Saturday, December 31, 2011

From Victim to Vamp: Revising Mina Murray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

     Like all art forms, comic books and films engage in the practice of creative theft, lifting the most interesting or iconic elements from older works and adapting them to new purposes in order to make them speak to current culture. Alan Moore’s two volume comic mini-series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which originally ran from 1999-2003, takes this practice to an extreme by appropriating a whole cast of characters from late Victorian literature and assembling them into the prototypical superhero team of the series’ title. Moore’s concept was in turn appropriated and adapted into the 2003 film, also called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but frequently referred to by the abbreviation LXG.  Both the comic and the film revise some of the best known characters of Victorian popular fiction; the League includes H. Rider Haggard’s great white hunter, Allan Quatermain, Robert Louis Stevenson’s conflicted Jekyll and Hyde, Jules Verne’s enigmatic Captain Nemo, H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, and Bram Stoker’s vampire-plagued heroine, Mina Murray Harker.
The sole woman of the group, Mina is a striking addition to the League in both the comic and the film, but the woman who appears in Moore’s series is very much a revision of the original character created by Stoker, and the woman who appears in the film is another character altogether, distinct from both Stoker’s and Moore’s versions of her. One way to approach an understanding of these revisions is to read them through the critical lens of feminism, which allows us to consider the ideological burden that a female character like Mina is expected to carry at different historical moments. Stoker’s original character, appearing in 1897, stands on the brink of the modern era and its progressive views of women, but Moore’s series takes a late twentieth-century view of woman in the full moment of feminist self-possession, while the film offers a post-feminist image that dramatically revises both of these other visions and presents woman more as current culture now imagines her.
            In the novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker creates the original character of Mina and gives us an idealized image of British womanhood at the end of the nineteenth century. Mina is intelligent and eager to work, but her strengths are made properly feminine by her obvious desire to use her abilities to help her husband, Jonathan Harker, in his career. Stoker carefully distinguishes Mina from overly aggressive proto-feminists by having her disparage the “New Woman” type that embodied early feminist ideals at the time. Throughout the novel, Mina functions as a figure of good womanhood in contrast to the other female characters, all of whom fall into darkness as a result of Dracula’s influence. Dracula’s brides and Lucy Westenra all become monster women, with bloody, sexualized appetites, and all of them are destroyed by the properly horrified group of men that Van Helsing leads against the vampiric forces. When Mina herself becomes Dracula’s primary target, she resists his corrupting influence and helps the men who are pursuing him. The novel ends with the destruction of Dracula and the restoration of Mina; a final note confirms her redemption by depicting seven years of married happiness and the birth of a son. This conclusion folds Mina back into proper Victorian womanhood as a pure, loving wife and mother, happy in her domestic roles and idealized by the men as the embodiment of the goodness and humanity for which they fought.
            Stoker clearly intends Mina as a model for feminine behavior, although some literary critics have argued that he forces her into an ideal that she does not naturally represent. Elaine Showalter argues that Mina is really an embodiment of the New Woman who “must be domesticated through hysteria” (181), while R.J. Dingley contends that the end of Dracula validates “all of the norms and values which the very nature of [the] narrative had seemed to challenge” and that “a belief in… the integrity of the family and the passive role of women has been fully vindicated by Dracula’s abject failure and by the nature of his end” (22). Whether she becomes so voluntarily or reluctantly, Mina still functions as a pre-feminist ideal woman; she serves as a helper of men, employing her strengths for their benefit, and she consistently resists the violent, sexual force that attempts to alienate her from them. Van Helsing’s praise of her as having “a man’s brain, with a sweet woman’s heart” suggests the early twentieth century’s emerging ideal of woman as an intelligent, capable being who still retained traditional feminine qualities and values. This coupling of traditional and modern ideals is reinforced by the novel’s ending, where Mina is praised as a “brave and gallant woman” who also possesses a mother’s “sweetness and loving care” (327).
            Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen revises Mina in a direction that suits its own cultural moment and reflects a more complex sense of a woman’s life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Moore’s revision completely erases Stoker’s concluding note; gone are the seven years of happy marriage and the symbolically significant son. When we meet her in the first issue, Miss Wilhelmina Murray is recently divorced from her husband and has reclaimed her maiden name. Her associate’s comments hint at the consequences of her earlier experiences:
Dear lady, what am I to say? Your history has placed you far beyond the pale. Divorce is one thing, but that other business… Ravished by a foreigner and all that. Quite against your will, of course, but then people do talk so, don’t they?” (1:1:3)
Later issues reveal that Mina’s husband would not touch her after she was violated by Dracula, even though that violation was technically nonsexual. Mina’s experience with Dracula has marked her, both emotionally and physically, as we discover that her bright red scarf conceals a neck horribly scarred by the vampire’s attacks. “Not quite the two discreet puncture-marks of legend, are they?” remarks Mina when we first see the wounds (2:4:24).
Outwardly prim and cold, Mina eventually reveals her passionate inner nature in her burgeoning relationship with Allan Quatermain, and it is worth noting that Mina is the one who boldly initiates their romance. These revisions show us a stronger, more liberated Mina, but also one whose sufferings could not be erased as completely as the scar on her forehead at the end of Stoker’s novel. Moore’s Mina, with her intense green eyes and caustic personality, is far more modern than Stoker’s heroine, and her emotional toughness helps her to survive in a dangerous, chaotic world. This Mina is unapologetically feminist in her thinking; she comes across as a much stronger and more active character than Stoker’s Mina. She is calm in moments of peril, with the presence of mind to douse the Invisible Man with paint and the courage to act as live bait to attract the monstrous Hyde.
