Narrative Praxis is the Name of My Muse Cover Band

In another life, I was an academic. More precisely, I completed a M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon, and then spent several years applying to PhD. programs in Media Studies, Radio, Television Film, and more — with a proposed dissertation topic investigating the mainstreaming of geek culture. I completed my M.A. in 2007, and applied to programs for the cohorts of 2007-2010. I got on the wait list at a couple of schools, but was never offered a position in a cohort.

So now, in 2014, when superhero movies dominate the big screens and are taking over the smaller screens, when Game of Thrones is a toast of the town, and SF Dystopias have helped cement the strength of YA literature as a cultural juggernaut, I can look back at those programs that rejected me and wonder what might have been. Was I too early? Did I see the wave because I was inside the subject group, but pushed for it too early for the academy to see it? Probably.

But here’s the thing: By *not* pursuing a PhD, I saved myself possibly over a hundred thousand dollars in student loans, and have ended up with a burgeoning pair of careers in SF/F publishing as a professional and as an author.

And my scholarship? It hasn’t gone away. Not getting into a PhD program didn’t quash my academic interest in SF/F and cultural studies. Instead, I focus on praxis.

Narrative Praxis.

Praxis Wordcloud

Praxis Wordcloud, from

What do I mean by narrative praxis? Simply put, praxis is putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to a theory or worldview. For me, Narrative Praxis is putting my scholarly and cultural perspectives into my fiction.

The Ree Reyes books examine bricolage, textual poaching, my own idea of narrative farming, and more. They literalize the metaphor of “we tell ourselves stories to learn how to deal with the world,” and more.

For lack of a PhD appointment, I turned my scholarship into prose. I’m far from the only person to write fiction infused with critical theory, and I’m far from the best at it, since my focus in the Ree Reyes books is more on the fun than on the theory, though they are far from mutually exclusive. My notion of narrative praxis is directly informed by the work of several of my colleagues – both scholars and writers themselves – Alyc Helms, and Darja Malcolm-Clarke, who have both masterfully incorporated critical theory into their prose works.

Shield and Crocus takes my thoughts about the New Weird and Superhero genres and puts them into dialogue with one another, showing how one genre can shore up the weaknesses of the other. But I do it on the back of an action-adventure story. And instead of possibly a few hundred academics reading my essay on how the New Weird and Superhero genres have interesting contrasts that could speak usefully to one another, I *show* how those genres can speak to one another by making the culture that others can comment on. Not that scholarship is not cultural work – it is. But I’m using the age-old trick of putting my argument into a story to make it both more digestible and less direct.

And a new project I’m working on (the one that I’m fast-drafting right now) is applying my love of narrative genres and the relationship between genre tropes and assumptions and our social lives to fiction.



I don’t have a PhD. I don’t get introduce myself as Dr. Underwood. There are days I wish I had, and I could.

But I’m still a scholar, and (occasionally) a teacher. I have a platform for sharing my views on the world, my praises and my critiques. And I couldn’t be happier to be in a place where I can change the world with stories.

The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers

The Uprising has begun.

After a year of build-up and promotion, the LXD webseries has debuted (on and on the LXD website).

LXD first caught my attention with the pair of trailers that have been available for quite some time, displaying clips of incredible feats of athleticism through dance and promising a superhero-style story. In the time that has passed since, more details have been unveiled:

Director John M. Chu is the spokesperson for the series, which displays a group of talented dancers by creating a narrative which casts the dancers as superhuman — after all, these people are perfoming at a level which cannot be matched by more than a handful of people around the world. And many of the feats do appear superhuman.

The LXD then is a super-team of people who have discovered their powers through dance and are gathering their forces for…something — which I imagine puts John M. Chu in the role of the Professor Xavier to the nascent Legion. Also, there seems to be a creepy dancer bad-guy who would then be the series’ Magneto. From origin stories to secret powers and a group of heroes seeking out talented youth to train and add to the team, the superhero motifs are already well in-place.

