Your other reason (Riddler's Reform)

I’m running a Kickstarter for a new book, Animated Discussions: Essays on Anime! It’s 2/3 of the way there, but we’ve only got 4 days left!
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It’s September 24, 1994.  Boyz II Men top the charts, followed by Lisa Loeb, Luther Vandross, Babyface, and Changing Faces.  The top movie is Timecop. Way down at #13, sleeper-hit-to-be The Shawshank Redemption opens in a mere 33 theaters; in a month it’ll be in nearly a thousand.
In the news, Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, died yesterday. That’s about it, really.
With “Riddler’s Reform,” Batman: The Animated Series begins a triptych of sorts about villains released from prison. This first story is a fairly straightforward one: Riddler being Riddler, and hence pathologically incapable of not doing everything in his power to prove he’s the smartest person in the room, practically flaunts his parole violations in front of Batman, literally daring him to prove that Riddler’s behind a series of crimes.
He actually does unusually well; one of the character’s best moments in the DCAU is in this episode, when he tricks Batman into publicly humiliating himself by broadcasting to the party in the next room Batman’s aggressive accusations. Indeed these are probably the best riddles Riddler’s come up with to date; Batman only solves the first after the crime is committed, and the 10LESLIE/31753701 misdirect is nothing short of brilliant.
But ultimately this is a weak tragedy. We just don’t care about the Riddler enough to feel for him when his innate flaw–his need to flaunt his intelligence by feeding Batman cryptic clues–leads inevitably to his downfall. Instead it plays out as a mild triumph for Batman, successfully outwitting the Riddler by presenting him a puzzle he can’t solve.
But consider it from a different angle. Rather than a story–a tragedy–consider this episode as a depiction of a game. Riddler calls it one, after all, so let’s take him at his word. As for what game they’re playing, that’s fairly obvious: the riddle game.
An old staple of folklore, the riddle game is probably best known to modern audiences through its use in The Hobbit. The rules are simple: two players take turns presenting riddles, which can be in the form of questions, short poems, or gestures that the other player must interpret. The loser is the first player to be unable to give a satisfactory answer to the opponent’s riddle. Variations include the ruler who presents a set of riddles that must be solved to earn a boon (for example, “come neither naked nor clothed, neither during the day nor at night, and neither on horseback nor on foot,” so the clever peasant shows up wearing a fishing net at dusk and riding a donkey) or my personal favorite, “A Dispute in Sign Language,” where the contest is carried out entirely in gestures, and afterwards we find out that the two players interpreted each other’s questions and answers completely differently, yet agreed on who won.
This is the game which Batman wins–not the game between criminal and protector, but between two minds that present one another with puzzles. In the end, Batman’s victory lies not in proving that Riddler committed the crime, but in presenting him with a riddle he can’t solve.
Which is rather a neat way of dodging the uncomfortable question at the heart of this episode: if criminals leave Arkham unchanged, what’s the point of it? If they cannot reform, cannot heal, why does Batman even bother?
He is, after all, up against one of the most potent forces in the universe, narrative necessity. The Riddler is a more interesting character by far than Edward Nygma, toy designer and game developer. Coming up with a story where he can remain a man whose mind works in puzzles, driven to challenge others, and yet remain within the narrow confines of the law, not challenging the power structures of Gotham despite his certainty that his intellect means he belongs atop them? That’s quite a challenge. (Not impossible, however. Edward Nygma, P.I. has its virtues, as does Edward Nygma, cryptic knowledge broker.)
But Batman’s refusal to kill is rooted in his hope that people can change. Certainly he could save a lot of lives and trouble by just killing the Joker or Ra’s al Ghul, but that would be admitting that he is unable to find a way to get them to change, to get them to accept a role as protectors or protected rather than heralds of apocalypse and transformation. He can’t give up that game. He’s obsessed, just as Riddler is obsessed with his own game.
So in a sense, Batman has lost this game. He couldn’t find a solution to the real riddle of the Riddler: how to get him to use his intelligence and skills for the benefit of others. He couldn’t find a way to help him heal. Because that’s what Arkham is supposed to be–a hospital, a treatment center, a place where sick and broken minds can become healthy and whole.
Which is exactly the promise that will be dangled in front of another villain in the next episode.

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Crisis on N Earths (N=9): Sailor Moon
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E18-19
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($8 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!

