some random observations on the narrative impulses of Avengers fan fiction, part 1

Any new and madly popular film or TV text causes outbreaks of fan fiction, and the Marvel movieverse is no exception. The release of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) has been particularly fascinating, however, because the nature of the film, which really ticks all the fanfic boxes, and in particular the slash-related ones:

  • a big-budget blockbuster with enormous marketing presence;
  • superheroes, with the concomitant action and heroic elements and resulting high-stakes tension to the narrative, which becomes a pressure-cooker for interaction, intimacy and mutual dependence;
  • a fantastic paradigm blurring science fiction and the magical, and allowing for strong imaginative investment and powerful use of symbol;
  • an ensemble focus, with the film resting thematically on co-operation between disparate personalities;
  • a character-driven script, with some very strong and distinctive characterisations;
  • a pre-existing fanbase in the comics and Joss Whedon fandoms;
  • a build-up of fan investment over the development of a multiple-film series;
  • a plethora of canon texts not just in the multiple Marvel Phase 1 films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America) but in the whole history of the Avengers across several decades of Marvel comic book versions and animated film and TV adaptations;
  • a tendency to re-invention in the comics universe anyway (let’s face it, some of the odder Marvel comic runs are basically fan fiction in themselves. “What if Sgt. Fury had fought World War 2 in outer space?” Good grief.);
  • a male-dominated character spread (and the usual Hollywood tendency to an extremely good-looking cast);
  • a contemporary setting familiar to writers, and with pre-existing tendencies towards humour and pop cultural reference (because Joss Whedon).

The film thus seems to provide an almost perfect paradigm (exaggerated in some ways to the point of parody) of the kinds of things fan fiction does in almost any context – and, in particular, the kinds of things slash fan fiction is interested in.

Avengers is a large and active fandom featuring, in my sense of it, a generally older demographic of writers and a higher quality of work than something like Lord of the Rings, possibly because the modern setting is familiar to writers, and because Tolkien’s high-fantasy elevated tone is more difficult to reproduce. This makes it an interesting body of work to examine for narrative trends, although I cannot claim that this is any attempt at a comprehensive study. These particular reflections have been arrived at by the not entirely scientific process of reading about two-thirds of the fics on the first twenty pages of the “Avengers (Marvel) – all media types” section of Archive Of Our Own, sorted in descending order of kudos.

Explorations with setting and plot have some common threads: a large proportion of fics place the Avengers either in the Avengers Tower (modelled on Stark Tower in the films, and foreshadowed by the lone “A” remaining on the building after the Chitauri battle) or in the mansion featured in many of the comic versions. This is inevitable given the relationship-focus of much fanfic, and the opportunity to explore interactions in a shared environment, and many of these fics are sophisticated character pieces as well as operating in many cases as domestic comedy. The science fiction/magical elements which coexist in the Marvel canon also enable many of the common fan motifs which shadow and intensify the drive towards intimacy, so telepathy, time travel, disembodiment, de-aging, curses and that perennial favourite, sex pollen, are recurring features. In addition, many fics exhibit a savvy awareness of contemporary media culture and the interaction of the superheroes with tabloid and other media versions of their activities, which allows in some cases sophisticated play with enforced intimacy motifs, romance-genre expectation, and a self-conscious association between slash and social justice.

The modern setting of the film is particularly enabling of crossover and alternate-universe versions, which once again foreground relationship development within the ensemble – there seems to be a recurring theme of “unpowered Avengers working in coffee-shops“, for example. AU high school or college versions also abound, an inevitability given not only the traditional age demographic of fanfic writers, but Marvel’s own tendency to re-invent its superheroes as younger versions even in canon. (See the Young Avengers and the Iron Man Armoured Adventures animated TV series, which is basically a high school AU).

As I say, slash predominates here, and not only because of the male/female ratio of the Avengers themselves. Heroic action is traditionally a male-dominated narrative, and the joyous homoeroticism of slash re-interpretations actively resists the film’s conformity to the heteronormative tenets of mainstream media. I am struck by the relatively high incidence of the Alpha/Omega subset of slash fic in the Avengers fanworks, which exaggerates and dramatises the masculinity of the film at the same time as it superimposes a hyperbolic sense of gender polarities onto the film’s male relationships. (Warning: if you click on that link out of mild interest, be advised that this stuff is at the seriously weird and dodgy-gender-political end of fan fiction, which is saying a lot).

Tag analysis (slightly misleading because of multiple-ship fictions and the inability of a tag to distinguish between central and background ships) suggests that slash ships in the Avengers fandom outnumber het ones slightly more than two to one. This certainly reflects the gender balance of the film universe’s main characters, but the pairings are not always the ones which leap obviously to the eye. I will undertake some more extensive analysis of specific ships and their popularity in the second part of this post.

the Internet is for porn

Confusion with audio-visual equipment mean that I couldn’t show the clip I meant to show in my first lecture. It’s designed as an amusing illustration of my argument, but it embodies some central aspects of the issues I was discussing around the inevitable trend of internet communication towards the erotic, as well as attitudes, mechanisms and self-conscious play which are highly characteristic of internet culture. Here it is, with some commentary in rather more detail than I had time for in the lecture.

Avenue Q is an off-Broadway musical which uses Sesame-Street-style puppets to explore the challenges and disillusionments of growing into young adulthood, and to contrast the idealised simplicities of a child’s world-view with the difficulties of the real world. This clip is a fan-made interpretation of the song “The Internet is for Porn” from the musical, but using machinima techniques – that is, using the characters and movement possibilities of a video game engine to generate what is effectively low-quality cinematic sequence which can be synchronised with a song to make a music video. The game engine in this instance is early-generation World of Warcraft, which explains the weird fantastic-creature characters and general air of pixelation.

For the purposes of these lectures, there are several interesting aspects to the clip.

  • The song itself is highly satirically aware of the prevalence of porn on the internet, and parodies the naïveté of the female voice in believing that porn is a marginal rather than normative feature of internet communication. Nonetheless, her excitement about the internet’s potential directly mirrors those aspects of it which also link it inevitably to erotic expression: instant gratification (“I’ve got a fast connection so I don’t have to wait”), freedom of access as well as privacy and intimacy in the interaction between individual and internet (“Right from your own desktop”), and breadth of possibility (“untold opportunity… / You can research and browse and shop”). The interspersed “For porn!” refrain is an amusing enactment of the erotic’s tendency to hijack any form of communication and turn it to erotic ends.
  • This is a fanvid: that is, it’s been loving created by fans who have considerable and affectionate investment in Avenue Q (and presumably also a lot of time on their hands), and who are thus driven to interaction and commentary rather than simple consumption. It is no longer enough to simply watch the musical: the impulse is to appropriate, sample, reshape and re-interpret it, and then to re-distribute it in an ongoing dialogue which looks for response and a reassurance that the insight is valid and the investment is shared.
  • This particular commentary – the World of Warcraft setting – is in some ways mocking (clearly the internet is also for World of Warcraft, a use not mentioned by the song, as well as porn), but it’s also validatory of the song’s essential message, that communications will be hijacked, and that the internet is above all about appropriation as self-expression. Here it’s consumer artefacts as much as art which are diverted into a personalised use which meets personalised needs at the same time that it permits active engagement with the text. Porn and World of Warcraft are thus being equated as self-indulgent but equally central forms of self-indulgent internet activity.
  • As a fan response it also exemplifies the common tendency for fans to engage in simultaneous multiple discourses of fandom – to be as invested in World of Warcraft as they are in Avenue Q, and to use one area of investment and specialised knowledge to comment on the other, and to generate humour via deliberately bizarre juxtapositions. (This sort of impulse can also be seen in crossover fanfic, or in fan fiction which features song lyrics or references to other pop-culture texts as a secondary layer of identification).
  • The interpretation of the song is fundamentally playful and highly self-aware, making self-conscious use of technological abstraction to generate humour by playing intertextual games. It also incidentally comments on the musical’s own real-life format, which places the puppets’ handlers visibly on stage without commentary, and requires suspension of disbelief to accept the clearly artificial puppets as characters in their own right.


    This beautifully shadows the kind of suspension of disbelief any computer gamer engages in when investing in their (unrealistic, idealised or inhuman, badly-pixelated) avatar as an extension of their own identity.

