Anything like this ever happen to you? (The Cat and the Claw)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoFifteen episodes in, and we finally have the first episode in broadcast order: “The Cat and the Claw, Part 1” aired on September 5, 1992, and “Part 2” aired one week later. The reasoning for making this the first episode is fairly clear: Batman Returns was a hit, and still lingering in theaters when this episode aired. A Catwoman episode was thus a natural choice to start the series off, and ending on a cliffhanger increased the likelihood of the audience coming back.
Of course once they did, instead of Part 2 they saw the pilot, “On Leather Wings,” with its notable bump in animation quality. If they tuned in the next night, they saw “Heart of Ice.” Anyone not hooked on the series by that point was probably not going to get hooked. Finally, after a week Part 2 aired, and while not as well-animated as Part 1 (in particular, one sequence of Maven pouring a drink, then carrying it into the next room, is stiff, awkward, and has trouble with perspective, making it look like the petite Maven has enormous, beefy hands) it nonetheless successfully raises the stakes on Part 1, with bigger action sequences and a rapid ratcheting of the emotional tension between Catwoman and Batman.
That tension, despite being broadly similar to the chemistry between the characters that enlivened Batman Returns, is quite different in this story. For starters, it’s just not as effective; frankly, while I adore his Batman, at this early stage in his career Kevin Conroy just doesn’t have the expertise to sell the (admittedly rather awkwardly written) love confession to Selina Kyle. For her part, Adrienne Barbeau does a much better job selling both Catwoman’s immediate infatuation with Batman and Selina Kyle’s gradual warming to Bruce Wayne. A bigger difference, however, is the way in which the attraction is used to play up the characters’ duality. In Batman Returns, that duality is demonstrated by the differing nature of the attraction, with Kyle and Wayne exploring a fairly traditional romance while Catwoman and Batman engage in a heavily BDSM-flavored series of games.
Understandably, Batman the Animated Series can’t be quite as open with its BDSM themes, so instead the duality of the two characters is expressed by having the two relationships evolve differently. Initially, Catwoman is infatuated with Batman, who shows no sign of interest, while Wayne pursues Kyle. Over the course of the two-parter, however, Wayne earns the respect of Kyle and Catwoman earns Batman’s respect, resulting in a mutual attraction in both identities. Alas, the relationship remains doomed; the episode ends with Batman catching Catwoman in Kyle’s apartment.
Also stripped from the story relative to Batman Returns is the theme of carnival, and thus both the element of the grotesque and of class conflict. Obviously, the primary image of the grotesque in Batman Returns was the Penguin and, to a lesser extent, the Red Triangle gang, but there were subtler (by Tim Burton standards, anyway) elements of the grotesque around Catwoman as well: the prominent stitches on her costume, the way it kept falling apart, her unkempt hair as Selena Kyle, and, of course, her ability to return from the dead, the clearest case of her violating the normal rules of the human body. Here in “The Cat and the Claw,” however, there is no trace of either the grotesque or the class-conflict elements of Kyle’s status as a downtrodden (indeed, murdered) working-class woman rising up against her arch-capitalist oppressor; instead she wears a costume much more reminiscent of the comics or the 1960s Batman TV show, and is a wealthy socialite and activist herself.
That activism ties her to the other female villain we’ve discussed so far, Poison Ivy. Both are heavily ecologically themed in their introductory episodes, with Catwoman committing crimes to fund her activities to protect animals, particularly wild cats. Both are also depicted as being extremely attractive women who have a secret criminal identity. However, there is a major difference between the two: Catwoman has sexual agency, while Poison Ivy does not. More accurately, Poison Ivy is depicted as possessing sexual power, but only in a form both passive and menacing, namely exploiting the attraction of men to her. She herself gives no sign of experiencing sexual desire; she exists, in her first appearance at least, only to be the dangerous and forbidden object of desire. By contrast, Catwoman is presented from the start as experiencing desire, namely for Batman, and her active pursuit of that desire is not shown to be menacing or harmful at all. At the same time, she is emphatically not that old standby, the evil woman turned good by her love for a good man; she wants him, but continues her (illegal) work because they’re two separate aspects of life for her. In the end, when he can’t accept that, there’s every reason to believe that their nascent relationship is over.
What should be clear from this discussion of Catwoman is that this two-parter is far more interested in exploring the emotions and relationships of its characters than engaging with anything political–which, of course, is itself a political statement, namely “Things are okay enough that politics is not as high a priority as relationships,” a mild endorsement of the status quo. That makes the choice of a terrorist organization as the primary villains an odd one, as it results in mysterious terrorists with no apparent motives, who want to topple U.S. society but somehow have the willing cooperation of a corporate magnate–which is to say, one of the rare winners of the game of American capitalism–in their scheme. Mostly it seems an excuse to give Batman and Catwoman a mutual enemy, which works as far as such excuses go. Still, it would be nice to get some sense of what Red Claw was trying to accomplish by unleashing her plague. The generic pseudo-European accent her voice actress (Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager and Orange is the New Black fame) puts on, coupled with a reference to the virus they seek to unleash having been developed in Eastern Europe, suggest they are from the former Soviet bloc, which means most likely they’re just terrorists substituting for Communists as the generic mustache-twirling foreign villains who seek to subvert and destroy us, a staple of American pop culture. That is, their only cause is our destruction; the actual political reasons they might exist are secondary to their status as subversive foreign elements who threaten the status quo—once again, the episode mildly endorses The Way Things Are.
Really, though, all of that is secondary to the tragedy of two bored rich people with dual lives pursuing their visions of justice, finally finding someone else who could understand, and instead forced to oppose one another by the artificial barrier of the law. Everything in both episodes is leading up to that lovely, quiet final scene in which he rejects the idea of them being together, but is also reluctant to hand her over the police. Just as we think he’ll let her go, they kiss, and then he cuffs her.
So maybe The Animated Series managed to sneak in some of those BDSM themes after all.

Current status of the Patreon:

Vision of Escaflowne Episode 23 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Vision of Escaflowne and commenting there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST. (That is 1 hour earlier than normal. Also there’s no new MLP or SMC this week, hence Escaflowne.)

I’ll post a chatlog once the liveblog is complete!
ETA: Chatlog below the cut!
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Moving ahead with re:Play…

So, my Patreon is currently at $53. Assuming that holds for another three days, that’ll officially mean I’m making a pilot episode for re:Play. I have downloaded an emulator and ROM (I actually own the game in question, but don’t have the equipment to record off a console so emulation is a necessity for now), and the plan is to start playing the game tonight. Although it’s much more than I can fit in one episode (or, for that matter, one play session), I’m planning to record the entire game, then script the first episode. That way if I need to reference something that happens later in the game, I’ll have footage. Then comes recording, then editing; this represents quite a bit more work than a vlog, which is why $70 only gets a monthly series.
But yeah, I’m looking forward to this! Lots of ideas of things to talk about–I think I can make a fairly solid first episode.
In other stuff-I’m-working-on news, My Little Po-Mo 3 is still in editing, so I’m taking a break from thinking about it. I’m probably going to start working on my next BESM campaign this weekend, since I’m supposed to run it at Connecticon in July. Looking forward to it! And of course once I’m done it’ll be added to the list of $10-tier rewards at the Patreon. Near-Apocalypse is rolling right along, with the Patreon having already passed the halfway point of what will eventually be Volume 1.
How about you folks? Got any projects you’re working on? How are they going?

Latin Latin Madoka More Latin IV: The Voyage Homura

So, this should actually have gone up a week after the Steven Universe live reaction video, but I basically forgot and went straight on with the SU videos. Anyway, this is video of a panel I gave at AB, my fourth annual Madoka Magica panel. It’s totally not at all an extended ad for my book! (It totally is.)
AMVs used:
Shingeki no Kyojin x Madoka OP 2:
Puella Magi Homura Magica OP:
Puella Magi Madoka Magica OP 2:

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 24

A summary of the past week of posts to my in-character Star Trek Online Tumblr, chronicling the adventures of E.N. Morwen, a science-loving and thoughtful young woman trapped in a galaxy of warring space giants

  • Unsavory Actions: In which Exil joins an underground movement to stop the Voth from experimenting with omega particles.
  • Death and Dishonor: In which a Klingon captain comes after Morwen for killing her father. (Original, co-written with 01d55.)
  • Unsaid Thanks: In which Exil betrays his people to save everyone.
  • A Step Between Stars: In which Morwen and Tuvok lead missions to take control of the Sphere’s jump drive before the Voth do.
  • Fluidic Destruction: In which the Undine invade Solanae.
  • Surface Tension: In which a war ends, and the puppetmaster is revealed.
  • Escalation: In which Morwen goes to the Delta Quadrant.

As the flag officer of a fleet or tactical group, Starfleet regulations also require Morwen to provide a Fleet Status Report briefly summarizing the current status and mission of all ships under her command, every Stardate that’s a multiple of 10.

Imaginary Story 1: Batman Returns

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoImaginary Stories are a recurring feature in which I discuss works contemporaneous with and involving the same characters as the DCAU.
It’s June 19, 1992, which is several months before the start of Batman the Animated Series, but the movie we’re talking about will hang on in the box office charts through November, so we’ll count it as contemporary. In the news, on the 16th the U.S. and Russia reached a “joint understanding” on nuclear arms reduction that would become the START II treaty; on the 17th Estonia becomes the first former Soviet state to reject the ruble and adopt a new currency, in this case the kroon; and on the 22nd the remains of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia are found in Yekaterinburg. The top song is Mariah Carey’s “I’ll Be There,” with Sir Mix-a-Lot pronouncing his inability to prevaricate regarding his fondness for sizable posteriors at number two, and Kris Kross rounding out the top three with “Jump.” The number two movie this weekend is Sister Act, and Patriot Games is at number three.
Number one is Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second and last Batman film, as well as the second and last outing of Michael Keaton in the title role. Unlike Burton’s previous outing, a triumph of style over substance that found Wayne more interesting than his crime-fighting persona, this film is much more about the bat, and seems also to be at least trying to say something.
To grasp that something, we must return to the related ideas of carnival and the grotesque, because that is clearly where this film wants us to be from the start, as we are introduced to that classic gothic horror premise, the rich family’s secret, monstrous scion. Young Oswald is depicted as a terrifying creature the audience cannot even be permitted to see, and at least implied to eat a housecat. So of course he is abandoned by his parents–a motif we will be returning to be shortly–and raised first by animals, and then a circus.
The circus “freak show” is, of course, one of the great celebrations of the grotesque, just as the circus itself is essentially the spirit of carnival packaged and transported from town to town. That is why so many horror stories are set at circuses: they share the power of carnival to upend and dismiss social norms, to empower the weak and cast down the strong, to profane the sacred, distort and disfigure the body, and unleash the id.
That unleashed energy, the raw sexuality and violence held in check by society, is where the carnival draws its power, both transformative and destructive, and so it is no accident that both Catwoman and the Penguin are presented as intensely sexual figures, the Penguin as a purely repulsive image of out-of-control, ugly, aggressive lust, and Catwoman as a more complex figure that partakes heavily in BDSM imagery, from her whip to her tight, shiny black outfit with the prominent stitching. They are opposite poles of sexuality, the Penguin animalistic and blunt, Catwoman fetishistic and seductive.
The role of carnival, however, is not merely to unleash the desires normally held in check under the social order, but to shatter that order, to create chaos. One of the ways it does this is by calling into question the underlying narratives of the social order, which is where we return to Cobblepot’s abandonment in a river of sewage, carried in a black baby carriage that looks rather a lot like a dark version of traditional images of Moses’ basket of reeds. The plague of the slaying of the firstborn shows up later, too. Which, of course, makes sense: the Passover tale is a sort of carnival as well, what with the slaves throwing off their shackles while the social order and bodies of their masters are disrupted by irruptions of chaos such as plagues, rains of frogs, and disfiguring boils.
This is therefore a story of class struggle as well, as any story that involves the overthrowing of the social order of a capitalist society must be. Thus we get poor put-upon Selina Kyle, abused by the unapologetically slimy arch-capitalist Max Schreck (himself a grotesque creature as well, sharing a name as he does with the actor who played the ratlike vampire Count Orloff in the classic silent film Nosferatu), but rising up to destroy fist her boss’ department store, and then his life. Schreck is yet another dark mirror of the hero, this time in his Bruce Wayne aspect, as is the Penguin–after all, Bruce also lost his parents at a young age, and became a monstrous creature themed after an animal.
The character the film really works to parallel Batman with, however, is Catwoman. The first scene of Kyle and Wayne together is adorable, as Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer play off each other marvelously, matching one another awkward mannerism for nervous tic. Yet, the moment their masks are on, they fall neatly into their roles, Batman the stoic but intrigued mystery man, Catwoman the seductive dominatrix. Their fights have a sexual energy to them that crackles outward through the entire rest of the film, enlivening what is ultimately a convoluted script that rushes through too many setpieces for its two-hour running time, and would have dragged badly without their chemistry.
And yes, Pfeiffer gnaws on the scenery whenever she has the catsuit on, but that’s the point; the performativity of it is completely in-character. Selina is being herself for the first time as Catwoman, and who she really is turns out to be a massive ham. Like the film itself, she is paradoxically at her most sincere when she is at her most theatrical.
But the carnival cannot stay forever, at least according to Batman Returns. Everything begins to fall apart, starting with the unraveling of Cobblepot’s campaign for mayor and his return to the sewers. The low can take the place of the high for a time, but sooner or later some defender of the social order is going to shove it back into place. Selina Kyle becomes increasingly unhinged and out of control after the Penguin kills her, because without the social order to define her, she no longer knows who she is. It is of course Batman who offers to tell her.
This is yet another way he parallels Kyle: they both have a dominant streak they can only express by putting on a mask, creating distance so it can become socially acceptable. For Catwoman it’s clearly a sexual desire; her powerlessness and loneliness are equated before her first death, and so once she becomes Catwoman sex, companionship, and power intertwine for her. Batman, however, is repeatedly put in the position of being sexually submissive; she pins him to the ground and licks his face, strokes his chest before stabbing it with a needle, taunts and teases.
His need to dominate instead expresses itself through his drive to restore the social order. It expresses itself in his insistence to Catwoman near the end of the film that Schreck should go to jail, even though she correctly notes that men like him are perfectly capable of buying their way back out. Batman’s role becomes clear as the difference between him and Catwoman emerges: she is willing to use the tools of carnival and the grotesque, theatricality and violence, to destroy those elements of the social order which are corrupt. Batman cannot do that; his role is to maintain the social order, and therefore he cannot deal with those whose power and abuse is an ingrained part of that order. Criminals he can fight, but not capitalists–after all, he is one.
But then, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Batman is both driven to dominate and an agent of the social order. The protector fantasy, after all, is fundamentally a submissive one–a desire not to have to take responsibility for our own well-being, because someone else has it covered. And the grotesque frightens even as it fascinates; it is dangerous, part of what we fantasize about being protected from when we indulge in the protector fantasy. That’s why characters like Catwoman–or, to use an example we’ve covered in BTAS, Poison Ivy–have to be villains, and characters like the Penguin even moreso. Heroes don’t necessarily have to be pretty, but they can’t challenge the status quo of society or the body too much without transitioning from something we want to protect us to something we want to be protected from. For all that she may be intriguing for some, Catwoman is clearly dangerous, and so we dream a Batman to save us from both her and the revolution she represents.
Which leads us at last to an interesting conclusion: the implication of the protector fantasy is that the superhero’s job is always to put the world back where it was. We find ourselves with a new question going forward: What if we want the social order to change? Is there room in the concept of the superhero for meaningful social progress, or does the protector fantasy render it inherently regressive?
That question will take much of the rest of the project to answer.
Sorry this was late! I screwed up the queue again. Because this is up so late, I’m going to skip tomorrow’s post–the next post will be the regularly scheduled Tuesday Captain’s Log Digest.

Current status of the Patreon:

Vision of Escaflowne Episode 22 and MLPFIM S5E8 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Vision of Escaflowne and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST. We will then be watching MLP at 2:30. 
I’ll post a chatlog once the liveblog is complete!
ETA: Chatlog below the cut!
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Religion in the Avatar the Last Airbender Universe

Because yes, they have one. Possibly more than one.
We live in a culture massively dominated by one religion, and an unusually exclusionary one at that. This is less true than it was, and Christianity has never been the only religion in Western culture, but it has dominated the discourse for most of our history. That sometimes makes it hard to recognize religious practice as religious when it is very different from Christianity.
The presumed norm for religion–what most in our culture expect to see, even in a fictional religion–is something that resembles Christian religion (and, more broadly, the Indo-European and Semitic religions Christianity hybridizes), which is to say regular, frequent communal acts of worship guided by professional clergy and directed toward gods. But that’s not how all religion works in the real world! There are many possible models from different cultures–and in particular, religion works quite differently in the specific cultures Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra draw much of their inspiration from.
For example, Buddhism has no gods. It has bodhisattvas, intercessory entities who are almost but not quite entirely unlike saints, but Buddhist practice consists of mindfulness, meditation, even prayer–but not worship as members of the Abrahamic religions or European pagan traditions understand it. Tibetan Buddhism, being part of the Theravada branch of the religion, doesn’t even have those; there are no higher beings on which one can call for aid at all, “higher” and “lower” being themselves illusions. The architecture and clothing of the Air Nomads draws heavily on Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, and Aang’s moral views (his vegetarianism, pacifism, pursuit of calm and detachment) seem drawn from the same source. It would not be farfetched to presume their religion is based on a similar model.
In the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, meanwhile (and one Fire Nation village), we find a veneration for local nature spirits. Disturbing the natural balance brings the wrath of the spirits, who must be calmed by an expert in such matters. This is not too dissimilar from practices in Shinto and Chinese folk religion, where all things–living, nonliving, and abstract–have souls, and disrespecting them can therefore make them angry. There is a real, qualitative difference between a Moon God and a Moon Spirit, namely that the Moon Spirit is the Moon, while a Moon God rules the Moon–in other words, there is not quite the same sense of hierarchy. The Moon Spirit is important and powerful because the Moon is important and powerful, but it is nonetheless not necessarily a higher order of being–setting it on fire hurts it just as it would you or I. One thus doesn’t need to worship Hei Bai to resolve its anger over the destruction of its forest; instead, one needs to understand it and persuade it to calm down by offering reparations and healing.
Just because there aren’t any gods in the Avatar universe doesn’t mean there isn’t religion. Unalaq is clearly a deeply devout man, recognizable as a religiously motivated tyrant just as Ozai is recognizable as a power-hungry tyrant–or if you prefer, recognizable as a religious zealot just as Amon is recognizable as a political zealot. Religion in the Avatar universe might not consist of regular meetings conducted by a priest, but it’s there–people know what spirits are, and tell stories of them. They know when they’ve done wrong and angered the spirits, and know that if they do, they need to find a sage, monk, nun, or Avatar to help them figure out how to appease the spirits. There are religious festivals–we see Unalaq complaining about how the Southern Water Tribe has secularized theirs. There are religious institutions–the Air Temples, the Fire Sages, the nunnery in “Bato of the Water Tribe.” There are sacred sites (spirit oases, the poles), rituals (meditation, the festival in Korra book 2), myths (the tug-of-war and love between Ocean and Moon, for example), religious art (the spirits didn’t build that bear statue in Hei Bai’s forest)–all the elements of religion are here. They’re just not arranged and presented in a way most of us are used to.

Vlog: Steven Universe S1E30-32

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos (including Korra, my panels on anime and the apocalypse and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and now Steven Universe) 4-5 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!
Those of you who follow on Tumblr, for whatever reason the videos don’t play there. Click through to to watch.

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 23

A summary of the past week of posts to my in-character Star Trek Online Tumblr, chronicling the adventures of E.N. Morwen, a science-loving and thoughtful young woman trapped in a galaxy of warring space giants.

  • Sphere of Influence: In which Morwen’s timeline catches up to Leva’s, and then things get weird.
  • Circles Within Circles: In which Morwen helps lead a joint Federation-Klingon-Romulan mission to explore a newly discovered Dyson Sphere. (Note: The characters of Sorthal and Kelona were co-created by Arrlaari.)
  • Supply Woes: In which the Phoenix helps establish a minefield and supply lines within the Dyson Sphere to deal with the hostile Voth.
  • The Contested Zone: In which Morwen joins the battle against the Voth.
  • Unexpected Friend: In which a Voth scientist contacts Morwen.
  • Unlikely Neighbors: In which Exil once again contacts Morwen and reveals the Sphere was built for the Iconians. (Note: The characters of Sorthal and Kelona were co-created by Arrlaari.)
  • The Omega Standoff: In which the joint expedition fights a ground campaign against the Voth for control of a massive stockpile of the omega particles generated by the Dyson Sphere.
  • Unsafe Practices: In which Exil, Morwen’s Voth scientist contact, becomes concerned that the Voth are experimenting dangerously with omega particles.
  • Tower Control: In which Morwen leads a fleet to seize control of several planet-scaled buildings from the Voth.
  • Unsavory Actions: In which Exil joins an underground movement to stop the Voth from experimenting with omega particles.

As the flag officer of a fleet or tactical group, Starfleet regulations also require Morwen to provide a Fleet Status Report briefly summarizing the current status and mission of all ships under her command, every Stardate that’s a multiple of 10.