What I lack in maturity, I make up for in immaturity (Warrior Queen)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s November 22, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind”; the top movie is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, with Anastasia and The Rainmaker opening at 2 and 3 respectively. In the news, a terrorist attack outside the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt kills more than 60 people; and the McCaughey septuplets–the first documented case in which all seven survived infancy–are born in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Warrior Queen” marks the third consecutive episode we’ve covered by Hilary Bader, a prolific writer who would end up penning more than a dozen episode of Superman: The Animated Series and more than 30 throughout the DCAU. Most of her best work, however, was in Batman Beyond; at this earlier point in her career she is a generally reliable source of episodes which are entertaining enough but not particularly memorable, like “Target,” “Prototype,” and, well, “Warrior Queen.”

Like her The New Batman Adventures episode “You Scratch My Back,” “Warrior Queen” explores an intersection between sex and power, albeit a far less healthy one. That episode looked at BDSM, but this one is (rather like “The Main Man,” which it references at the very end) about sexual hegemony. But where the earlier episode tied it explicitly to masculinity (as it generally is in our culture), “Warrior Queen” tries to look at it in isolation–essentially, to focus its interrogation of hegemonic masculinity on the first word rather than the second. Its goal is to interrogate the perspective from which the phrase “sexual conquest” is possible to parse.

In any kind of consensus-based model of sexuality, the phrase is utterly nonsensical: if conquest is involved, then what’s happening isn’t sex, it’s rape. But what we see of Almerac isn’t consensus-based: Maxima is by all appearances a hereditary tyrant, interested in and respecting only power. Again, just like Lobo: she even surrounds herself with scantily clad, conventionally attractive female attendants. (Though at least from what we see, only her temporary successor De’Cine makes them dance for his entertainment and, presumably, titillation.) This is one of the (many) ways the episode stumbles, because despite its attempt to focus on the unhealthy sexualization of power, it still comes from a culture that regards power as a masculinized trait, and slips into depicting it as such.

Specifically, Lobo seeks to conquer, to express his power through sex. He finds Lois Lane attractive, for example, because he sees conquering her as a challenge, and hence an opportunity to demonstrate his power more than a “lesser conquest” would. By contrast, Maxima seeks to be conquered: she finds powerful men attractive because she wants to be defeated by them. She is a powerful woman in her own right, but her lamentation at having to “remain a maiden forever” because no man is her match is an expression of rigid, toxic ideas of gender roles. She means “maiden” in the sense of “virgin,” but ultimately she’s looking to trade one maidenhood for another, to go from virgin to victim, because her culture says she has to be one or the other.

We’ll discuss these kinds of binary traps, particularly where women are concerned, more in a coming entry. The key point to make here is that, in her own way, Maxima is echoing Lucille, the elderly, married bystander who responds with incredulity to Superman’s description of marriage as a willing partnership between equals.  What little we see of Almeracian culture is a rigid hierarchy, a structure of royalty, noble courtiers, maids-in-waiting and palace guards, with the general populace locked out of the places of power; it’s no surprise that even when Maxima says she wants an equal, what she’s really looking for is a conqueror, because every relationship we see in her world is about power and status.

And she is looking for a conqueror. That much becomes clear when, after deciding Superman is the one and kidnapping him to her world, she obediently follows his instructions and listens to his lessons. (They don’t seem to stick very well, but she listens.) She is used to being obeyed as queen, but she clearly also expects to obey her husband (which is, frankly, worrisome for the people of Almerac, given the implication at the end of the episode that she will be pursuing Lobo next). The equation is simple: a worthy husband is a powerful one, because power is worth. (One wonders what she would do if defeated by a woman, but I’m sure fanfiction has it covered.)

That, ultimately, is the problem. Even if we set aside heteropatriarchy, the idea that power is worth–that having power makes one worthy of power–is intensely toxic. That is, essentially, the logic of Maxima resuming the throne at the end of the episode: despite the very good point that the people were quite happy to see the tyrant overthrown, albeit less happy when she was replaced by just another tyrant, neither Superman nor anyone else raises any objection to her resuming the throne after De’Cine is defeated. Her power–her defeat of De’Cine in combat–is equated to the worthiness to lead, even though we already know she isn’t worthy. Indeed, no one can be worthy of that kind of power, benign dictatorship being an oxymoron, but even aside from that Maxima has demonstrated herself particularly unworthy with her selfish behavior.

But that’s not a question this episode is willing to explore; it doesn’t really want to explore any questions at all, which is where Bader’s work often falls short. It is content with surfaces–and as I said, a much better opportunity to look at the intertwined structures of power, gender, and sexuality will be here in just a couple more entries. We need wait only a little longer for the next revolution of the world to begin.

Current status of the Patreon:

Vlog Review: Star vs Evil S2E10 and 11

Bonus episode! As long as the Patreon remains above $150/mo, I’ll post an two extra vlogs every month!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!