MLPFIM S6E22-23 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, 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 MLP there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.
Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.
ETA: Chatlog below the cut!
Continue reading

Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E10-11

I’m writing a book on anime! The Kickstarter‘s stalled out at just above 50 percent with only a little over a week to go, so any help or signal boosting is MUCH appreciated!
Preliminary contents of the book are listed here!
Excerpt 1: Everyone in Akira wants the world to end; then, how the infamous ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion pays off the promise of the OP.
Excerpt 2: Suspension of disbelief is a bad approach to fiction, and Revolutionary Girl Utena doesn’t want you to do it.
Excerpt 3: The Sephiroth on Ed Elric’s Gate of Truth, the crucified serpent on his back, and what these tell us about him and about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos 3-4 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles 3-4 MONTHS early!

From the law (Showdown)

I’m running a Kickstarter for a new book, Animated Discussions: Essays on Anime! It’s just over halfway there, but time is ticking away!
Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
It’s September 12, 1995, two days after “A Bullet for Bullock” and three before “The Lion and the Unicorn.”
Following up on Ra’s al Ghul’s lesser counterpart we get the man himself, but this time–as is generally the case with apocalypses–his latest near-apocalypse is located in a far-distant time, as this episode consists mostly of a flashback to the Old West, where Ra’s clashed with Jonah Hex, a bounty hunter with terrible scarring on one side of his face.
This is a curious episode. For starters, Hex is outright stated to have killed all of his previous bounties. On top of that, the barmaid helps him because Duvall hurt “one of [her] girls,” rather strongly implying that her saloon doubles as a brothel, as is often the case in Westerns. And Hex is hunting Duvall because of something he did to “a girl back east.” The implication is that this episode involves a madame helping a killer hunt a rapist, which is not exactly common territory for a children’s cartoon, even one that pushes the boundaries as much as Batman: The Animated Series.
On the other hand, it’s a fairly standard setup for a Western. Less standard is an acknowledgment of the imperialist nature of the U.S. westward expansion, though even there we get a whitewashing of history: Ra’s opposes it because it is destroying “wilderness,” leading me to wish someone on the staff had watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s pilot and decided to throw in a Native American character quoting it: “This ‘wilderness’ is my home!”
But it’s not like the American empire isn’t environmentally destructive, too–generally speaking, empires tend to provide no shortage of reasons to oppose them, after all. Of course Ra’s’ plan to reign destruction down on the railroads from above ends up destroying only one town, but that’s why he’s the walking incarnation of near-apocalypse; a protector always shows up to oppose him.
Hex is a curious protector, however. He’s established as a killer in his first scene, and openly states he doesn’t care about Ra’s’ plan to destroy the railroads, even though his pursuit of Duvall ends up destroying Ra’s’ airship and derailing the plan. He has more in common with Azrael, Batman’s temporary replacement after his back was broken by Bane in the comics, than Batman: a figure who takes the role of a protector, but whose willingness to kill and blasé attitude toward others belie that role.
In Giant Robo, we have seen a successful melding of the protector fantasy and the power fantasy, namely the golem and its pop cultural descendants. But here we see an unsuccessful attempt to do the same. The underlying reason is simple: the fantasy in the protector fantasy is that someone has both the power to protect the weak, downtrodden, and oppressed, and chooses to do so. A power fantasy in which we ourselves are that protector is thus quite doable–but that’s not what Jonah Hex is. The power which Jonah Hex possesses is the power of not caring, the power of walking away from society and its obligations. It is the power to kill the people we disagree with, to walk away from the systems we don’t like, and not worry about the consequences. It is great power with no responsibility.
And we’ve seen characters who represent that kind of power fantasy, the power of unlimited self-indulgence: the Mad Hatter, the Joker, Rupert Thorne. Like Azrael and so many other superheroes of the 90s, Hex isn’t so much a hero as he is a villain who fights villains. This positions him as an antihero, a broad term meaning any character who plays a heroic role while lacking key heroic traits. Hex and the antiheroes of the 90s, however, are one very specific type of antihero: they lack the heroic trait of being uncool.
After all, it is the job of a protector fantasy to care enough about others to protect them, and caring is the opposite of cool. Even when Hex spares Duvall’s life, he’s cool, which is to say outwardly uncaring: he insists he’s only doing it because it’s too much effort to carry Duvall’s corpse all the way to the east coast. Hex presents us with all the elements of a 90s antihero: in addition to being cool, he’s also badass (which is to say, given to casually performing acts of extreme violence, such as blowing up an airship), and gets the girl despite being grotesque in appearance (the madame/barmaid kisses him on his burn scar, which has already been depicted as horrifying everyone who sees it).
Not to put too fine a point on it, despite being created in the 70s, Hex is a perfect example of a 90s antihero, and the 90s antihero is a straightforward result of twin assumptions: that superheroes are power fantasies, and that the readers of comics are stereotypical nerds, which is to say entitled white men who got picked on as children, never got over it, and feel entitled to sex despite being unwilling to make any effort to be attractive.
Of course this doesn’t work as a protector fantasy! If your power fantasy is predicated on not protecting anyone, it’s never going to work as anything but a power fantasy. And what revolution would a bunch of angry, entitled white men bring about?
We have already seen the answer, courtesy of Miraculous Ladybug: a return to hierarchies of old, which they imagine themselves sitting on top of. In real life, there’s the alt-right, a movement with disturbing amounts of support in the nerd Mecca of Silicon Valley, which advocates for the elimination of democracy in favor of “running governments like corporations,” in what amounts to capitalist feudalism. Unsurprisingly, they tend to favor Trump or the Libertarians.
We need a better class of revolution, and for that we’re going to need a better class of power fantasy.

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Drop the act (Make ‘Em Laugh)
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E12-13
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($8 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!

Reminder: No Liveblog Chat Thingy Today

I’m at AUSA, some of the other regulars are busy, so we’ll be back next weekend.
In other news, the Kickstarter is doing all right, but could still use some love! Just $240 from me posting an excerpt from Charles Dunbar’s guest chapter!

Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E08-9

Bonus episode! As long as my Patreon stays over $100, I’ll do one extra vlog a month in addition to the weekly ones!
The Kickstarter for my new book, Animated Discussions: Collected Writings on Anime is just $255 from the next milestone! Want a sneak peak at Charles Dunbar’s guest chapter? So do I! We’ll get it when we hit $800!

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos 3-3 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles 3-4 MONTHS early!

New Excerpt posted on the Animated Discussions Kickstarter!


The Kickstarter just passed the 1/2 mark! As promised, I’ve posted an excerpt in the updates:
In a passage from near the end of “Fullmetal Alchemy” I unpack the meaning of two symbols prominently associated with Ed in Fullmetal Alchemist:Brotherhood, the diagram of the Sephiroth on his Gate of Truth and the crucified serpent on his jacket, and how both relate to Ed’s story and character.
We’re just $290 away from revealing the first stretch goal!

Vlog Review: Song of the Sea

The Kickstarter for my new book, Animated Discussions: Collected Writings on Anime is just $20 from the next milestone. Want to know what the symbol on Ed Elric’s coat means, and what it has to do with the diagram on his Gate of Truth? Find out in the excerpt from “Fullmetal Alchemy” I’ll post when we hit the milestone!

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos 3-4 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles 3-4 MONTHS early!

My Anime USA 2016 Schedule, Updated!

I’ll be giving two panels at Anime USA 2016 in Washington, DC. Both are based on chapters of my upcoming book. The Kickstarter is almost halfway there!

  • Fullmetal Alchemy: FMA and the Real-World Alchemical Tradition at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 in Panel 1.
  • The Duel Named Revolution: Making Sense of Revolutionary Girl Utena at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 in Pop Up 3 2.

Hope to see some of you there! My friends Kit Paige and Charles Dunbar will also be giving several panels as well, and I’ll be attending most of those–I highly recommend you do too, as they’re awesome.

Retroactive Continuity 10: Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir: "Darkblade"

I’m running a Kickstarter for a new book, Animated Discussions: Essays on Anime! It’s almost halfway there, but time’s dribbling away!
Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing!

Since last post we talked about mecha anime, let’s talk about their sister genre, magical girls. (Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the mangaka who created Giant Robo in the 1960s, also created the first magical girl, Sally the Witch.) Like mecha, magical girls can be understood as a variant of superhero, especially after 90s juggernaut Sailor Moon fused them with the action-heavy sentai genre.
A 2015-16 French/Japanese co-production years in the making, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir more-or-less successfully brings magical girls into 3D CGI, but in the process somehow turns them into an American cartoon from the 1980s, complete with visible corner-cutting on the animation, formulaic plots, network demands forcing the show to talk down to young children instead of across to tweens and teens, and “pro-social” messages like “ever getting upset about anything at all opens you up for demonic possession.” The primary difference between this and the majority of 1980s cartoons is that Miraculous Ladybug manages to be entertaining despite, and indeed partially because, of its shortcuts and limitations.
Ladybug herself is a straightforward example of the protector fantasy, described by her creator as a cross between the title character of the film Amelie and Spider-Man, whose powers include something American fans have dubbed the “status quo-yo,” a magical yo-yo that instantly repairs all damage done by the villains throughout Paris. She’s all the usual things we expect of a teen heroine–spunky, cute, loved by everyone except the “popular” kids but somehow one of the unpopular kids anyway, a bit of a clutz, and constantly late–but brings little new to the table. She exists to keep the villains contained and repair their damage, a good little girl who keeps everything as it is.
Which makes her a perfect candidate for class representative, doesn’t it? As episode 12 of the first season (as of this writing, the only season aired, but two more are in development), “Darkblade,” depicts, Marinette–Ladybug’s civilian identity–decides to run against the otherwise unopposed Chloe Bourgeois (yes, that is really her name), the class’ resident Regina George clone. So the choice is between a rich blonde bully who is completely self-centered and wants the job solely to lord it over others, and someone who promises change but (as demonstrated in later episodes, where her promised cushions for the classroom chairs are nowhere to be found) either can’t or chooses not to deliver.
As I write this, the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions have just ended, stamping gender-swapped Regina George clone Donald Trump and champion of the status quo Hillary Clinton as the candidates.
Let’s just let that sit for a bit and go back to the episode.
Intertwining with the class election is the episode’s instantiation of the Miraculous formula: fencing instructor D’Argencourt has just lost the election for Mayor of Paris, which Chloe’s father won in a massive landslide. D’Argencourt is naturally upset as a consequence, and therefore possessed by an evil butterfly–I wasn’t kidding about the demonic possession thing.
He becomes his distant ancestor, or more likely his fantasy of what his distant ancestor might have been like, Darkblade, a medieval lord who ruled over Paris, and begins transforming the people of Paris into his knights, then marches on town hall to seize control from Mayor Bourgeois.
So… unhappy with the way capitalist democracy has elevated a Bourgeois to power, someone bemoaning the “good old days” of brutal feudalism attempts to set himself up as a lord through a coup.
Again as I write this, I am watching arguments rage about “the lesser evil.” Some argue that Clinton is only marginally better than Trump, in that she continues an unacceptable status quo instead of replacing it with a somewhat worse one, so it’s better to vote for a third party or not at all, which is a reasonable point.  However, others argue that in the past, a failure of voters on one side of the spectrum to rally behind a single candidate have allowed the other side to win despite a numerical disadvantage, so we all need to vote for Clinton to prevent Trump from winning, which is also a reasonable point. But the impact of any individual voter is so small, especially in non-swing states, that it doesn’t matter, which is yet another reasonable point.
As is often the case when there are multiple, contradictory, equally reasonable points to be made, most of them are being made in the most unreasonable manner possible, of course.
Ultimately, it is D’Argencourt’s rage at Bourgeois, and the city that passively accepts Bourgeois, that leads him down the path that nearly plunges the city into the Dark Ages. But that’s because it’s, as we said, employing effectively the same aesthetic as an American cartoon of the 80s, so getting angry or complaining will always be depicted as wrong. In real life, maybe it’s a good thing that people are getting angrier and angrier about politics. Sure, it makes the system work less smoothly, but the system is terrible. And sure, angry people tend to let their prejudices guide them, which is how Trump has turned the Republican party into an openly white nationalist movement. But on the other hand, no one ever got justice by sitting politely and waiting to be noticed; ultimately, all justice comes from rage.
So the question is, is there any way to channel rage such that it creates justice only, without all these other destructive effects? Is there, in short, a way to achieve revolution without apocalypse?
Probably not.
But if there is, it’s on us to find it. After all, if it probably doesn’t exist, it’s no less likely to be found in the ideaspace surrounding a 20-year-old cartoon than anywhere else, right?

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Drop the act (Make ‘Em Laugh)
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E12-13
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($8 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!