            Moore’s Mina does, however, retain some key elements of the original character, chiefly in her role as the heart of a group of men who must band together in order to save the world. Just as the original Mina is the inspiration for Stoker’s heroes, so is Moore’s Mina the cohesive element that brings and keeps the League together. Mina’s orderly sense and intelligence guide the actions of the League, but her womanly nature also plays a key part, with her passion reviving Quatermain’s spirit and her humanity checking Nemo’s misanthropy. Most importantly, Mina’s courageous goodness keeps the violent Edward Hyde in check; he reacts to her and listens to her when no other force can control him, and his feelings for her inspire even him to acts of heroism. The scenes between Mina and Hyde are some of the most interesting parts of the series; their relationship and Mina’s relationship with Quatermain are the two most important, ongoing elements of the comic; the actual plots of the two volumes often serve merely as backdrops against which these relationships can be developed and played out. The illustration for the back cover of the first volume of League makes the primacy of these relationships startlingly clear; Mina’s delicate, feminine hand rests on top of Hyde’s enormous one, occupying the center of an image that covers a map of the world and is bordered by the hands of the other League members. Only the hands of Mina and Hyde actually touch, underscoring Mina’s unique ability to reach Hyde in spite of his brutal nature. The other men’s hands, all outstretched, seem to reach for hers; all of them, it seems, are destined to connect over the small white hand that lies at the center.
The various facets of Mina’s personality combine to form an image of a very complex, very complete female character. These are the qualities that make her “extraordinary” and worthy of being not merely a member of the League but its effectual leader. In his companion to the series, Jess Nevins speculates that Moore’s Mina may be a parody of the Victorian New Woman; he points out that she is “in some ways comically severe, acerbic, and ‘manly,’ as Quatermain himself calls her” (163). It is true that the series enjoys a few jokes at Mina’s expense, including one juvenile scene in which Quatermain looks up her dress at her underwear, and another in which the villain, Moriarty, refers to her as a “smelly little lesbian” (1:6), but, overall, the portrait seems far more salutatory than satirical; Moore’s Mina is still an idealized image of womanhood, but she reflects a modern culture that insists on imperfections as proof of plausibility, and Moore’s little satirical flourishes only highlight the strongest elements of her character. Moore retains the most progressive elements of Stoker’s original Mina – her intelligence and her courage - and folds those into a more psychologically complex and more nuanced representation that speaks to a late twentieth-century audience about the problems of being a woman in an uncertain world.
The 2003 film, hereafter referred to as LXG, also revises Stoker’s Mina, but it moves in a completely different direction from Moore’s comic series. Partly this is because the film is not an adaptation of the series, but rather a parallel development that originated from Moore’s concept; James Robinson, the screenwriter, created the script for the film while Moore’s comic was still in progress. To expect the two works to be especially similar is, therefore, unreasonable, but the film makes choices that directly conflict with both Stoker’s and Moore’s texts.
In LXG, the Mina character is introduced to us as “Mrs. Harker,” and she tells the gathering League members that her husband “has been dead for years.” When we first see her, she wears the striking red scarf that Moore’s Mina uses to hide her throat, but we soon discover that this might be the only real similarity between Moore’s Mina and LXG’s Mrs. Harker. Mrs. Harker’s neck, when exposed, reveals exactly the two neat little marks that Moore’s Mina bitterly mocks. More important is the effect of those seemingly trivial marks; LXG refashions Mina into a Blade-like Daywalker, appropriate since Stephen Norrington, the director, had previously directed Blade. Mrs. Harker’s first major scene reveals the film’s idea of what makes Mrs. Harker “extraordinary.” She possesses incredible vampiric powers, as dark and violent as those of Dracula himself.
Moore’s revisions of Stoker’s character are not insignificant, but the revisions undertaken by the film are clearly extreme. Where Mina’s intelligence and courage were sufficient qualifications for Moore’s League, only superhuman powers will be sufficient compensation for Mrs. Harker’s female sex in LXG. The scene in which we first see these powers in action does draw on Stoker’s original text, but it takes its cues from the novel’s vampire women, not from Stoker’s characterization of Mina. In Dracula, Jonathan Harker describes his initial encounter with the vampire brides in the following manner:
The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth. (42)
It is easy enough to see the similarities between this passage and Mrs. Harker’s performance in Dorian Gray’s library, but it is much more difficult to see here any kinship with the other two versions of the Mina character. Gone is the complete redemption of Mina that marked the end of Dracula, and gone too is the powerful humanity that defines Mina in Moore’s comic; instead we have a blood-sucking, man-killing vampiress, who also, we find out, has a romantic past with the morally suspect Dorian Gray, and who eventually betrays a disturbing penchant for Gothic leather dominatrix outfits.
            Why does LXG revise Mina in this fashion? It costs the film’s integrity as a composition a great deal to do so. Mrs. Harker’s monstrosity bars her from being the strong human element that connects the other League members; in LXG, humanity ends up being the domain of Quatermain, who also replaces Mina as the group’s leader and center. Mrs. Harker cannot reach Hyde as Mina does, and that relationship is awkwardly shifted to a connection between Hyde and Nemo. The tender, human romance between Mina and Quatermain becomes a torrid, sex-driven affair between Mrs. Harker and Dorian, and these two end up in a sexually charged fight to the death near the film’s conclusion.
            That recurring sense of “sexiness” points to one reason for the film’s revisions. While Stoker creates Mina in a pre-feminist world that is only beginning to think about strong women, and Moore rewrites Mina as a fully feminist heroine of the twentieth century, LXG presents a post-feminist heroine of the emerging era, which promotes a vision of the dangerous, powerful and sexual woman that it considers liberating and even ideal. The men’s reaction to Mrs. Harker’s conduct encourages this view. Stoker’s heroes would immediately have staked Mrs. Harker, and Moore’s heroes would have been horrified by the loss of their human element had Mina become a monster, but the heroes of LXG betray no horror or revulsion.  Quatermain seems relieved to discover that the “weak” woman is actually useful, and the intrepid Sawyer spends the rest of the film actually coming on to her. For the film, Mina’s monstrosity doesn’t appear to be a problem; instead it is merely a representation of the kind of woman that postmodern, post-feminist culture respects and approves.
            The great irony of this series of revisions is that Stoker’s pre-feminist monstrosity becomes the twenty-first century’s post-feminist ideal; Mina becomes the very thing against which she was once contrasted. These changing versions of Mina reflect not merely the evolution of images, but of ideologies, as we see the first stirrings of feminism develop and then give way to new modes of thinking about women and gendered identities. From victim to vamp, Mina continues to be a positive figure held up for admiration and approval, but the cultural moment continually changes the definition of ideal femininity, and thus it changes Mina, as well. If nothing else, Moore’s comic and the film that it inspired show us that the process of revising Mina Murray is far from complete, and we can only guess at the figure of woman that she may next become.

 Works Cited

R.J. Dingley, “Count Dracula and the Martians” in The Victorian Fantasists, ed. Kath Filmer, 1991.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. DVD. Dir. Stephen Norrington. Twentieth-Century Fox. 2003.
Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, America’s Best Comics, 1999-2003.
Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, 1990.
Bram Stoker, Dracula, Norton Critical Edition, 1997.

NB: This essay was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association in the South (PCAS/ACAS). 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bushwhacked by the Nightmare Native: The Western Roots of Firefly's Reavers

In Finding Serenity, Lawrence Watt-Evans likens Firefly's Reavers to the legendary sixteenth-century cannibal, Sawney Beane, thus linking Joss Whedon's space-roaming savages to a rich tradition of bogeymen and monsters who symbolize the dangers of the uncontrolled id. At the conclusion of his essay, Watt-Evans asks the question, "and just who are the Reavers, then? ...Androids, perhaps? Madmen? Criminals offered amnesty if they survive?... Who's out there?" (28) In the context of Firefly as Western, the answer to Watt-Evans' question is obvious: on the edge of the frontier, where settlers stake their claims and outlaws ply their trade, there are always the Indians. With their ritualistic self-mutilation, pack behavior and barbaric practices, the Reavers embody the most paranoid images of the native Other that colonizing whites could devise. The image of the Indian as predatory savage stretches back far into the roots of the Western's development, beyond the first actual films and novels of the genre to the original tales of the blood-stained American frontier, the popular and often propagandist Indian captivity narratives that appeared from the seventeenth century until the end of Western expansion. Thus, the Western roots of Firefly's Reavers can also be traced back to these early texts, and we can see in them the images and ideologies that have developed over the centuries to give the Reavers their unnervingly familiar and deeply disturbing presence on the series, in the film, and in our collective imagination.
            The Firefly episode "Bushwhacked" brings these connections into focus particularly well because it features many of the same conventional elements of the early captivity narratives, and it also parallels later Western films that share the continuing obsession with the idea of Indian captivity and its effects. To illustrate the connections between the Reavers and Indians as whites imagined them, I will look at "Bushwhacked" in conjunction with two specific texts, Mary Rowlandson's 1682  account, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, and John Ford's 1956 film, The Searchers. In their representation of the Reavers, particularly in “Bushwhacked,” Joss Whedon and the Firefly writers borrow heavily from the conventions of these works to create a nightmare version of the native, but they also alter the image in order to make the Reavers an appropriately modern symbol of an expanding civilization's deepest fears.
            In order to understand the relationship between "Bushwhacked" and the Western, we have to look back at the history of the particular genre that it adapts. Much of the episode's language and imagery parallel those of traditional Indian captivity narratives, which depict settlers viciously attacked by varying tribes, depending on the location and historical moment of the narrative's setting. The Indian captivity narrative, as the first popular literature about experience on the American frontier, is the direct ancestor of the more modern genre of the Western. Captivity narratives often feature women as the primary victims or heroines because Native American captors were more likely to take women alive and because women made for more symbolically charged imagery within a text. Among the better known and more interesting captivity narratives are the stories of white women settlers like Mary Rowlandson, Hannah Dustan, Elizabeth Hanson, Jemima Howe, Mary Kinnan, Mary Jemison, Mary Godfrey, Sarah Wakefield, and Cynthia Ann Parker. Most of these women escaped or were eventually released from captivity and returned to life in white communities, although Mary Jemison and Cynthia Ann Parker both identified themselves as members of their adopted tribes and resisted return to their original families and communities.
            One of the earliest and best known captivity narratives is Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, first published in 1682. In her narrative, Rowlandson describes the Indian attack on her community in terms that clearly identify the attackers as inhuman monsters, and she particularly dwells on the killing of children and injured settlers. She concludes her account of the attack with the following comments:
When we are in prosperity, Oh the Little that we think of such dreadful Sights, and to see our dear Friends and Relations lie bleeding out their Heart-Blood upon the Ground! There was one who was chopp'd into the Head with a Hatchet, and stripp'd naked, and yet was crawling up and down. It is a solemn Sight to see so many Christians lying in their Blood, some here, and some there, like a company of Sheep torn by Wolves. All of them stript naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out..."  (14).
This kind of language appears throughout Rowlandson's text. She refers to the Indians as "inhuman creatures" (15), she describes one Indian who "was so wicked and cruel, as to wear a string about his neck, strung with Christian fingers" (38), and she compares the Indians to "Bears bereft of their whelps, or so many ravenous Wolves, rending us and our Lambs to death" (43). Rowlandson steadfastly refuses to regard her captors as human beings; even when they appear to be kind to her, she gives the credit to God and not to the generosity of the Indians. Eventually Rowlandson is ransomed and released from her captivity, after which she returns to her husband and white community to write her account and become something of a seventeenth-century celebrity.
            Although Rowlandson's captivity ends very differently from that of the Firefly settler, many parallels are immediately obvious. We don't see the Reaver attack on the settlers' ship, but we can certainly imagine that it would have been similar to the attack Rowlandson describes in many ways. Before the Serenity crew discovers the truth about the derelict ship, River's psychic talents pick up on the echoes of the violence that has taken place. "I can't sleep," she says, "There's too much screaming." Simon replies that "there is no screaming," and River eerily whispers, "There was." Rowlandson describes in her account of the attack the crying out of the women and children, the pleading cries of dying settlers, the shouting and hallowing of the attackers, the echoes of which can all be heard in River's evocative comment. Of course, we do see a similar attack at the beginning of the film, Serenity, and there the parallels between Rowlandson's Indians and the Reavers also stand out. Of the attack on her village, Rowlandson says, "Thus were we butchered by those merciless Heathen, standing amazed, with the Blood running down to our Heels" (13). Of the attack on the settlers' ship, the "Bushwhacked" survivor says, "Cattle for the slaughter... No mercy. No resistance..." Rowlandson and the settler use strikingly similar language: the victims are "lambs" and "cattle"; they are "butchered" and "slaughtered" like livestock by the attackers. In both cases, the attack is depicted as sudden, brutal, without mercy, and the victims are too overwhelmed to mount any real defense. Rowlandson says that they stood "amazed" as they were killed, while the settler mutters that there was "no resistance" to the Reaver attack. Like Rowlandson's narrative, the episode draws special attention to the killing of children; in "Bushwhacked" the camera repeatedly lingers on toys and children's things left on the ship. As Colin Ramsey argues in his essay, "Cannibalism and Infant Killing: A System of 'Demonizing' Motifs in Indian Captivity Narratives," representing Indians as baby-killing cannibals was an especially powerful and pervasive element of traditional captivity narratives, and one that we see employed to great effect on Firefly and in Serenity. On Firefly, the Reavers fit this demonized image perfectly; we all know that they will "rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing, and if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order" (Firefly, "Serenity"). This horrific summary of Reaver behavior draws upon the white perceptions of the Indian created by early accounts like that of Rowlandson, which also influenced the developing Western genre as it emerged and then reached its cultural apex in the mid-twentieth century.
            As the captivity narrative became an important cornerstone of the evolving Western, the fascination with figures like Jemison and Parker proved to be greater than any interest in women who, like Rowlandson, were captured but remained firmly rooted in their own white identities. Transculturation, the idea that a person might become a member of another culture through contact with it, appears as a particular concern in many kinds of colonialist literature, where we often see such a transformation referred to as "going native." Both Jemison and Parker "went native" as a result of their captivity, and the Western genre focused on this aspect of the captivity narrative in particular. In earlier Western films, this transculturation is threatening and dangerous because the Indians are generally depicted as backward, sub-human savages. As R. Philip Loy observes in Westerns in a Changing America: 1955-2000, "The dominant image of Indians [in these films] is one of savage opposition to whites. Indians (increasingly Apaches) kill whites simply because they are there to be killed. And Indians kidnapping white women and children is a theme that appears with some regularity in Westerns between 1955 and the mid-1960s" (243). Earlier films that depict Indian captivity and transculturation include The Savage (1952), The Searchers (1956), Pawnee (1957), The Unforgiven (1960), Comanche Station (1960), Two Rode Together (1961) and The Stalking Moon (1968). The beginning of the 1970s saw the Western continue its fascination with the topic, but the tone changed dramatically, so that transculturation became a way for white people to learn to appreciate and respect Native American culture. Both Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse appeared in 1970, and the appearance of Dances with Wolves in 1990 solidified the new attitude toward transculturation, with the idea of actual Indian captivity suppressed because of its negative connotations.
            Of the many earlier Westerns that deal with Indian captivity and the problems of transculturation, John Ford's The Searchers is both the most famous and the most involved with the imagery and plot of "Bushwhacked." Noted for its dark tone, the film stars Ford's regular hero, John Wayne, as the cynical former Confederate soldier, Ethan Edwards, who sets out for revenge and ostensibly a rescue when his brother's family is attacked by a Comanche raiding party. The Indians kill the brother, his wife, and their son, but take the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie, as captives. Lucy is soon killed by the Indians, as well, leaving Debbie as the sole survivor of the family. Ethan and his young companion, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), spend five years searching for Debbie (played by Lana Wood as a child and by Natalie Wood as a young woman), during which time she grows up and becomes a member of the Comanche tribe, even rejecting rescue when Ethan and Martin finally discover her. Ethan wants to kill the girl because she has "gone native," but Martin prevents him, and Ethan eventually relents in time for Debbie to be rescued during a Cavalry attack on the tribe and then returned to her original white community.
            Many elements of The Searchers have direct parallels in "Bushwhacked." As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is exactly the kind of Western character Whedon had in mind when he created Malcolm Reynolds, a champion of lost causes whose jaded exterior conceals passionate commitment to his own people. Martin Pawley's unwavering devotion to his surrogate sister and his determination to save her prefigure Simon's relationship with River, herself a very obvious sort of captivity survivor. Throughout the film, the images and language used to address the Comanche and the fear of transculturation highlight its ideological ground-laying for "Bushwhacked." Like the Reaver attack on the settlers' ship, the attack on the Edwards family at the beginning of the film is not seen, although the brutality and horror of the event are strongly implied. The kidnapping of Debbie, the innocent child, is especially underscored, as the menacing Comanche chief Scar stares down at the little girl hiding among the family graves and clutching her favorite doll. Only Ethan sees the bodies of the rest of the family; their fates are apparently so gruesome that he refuses to allow anyone else to look at them. When questioned about the fate of Lucy, Ethan only says, "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more." Rape, torture and mutilation are all implied, the same fates ostensibly met by the settlers in "Bushwhacked." These implied horrors are more awful than anything that could be shown, and the same technique is employed in the Firefly episode, where the attack is not shown at all and the settlers' corpses are seen only in quick glimpses.
            Like the Indians in Rowlandson's narrative, the Comanche in The Searchers are barbaric, terrifying savages, very much like Firefly's Reavers. Of the film's representation of the Comanche, R. Philip Loy writes,
Henry Brandon's (Scar) marauding Comanches raid, murder, burn, rape and kidnap because they are savages sworn to destroy all white people. John Wayne may have played an Indian-hating psychopath in the film, but his behavior is not totally irrational. How could one defend murder, rape and kidnapping? If the image of Indians in The Searchers is valid, the complete destruction of Indians is the only course for white people to choose. When Ward Bond and his band of rangers swoop down on Brandon's camp at the climax of The Searchers, the killing of Indians elicits little objection from white viewers. It is the appropriate response to Indian behavior in the film. (243)
No Firefly viewer would object to the killing of Reavers; even in Serenity, where the Reavers are explained as victims of a misguided experiment, the only way to deal with them is to kill them. They exist solely to destroy, and their total eradication is necessary to make the frontier space safe for settlers and civilization.
            The threat of transculturation proves to be the greatest danger posed by both the Comanche and the Reavers, as that process transforms victims into enemies and makes strangers even of the closest relatives and friends. In The Searchers, the scene in which Ethan and Martin search an Army outpost for Debbie among other white female captives makes clear the consequences and dangers of transculturation. We see that these women have been transformed by their captivity; they have "gone native" in the worst possible way, and Ethan clearly expects that the same fate has befallen Debbie. With their wild eyes and their crazed, incoherent behavior, the women are strikingly similar to the "Bushwhacked" settler. When Mal says, "You call him a survivor. He's not," his position on the settler's status parallels Ethan's conviction that his niece, the person who was Debbie, has not survived, either, and needs to be destroyed. "Living with Comanches ain't being alive," Ethan asserts, and other characters in the film agree that nothing of the original person can be left after five years in captivity. As Martin's love interest, Laurie Jorgensen, argues, "Fetch what home? The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?  Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain. I tell you, Martha would want him to." All of these statements foreshadow Mal's contention that the settler's survival of the Reaver attack is a misfortune best remedied by "a bullet in his brain pan." In The Searchers, Ethan's cynicism is eventually overcome by Martin's devotion and his own love for Debbie, who appears to have survived as a person after all; in "Bushwhacked," of course, the cynical view turns out to be the right one, as the settler's concentrated transculturation proves utterly destructive of his original identity.
            The irony of Mal's cynicism being validated in "Bushwhacked" is just one of the ways in which the television episode revises the material of texts like the captivity narratives and The Searchers in order to make it speak to a modern audience. The Reavers borrow their ideological trappings from the negative images of Indians that these texts depict, but the Reavers are not, of course, actually Indians. The captivity narratives and Westerns of yesteryear have to be read by a modern audience with a troubling awareness that the images presented are biased, racist stereotypes that demonize the unfamiliar Other in order to justify colonialist invasion and usurpation. Nobody would make a Western today that depicted Native Americans in this way; our cultural climate forbids such representation even to the point of banning sports teams from using certain names and images that might be seen as derogatory. By relocating the Western into space,  Whedon was able to harness the most powerful and visceral elements of the genre freely and without reserve. The revelation in Serenity that the Reavers are not really an Other at all, but merely our worst possible selves let loose, confirms the familiar argument that colonialism projects its darkest fears about itself onto the alien Other. On Firefly and in Serenity, the Reavers can be everything that earlier propagandist texts claimed that Indians were - brutal, savage, cannibalistic baby-killers without mercy or restraint - precisely because they are not, in fact, a separate group or race of any kind. This revision liberates the imagery from its racist foundation and allows Firefly to exploit it in ways that would be absolutely unthinkable in a conventional modern Western. The Reavers can be nightmare natives, truly monsters of the id, and in "Bushwhacked" we as a modern audience can experience all the terrors and horrific thrills of the captivity narrative and the classic Western without self-recrimination.
