I think someone’s using it (Heavy Metal)

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It’s November 8, 1997. The top song is still Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Over the weekend, Starship Troopers opened at number one; I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Devil’s Advocate also chart. According to my exhaustive review of the news of the period (looking at the Wikipedia page for the year), nothing much is going on in the news.

And Superman: The Animated Series continues its brief flirtation with a weekly release schedule with “Heavy Metal,” written by Hilary Bader and directed by Curt Geda. I don’t usually call out specific writers and directors in this series, but in this case it matters, because it’s really, really obvious that this episode was made by white people.

Not that it’s overtly racist or anything like that; just that it’s clearly written and directed by people who have never considered the possibility that people of color might have a different relationship with the police than white people do. Only white people can be unaware of that fact–though admittedly, it takes more effort to ignore in 2018 than it did in 1997–therefore the episode was written and directed by white people. (As Bader and Geda indeed turn out to be.)

Quite simply, the behavior of literally none of the black characters in this episode makes sense, which is a problem when not only is the episode focused on and about black characters, it’s the introduction of the very first superhero of color in the DCAU. It’s one thing to write Superman as naively assuming that criminals are bad and authority figures are good; especially in a setting that contains Batman’s rather more fraught relationship with the police, it’s at least readable as a character trait rather than an underlying assumption.

But Steel engages a group of armed, masked bank robbers carrying a weapon of his own. This is before he puts on the armor, so his face is fully exposed: a black man, with a weapon, during a violent crime in progress. He gives no indication of concern that the police would assume he’s a criminal too and gun him down, even as a risk that he’s willing to take. He just blithely walks out, every indication, every action by him and Nat, making clear that they see the criminals and only the criminals as a potential threat. When a police car does show up, unnamed black characters then assume the cop within can be trusted; it’s only when they see that it’s Metallo rather than a cop that they react with fear.

We then get a car chase/gunfight, in which a black man and his teen niece trade fire with someone in a police car, once again without apparent concern that they are putting themselves at serious risk from a highly organized, heavily armed gang of very violent people who happen to be on the municipal payroll.

Statistics for police brutality in the 1990s are nontrivial to come by, but it was a known issue, as was the fact that it involved a racial disparity–the infamous L.A. riots of 1992 were provoked by exactly that issue. It was, before social media, easier to ignore if you were white–certainly sheltered 16-year-old me was mostly unaware of it–but it was there, and this episode fails utterly to address it.

Not that it should necessarily have to; the best solution would probably be to have left out high-profile crimes with direct police involvement. That this didn’t occur to the creators–that they instead went with their underlying, unquestioned assumption that the police, and the structures of power they represent, are basically benevolent–just highlights the ignorance born of their unacknowledged privilege.

Related is the reason Steel falls flat as a character: he has no trauma. There’s not really any motivation for him to become a superhero beyond “crime bad, violence against criminals good.” This is not to say that making the world a better place is not an understandable or sympathetic motive–it very much is, and the bleak 90s in particular had a need for characters who choose to be good for the sake of being good, precisely why Steel was the best thing to come out of The Death of Superman. But the choice to do good specifically as a superhero does not work if it is motivated solely by a desire to do good; some further reason why the character would choose that particular (violent, dangerous, and wildly inefficient) path to virtue is needed. “Because it’s a superhero franchise” is, of course, an answer–but it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character.

What’s absurd is, John Henry Irons absolutely does have trauma; it’s just never depicted. He is a black man in America: of course he has trauma, or at least double consciousness, which is broadly similar. I’ll repeat here what I said about it in my entry on Ms. Marvel:

Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.

This could have been fascinating to explore, in the hands of creators to whom it would occur to explore it. It is endlessly frustrating that they failed to do so: a superhero whose own culture is hostile to them, not just as a hero (a la Batman or Spider-Man) but in their day-to-day, secret identity life, is a veritable font of story and characterization opportunities, not to mention fulfilling a need for representation that goes beyond token presence and into depicting marginalized people’s stories. Instead, Steel will vanish almost immediately into obscurity–after this, he will never appear in STAS again, and have only cameos and minor roles in Justice League Unlimited.