You can find lyrics for the song at; that page also has a clip of the actual performance of the song from the Broadway musical, with the puppets.

Supernatural fiction: the vampire on the threshold

A large part of my critical interests can be found in the area of self-conscious fiction, and in particular, metafiction: fiction which not only reflexively plays with its own genre identity and rules, but which manages, through its offering of itself deliberately as constructed artefact rather than mimetic reality, to complicate and problematise the relationship between text and reality, and thus the act of representation. The problem with dealing in metafiction is that all texts are crafted, the self-consciousness almost inherent in the act of creation, and sooner or later everything looks metafictional if you stare at it for long enough.

The case I’ve recently been dealing with is the supernatural fiction genre, primarily as represented by Victorian writers such as Poe or Lefanu or Stoker, but extending into the work of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft. This kind of supernatural writing plays bizarre and fascinating games with representation and reality. So many supernatural texts employ first-person narration, often from multiple viewpoints, often framed as science or scholarship – Dracula takes this to extremes, with telegraphs and newspaper articles and transcribed doctors’ notes making up part of its narratives. A lot of ghost stories rely on this narrator figure, simultaneously caught up in but outside, if only virtue of surviving, the supernatural events – Poe’s “House of Usher” is another example. Lovecraft’s investigators are often academics, doctors, professors; even H. G. Wells, demonstrating the close ties between science fiction and the Gothic mode, frames his Time Machine travels as a narrative told to an audience of respectable middle-class men. The narrated supernatural experience is a subgenre in itself, extending effortlessly from the nineteenth century into the present day, so that the Dr. Hesselius frame to Lefanu’s weird fiction is an exact technical equivalent to the camera in The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield: an appeal to verifiable, scientific reality. At the same time, of course, it places the reader or viewer firmly within the emotional response of the protagonist, and thus able to access the unease and terror which are intrinsic to the genre.

The interesting thing about this framing is that it demonstrates the extent to which the genre needs to convince. Supernatural fiction is by definition non-mimetic, self-consciously fantastic: it cannot pretend to reflect reality in any exact way. However, the Gothic mode is also essentially emotional, its purpose to re-create the suspense, dread and terror felt by its protagonists – to generate, in fact, for the reader that vicarious thrill of empathetic fear as something which is simultaneously both unreal and real. In order to genuinely feel that artifically-constructed terror the reader needs to commit to the obviously false reality of the story, its location in a supernatural world – hence all the appeal to verifiability, science, trustworthiness. Paradoxically this is also a self-conscious genre identity which underlines its lack of realism – its brandishing of itself, in fact, as artefact simultaneously with its obvious demand for the reader’s investment. It figures in slightly more extreme terms the tension and paradox of reading any kind of text, the need to suspend disbelief in order to participate in a fictional world in order to generate a real emotional investment.

This means that, on all the meta-literary levels that matter, supernatural fiction is itself a vampire creature, explained and dramatised by this most powerful and complex of its own symbols. Like the vampire, it can only have its effect if you explicitly invite it in. Once you do, it offers you surprisingly similar pleasures to those offered by the vampire: the experience of fear and desire, a horrible sort of intimacy, an irresistible power to which you helplessly and enjoyably submit yourself. The guilty pleasure, in fact, of corruption. Like the vampire, in texts from Varney to the Vampire Diaries, the supernatural genre is continually re-inventing itself as it finds new ways to offer this pleasure.

Joanna Russ on slash

Joanna Russ was a particularly important, fierce and incisive feminist science fiction writer whose recent death is a great loss, but has prompted all sorts of tributes on internet fora. Her fiction is challenging and narratively innovative, and I thoroughly recommend it for anyone who likes a book to reach up from your lap and punch you in the nose (try The Female Man or Picnic on Paradise, or her short story “When it Changed”, here), but she was also one of the earliest critics to talk about fan fiction, particularly slash, in feminist terms. Her discussions tend to focus on Star Trek slash, with an emphasis on Kirk/Spock. I’ve excerpted some bits below, but I encourage you to follow up the interviews and posts from which they come for more detailed discussions. I’m struck by how many of her points relate directly to issues we raised in the classroom over the last few days.