Don’t see the boy (You Scratch My Back)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Sorry about missing so many posts this and last week. I was super sick last week, but I don’t really have an excuse this week. Consider this Tuesday’s NA09 post; today’s video will go up tomorrow.

It’s November 15, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind,” and the top movie is The Jackal, with The Man Who Knew Too Little and a re-release of The Little Mermaid also in the top five. In the week since “Heavy Metal,” WorldCom and MCI formed MCI WorldCom in (at the time) the largest merger in US history; Mary Robinson became Ireland’s second female President in a row, the first time any nation elected two successive female heads of state; and Ramzi Yousef is found guilty of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

On The New Batman Adventures, the burgeoning “what happened to Dick Grayson?” plot thread takes a strange turn, as the answer appears to be “he changed costumes and moved out, but everything is fine.” It’s a deeply unsatisfying answer that results in a bizarre episode where everyone is attempting to trick everyone else, even when there’s no reason to. Dick’s behavior toward Barbara Gordon when she visits him in his apartment is worthy of his name, for example–but if his antipathy toward Batman and Batgirl was an act to lure in Catwoman, why keep it up when she’s not around? The episode seems to be trying to play Nightwing’s final line about always accepting help as a development or change in attitude–but its central twist is that he was working with Batman from the start, a contradiction that just doesn’t make sense.

On the surface, anyway. Underneath, it actually fits perfectly into the ongoing exploration of the Batman/Nightwing rift–but only in hindsight. We are seeing the story out of order: we saw its beginning in Batman: The Animated Series, but we won’t see most of the middle until later this season of The New Batman Adventures, and we won’t have all the pieces until Batman Beyond.

The level on which this episode works is as a psychosexual drama–because it’s a Catwoman episode, so of course that’s the level on which it works–about Nightwing’s resentment of the fact that Batman’s fucking his ex, and to a lesser extent Catwoman’s resentment of the fact that her sub is now domming someone else. The picture of Dick and Barbara the latter finds in the former’s apartment is pretty clear: they used to be an item; the chilly distance between them that Dick maintains makes clear they’re not one anymore. Dick already resents Batman for (from Dick’s perspective) standing in the way of him growing up, and like a lot of people (unfortunately) he equates adulthood, masculinity, and the sexual possession of women.

A BDSM relationship–or, more specifically, one involving dominance and submission–can contain elements of possession or ownership, of course. However, as these are consensual, they’re really just role-play (assuming the relationship isn’t abusive, which we have no reason to think is the case here); the dominant partner doesn’t actually own the submissive or have genuine coercive power over them, only what the sub gives them, and what the sub gives, the sub can take away. Here, however, we’re talking about the idea of actual possession–that a man in some sense actually owns, or gets to control, the women in his life, or the ones he’s slept with at any rate. (There is, of course, much heteronormativity here as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)

When one has internalized hegemonic masculinity, any loss of power or reminder that one lacks power is perceived as emasculation (hence the use of the term as a synonym for powerlessness), and this is exactly how Dick perceives it: the status of sidekick felt emasculating, as does Bruce “taking” Barbara, who on some level Dick still sees as “his woman.” (To his credit, Dick seems to be over this by the end of the episode and in future episodes. Consciously, he tries to be decent, but like everyone else, he’s internalized some garbage from the larger culture.) Catwoman, meanwhile, on some level sees Batman as her sub, so she tries to do the same thing to him when he rejects this role via his relationship with Batgirl, so she tries to do the same thing to him by taking away his sidekick. Nightwing is up for it, both because he has enough in common with Batman to find Catwoman intriguing, and to stick it to Batman. (A phrase which again reflects this association of masculinity, heteronormative sexuality, and dominance–consider what the “it” is and where it is presumably being stuck!)

Of course this is a children’s show and has to keep all this firmly on the level of subtext, so we get Catwoman’s scheme to sneak a stolen emerald into the country using a smuggling operation, and the Bat Family’s scheme to make her think Nightwing is on her side and lead them to the emerald. But scenes like Catwoman’s overt flirtation in and around Ricky the Hook’s penthouse, or Dick’s confrontation with Barbara, make it clear what this is all really about.

Ultimately, this is the climax and denouement of the Nightwing arc that runs through this season, but it is both shown before the main action and occurs entirely in subtext. That it even somewhat works is impressive, but it does: Nightwing catches Catwoman (gets the collar, if you will) and makes peace with Batman and Batgirl, but retains his independence. He ultimately refrains from revenge-fucking Batman’s ex, and in that demonstrates the maturity he was seeking after–one rooted in actually being a grown-up, rather than merely trying to wield the power associated with being one.

In the process, the DCAU Nightwing finally moves into a position resembling the comics character’s: the genuinely good man in a corrupt world, the Lot-figure that even Infinite Crisis‘ Earth-Two Superman had to admit was the equal of his Earth-Two counterpart.

He will thus barely show up again, of course.