            Ultimately, "Bushwhacked" functions as an example of Firefly's complex relationship with the Western and with frontier literature like the captivity narrative. By looking at texts like A True History and The Searchers in conjunction with the episode, we can see how deeply engaged with its generic heritage Firefly really is, and we can appreciate the program's efforts to recast the conventions of these earlier genres for a new audience. Understanding the Western roots of the Reavers and "Bushwhacked" allows us to make better sense of the Firefly universe and how its inhabitants act and think, but it also reveals the ways in which something as obscure as a prematurely cancelled, ostensibly "sci-fi" television show can tap into the same powerful images and emotions that have driven human beings for centuries, conjuring up the at once familiar and utterly alien threat of the insidious nightmare native, the baby-killing cannibal who bushwhacks us all in the black of our own subconscious.

NB: This paper was originally presented at the Slayage Conference in 2006. I have left out the Works Cited Page just to make it more difficult for someone to plagiarize the essay, but I'm happy to email the full list of references to anyone who wants them for a legitimate reason. Please note that this material is the academic property of the author, who reserves the right to enact Reaver vengeance on anybody who steals her stuff.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Block Party: A Look at Adult Fans of LEGO

LEGO toys are widely recognized as a staple of western children’s culture, particularly for boys between the ages of 8 and 12. Stroll through the toy section of any major discounter or retail toy store, and you’ll find a wide assortment of LEGO products, from PRIMO and DUPLO blocks for younger children to Bionicle figures and $400 Star Wars Death Star models for the older crowd. The casual shopper, struck by the themes and prices of many of these items, might be moved to wonder whether little boys really do buy these toys. Well, yes, they do, or rather their indulgent middle class parents buy the sets for them, but there’s also another target group that the company has in mind. Many parents and members of the general public may not be aware of it, but LEGO products also boast a large, devoted, and well-organized adult fan base.  
These adult fans of LEGO, known as “AFOLs” within the LEGO community, have a tremendous impact on the decisions made by The LEGO Company. AFOLs support their hobby through local clubs, conventions, websites, user groups, publications and even an official global ambassador program with The LEGO Company, which gives adult fans a direct line of communication with the industry about product lines, prices, events, and consumer concerns. As a group, adult LEGO enthusiasts form a small but fascinating community within the larger arena of popular culture, and their reigning passions and interests give shape to the decisions made by The LEGO Company and also highlight the cultural significance of certain icons and values within the broader cultural groups to which they belong. The introduction to this community that follows is meant to give those unfamiliar with AFOLs a better sense of who they are and what they do, as well as illustrate the way in which this subgroup of geek culture ties into its wider community and forges connections between a diverse array of other subgroups.
First, it might be useful to offer a brief history of LEGO toys so that we can understand how they came to achieve the iconic status that they enjoy today. According to The Ultimate LEGO Book (1999), the company got its start in the 1930s when Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen expanded his business to include wooden toys. Named “LEGO” as a contraction of the Danish words “leg godt,” or “play well,” the business made its first plastic building bricks in 1949. Seeing a niche for an expandable toy system, the LEGO Company quickly capitalized on the possibilities represented by the simple brick design, with additional products and sets being developed on a regular basis. By 1959, the modern version of the LEGO brick had been created, and by 1963, the company had moved to using ABS plastic for its products, which allowed for higher quality bricks that fit together better and held their color longer. Mini-figures appeared in 1978, while 1998 saw the release of the first MINDSTORMS robotics set, and the product line continues to expand today, with new sets, new building elements, and other new LEGO themed items becoming available every year. There are even several LEGOLAND theme parks, with one in the U.S. situated near San Diego, and a smaller facility, the LEGOLAND Discovery Center, in Chicago. Although the company has experienced financial ups and downs over the decades, its steady stream of product innovations and new items, coupled with the idea of a persistent toy system, means that children who begin playing with PRIMO blocks as babies can still, in theory, be using those same blocks in conjunction with their MINDSTORMS robots once they reach adolescence and adulthood. The LEGO line is quite literally designed to be a toy system that one never outgrows, which helps to explain why it has accumulated such a large, active adult fan base.
