‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.’ —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue)
Before I embark on this review, I should point out that I am neither Australian nor Aboriginal. I don’t research either of these cultures either, so there will be gaps in the areas of the series that I can actually address. You should definitely seek out reviews and opinions from people with more authority on these topics. Like this one, this one, or this one.
I first heard about the five-episode television series Cleverman (airing on ABC in Australia and SundanceTV in the US) on the website The Conversation, which described it as the story of ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’. The original article used this statement with the best of intentions, to distinguish the story from the typically American superhero narratives that tend to dominate the contemporary media landscape. To say this, though, is to miss the point of Cleverman, and when I finally watched the show this past week, I was surprised to find something quite different.
Cleverman is set in a near-future version of Australia, where a race of beings called Hairypeople (‘Hairies’ for short) have recently stepped out of the shadows and into the eye of the media. Before that, they had been living with us on Earth for over 60,000 years, in secret. Hairies live longer than an average human, are stronger and faster, and are covered in a Neanderthal-like coat of hair. Because this is Australia, the Hairies are immediately classed as subhuman, and stern measures are taken to protect a frightened public from the dangers they think the Hairies pose. Some Haries are taken to prisons and camps. Some end up in The Zone, an area that has been ‘gifted’ back to the Aboriginal peoples living in the region by the Australian government.
The show is based on elements of Aboriginal mythology, and features a diverse and complex cast of main characters – men and women, Hairies and humans, European and Aboriginal Australian. As the Hairypeople crisis unfolds, we are introduced to the story of the Cleverman, a figure from Aboriginal tradition who presides over a mythological realm known as the Dreaming. He is responsible for the people’s spiritual well-being, and can commune with the ancestors and the spirits who populate the Dreaming.
Jimmy, The Zone’s resident Cleverman, must pass on the title to a successor. He is given the choice between two half-brothers: the calculating Waruu, who acts as The Zone’s political leader, and the impulsive Koen, who has essentially abandoned The Zone and now runs several shady operations with his friends. In the end it is Koen – who is half White, and resentful of his Aboriginal heritage – who assumes the mantle of the Cleverman. Koen explores his powers (which include classics like quick healing and telekinesis) with enthusiasm at first, only to discover that they come with a great price. Over the course of the season, Koen slowly comes to accept his new title, and the heritage that comes with it.
So far so good – this sounds a lot like the recipe for your average superhero story. Cleverman distinguishes itself from this genre in a number of ways, however.
Firstly, unlike most superhero narratives, it has no clear hero. By this I don’t just mean that Koen is an anti-hero – the story may literally not be about him at all. This stops the narrative from espousing the kind of conservative utopianism found in many superhero comics: hero against the world, protecting it even though he is rejected from it. In ‘The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference’, Matthew Wolf-Meyer explores why comic book utopias are narratively impossible. He explains his theory as follows:
I find that the majority of comic book readers are limited to a specific reading of any given superhero – there is very little room for interpretation given to them by the authors of the text. Rather, to participate in the discourse of superhero comic books is to eschew one’s ability to interpret in favor of a conservative reading ideology, in much the same way that a religious text forces its readers to interpret its message; a comic book reader cannot read Superman as a supervillain any more than the Christian can read Christ as adversary. […] Because superhero comics are predicated on preserving the status quo, they expect of their readership a conservative reading strategy that translates into desire for conservative narratives – utopia achieved would be a radical narrative, whereas utopia attempted and failed retains the conservative status quo while appeasing the proposed conservative ideology of readers.
Superheroes, in other words, hold a necessarily privileged position in the superhero narrative. This story is about them. They are its heroes, whether or not they exhibit heroic behaviour. In a utopia the superhero would become obsolete and insignificant.
In Cleverman, which plays out as a series of vignettes that never really materialise into a single narrative, Koen’s story is just one among many. With a few exceptions, the show only gives us the bits that fit around the traditional, Western superhero narrative. We can choose to imagine a superhero structure inside it if we so desire, but this is left entirely up to the viewer. If anything, Cleverman is the story of how one people with a long history of oppression struggle to spare another people from this fate. Where can you rely on in such a situation? Your own people, who are finally beginning to recover from their oppression? The oppressed themselves? The government that first oppressed you?
There are no easy answers, and that’s the second thing that disqualifies Cleverman from being a superhero narrative: there’s no clear supervillain. Each character has their strengths, flaws, and agendas, and while the Australian government is the main antagonist, there is no clear way to solve the problems the people in The Zone face. By the end of the first season, in fact, conflict has only escalated. The only real catharsis comes in Koen’s defeat of the Namorrodor – a monster from the Dreaming that has been committing murders the local authorities blamed on the Hairypeople.
Finally, as creator Ryan Griffen points out, this is an Aboriginal story. It draws some inspiration from contemporary comic book narratives, but while the Cleverman may be ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’ it is then also one of the first superhero stories, period. To appropriate it so readily into Western superhero culture is to overlook its hybrid origins. Griffen writes:
I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that [my son] could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.
We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking.
To return to Wolf-Meyer’s analysis of the superhero narrative, Western superheroes are often too busy considering their own big picture to actually change the life of a regular person for the better:
As agents of the law, the vast majority of superheroes are intent on retaining the status quo, subservient to the popular politics and will of the people they endeavor to protect. These heroes fail to uphold the philosophical responsibility that Friedrich Nietzsche thought so vital to the position of the übermensch, whose purpose was to ‘‘go under,’’ to bring to humanity the lessons learned, metaphysical or otherwise, as post-humans, in an attempt to affect utopia.
The Cleverman, a post-human in the supernatural sense, but also in the role of an oppressed other, teaches us that utopia is hard, and perhaps even impossible. The first season concludes at the start of a battle that seems destined to be lost. But rather than declaring utopia wholly defeated (‘until the next issue!’), Cleverman seems to suggest that we should continue to fight. Because it draws its myth from the ancient past rather than the future or an alternate present, it is able to remind us that humans continually find new ways to hurt each other, while also assuring us that someone is still looking out for us – not on a utopian scale, but on a smaller, personal one.
Cleverman was recently renewed for a second season, so this won’t be the last we see of this story. With any luck, it will stay true to its Aboriginal origins, and will continue to resist the mould of the superhero narrative just as its characters rally against the many and varied stereotypes that seek to limit them.
You can watch the trailer for the first season here: