We go all radical (Tools of the Trade)

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I know, this is super late. No real excuses, shit’s just been busy and I forgot.
It’s February 1, 1997, a jump of several months from our last episode. The top movie is the special edition release of Star Wars; further down in the top 5 are  Jerry Maguire and Scream. The top song is Toni Braxton with “Un-Break My Heart”; En Vogue, R. Kelly, and the Spice Girls also chart. In the news, on January 22, Madeleine Albright became the first woman to be U.S. Secretary of State; on the 27th, French museums are revealed to possess over 2,000 pieces of art looted by Nazis, mostly from Jews; in an unrelated move on February 5, the Big Three Swiss banks create a fund to aid Holocaust survivors and their families.
Meanwhile, Superman: The Animated Series introduces a cluster of related Jack Kirby creations, all tied to his New Gods mythos: hardbitten Metropolis police officer Jack Turpin (whose STAS design was made to resemble Kirby as a tribute), the planet of evil gods, Apokolips, and its ruler Darkseid.
We will be discussing the New Gods, Apokolips, and Darkseid in more detail in a later post; for now, they remain mysterious but ominous figures, with even their divinity referred to only obliquely. More central here is Turpin, introduced as a relentless, stubborn pursuer of truth in the Lois Lane mold, yet also hostile to Superman in much the same way and for much the same reason as Lex Luthor. Specifically, he seems to be rankled by reporters commenting that Superman is increasingly doing the police’s work for them, but also takes potshots at his boss (and, clearly, old friend) Maggie Sawyer with similar comments. He is upset by the claim because he fears it’s true.
We have, in other words, a working-class older white man frightened that he is being rendered obsolete by a younger, more skilled, more efficient refugee. In a city largely controlled by a self-absorbed real-estate magnate whose enterprise covers up far darker dealings with foreign governments. I am not, to be clear, saying that Dan Turpin is a Trump voter. I’m just saying that if Lex Luthor were to run for public office, it’s the Dan Turpins of the world whose vote would be most likely to put him there.
But this particular Dan Turpin has something that the Lex Luthors of the world would rather he not: the aforementioned relentless, stubborn desire to learn the truth. His off-book investigation of Mannheim leads not only to uncovering the involvement of Apokolips (somewhat–the characters still have no idea where Kanto came from, just that it is probably not Earth) and dismantling Intergang, but also to him saving Superman’s life. The two end the episode with gestures of mutual respect; it is clear Turpin no longer considers Superman a threat.
Because of course he doesn’t. He has discovered that he is stronger than Superman, or at least that he was in the moment in which he saved him. Further, his pride has been assuaged: now, anytime Superman catches a criminal before Turpin can, Turpin can understand it as payback for that time he saved Superman’s life.
All of which makes Turpin sound worse than he is. He’s actually a pretty decent guy throughout STAS, and indeed comes off in this episode as the classic lovable old curmudgeon. He feels like he should be played by Peter Falk or Walter Matthau or whoever took over their roles in live-action children’s movies now that they’re both dead.
True, Superman should never have had to earn Turpin’s respect. Maggie Sawyer clearly respects him from the start–but then, she understands how it feels to be rejected for being true to oneself, after a lifetime of acceptance conditional on living a lie. At least in the comics–and nothing in the DCAU suggests otherwise–she came to Metropolis in the first place to start a new life after coming out as a lesbian.
The point is, though he shouldn’t have needed to, Superman does earn Turpin’s respect. Turpin is at least capable of recognizing Superman’s value when it’s shoved in his face. (Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that Turpin is Jewish, while Superman is simultaneously an alien refugee and a WASP from Kansas, but more on that dichotomy in a much later post.) Lex Luthor seems incapable even of that much.
We have barely scratched the surface of the complexity of Superman-as-immigration-metaphor. There is much to unpack here, and this initial, superficial attempt is necessarily going to be inadequate.  Nonetheless, Superman has always represented a particular kind of immigrant experience in a way that most other superheroes do not (of the major Big Two heroes, the original Spider-Man is the only one that comes close), and as a result the suspicion with which certain other characters regard him is politically loaded in a way that, say, Harvey Bullock’s attitude toward Batman is not.
Turpin, in short, may be an ally now–but he is one who has already demonstrated once that his kneejerk reaction is suspicion and fear. Neither allyship nor his general decency is enough to redeem him for that; more is needed.

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4 thoughts on “We go all radical (Tools of the Trade)

  1. I do have to wonder, given this analysis, at what point the creative staff decided Turpin was Jewish. Yeah, he’s visually based on Kirby, but given the lack of focus he gets, I’ve always imagined the depiction of his funeral was a snap decision based on his creator’s death.

    • As near as I can tell, there is no reference in the comics to him being Jewish, nor any reference in the DCAU prior to his funeral, so I suspect you’re right. Though I’m not sure how much difference it makes–Jared Kushner exists, after all.

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