Demographically, the adult fan community tends to be comprised mainly of people who first played with LEGO toys as children, usually left the hobby during some part of adolescence or early adulthood, and then dusted off their tubs and bricks and returned to LEGO building in their twenties and thirties. (The period during which people stop playing with LEGO bricks is called “the dark ages” within the AFOL community.) The LEGO Company does not report numbers or data for AFOLs as a separate part of its customer base, so it is difficult to say with any real precision what the “typical” AFOL spends on the hobby, makes in terms of personal income, or gravitates toward in the way of particular themes or products.  Based on AFOL websites, club memberships, and LEGO events, however, one can sketch out a rough image of the AFOL community as a whole. Typically in their twenties and thirties, AFOLs are most likely to be male, college-educated, and white, although at the global level the Asian AFOL population appears to be growing. AFOLs are by no means limited to the United States. The 2009 LEGO Ambassador program reveals the scope of the worldwide AFOL community; 45 ambassadors from 28 different countries and AFOL groups were selected from the pool of applicants. Most AFOLs self-identify as “geeks” or “nerds,” not merely in terms of their LEGO hobby but in their larger interests, as well, and many AFOLS pursue careers in engineering and high tech fields. AFOL activity and community building depend on the Internet and on computer software programs like LDraw and MLCAD, which allow individuals to design structures digitally and create precise plans for complicated, large scale models. This dependence on technology, coupled with the high number of AFOLs employed in high tech fields, means that the AFOL community as a whole has a far more sophisticated, technologically involved approach to the hobby than the traditional child enthusiast.
This approach can be seen in the kinds of structures that AFOLs build. Original LEGO creations built by fans are referred to as “MOCs,” short for “My Own Creation,” to distinguish them from the kits produced by the company. In the adult community, MOCs are much preferred over kit designs, as they demonstrate the creativity, building skill and collection size of the designer. Unlike children, AFOLs tend to build with an audience in mind; they design and execute MOCs for online viewing or for display at AFOL events. Websites like MOCpages and Classic Castle specialize in giving AFOLs a place to share their creations with other members of the community, while annual conventions like Brickworld and Brickfest allow large numbers of builders to collaborate on huge displays for the public and for other AFOLs.
The size, quality and attention to detail of AFOL creations can be staggering, and, as a result, they often become popular Internet items, appearing on various blogs, news sites, online magazines, and Facebook feeds. Wired Magazine, i09, Gizmodo, and other technology and culture publications frequently feature LEGO creations or LEGO related news. A good example of the newsworthy AFOL MOC would be Sean Kenney’s model of Yankee Stadium. Completed in August 2009, the re-creation uses more than 45,000 bricks and took three years to build. At six feet wide and five feet long, it is a massive structure that includes over 1,700 micro-scale people and hundreds of tiny details, from locker rooms to score boards and even The Simpsons family lined up at one of the stadium entrances. Another popular MOC is Mark Borlase’s huge Hoth diorama, which took four years and roughly 60,000 bricks to complete. Featured on Gizmodo, Geekologie, The Brothers Brick and numerous Star Wars fan sites, the Hoth base includes details like real lights, remote control mechanisms, and even the snowy footprints left by Snowtroopers approaching the base.
While these kinds of large scale creations are not necessarily typical of the average AFOL, they demonstrate the potential of the medium and encourage other adult hobbyists to design larger and more complicated MOCs of their own. AFOLs very often dedicate a whole room of their homes to their hobby, where they can lay out large, permanent structures and build entire towns, villages, or train routes. Over the course of several years, the display will change and grow as the builder adds new features, redesigns old ones, and acquires new elements from sets and kits. These efforts are less likely to draw widespread media attention, but they reveal the commitment to the hobby that AFOLs make, and many postings on AFOL websites and blogs feature photos of “LEGO rooms” and show off the elaborate organizational systems that hobbyists use to keep track of their collections of bricks. MOCs that require thousands of dollars and months or years to build require collectors to organize their materials carefully, and typical AFOLs differ from child LEGO enthusiasts in their obsession with sorting, cataloging and storing their bricks. Many adults admit that they have as much fun organizing their collections as they do building with them, and the best methods for sorting and storing bricks are much debated in AFOL circles.
The idea that adult enthusiasts enjoy sorting as much as building leads to a consideration of the other things that draw adults to the LEGO hobby.  Why do grown-ups play with plastic bricks? In part, of course, the answers remain the same for any kind of adult toy collector: adults collect and enjoy toys for nostalgia, for a sense of belonging to a small but specialized group, and for a prolonged experience of the pleasures of childhood. In this regard, AFOLs have much in common with doll collectors, model train hobbyists, comic book enthusiasts, and baseball card devotees. However, AFOLs differ from these other groups because their chosen toy is a constructive one, where the collector actually builds and shapes the collection into truly unique creations. Model train clubs do some of this same work, but they generally purchase the trains, buildings, and trees that make up their displays, while a LEGO train club builds its entire layout, from engines and cabooses to water towers and depots, literally brick by brick.
The opportunity for creative expression is, therefore, a defining element of the hobby’s appeal. As one AFOL interviewed for this essay pointed out, “With LEGO, anyone can be a sculptor, artist, train model builder, action-figure hero, doll house creator, spaceship designer, mechanized robot programmer… and on and on. LEGO is a medium that unleashes everyone’s creativity – no matter what object or adventure their imagination holds.” In AFOL MOCS, creativity, building technique, and attention to detail matter a great deal; AFOLS also value humor and presentation quality, and a creation that combines all of these elements is sure to attract the community’s admiration.  These values demonstrate the qualities that adult LEGO hobbyists value in themselves as well as in their efforts; they are drawn to the hobby because it allows them to exercise their aesthetic and architectural creativity, awareness of form, eye for detail and sense of humor, preferably all at once.  
As Mark Borlase’s Hoth diorama shows, another important element of the AFOL community is a shared interest in certain pop culture icons and trends. AFOL interests help drive LEGO Company decisions about which themes to produce, especially where licensed products are concerned, and the kinds of things that AFOLs like tend to reflect their position within the larger spheres of geek and Gen X culture. Fan boy culture has taken root over the last several years in many different media venues, and it should come as no surprise that LEGO products have also been influenced.