Two episodes have gone live so far, “The Tale of Trevor Drift” and “Antigravity Heroes,” both debuting on July 7th on Hulu and the LXD site. “The Tale of Trevor Drift” is the longer and more narratively meat-y of the two, showing the origin story of a young man whose powers manifest through his skills as a b-boy, which he reveals when he pursues his crush (Alice Wondershaw) at prom and is opposed by her boyfriend, Brendan Broman. (His name is seriously Broman. As in “Bro, Man.” I find this hilarious).

The second episode, “Antigravity Heroes,” focuses on two friends who gain anti-gravity powers when they horse around in an abandoned warehouse. There’s far less characterization, and it’s mostly a showcase episode until the end when the friends are pulled apart by circumstance…and evil plotting. Let’s not forget evil plotting.

As of yet, the narrative is not terribly sophisticated, but I’m intrigued by the superhero framework and consistently amazed by the level of the dancing. Dance Crew as Super-Team is a great metaphor, and I’m eager to see more.

For those unfamiliar with the series, here’s what to watch: — You can watch the first two episodes here, as well as many of their promotional appearances, including The Oscars, So You Think You Can Dance, and their appearance at the TED Talks.

The episodes are also playing at

I think I need their T-Shirt.  When they come for me, I will be known as Turbo, with Tactile Telepathy (via Tango Dancing).

Review: Kick-Ass

This review is about the film, rather than the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic.

Directed by Matthew “Layer Cake” Vaughn and co-written with Jane Goldman, this film elevates hyper-violence to the category of camp, in company with such films as Wanted and Shoot ‘Em Up. Roger Ebert called the film “morally reprehensible.”

Well, it is. And that’s the point. Kick-Ass is a parody by means of Reductio ad Absurdum. The violence and improbability of the premise is pushed so far that it falls into what I call the Moore Continuum, which condemns all superheroes as ultimately tending towards psychosis or fascism (or both). In this case, the superheroes fall by the side of Rorschach — sociopathic masochists guided only by their own moral code. The titular Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is the most moderate of these figures, far outpaced in his sociopathy by Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz)and her father/trainer Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, channeling Adam West’s Batman). The super-hero cast is rounded out by Christopher Mintz-Please (aka McLovin) as Red Mist.

In particular, the 11-year old Hit Girl is shown as brainwashed/raised with a worldview that desensitizes her to violence by interpreting vigilante slaying within the context of a game. A sequence towards the climax of the film gives us the action from Hit Girl’s POV in a manner evocative of a 1st person shooter such as Doom or Halo, complete with reload animations.

Big Daddy and Hit Girl are easily seen as analogues of Batman and Robin, and Big Daddy also parallels the Punisher. Since no heroes have actual powers, they fall into the “street level” hero category, where the vigilante aspects of superheroes are drawn with a sharper focus. The bad guys in street-level superhero stories are customarily thugs and crime bosses, rather than invading aliens or armies of secret cyborg nazis.

Kick-Ass addresses the question “why hasn’t anyone become a superhero?”

In our world, the answer is “they already have. But not in the way you’d expect.” Individuals like Mr. Silent and Doktor DiscorD (both in Indianapolis) and across the world with groups such as the World Superhero Registry are stepping up and pursuing the spirit of superheroics without breaking the law. Heroes such as Mr. Silent patrol the city and act within the law while working to allay fears and help people feel protected.

Kick-Ass goes far, far beyond the level of Mr. Silent or any of the Real Life Superheroes. Comics geek David Leziwsky orders a scuba suit off of the internet and intervenes in a carjacking. Given that he’s an untrained average teenager, he gets the living daylights beaten out of him, then stabbed in the gut. Massive surgery leaves him with metal plates in his body and head and nerve damage which becomes his “super-power” — he can take a beating and keep going.

In his mis-adventures, he becomes a YouTube and Myspace phenomenon, leading to ubiquitous Kick-Ass memorabilia and increasing his popularity. He runs across Hit Girl and Big Daddy, who have the actual training to take on large numbers of armed opponents. It helps that they use lethal force without remorse, stabbing slicing and shooting at whim.

I’ll end my plot recollections here for now, as there are some notable twists.

