I keep tearing my costume (The Hand of Fate/Bizarro’s World)

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It’s October 6, 1997. Or possibly 10. 11?

One of these episodes was released on one of those three days, and one was released one of the others, but I have found conflicting information–there seems to be a general consensus that “Bizarro’s World” was broadcast on the 10th, but some sources list the broadcast date for “The Hand of Fate” as the 6th, others the 11th.

So let’s set the stage through the 11th. Since “World’s Finest,” absolutely nothing of interest has happened in the news. The top song is “Candle in the Wind 1997,” the highest-selling single since the charts began. (Only “White Christmas” has outsold it, and it predates the first Billboard chart by nearly a decade.) The top movie this weekend is still Kiss the Girls.

These two episodes make an excellent pair, especially directly after “World’s Finest.” At first glance, “Bizarro’s World” seems like it should have gone much earlier: it’s been more than a dozen episodes since “Identity Crisis,” and Lois is just now checking on the cloning facility where Bizarro was built? But there is actually no indication of how much time passes between the opening scene and the scene of Bizarro attacking the ski lodge; it’s entirely possible that the bulk of the episode takes place weeks or months later.

Besides, this is the same DCAU that had “Holiday Knights” in September and “Father’s Day” in October, not to mention the endless stylistic anachronisms to be found in both its shows so far. Or, for that matter, the anachronism with which this entry began: “The Hand of Fate” appears to have first aired both before and after “Bizarro’s World.”

No, there is no issue with “Bizarro’s World” being placed here, as a temporally intermingled pair with “The Hand of Fate.” They have much in common, and in turn much in common with “World’s Finest.” In the crossover, the separate strands of Batman and Superman met for the first time within the DCAU. As we have discussed before, they are often presented as a binary, paired opposites: light and dark, noir and art deco, human and alien, avenger and protector. The Joker and Lex Luthor, meanwhile, gave us another pair of opposites, at least in terms of how they present themselves: the Joker performs as an avatar of chaos while Luthor poses as a champion of the capitalist social order.

In “The Hand of Fate,” then, we have an open conflict between order and chaos, named as such: Doctor Fate’s source of power, the Helmet of Fate, comes from the “Lord of Order” Nabu, and the demonic Karkull calls upon the “Lords of Chaos” to empower it. The episode consistently equates good with order and evil with chaos; Karkull is a creeping invader, who enters, corrupts, and transforms whatever it touches. First it enters the body of a thief and transforms him into a grotesque monster, then it enters the Daily Planet and transforms it into a portal to Hell, and then it summons more of its kind to possess and transform the Daily Planet staff, clearly with the intent of turning all of humanity into its kind.

Karkull is unquestionably evil, but leave that aside for the moment–after all, it is the writers’ decision to depict the demoniacally evil version of its behavior. What actually is Karkull but an outsider, an Other, someone who comes from outside our culture and our norms? And its presence is depicted as a corrupting influence, that causes transgression in others–their bodies turned grotesque, transgressing against the “normal” human form, and their behavior turned from “normal” to loyal service of the invading Other, transgressing against “normal” human values. It is the anti-Superman; he represents the “good” immigrant, who comes here, learns our ways and internalizes our values, then becomes a protector of our culture as it is, while Karkull is the “evil” immigrant, who comes here and starts imposing his ways and his values, trying to change our culture into something new.

Karkull is “chain migration,” a racist term (with Nazi roots) for the policy of family reunification that makes it slightly less of an impossible nightmare for close relatives of legal immigrants to the U.S. to eventually join their families here: Karkull enters Metropolis and soon its “kind” are flooding in from their hellish home, bringing with them chaos and change, the ultimate nightmare of the racist immigration opponent (and there is no other kind).

To be clear, diegetically, there is no other solution. Karkull is evil, and the only way we see to deal with it is for Doctor Fate and Superman to restore order, violently. But having a character named Superman–the literal translation of ubermensch–defeat the evil, corrupting, invasive Other is uncomfortable enough; having him pair up with a character named Doctor Fate to do it is too much to bear. Doctor Fate is presented as a mystical being of sacred order, but the name reads as a combination of medicine and destiny, the notion of a fixed social role biologically determined. At best, seeing someone with that name fight a villainized Other recalls the intensely racist origins of the Lovecraftian oeuvre, but the notion of medical destiny carries echoes of eugenics as well.

Not that there’s much line between the two.

In “Bizarro’s World,” on the other hand, we find an initially more sympathetic take on the grotesque Other. Bizarro is not depicted as evil; he is fully a sympathetic villain, if a bit too cartoony to achieve the pathos of a Mister Freeze or a Baby Doll. (And yes, I am aware of the irony in describing a character obviously modeled on Elmyra from Tiny Toons as less cartoony and more able to evoke pathosthan a malformed clone desperately trying to emulate a hero and consistently failing. It is nonetheless true.)

But in a way, that makes it worse: the grotesque Other can’t help but be destructive. He doesn’t understand our world or our ways, and so blunders around destructively, sowing chaos and harming innocents. Superman, our rural Kansas ubermensch, saves the day by kindly and gently removing the Other to an empty world where he can do no harm, creating a Bizarro ethnostate of one so our own ethnostate (or so it is depicted–there are no people of color in this episode) can remain homogenous, peaceful, orderly.

The problem once again comes down to the innate conservatism and authoritarianism of the protector fantasy. Chaos implies change and the affliction of the comfortable; the protector must therefore protect against it, and hence is on the side of order. But order is not good any more than chaos is evil; indeed, most of the time it’s the other way around. Chaos is change, and life is a process of ongoing change; order is, therefore, death. Order is the powerful remaining powerful and the powerless remaining oppressed; chaos is freedom.

The Other is scary because it doesn’t fit into our ordered world. It implies that something exists outside of that world, something which we are missing. The grotesque is the aesthetic of carnival; it is an inversion of norms and hence of power relationships. In the face of someone who looks different, we see the possibility of difference itself–that what we know as “normal” is not the only way to be. That in turn implies that we can be other than we are, that the rules by which we live are not the only rules that could work.

This is the authoritarian’s nightmare: that we might embrace the Other. That we could play with alien dogs, sprout tentacles, try unfamiliar foods, invert power structures, explore other ways to be and think and live. “Grotesque,” “degenerate,” these are just authoritarian words for diversity; “corruption” is their word for freedom.

They can keep their Lords of Order, their Doctors Fate and Supermen.

I’d rather be bizarro any day.


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