LEGO Star Wars sets first appeared over a decade ago in 1999, in conjunction with the release of The Phantom Menace, and they have been extremely popular ever since, spawning t-shirts and video games as well as a constant stream of new sets. AFOL devotion to the LEGO Star Wars line allows the toy company to produce and sell remarkably expensive kits, including the Ultimate Collector Series, which features high end sets designed specifically for ages 16 and up. The popular AFOL website From Bricks to Bothans keeps track of all LEGO Star Wars news and provides a public face for that segment of the LEGO community. Recent news includes the release of the new set, Home One, which depicts the Rebel Alliance’s command center from Return of the Jedi. The Star Wars AFOL community had direct influence on the creation of this particular set through polls and surveys as well as the Ambassador program, and it’s clearly not a set designed for the 8-12 year old fan, with its focus on a scene that is basically a committee meeting and its inclusion of obscure characters like Mon Mothma (a middle-aged woman, no less!) and General Nadine, as well as the first ever LEGO Mon Calamari mini-figures.
The recent release of other Star Wars elements, like the long anticipated Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, shows how much the old school, Gen X Star Wars fan base still influences product lines, despite younger fans’ preference for the Clone Wars films and characters. The AFOL demand for a mini-figure scale Tauntaun had been great enough that custom designed versions were popping up online and within the AFOL community, clearly sending a message to the company that money could made by providing its customers with an official model. In 2010, LEGO finally made an official version of the prized creature available in stores, thus prompting the specialty market to move on to other unfilled niches. This cycle can be seen in other LEGO lines, as well; town and castle builders had long wanted farm animal figures for their layouts, but LEGO only offered horses, so secondary suppliers like Brick Forge filled the gap by producing small, high quality runs of cows, pigs, and sheep. In 2008, The LEGO Company finally addressed some of this demand by releasing its own official cows, and in the last two years it has continued to release new animals, including goats, chickens, and new dog figures. These new additions show that the company is responding to demand from the community for a broader and more interesting collection of creatures.
Other themes also demonstrate the overlaps between AFOL, Gen X, and fan boy culture. The Indiana Jones sets were markedly hot in 2010, often selling out at retail stores and LEGO Stores, but the most popular sets were those based on the original three films and not the latest installment. One set in particular seemed intended for the AFOL market; the $90 Temple of Doom set is based on a scene from a twenty-five year old movie that helped to spur the creation of the PG-13 rating, so its appeal to younger children seems uncertain at best. Temple of Doom was the darkest and least popular of the original films, but among adult fans it has its devotees, and the set appeals to AFOLs through its inclusion of Mola Ram and a uniquely costumed Willie Scott as mini-figures.
Other licensed themes have included Batman, Speed Racer, Spiderman, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and a line featuring monsters clearly inspired by the classic Universal horror films. Several of these themes also included mini-figures of director Steven Spielberg, along with other elements designed to help customers create their own stop-motion films. While children might certainly enjoy all of these themes, their frame of reference seems to have more in common with fan boy and geek culture at large, and that has been directed by Gen Xer interests. New product lines continue to reflect this influence, with tie-in lines related to popular Hollywood films and comic book heroes premiering each year at San Diego Comic Con. LEGO’s strong presence at Comic Con is itself an indicator of the cultural space being occupied by its perceived fans. The LEGO Company even creates exclusive sets just for the Comic Con event, offering a different set for each day of the convention.
As diverse as the official LEGO offerings have become, AFOLs still expand the toy’s connections to popular culture by creating their own themed worlds and figures. During the years when The Lord of the Rings movies were being released, AFOL re-creations of Helm’s Deep and Orthanc popped up all over the Internet. Star Trek, Halo, Star Craft, and Transformers all have their AFOL devotees, as well. The cultural craze for zombies has not been lost on the AFOL community, either; the LEGO Apocalypse, also called ApocaLEGO, is perhaps the most inventive and macabre of unofficial, AFOL-created themes, with hordes of zombies and cthuloids running amok  through LEGO landscapes designed to be broken, twisted, and bizarre. The LEGO convention BrickCon even features a whole area devoted to this theme, called the Zombie Apocafest. Modified mini-figures reflect AFOL love for the entire spectrum of geek culture: fans make custom LEGO versions of characters from Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and even Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. The LEGO Company can never meet this kind of demand, and only a few brands have enough mass-market appeal to be really profitable, but the inherent nature of LEGO bricks and figures means that fans can make whatever they like, and what they like tends to run primarily in this vein.  
Overall, the AFOL community is defined by its creativity and commitment to its medium for self-expression. As the Internet has become a dominant tool for communication and public display, adult LEGO enthusiasts have become more visible to the world at large, and millions of people around the globe can see and appreciate their efforts. The strengthened coherence of the AFOL community has also given it greater sway with The LEGO Company, allowing lifelong, serious fans the opportunity to influence commercial decision-making in an unprecedented way. Most importantly, however, increased visibility and community power help LEGO devotees enjoy their hobby more fully. At the end of the analysis, after all, adults who play with LEGO know that it’s really just about having fun.

NB: The original version of this essay was presented at the annual meeting of The Popular Culture  Association in the South in 2010. All photos are the property of Jennifer Garlen. Neither this blog nor its author has any official connection to LEGO or The LEGO Company.