What this episode does is betray a fatal flaw in STAS: it’s being made by people who have a particular experience of the world, one in which the structures of power generally appear to be working in their favor, and hence blind to the systemic injustices inherent to those structures. It is, in short, the same problem BTAS had: it doesn’t really want apocalypse at all. It is firmly on the side of keeping things near-.

Like Harley Quinn before him, Steel exposes the systemic injustices that the show around him takes as given, but in ways that the show cannot make room for. It once again strains and cracks, but unlike BTAS’ embrace of Harley Quinn, STAS rejects Steel, never including him again.

But the damage is done. It’s clear, now, that massive change is once again needed. The DCAU needs a shock to its system.

The good news is that a massive one is coming. The bad news is that it’s the wrong one.


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13 thoughts on “I think someone’s using it (Heavy Metal)

  1. “It is endlessly frustrating that they failed to do so: a superhero whose own culture is hostile to them, not just as a hero (a la Batman or Spider-Man) but in their day-to-day, secret identity life, is a veritable font of story and characterization opportunities, not to mention fulfilling a need for representation that goes beyond token presence and into depicting marginalized people’s stories.”

    While I agree with the sentiment, as someone with a Spider-Man blog, I’m going to make a mild critique. What many writers forget about Peter Parker is that he’s bullied not because he’s a nerd, but because he is an outsider in the way described above due to being a second generation Jewish Czech immigrant. But since many Post Ditko/Lee era writers miss the fact that Spidey’s Jewish (because unlike Matt Murdock, it doesn’t get brought up every time he appears), he got retconned into being of the “normal” faith. There are certainly ways to rectify this. Andrew Rillstone notably said that a modern Peter Parker should be of “Somali Muslim or Punjabi Sikh heritage.” There’s the people on tumblr who read the movie Peter as being a trans male. And, of course, there’s my take that he’s been bisexual since the 80’s. What I’m saying is that the worst takes on Spider-Man tend to buy into the Myth of Geek Culture and ignore the text they claim to love. (Story of comics, really.)

    This is of course better argued in these articles by Andrew Rillstone, though I’d be interested in takes on Spider-Man and race/gender/sexuality by non-white guys (seriously Andrew and I are the only people doing book length projects on the character, what the hell).

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  2. That’s a very fair technique! I was actually under the impression that Parker was Jewish in a manner similar to Superman, that is, never stated or shown to be Jewish in the text, but an expression of a particularly Jewish take on the immigrant experience (first-gen for Supes, second-gen for Spidey). If I’m reading you correctly, however,

    I think at this point it may be verging in the obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Muslim Peter Parker’s name is Kamala Khan.

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  3. I can see how people missed that in the comics, though in the first annual, Peter has a line that pushes it closer to “actually Jewish” rather than “themed Jewish”: “You know your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is always available for weddings, Bar-Mitzvahs, and all sorts of fun things!”

    And yes, of course Kamala’s modern Spider-Man.

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  4. So…is the DCAU actually bad and unworthy of the love it gets? Or is it just flawed and not always perfectly woke by 2018 standards?

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  5. That’s an extremely simplistic binary. The point of NA09 isn’t whether the DCAU is bad or good; it’s exploring the ideaspace that surrounds the DCAU. In this case, this particular episode lent itself to exploring the unexamined assumption that established authority is good and can be trusted, and the degree to which that assumption arises from a position of white privilege.

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  6. “But the choice to do good specifically as a superhero does not work if it is motivated solely by a desire to do good; some further reason why the character would choose that particular (violent, dangerous, and wildly inefficient) path to virtue is needed.”

    Hrm. This seems to overreach. The majority of superheroes began and went for a long time without backstory trauma, choosing to do good because they wanted to do good. Such characters became interesting via the character development that happened to them after/because of becoming a superhero (see also My Hero Academia). And, increasingly, fans are preferring the hero who is one not because of trauma.

    In the comics, of course, Steel’s trauma is apparently Superman’s death, choosing to fill in the vigilante hole his death left.

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  7. “The majority of superheroes began and went for a long time without backstory trauma”

    I don’t think that’s true. Certainly the most *prominent* examples have in common a traumatic event as their origin stories—the loss of a home, death of family, horrible accidents, and so on.