There’s an argument for looking at slash, and the female writer’s fascination with male intimacy, as yet another form of persona play: if culture attributes strength and power and complexity to men but denies those qualities to women, as a woman you can appropriate those elements by appropriating the male character and writing about them rather than the female. The interview from which I’ve excerpted this is chatty and informal rather than academic in tone, but nonetheless interesting. Russ says:

… the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” I have written a couple of stories myself in which women are disguised, literally disguised as men. You try to write about women and you don’t have the cultural tropes that you could use, there’s very little there. It’s kind of like disguising yourself as an upper-class person, as an aristocrat. It counts, it matters that they’re male. It makes what they do serious…
(Interview with Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier,

She also covers the issue of objectification: if male-produced pornography tends to objectify the passive female object, there is potential for female-produced slash pornography to replicate the cliché by objectifying men. In the quote below JR is Joanna Russ, and the response is from Alison Piepmeier; they make opposing points, so you’ll have to decide for yourselves if you think slash is objectifying or not.

JR:…I remember once I was having one of the [fanzines] duplicated, and the illustrations I had forgotten about, and I was there watching them do it in this Xerox place. This elderly man kind of stood next to me and he saw one of the illustrations, and he went gray—shocked, very shocked. Yet I took [these same pictures] to a feminist group and I remember one woman saying “I don’t want to see that,” and I showed it to her and she said, “they’re not there for us, they’re there for each other,” which was very subtle, it was true, in the illustration.
AP: And yet I don’t know that’s true of the stuff that I read. In fact, I would say it’s the exact opposite, that the characters are not there for each other, they’re entirely there to create erotic bonds between the women who are writing and reading the stories. They’re explicitly there for us.
(Interview with Conseula Francis and Alison Piepmeier,

Russ’s critical work Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing P., 1985), on female sexuality in various contexts, is sadly not freely available; one chapter of it, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love,” deals specifically with slash. K. Laity has written an interesting summary of the chapter’s argument on Teach Me Tonight. She excerpts one quote directly from Russ, addressing the issue of precisely what slash fiction offers the female writer:

What [women] do want is sexual intensity, sexual enjoyment, the freedom to choose, a love that is entirely free of the culture’s whole discourse of gender and sex roles, and a situation in which it is safe to let go and allow oneself to become emotionally and sexually vulnerable. (89)

I referred in lectures to Russ’s comment that fan fiction is particularly revealing of cultural tropes precisely because it is badly written – that pulp writing, in effect, plugs more closely in to broad desires and anxieties than does more self-consciously literary production (cf. Bram Stoker). I found the reference on this comment on a Making Light post about Russ, in which a contemporary reminisces about conversations with Russ.

We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

Today I randomly found a lovely article by the late, lamented Douglas Adams (the perpetrator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) which addresses some of the issues I raised in today’s lecture. He deals specifically with the idea of the internet as a new, incredibly fast-changing technology, and its impact on our habits of community and communication; his point about the comparative newness of non-interactive cultural product is well made. It’s also an interesting discussion because it was written in 1999, and thus responds to the early days of the internet; I’m impressed by how many of his comments are still relevant even now, when we take for granted a lot of what he describes. Worth a read; you can find it here.

Vampires: important aspects

As a quick overview, I characterised the appeal of the vampire as an erotic symbol in terms of three main aspects, namely its ability to represent issues of otherness, intimacy and power.

The notion of the other is frequently used in postcolonial discourse (see Homi Babha, particularly) but is very useful in this context as well. The other is whatever is different to the self, that which is constructed as outsider to the self’s insider. Difference can be threatening and terrifying, and I talked about the inhuman other in other symbols, most notably monsters and aliens, which find echoes in the frequent conflation of the vampire with the bestial, not just its predatory hunger but its ability to take wolf or bat forms. However, and particularly in the context of the vampire, otherness can simultaneously be thrilling and exotically appealing. The attraction of otherness can be linked to the notion of sexual interaction on a more basic level – the sexual act is an attempt at the union of the self with the other (in purely physical terms, but also in the mutual loss of self in the moment of climax), most sharply defined in the case of heterosexual sexuality.

