Not the Victor (Cold Comfort)

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It’s still the 11th. Don’t worry–time will unfreeze after this, with a couple weeks’ gap before the next episode.

On The New Batman Adventures, we have the return of Mister Freeze, and as always he brings tragedy with him. Interestingly, this episode appears to be set after the movie Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero, even though that movie won’t be released for another five months–but then, this is the show that just aired its Christmas special in September, so that’s just how TNBA rolls, I suppose.

In a way, this works in the episode’s favor–it places whatever happened with Nora Fries in the same intriguingly nebulous space as the question of whatever happened to Dick Grayson, just another change due to Harley’s apocalypse. In the bad old world she was fridged; in the brave new world she is free and alive, and it is the sickness of his own body that drives Freeze to rage.

Because, as always, the character who claims to have no emotions is lying. He has no affect, but he is clearly acting out of fury at his helplessness and hopelessness in the face of impending death, and the way the deterioration of his body means he can never return to Nora. Ultimately his actions are driven by fear, grief, and love, transmuted into rage by the alchemy of futility.

Where have we heard that before? A character maintaining a cold, distant exterior to mass his intense pain? The episode practically screams for us to compare Freeze to the Batman, his destruction of hope to Batman’s spreading of fear–and by spending most of the second act on the Bat family, to compare that to Freeze’s isolation.

The Bat Family, at this point, consists of Alfred, Batgirl, and Tim Drake/Robin. (I am choosing not to include Barbara Gordon because she remains in costume, implying that unlike Tim she is only part of the family as Batgirl. That makes sense, seeing as unlike Tim, she has another family as Barbara.) With two exceptions, the relationships between them are quite clear: Alfred is a parental figure to both Bruce and Tim, Bruce is an additional parental figure to Tim, and Batgirl and Tim have a sibling-like relationship. The exceptions are Batgirl’s two other relationships: there’s just no indication of what her relationship with Alfred is like, or if she even has one, and her relationship with Batman is ambiguous.

In the training montage, Batman is readable as a kind of authority, imparting knowledge and discipline in a teacher-student or master-apprentice relationship. Batgirl’s playfulness is thus readable as her being an impetuous youngster, someone who’ll get herself in trouble and only then learn the lesson Batman is trying to impart. To an extent that’s true, and pays off in her underestimating Freeze’s (suit’s) strength–but if so, it’s a pretty weak payoff to a lengthy scene.

There is another way to read their relationship, however, by bringing in outside information–one piece from the future and one from the past. From the future, the strong implication in Batman Beyond that Batgirl and Batman had a sexual relationship at some point; from the past, Batman’s obvious interest in and enjoyment of BDSM in Batman Returns (not that it takes much additional evidence to reach the conclusion that a man who enjoys dressing up in a costume and dispensing pain might be into such pastimes). In that reading, this scene is Batgirl being a “brat”–a submissive who enjoys teasing their dominant, pushing boundaries, and being punished for it–and Batman provides her the discipline (and, in the form of the training device, harmless pain) she desires.

In short, the strongest reading of this scene is as an indicator that yes, they are definitely fucking.

This is, to say the least, problematic. Both are consenting adults, of course, but he is her mentor and teacher, and at least a decade older than her. It is, at the least, inappropriate. But it also adds some interesting extra dimensions to Freeze’s choice of who to try to take from Bruce Wayne and Batman: Alfred and Gotham, respectively.

Because while I described the Alfred-Bruce Wayne relationship as parental, it has hierarchical elements that push against that. Wayne is Alfred’s employer, and Alfred hews closely to a code of etiquette that demands deference, ritual acknowledgment of Wayne’s power over him even if they both know their emotional connection supersedes that, and even calling him “Master.” But within that code, Alfred constantly pushes the boundaries of the rules to tease Wayne. Even calling him “Master” is a tease, as “Master” is typically only used as a title for boys too young to be called “Mister”; Alfred is essentially calling him by his childhood nickname.

But that’s the point: the snarky but eternally devoted butler is the familial equivalent of a brat. It’s the same combination of submission to authority and unserious gestures toward defiance. Gotham does the same: it lets Batman do his thing, accepts him as the ruler of its nights and its back streets (and Gotham is essentially made of nothing but nights and back streets), but occasionally puts up mild token resistance in the form of criminals and supervillains and Harvey Bullock. Gotham, in short, is also a brat, and Batman is its dom.

Freeze, on some level, sees this. Earlier in the episode, he destroys people’s life’s work: a complete dinosaur skeleton painstakingly found and assembled by a paleontologist, and a masterpiece, years in the making, by an artist to old to be able to finish another. What he takes is more than property; by destroying life-defining work they cannot recreate, he takes away any sense of power or control in their lives, leaving them helpless and hopeless. For Bruce Wayne and Batman, he goes for that power and control more directly, by trying to kill his subs.