    Of course, there is a difference between the choice to do good—even to be a hero!—and the choice to be a superhero. It is entirely possible for a character to be motivated to do good out of the desire to do good, AND to have an underlying trauma that explains so many of the features specific to superheroes—the fragmented identities, the protective rather than proactive stance, the frequent reiteration of their origins, and so on. That’s what I’m talking about in the passage you quoted—the choice not just to do good, but to pursue that very specific, weird *model* of doing good.

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  8. Depending on the exact details of his upbringing per writer, Superman is rarely motivated by the loss of Krypton to be a superhero rather than just a journalist.
    To attribute Steve Rogers’ volunteering for military duty to hypothetical bullying in his youth would cheapen his decision. Similarly, the Golden Age Diana does not need trauma to decide to join the fight in WWII. The addition of trauma to the Amazons’ history has been criticized as not allowing women to be heroic without being brutalized, precisely because there were so many men heroes in comparison without trauma motivations.
    Billy Batson.
    The Nora Allen murder retcon makes Barry Allen far less interesting, imho.
    More characters with no trauma in their backstory for the longest time and didn’t really need any: Alan Ladd/Scott, Hal Jordan, Hawman, Aquaman, Jay Garrick, Ralph Dibny. Ray Palmer’s trauma is at the point of his origin, in deciding to sacrifice himself to save others. The rare Marvel example would be Thor (Golden Age Thor has no memories of Odin banishing him, and thus trauma is not driving his actions).
    And then you have Booster Gold, as the prime example of being interesting via developments that only occur after becoming a superhero.

    “Trauma as origin story” seems to be primarily in Marvel’s wheelhouse of innovation (and that is more linked to dramatizing a metaphor to either adolescence or the anxieties of the Cold War).
    DC’s primary examples are Batman (and even that was added later), Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, and the fact that Plastic Man was originally a criminal.

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  9. While accurate, your argument is from a narrowly diegetic viewpoint that suggests that you have not actually read the literally hundreds of prior posts in this series. You are in effect coming in on page 700 and demanding I relitigate points from page 30.

    The short version, however: regardless of in-character motivation, superheroic origins tend to function like trauma. A number of features of comics—length, repetition, retcons, and a tendency to shift to fit their surroundings—cause them to resemble memory more than most stories do, and within that context the hero’s origin story functions like a traumatic memory: most notably that it’s constantly flashed back to (both literally and when called up by resonance with later events) and it typically triggers a fragmentation of identity into a before-self and after-self (frequently multiple after-selves). In the case of Superman, as I’ve noted elsewhere, you have the added element that kryptonite functions like a trigger that induces a panic attack: paleness, sweating, difficulty breathing, etc.

    Anyway, the question isn’t whether superheroes are “actually” motivated by trauma. They’re fictional characters; there is no “actually.” The question is whether they are readable as trauma narratives, and the answer is almost always yes. That’s why so many of the latter-day attempts to add more literal traumas to backstories don’t work. Barry Allen was already struck by lightning, he doesn’t need a dead mom, too.

    Wonder Woman is an interesting case which I’ve discussed briefly elsewhere and will do so more when I get to her episodes of JL(U). Short version is: she’s more a revolutionary or epic hero, not a superhero, and that’s why superhero writers have historically struggled to write her. (Long version is… a lot more complicated, in that she’s a direction superheroes could have gone but didn’t due largely to the comics code, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

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  10. (Long version is… a lot more complicated, in that she’s a direction superheroes could have gone but didn’t due largely to the comics code, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

    If it isn’t too much of a derail, Elizabeth Sandifer suggested in A Golden Thread that there’s an alternate course of events where post-Crisis Wonder Woman ended up as a Vertigo title rather than in the mainstream DCU – do you think she’d have worked better there, or does she add something necessary/valuable to superhero comics? (Given that Sandman and Lucifer, both stories about the overthrow of the old order and the birth of something new, were finite stories, it does suggest that a Vertigo Wonder Woman might have similarly come to an end, but I could easily be wrong there.)

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  11. I think she brings something INCREDIBLY important to the table: she is the only woman superhero who is both widely known and not a counterpart to a previously established male hero.

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