Yeah, that's Richie (The Late Mr. Kent)

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It’s November 1, 1997. The top song is Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997; Usher, Leanne Rimes, and Boyz II Men also chart. The top movie is teen slasher flick I Know What You Did Last Summer; lower in the top 10 are The Devil’s Advocate, Boogie Nights, and Gattaca.
In the news, since last episode NASA launched the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn, The New York Times had its first front-page color photo, and in Massachusetts, British au pair Louise Woodward is found guilty of shaking a baby to death, which I recall as the first time I ever encountered the term au pair.
The person who variously goes by Kal-El, Clark Kent, or Superman is, as we have observed repeatedly, a trauma survivor. His entire world was destroyed, and as a result his identity fragmented. He tried for most of his life to suppress his other self, to be “normal,” but he couldn’t. He was raised human, but he isn’t human; he’s Kryptonian, and he needed a way to express his Kryptonian-ness or else “go insane.”
I put scare quotes around the phrase–one I normally wouldn’t use–because it is used in this episode, to describe what would happen if Superman tried to live without Clark Kent. He isn’t one or the other; he’s both, because both are expressions of fragments of an underlying self that shattered with Krypton, and neither is able to express all the fragments. When, for example, Clark tries to play the role of the hero who saves the day, which he describes as being driven by an egotistical desire to have a victory go to his credit as Clark, he is “killed” by a car bomb. Only the lucky break–the one witness having extremely poor eyesight–permits him to return without having to reveal his secret to the world.
Superman is sometimes accused of being too perfect, too invulnerable, but he’s not. Oh, there’s very little which can hurt him physically–the fight at the end of this episode, when Detective Bowman shoots him with the helicopter’s cannon and missiles, is utterly devoid of tension for this reason–but he can still be challenged. Before we get into that, though, let’s unpack that: Superman is invulnerable, but so are essentially all action heroes. Tone is a thing; it is usually possible to tell from pretty early on in a narrative work whether the protagonists’ success is guaranteed, and there are entire genres where it almost always is. The tension in such works is not whether the protagonists succeed, but how and at what cost.
The issue with Superman’s vulnerability is that if, say, Batman is shot at with automatic fire, we may know he’ll escape harm, but we don’t know how. With Superman, we do: the bullets will just fail to hurt him. So any tension in that particular scenario must focus on the third question: at what cost? And in the fight with Detective Bowman, no one else is around who might get hurt, so we know the answer is “little or none.”
The car bomb is thus a perfect example of a Superman action sequence well-crafted to evoke tension. We know the bomb can’t hurt Superman physically, but we don’t know what it might cost: the explosion or immersion might damage the evidence disk, for example. The moment we see the fisherman watching the car plunge into the ocean, another possible cost is added: Superman might be exposed. We know, of course, from the episode’s title and first scene that at some point something will cost Superman the ability to live as Clark Kent by convincing the world that he’s dead, but we don’t know how or when that will happen–so that tension is present here, too.
Essentially all of the possibilities happen: the evidence is destroyed, meaning we no longer know how the execution will be prevented; Superman is unable to emerge near the fishing boat for fear of exposure (so the cost of potential exposure creates a brief second challenge, which Superman resolves by sneaking around); and as a consequence of trying to avoid exposure, Superman is unable to prevent the appearance that Kent’s car exploded and went off a cliff, ensuring Kent’s death.
The result is that Superman is in danger of “going insane.” He might lose the ability to express half his identity, and thereby be forced to deny his humanity and disconnect from the world, only ever seeing it from above. This is a fairly serious consequence and a genuine vulnerability, more than able to sustain the episode, especially since the episode takes pains to show us just how much he’d be losing, in the form of Lois Lane. She confesses to Superman that she genuinely likes and respects Clark and regrets not telling him that while he was alive, reminding both him and the audience of the friendship (and, we know, sooner or later, romance) that he stands to lose. Of course Lois likes Superman, too, but it’s difficult to imagine her affectionately teasing him or viewing him as a respected rival.
Lois shines in this episode, independently pursuing the cause of Clark’s death, finding the bug in his apartment, volunteering to confront Bowman with her suspicions and get him to confess so Superman can nab him. She is brave, determined, resourceful–it’s clear why Clark/Superman likes her so much, and that in turn makes it clear why he needs so badly to be Clark.
Heroes, one of my college professors was fond of saying, make terrible neighbors. They’re violent, noisy, and constantly getting into trouble and making messes; really the best thing to do with them is to just point them in the general direction of your enemies and hope they win but die tragically on the way home. Superman is no one’s neighbor; he lives in the sky, or alone at the North Pole. But Clark can have an apartment, coworkers, and friends.
Without Superman, Clark cannot be the protector he feels the need to be. But without Clark, Superman cannot connect to others–without Clark, he has no one to protect.

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Vlog Review: Rick and Morty S3E9

Those of you who follow on Tumblr, for whatever reason the videos don’t play there. Click through to to watch.
Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!

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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