Because in the end, what is a fantasy of a loving protector, who will discipline you if you’re bad even while still lovingly protecting you, if not a fantasy of submission? That’s why so many superheroes have no-kill rules: it’s a very bad dom who kills their sub, no matter how bratty the sub is being. Batman may be heavily into discipline, Superman more of a service top, and Wonder Woman very obviously a switch, but they’re all dominants.

And we are all their subs.

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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby S1E2 “One Hand Is Enough”

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I’ve talked quite a bit about heroic trauma in regards to superheroes, but (outside of one chapter of Animated Discussions) I’ve rarely discussed it in regards to anime.

In part this is because of structural differences between the media. Superheroes arise, generally speaking, from very long-running serial formats–comics that run, in one sense or another, for decades. Key to Elizabeth Sandifer’s original argument for the heroic trauma model is that “continuity” is impossible across such time scales and the associated changes in both authorship and audience, and that’s just not the case for anime and manga, which tend to shorter, more unitary runs. The logic that comic-book continuity thus resembles memories–unreliable, reconstructive, constantly recasting past events in light of present mood and concerns–more than recordings simply doesn’t apply.

Nonetheless, cross-influences between the two media mean they can share themes even when they don’t share the structures that gave rise to those themes, and so anime characters can experience heroic trauma, though it is not as integral to anime heroes as it is to superheroes. It is thus important, for discussing heroic trauma in anime, to distinguish between heroic trauma and traumatized heroes; that is, between heroes whose trauma is integral to their heroism, and those whose trauma is merely incidental. (There is, of course, the third category of heroes who have no trauma at all–Ash Ketchum comes immediately to mind.)

A good example of the latter group is Simon from Gurren Lagann: he suffers deep trauma from the death of his parents, but that has no connection with the Spiral Energy that empowers him, or the discovery of Lagann that begins his journey, and he appears to be pretty much over it by mid-series. For contrast, consider Edward Elric, whose powers–his ability to transmute without a circle, and the automail arm that serves as his primary weapon–derive directly from the traumatic experience of losing his mother and passing through the Gate of Truth, and he does not truly heal until the end of the series, at which point he loses both.

So far, Akira from Devilman Crybaby appears to demonstrate classic heroic trauma. He demonstrates a number of symptoms in Episode 2: amnesia around the event itself, his horrifying night and grotesque transformation at Sabbath; a sense of discontinuity between the person he was before the event and the person he is now; and intense, clearly painful flashbacks when confronted with reminders of the event. But this same event has empowered him, and the discontinuity he feels is real: he is physically and mentally transformed in the aftermath of the event.

At the same time, he is still himself: his physical capabilities are now superhuman, his libido and appetite drastically increased, and he feels unbound by social norms such as “don’t watch porn in the high school A/V room,” but he retains his defining trait, the essential compassion that brings him to tears when he learns of the suffering of others.

But now there’s a monster inside him, able to transform that compassion into violent rage against the causes of suffering. That’s not uncommon in survivors of trauma either–not the violence per se, but the barely restrained anger. He is filled with unresolved pain, the pain of having been left entirely alone to face things beyond his capacity. He is angry at the unfairness and the feeling of abandonment–note the brief flashes of his nightmare that appear to equate his transformation with his parents’ departure on a trip, whether abandoning him or headed to their deaths unclear and irrelevant–and afraid that it could happen again. He feels like a monster, because why else would he have been left alone?

What is now inside him is beyond the bounds of “normal” society; painful and dangerous and wrong. The wrongness of the event that caused his trauma is internalized, remade into a sense of his own wrongness; the event was grotesque, and now Akira feels grotesque himself. But then, heroes always are; by their very nature they transgress social boundaries, if only to guard those boundaries from what lies beyond. To fight monsters is to be monstrous.

The show acknowledges this. Akira is afraid of his own power, afraid that he will lose control of his feelings and destroy too much. Again, this is a direct response to the experience of trauma: he was overwhelmed by the event that gave him this power, so he fears the power will overwhelm him too. That’s the lesson trauma teaches: “Life can and will dish out more than you can take. There are things you cannot handle alone, and there will be times that you have to face them alone.”

To his credit, Akira is taking all that pain and fear and anger out into the world. He is focusing it through his essential compassion, taming the monster–Devilman rather than Devil. He is trying–and thus far succeeding–to be the good monster.

And as I observed above, “good monster” is just another word for “hero.”

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