Current status of the Patreon:

I think someone’s using it (Heavy Metal)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s November 8, 1997. The top song is still Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Over the weekend, Starship Troopers opened at number one; I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Devil’s Advocate also chart. According to my exhaustive review of the news of the period (looking at the Wikipedia page for the year), nothing much is going on in the news.

And Superman: The Animated Series continues its brief flirtation with a weekly release schedule with “Heavy Metal,” written by Hilary Bader and directed by Curt Geda. I don’t usually call out specific writers and directors in this series, but in this case it matters, because it’s really, really obvious that this episode was made by white people.

Not that it’s overtly racist or anything like that; just that it’s clearly written and directed by people who have never considered the possibility that people of color might have a different relationship with the police than white people do. Only white people can be unaware of that fact–though admittedly, it takes more effort to ignore in 2018 than it did in 1997–therefore the episode was written and directed by white people. (As Bader and Geda indeed turn out to be.)

Quite simply, the behavior of literally none of the black characters in this episode makes sense, which is a problem when not only is the episode focused on and about black characters, it’s the introduction of the very first superhero of color in the DCAU. It’s one thing to write Superman as naively assuming that criminals are bad and authority figures are good; especially in a setting that contains Batman’s rather more fraught relationship with the police, it’s at least readable as a character trait rather than an underlying assumption.

But Steel engages a group of armed, masked bank robbers carrying a weapon of his own. This is before he puts on the armor, so his face is fully exposed: a black man, with a weapon, during a violent crime in progress. He gives no indication of concern that the police would assume he’s a criminal too and gun him down, even as a risk that he’s willing to take. He just blithely walks out, every indication, every action by him and Nat, making clear that they see the criminals and only the criminals as a potential threat. When a police car does show up, unnamed black characters then assume the cop within can be trusted; it’s only when they see that it’s Metallo rather than a cop that they react with fear.

We then get a car chase/gunfight, in which a black man and his teen niece trade fire with someone in a police car, once again without apparent concern that they are putting themselves at serious risk from a highly organized, heavily armed gang of very violent people who happen to be on the municipal payroll.

Statistics for police brutality in the 1990s are nontrivial to come by, but it was a known issue, as was the fact that it involved a racial disparity–the infamous L.A. riots of 1992 were provoked by exactly that issue. It was, before social media, easier to ignore if you were white–certainly sheltered 16-year-old me was mostly unaware of it–but it was there, and this episode fails utterly to address it.

Not that it should necessarily have to; the best solution would probably be to have left out high-profile crimes with direct police involvement. That this didn’t occur to the creators–that they instead went with their underlying, unquestioned assumption that the police, and the structures of power they represent, are basically benevolent–just highlights the ignorance born of their unacknowledged privilege.

Related is the reason Steel falls flat as a character: he has no trauma. There’s not really any motivation for him to become a superhero beyond “crime bad, violence against criminals good.” This is not to say that making the world a better place is not an understandable or sympathetic motive–it very much is, and the bleak 90s in particular had a need for characters who choose to be good for the sake of being good, precisely why Steel was the best thing to come out of The Death of Superman. But the choice to do good specifically as a superhero does not work if it is motivated solely by a desire to do good; some further reason why the character would choose that particular (violent, dangerous, and wildly inefficient) path to virtue is needed. “Because it’s a superhero franchise” is, of course, an answer–but it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character.

What’s absurd is, John Henry Irons absolutely does have trauma; it’s just never depicted. He is a black man in America: of course he has trauma, or at least double consciousness, which is broadly similar. I’ll repeat here what I said about it in my entry on Ms. Marvel:

Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.

This could have been fascinating to explore, in the hands of creators to whom it would occur to explore it. It is endlessly frustrating that they failed to do so: a superhero whose own culture is hostile to them, not just as a hero (a la Batman or Spider-Man) but in their day-to-day, secret identity life, is a veritable font of story and characterization opportunities, not to mention fulfilling a need for representation that goes beyond token presence and into depicting marginalized people’s stories. Instead, Steel will vanish almost immediately into obscurity–after this, he will never appear in STAS again, and have only cameos and minor roles in Justice League Unlimited.

What this episode does is betray a fatal flaw in STAS: it’s being made by people who have a particular experience of the world, one in which the structures of power generally appear to be working in their favor, and hence blind to the systemic injustices inherent to those structures. It is, in short, the same problem BTAS had: it doesn’t really want apocalypse at all. It is firmly on the side of keeping things near-.

Like Harley Quinn before him, Steel exposes the systemic injustices that the show around him takes as given, but in ways that the show cannot make room for. It once again strains and cracks, but unlike BTAS’ embrace of Harley Quinn, STAS rejects Steel, never including him again.

But the damage is done. It’s clear, now, that massive change is once again needed. The DCAU needs a shock to its system.

The good news is that a massive one is coming. The bad news is that it’s the wrong one.

Current status of the Patreon: