I think someone’s using it (Heavy Metal)

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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.


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby S1E3 “Believe me!”

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Nagasaki is slime. That’s been pretty thoroughly established so far; he pressures and manipulates teenaged girls into lewd photoshoots for a living, and clearly enjoys his job. Things like the hidden cameras in his studio’s shower make clear that when all else fails, he regards consent as unnecessary–and frankly, that’s not surprising, since at least some of the girls he targets probably aren’t old enough to consent.

So it’s rather a bit on the nose when he is possessed by the slime-like Gelmer. This is the most literal example yet of the demons as reifications of social transgression, and as such not very interesting–until Gelmer abandons Nagasaki to possess Miki.

On a story level, this is interesting because it raises the question of whether other demons can release those they’ve possessed to move to a new host, and if so, whether they can be forced to do so by Devilman–giving him both a way to defeat demons without the deaths of their hosts, and the moral and emotional crisis of the realization that he could have been doing that all along. But it’s more interesting on a thematic or aesthetic level, because while the Gelmer-possessed Nagasaki is even more of a repulsive, slimy creep, the Gelmer-possessed Miki is assertive, alluring, confident–in a word, she’s sexy. This stands out because, as a general rule, Devilman Crybaby has been very good at depicting extremely unsexy sex, sex that in its own way is more grotesque and unnerving than the monsters.

Compare Akira at Ryo’s apartment earlier in the episode. Under the influence of Amon, he has become–as all the demons seem to–more hedonistic and aggressive, and less mindful of social and personal boundaries and norms. In a sequence tinted with a distinct air of homoeroticism, he first forces food on Ryo, and then throws him into the swimming pool and jumps in after him. This is how the demonic hedonism and disregard for boundaries interacts with Akira’s defining compassion, by becoming aggressive in pushing pleasure onto others. Instead of a vore-and-rape monster, he’s a self-care-and-fun monster.

It increasingly seems like all possessions involve a fusion of personalities. The difference between Devilman and the others is which half forms the conscious will–Akira’s compassion still guides him, and Amon’s hedonistic aggression is channeled through that compassion, while Nagasaki’s sliminess is channeled through Gelmer’s hedonistic aggression. In that light, the difference between Gelmer-as-Miki and Gelmer-as-Nagasaki is that Miki is confident and assertive. That she tries to distract Devilman while the other demon sneaks up to murder him is on Gelmer–the emotional resources drawn upon to accomplish the seduction are Miki’s.

This episode contains one other example of actually sexy sex: Silene’s masturbation scene. Her transformation from lithe woman to horrifying bird monster (almost certainly intended as a reference to the mythological Siren) at the moment of orgasm is a sort of intermediary point between Miki and Nagasaki: where Nagasaki’s sweat and oozing purple drool evoke images of disease and infection, which is to say, the boundaries of the body violated by the extrusion of what should remain within, and Miki is not physically grotesque at all, Silene retains the base template of “sexy woman doing sexy things” but acquires wings and claws, the boundaries of her body violated by the intrusive addition of what should remain separate and without.

Compare to the only other sex scene in the show so far that wasn’t depicted as physically grotesque, Miko’s masturbation scene last episode. While some of the circumstances around that scene are a little creepy, it is basically the one sexual act in the entire show so far that has no violations of the boundaries of the body, neither intrusions nor extrusions.

It is equally difficult not to observe that all three of our examples involve women either merely being sexy rather than actually engaged in sex, or masturbating. Women, in other words, without men. There are two reads on this. One is that it’s simply catering to the male gaze, which it definitely, on a basic cinematographic level, is. But more interesting is the second read, which is not entirely contradicted by the first: that it is masculine sexuality itself which is grotesque. Spurting and oozing sticky fluids, after all, is what a cis man does when he orgasms–that which was inside extrudes beyond the body. For a cis woman, normative heterosexual sex involves the insertion of the body parts of another creature into her own–that which was outside intrudes into the body.

The equation, then, is of demons to both masculine sexuality and hedonistic aggression, implying that both of those are, in turn, the same thing. That’s not exactly a novel positionality: selfish dedication to one’s own pleasure while aggressively ignoring the boundaries of others is a hallmark of toxic masculinity. More interesting is not that equation but its inverse: that feminine sexuality is not as inherently toxic.

This is hardly a new theme in anime. One could make the case, for instance, that the unifying theme of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work is that toxic masculinity has corrupted all love involving men–the only true romantic love possible under these circumstances is between women (or, presumably, any sufficiently femme non-binary person, which Utena herself is readable as), and even that is rendered supremely difficult by the toxic power structures of the patriarchy.

That Devilman Crybaby is headed down this particular road does seem a bit unlikely, but it may be headed somewhere similar. Early in the episode, Miki’s little brother implies that Akira may be gay, which she initially dismisses but then reconsiders when she remembers him as a small child, crying. In other words, Miki is equating Akira’s crying–which has already been established as rooted in his great power, compassion–with being gay, via the logic that both are “failures” to be masculine. Miki, despite being a woman, is infected by the corrupting influence of toxic masculinity in her evaluations of the men she knows, and it is this disgusting attitude that is reified by the demon that possesses her.

