and adventure beyond the familiar fantasy genre conventions. And since it focuses on subjects and locations close to my heart, I’ve never had more fun writing than I have over the course of this project. Can’t wait to share it. :)

An Essay: Location in Fantasy

I’ve been thinking a lot about locations in fantasy and how choosing or building a setting decides more than just where your characters wake to their powers, tame or slay their dragons, drink their ale, or learn swordplay.

The known default for fantasy has long been British Isles-esque worlds and settings, largely due to the personal backgrounds and professional influences of genre pioneers like George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and so many others. This is in some ways a simple byproduct of the fact that when fantasy split from fairy tales and mythology to become its own entity as a means of entertainment, it did so–and in some ways has continued to do so–in and around the United Kingdom.

I’ll admit that in general I’ve always preferred British stylings for fantasy–the myths are familiar, the aesthetics are appealing without needing much exposition, the culture is at once both comforting and foreign for American and many otherwise non-Brit readers like myself, and the landscape itself is like magic with moss grown on it.

But at what point have we gone back to the Anglophilic well too many times?

The major publishing houses as well as the online self-publishing markets are swimming in staged-in-Britain fantasy written by authors who know little to nothing of the culture, people, history, or even the subtle and not-so-subtle changes between American and British English. What really bothers me is that many of these authors are also uninterested in conducting the research necessary to avoid these pitfalls where possible.

While uninformed writing may be negligent and lazy, it’s not a crime. Ultimately a writer of any genre has the right to the final word on their own story’s setting, characters, themes, values, and language. I do consider it a shame, though, that the depths of so many stories are limited by the author’s habitual dependence on a particular location, style, or culture–especially one they may know little about or may lack the requisite cultural respect to honor its finer, more nebulous points. They rehash material and rely on trappings (top hats and tea) and cliches (“Oh, bother, wot, wot, old sport, old boy?”) instead of drawing on their personal history as a means of conveying true understanding of the culture their characters come from as well as a sense of where they’re going. Even for the most misfit character or the most baffling social pariah, this is something that matters when speaking to the quality of a story.

Now, I at least try to make a habit against being a gigantic hypocrite, so I’ll come out and say that I am one of those Americans staging a fantasy that takes place in Britain, though it shortly moves into other worlds of my own design, drawn from myths and legends originating around the globe.

I have a list of historical reasons as long as my arm for the choice, and I’ve spent months researching in the hopes of avoiding the more egregious faults (if anyone really wants a technical read-out, come at me bro), but despite all the work I’ve put into it, I know that my writing of the story will likely lack much of the cultural pull and authenticity that I want so desperately to pour into it. The reason?

I was raised in Texas and not England.

While I can see and appreciate the Brits’ quiet nationalism and love of hidden depths (just read Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, watch Sherlock or Dr. Who and you’ll see that a common river runs through it), which are in some ways very old-school Texan qualities, I will never know what it means to do anything other than look over the fence (or over the Pond, as it were) at their understanding of what those things mean at the most basic gut level. I may be able to analyze the nuances of their most beloved characters, but I will never be able to generate a character of true, staunch Shire/British depths like Bilbo Baggins or Molly Weasley. There will always be some Texan in whatever character I write, because there is more than a little of Texas in me.

Speaking as an American in general and a Texan in particular (since those things don’t always intersect), I think the larger group of Americans-writing-British-fantasy return to the well out of habit. Since British-style fantasy is the most prevalent, it seems on the surface to be the easiest to generate, but it often comes out feeble and lacking for more reasons than simple plot/aesthetic regurgitation, especially for readers who desire a dose of social realism with their fantasy. In this regard, I’ve come to respect the adage “write what you know” just a little more, whereas I once was content to take it at its most literal value and then throw it out the window to watch it burn up in the literary atmosphere. With fantasy it’s true that you get a little more leeway, but I think sometimes we brazenly take a mile where we would be better served to stick with a few borrowed inches.