The vampire bite is intimate in its exchange of fluids, and in its focus on erotic and/or vulnerable areas such as the throat and mouth. It appeals to the basic, visceral bodily needs of hunger, and the intimate identity of blood as life. Today’s Carmilla discussion also touched on the terrible intimacy of the vampire’s need for the victim, the tempering of predatory power with dependence on blood for existence. Modern-day vampires are psychologised, suggesting that we respond to the inherent intimacies of the symbol with a need for emotional intimacy, to know and understand the subjectivity of the vampire rather than othering them in simplistic terms as a threatening monster.

The eroticism of the vampire symbol is inherently sado-masochistic, so that the vampire is simultaneously terrifying and appealing in its construction as an immensely powerful inhuman other. The vampire’s physical strength and mind-control powers tend to be coupled with other kinds of power, most notably social power in the case of the classic Victorian vampire. The tropes of wealth and aristocratic status are interestingly translated into corporate power, money and big guns in more recent texts such as Blade. The erotic appeal of the vampire is precisely in the power of the symbol, the victim’s passivity and submission not just acceptable but inevitable in the face of the vampire’s power. While the vampire’s possession of the victim see-saws between the poles of seduction and rape, the victim’s submission is inevitable either way, allowing the pleasurable abdication of responsibility. The pleasure of submission to invasion, penetration and loss of instrumentality reaches its logical conclusion in the conflation of orgasm with death, but the victim’s submission proffers the pleasurable frisson of a sado-masochistic relationship legitimated by its non-realistic presentation.

Unreal Sex: pertinent quotes

The introductory lectures to this section of the course relied on specific passages from various critics. As the AV equipment issue meant I didn’t have time to set up the overhead, I wasn’t able to give you the quotes in their entirety, so I reproduce them here for reference. You are, of course, encouraged to go forth and read the rest of the chapters from which these quotes are taken, their arguments are interesting.

I contextualised the intersection of eroticism and the unreal by using Rosemary Jackson’s comments on fantasy and desire. She addresses the issues of cultural constraint and desire as absence, and her comments on desire plug straight into the argument I was making about symbolic expression as a safe space for the lateral representation of forbidden desires. She says:

A more extensive treatment would relate texts to … the particular constraints against which fantasy protests and from which it is generated, for fantasy characteristically attempts to compensate for a lack resulting from cultural constraints: it is a literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss.
In expressing desire, fantasy can operate in two ways … it can tell of, manifest or show desire … or it can expel desire, when this desire is a disturbing element which threatens cultural order and continuity … (Rosemary Jackson, 1981: 3)

The lectures also relied heavily on Italo Calvino’s essay on the erotic, in which he plays interesting mind-games with the notion of representation and the inexpressibility of the sexual act. The most pertinent passage is as follows:

The thick symbolic armour beneath which Eros hides is no other than a system of conscious or unconscious shields that separate desire from the representation of it. From this point of view all literature is erotic… (Italo Calvino, 1982)

And, finally, Angela Carter is incredibly useful as a slightly explosive deconstruction of the sexual symbolic, and the reductive dangers of symbolic representation. Keywords from the lecture: symbols naturalise their own assumptions and are out to seduce you into ignoring the cultural baggage which is packed into them. Keywords from Angela Carter, which I’ll return to in later lectures, but which you can see fit neatly into both Jackson and Calvino’s arguments:

Pornography involves an abstraction of human intercourse in which the self is reduced to its formal elements. In its most basic form, these elements are represented by the probe and the fringed hole, the twin signs of male and female in graffiti, the biological symbols scrawled on the subway poster and the urinal wall, the simplest expression of stark and ineradicable sexual differentiation, a universal pictorial language of lust … (Angela Carter, 1979: 4)

Our flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else does. We may believe we fuck stripped of social artifice: in bed, we even feel we touch the bedrock of human nature itself. But we are deceived. Flesh is not an irreducible human universal. …We do not go to bed in simple pairs; even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parent’s lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our whole biographies…. (Angela Carter, 1979: 9)

Symbols are powerful things. Be very, very suspicious of symbols.