The demons are, thus, readable as not grotesque because they transgress society’s boundaries, but rather because they signify society’s transgression of the boundaries of the self–society’s efforts to contain and suppress identities that do not fit its grand narratives, from assertive and confident women to compassionate men to, perhaps, identities outside of cisheteronormativity entirely.


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I am Gotham’s Darkest Knight, the villains’ darkest fright, turn on the signal light, for Batman! Batman! (Never Fear)

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I know the title of this technically breaks the rule for how I title BTAS entries, but I couldn’t resist.

It’s still November 1, 1997, so no new headlines or charts.

Batman has, of course, essentially always been about fear. As we have unpacked at length, he is Bruce Wayne (age eight)’s fear weaponized, turned outward to terrorize the criminals of Gotham and protect him and its denizens. (Eliding, of course, that it’s the criminals’ home, too.)

But here we get something deeper, that fear is not just Batman’s tool but all of society’s. Fear, we are told–and given every reason to believe is the episode’s positionality, not just the characters’–is the source of social order, and only fear keeps people from abusing one another. Stripped of fear, one man sows chaos by swinging around the city, unperturbed by the terror of the people he is dropping debris upon. Another commits sexual assault on Bruce Wayne’s assistant. Batman attempts murder, twice.

This is, not to put too fine a point to it, bullshit.

Fear has its functions. It is an alarm system, literally: we become alarmed, afraid, as our brain’s way of processing apparent danger. That can indeed steer us away from such dangers, but it is far from the only thing driving our decisions, nor is it what holds society together. A wide spectrum of emotions and learned behaviors inform our actions, and the two interact in complex ways. It is impossible to say how much of, say, giving money to a homeless person is compassion, the desire to be thought of (or to think of oneself as) a good person, emulation of an admired figure, or a host of other reasons that could influence one to charitable action. The answer varies not only from person to person, but instance to instance, and not even the person doing it necessarily knows all their reasons why.

A man with no fear might well go swinging through the city. But it seems unlikely, at least for most people, that he would stop caring about the people below to such an extent that dropping tons of rubble on them–or pulling Batman down to his death–wouldn’t bother him. It’s not, generally speaking, fear that keeps us from murdering each other. Most of the time, we just don’t want to; and when we do want to, it is as likely to be disgust or the desire to be seen as good, or simply that we’ve learned and internalized patterns of behavior that exclude it, that holds us back. (We generally call these internalized patterns of behavior “morality.”)

But if fear is not the only thing holding society together, whence the idea that it is? If fear is not the sole preventative of anti-social behavior, why are we told that it is?

The first answer is that in some people’s eyes, the only kind of order is the kind maintained by fear: authoritarian rule. There is research showing that people become more authoritarian–more inclined to defer to authority figures, more hostile to outsiders and the unfamiliar, more protective of the in-group–when frightened. People who are not afraid find it easier to be open to outsiders, to embrace difference, to trust themselves and each other. Fear really is what keeps authoritarians in power, so if your idea of order is an authoritarian hierarchy, and you regard everything else as chaos, then it’s true, fear is the only thing maintaining social order.

The second, related, answer is that the belief that only fear can maintain a social order is used to justify the existence of powerful institutions. The racist, toxic, broken American criminal justice system is, we are told, the only way to maintain society. If people do not fear the police, do not fear prison or other punishments, we are told, then there is nothing to stop people from raping, pillaging, and murdering each other. The police are militarized slave patrols maintained by a gang of racist bullies and murderers, and black and indigenous people of color must live in fear of them no matter if they’ve engaged in crime or not? That, according to this argument, is justified by the necessity of fear to create order. Most of our prisons are for-profit slave camps, the treatment of prisoners is tantamount to ongoing torture, and imprisonment increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of future crime? Again, we are told, this is justified by the necessity of fear to create order.

There’s more than one kind of deference to authority–not just the surrender of one’s own capacity and responsibility for moral decision-making to a singular leader, but acceptance of a hierarchy that seems insurmountable, as well. The racist murders committed by police aren’t a side effect or a regrettable consequence of a necessary evil; they’re the point. When cops murder black people and the courts fill prisons with nonviolent, black offenders, that helps maintain the racist hierarchy of our culture. When the rich can buy their way out of trouble and the poor cannot, that helps maintain the classist hierarchy. When rapists and domestic abusers–the majority of whom are men, and the majority of whose victims are women–walk free, but a woman who kills her abusive spouse is treated like a monster, that helps maintain the sexist hierarchy.

Cops and prisons exist to terrorize the population into accepting the social hierarchy, and are sold to us with the claim that no other way of ordering society is possible. They exist to terrorize criminals and protect denizens, and even more so, they exist to elide that those are the same thing.

That’s the order that fear brings–the order that Batman maintains.


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