Cleverman

p12810389_b_v8_aa‘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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC
Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC

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:

 

Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

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Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.

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At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