Series of my heart: Velveteen Vs.

1. Seanan McGuire announced on her blog that her previously web-published series, Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots, is going to be collected and published by ISFiC Press. I am now stalking ISFiC’s website, awaiting pre-order information.

2. What is this, you ask?

Velveteen Vs. Everything can be found on Seanan’s website. As the webpage states:

“In 2008, on a whim, I began writing short stories about a strange superhero universe where cosmic powers not only came with great responsibility, they came with great legislation, merchandising, and focus group oversight. Many young heroes were effectively “adopted” by a corporate entity known as The Super Patriots, Inc., which promised to teach them how to best control their amazing gifts.

Some of those junior heroes wanted out. Very few of them ever got it.”

There you go. That’s the elevator pitch.

3. There is an illusion in fiction that happens sometimes. That illusion is that, sometimes, it feels to a reader that a writer is talking just to them. Sometimes, a writer or creator or musician or what-have-you expresses a feeling or moment in such a way that it can seem, can feel, as though it comes from within the audience member’s own heart. I will sometimes express this by saying a piece of fiction “is all for meeeeeee,” or that a creator has “written my fanfiction.” Neither of these things are true. Writers and creators make art from within themselves. They do it for their own reasons, and those reasons have not a damn thing to do with me.

But, sometimes, writers are pulling on source material that I, too, have consumed and loved.

In a recent interview I heard Greg Rucka explaining his take and theories on noir heroes, and I was shouting out loud in my car because he and I have read and loved some of the same things. Which explains why his noir characters feel so right to me — he’s pulling from the sources with which I am familiar.

There’s a current crop of Marvel comic writers who, for whatever reasons, are referring to pieces of X-Men and Avengers canon which are meaningful to me. This means that my response is that these writers are “getting it right.” I understand, intellectually, that it’s not a matter of right or wrong, that it’s a question of what parts of the kajillion bits of canon a creator wants to use. But it feels right. It feels like a story made for me.

4. When I was a young teenager, my experience of the world was that I did not understand what people did, or why they did it. I felt very confused by words, facial expressions, and body language. I learned how to interpret human interaction primarily from the novels of Stephen King, certain horror films, and the various X-Men-related comic books. I am not asserting that I was especially terrible at people, though there is some evidence I may have been. I am also not asserting that the fiction of Stephen King, Wes Craven, and Chris Claremont were good models on which to base all my human interactions. But, there you have it.

5. When I was in high school, I felt that the institution of my high school was evil. As as adult, I recognize that this was not true. But the feelings I remember having at the time were of being trapped in an evil institution that wanted to use and manipulate the powers of me and my friends.

Did I mention that getting one’s understanding of the world from Stephen King and Chris Claremont is, perhaps, sub-optimal?

That said, I distinctly remember a number of lectures on the topic of how we were The Leaders of Tomorrow.

6. A few years back one of my high school friends died. As we gathered for his memorial, I kept thinking of the comic book Rising Stars. It opens with a group of superheroes — raised together as superpowered children in an institution — at the funeral of one of their own.

My high school friends and I, we’re not superheroes. We’re largely not the leaders of tomorrow. But we were told we would be. Some of us dropped out of that race, others of us banged our heads against the wall until there was little left. And some of us found ways to lead and live and make the world better in smaller, human, non-superhero ways.

The future never, ever looks like what you think it will be. Even if you get what you hoped for.

7. Velma “Velveteen” Martinez was a child superhero. Now she’s older, a young adult, and she is trying to make a new life for herself. None of that is spoilers; it’s the premise of Seanan’s series. It’s also the fundamental question — how do you make a life when the life you were offered isn’t supportable any longer?

It’s a question that applies widely, and outside of fiction. When you are young, and you invest heavily in an ambition, what do you do when that ambition is either completed or becomes unattainable? For a world-class gymnast you are either a success or a failure by age twenty. For an elite mathematician, age twenty-four, most likely. If you have heavily invested in this ambition, you and your family have devoted time and money and, oh, time. Time spent at practices and games and concerts and meets. Time spent drilling alone and in groups. Time spent navigating the culture of growth and competition in your field. You work together with the same people over and over again in different configurations. Once you reach elite, it’s the same folks all the time.