Kick-Ass is not for anyone who isn’t a fan of hyperviolence or ridiculousness. It leaps a jet ski over the top, then trampolines over a shark and never looks back. But as campy as the action is, the emotional reality of the situation is powerful for the characters. Kick-Ass confronts the idiocy of his attempts to be a hero when he doesn’t have the training or the equipment to succeed, and the reality of loss and revenge are keenly felt by Big Daddy and Hit Girl, who reprise a Punisher/Batman-style origin story of tragedy and loss. By counter-example, David shares his own tragic past — but instead of being murdered by a criminal, his mother died from a brain aneurysm. His rage cannot be anchored to a guilty party, unlike Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil.

An unexpected surprise was the 3-D John Romita Jr. art during the recollection of Big Daddy’s story of loss. The camera zooms across 2-D traditional comic-panels, but as it turns and moves, the panels come alive in 3-D, giving greater depth and texture to the art of Romita Jr. (standing in for Big Daddy’s paintings on his half serial-killer, half police officer target/crime board.) It was a deft artistic touch that acknowledged the film’s sequential art heritage as well as highlighting the art of Kick-Ass‘ co-creator.

I’m not a big Mark Millar friend in general. I love his Elseworlds Superman story Red Son, which tells the tale of a world where Kal-El’s escape shuttle lands in the middle of Russia instead of the American Heartland, leading him to become a gleaming example of the triumph of Socialism, positioned as national foes with American hero Lex Luthor rather than as rival claimants on the American Spirit. In Red Son, the critique of the superhero flows naturalistically and doesn’t take arrogant pleasure in itself. In other Millar works, I find the aggressive testosterone-filled action to be smug and self-important (evident in later arcs of The Ultimates and in Civil War. In the case of the Kick-Ass film, the overblown testosterone-y action draws attention to its own faults and invites critique, where I feel some of his other works lack the same self-awareness.

If you’re a superhero fan, Kick-Ass is certainly worth your time and money — more and more superhero films are being made, and it’s films like Kick-Ass that show another part of the genre conversation than films such as Iron Man or The Dark Knight. As a genre rises, parody comes with it. Parody is a way for the genre to show its self-awareness and show that it’s aware of its blind spots and its pock-marks. Parody and deconstruction doesn’t necessarily lead to re-construction or reform, but it maintains the conversation and keeps artists and fans from consuming and engaging with stories in the genre without reflecting on its motifs and assumptions.

“It’s a Strange World”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

So ends the first issue of the comic series Planetary, script by Warren Ellis and art by John Cassaday, published by Wildstorm comics.  Planetary started in 1999, and I’ve been reading it since about 2001, just in to the second trade’s materials.  The 27th issue and series epilogue was released today, and now the series is officially complete.

For those who don’t know it, here’s the premise:  John Elijah Snow is recruited by the Planetary Organization, a rich and influential group that acts as Mystery Archaeologists, uncovering and documenting the secret history of the 20th century.  In the first six issues alone, they find 1) the sole survivor of a pulp-era superteam who just barely stopped a cross-dimensional Justice League analogue from conquering our planet 2) A Hong Kong ghost cop seeking vengeance 3) the Monster Island where the remains of Godzilla-style monsters are treated as sacred relics by a Japanese terrorist and his sychophants, 4) Radioactively mutated people and giant ants, and much more.

Part of why I love this series is the way it interfaces with genre.  The series takes the popular literature/culture of the 20th century and says ‘what if this were all true, but it was secret?’ A sense of wonder and deep fascination with the past permeates the book, and in this case, the past is our cultural heritage, and most specifically the cultural heritage of the superhero genre (since the series is published in the medium associated with supers, by a publisher known for superhero comics) — even though in the world of Planetary, superheroes don’t exist in the public eye (Well they kind of do, as Kevin says, but that depends on how much one considers it to be in synch with other Wildstorm continuity).  Snow and the other members of the Planetary Organization go around the world and discover the wonders that were and those that could have been.  Popular literary genres are positioned as thrusts and ripostes of cultural warfare to control the earth.

Each issue tends to focus on one of those genres, with a cover stylized to match.  Atomic SF here, Hong Kong action there, and then over to silver age superheroes and back to pulp mystery.

So if you haven’t read Planetary, you might give it a chance, especially if you like any of the following: 1) genre studies, 2) superheroes, 3) deeply intertextual literature.

I received no free copies of anything from this series, so don’t bother trying to fine me, ok FTC?