You learn the language, the ways of thinking. You learn what is and is not appropriate. You learn how to deal with pain and disappointment, as well as how to speak graciously in interviews. Always speak well of your collaborators and opponents, never throw blame, always smile. You learn a view of the world which is exceedingly goal-oriented. And those goals … they are often set by others. Sure, you want to be a national success at Model U.N. But getting there involves a mandatory framework that you neither asked for nor approved. You must simply do it to get to where you want to go.

And then you’re done.

Either you walk away from it, or it walks away from you.

What now?

8. The framework for addressing these questions in Velveteen Vs. is one of villainy and heroism and superpowers. The stakes are fictionally high, the bad guys are dastardly in the manner that only bland corporate institutions can dastard.

Yet.

Yet.

Yet an institution devoted to the care and education and training of talented teenagers will not always behave in ways that cater to individual needs. That institution will protect itself and its mission first. And its primary mission is not, ever, “make these kids happy.”

Yet walking away from a superhero life is a pretty damn good metaphor for walking away from elite athletics, or professional acting, or elite academics. Suddenly the mechanisms you have for coping with the idiosyncratic stresses and pressures of that life are no longer applicable. The walls and guidelines you agreed to are no longer relevant. What governs your life now?

Yet adolescence and young adulthood are, regardless of superpowers, a time for trying to figure out how the hell to relate to other human beings in ways that 1) create self-respect, 2) respect others, 3) meet one’s needs once one knows what the hell they are, 4) do no harm, and 5) make amends for the many, many errors and mis-steps along the way.

Vel’s role models in this aren’t, frankly, much better than Stephen King, Chris Claremont, and Wes Craven.

9. Seanan McGuire has not written the X-Men / Stephen King mashup that has lived in my head since I was fourteen.

Thank goodness.

10. But we’ve read the same comics. We’ve watched the same movies. I treasure the Velveteen stories because they are a way of looking at, raising, and answering the questions that I always had about the X-Men, and Charlie McGee, and The Farm. They are another answer to the questions I was asking when I was twenty, and at a liberal arts college that had nothing whatsoever to do with math and science, and I was majoring in women and poor nutrition because I had absolutely no idea how to be anything but a thing I had decided to not be anymore.

I have answers these days that make me happy. I have perspective on my past questions. But I still love seeing other people — characters — try to answer the questions using the same tools I had at the time. It feels familiar, and comforting, and it gives me a measure of peace with the poor choices I made. I have a benevolent sort of forgiveness for past-me, muddling along as best I could without knowing that everyone around me was faking it just as much as I was.

Like many of Seanan’s characters, Vel changes and grows over the course of the series. She learns new information, she learns new skills. She also begins the process of unlearning the well-worn flinches and patterns of behavior which once stood her in good stead and are now counter-productive. In an odd way, I retroactively aspire to have been as good at learning at twenty-something as Vel is. I admire her as well as relate to her.

With every installment of Vel’s story, I worry about her. Her story hasn’t gotten to the point of ease and resolution that mine has. I’m rooting for her and wish her all the best. And I intend to buy the limited edition book of her stories, just to have them around.

11. Velveteen Vs.

Series of my heart.

I can’t wait.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent questions. My new roommate matches your description in point 7. He was a championship Irish dancer in high school until he was injured. He was home-schooled and his parents did not do an even half-way decent job of preparing him for college or a vocation. So far as I can tell their marriage started falling apart at the same time he was injured and he fell through the cracks. Now he is working 30 hours a week at a grocery store trying to save up enough money to go to community college and get a real job with health insurance.

  2. @Lynn :nods: Believe me, this is a thing I think a LOT in regards to Circus Juventas.

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