Hey, I’m one of the good guys (Judgment Day)

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Mea culpa AGAIN: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates AGAIN, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 31, 1998. Monica still tops the charts, with Barenaked Ladies and Dru Hill feat. Redman just below. The top movie is John Carpenter’s Vampires. In the news, Hurricane Mitch makes landfall in Central America, killing 11,000.

In Gotham, we have “Judgment Day,” which (as is lately so often the case) largely retreads ground already covered by past episodes, most notably “Lock-Up” and… well, really, just about any episode with Two-Face in it, so let’s go with “Two-Face.”

As I discussed with “Lock-Up” and it’s titular villain, there are two ways of looking at punishment in the context of justice. The first is as a kind of moral causality: people do bad things, so they deserve to have bad things happen to them, and the state acts to do just that. This corresponds broadly to the retributive theory of criminal justice, and as the name implies, is basically the state taking on the function of vengeance in place of individual citizens doing so. The second approach is that the role of punishment is to reduce crime: we don’t want people to do bad things, so when they do, the state punishes them both so that they won’t want to do it again, and so that others will think twice about doing bad things.

Setting aside any issues with the determination of “bad things,” whether a state is a legitimate entity with a right to punish citizens, and decisions of when, how, and whom to punish, each of these theories has a fundamental problem at its core. In the case of retribution, the problem is fairly obvious: all it does it is multiply suffering without doing anything to make things better. In the case of reducing crime, the problem is less immediately obvious but just as straightforward: it doesn’t work.

In psychological terms, the goal of reducing crime is an attempt at behavior modification, which sounds Orwellian but is actually just psychologist for “teaching.” And the educational applications of punishment are, to say the least, quite limited–which is why we generally minimize its use in schools! What a century of research into the topic shows is that punishment only works as an effective means of behavior modification under a strict set of criteria, namely: the goal is to stop an undesired behavior, not replace it with a desired behavior; the punishment is clearly associated with the undesired behavior by occurring extremely close to it in time, ideally as a direct, immediate, and automatic consequence; and the punishment is ceased immediately upon cessation of the undesired behavior.

The kind of behavior modification we’re talking about when it comes to criminal justice meets none of these criteria. Quite simply, punishing criminals serves no purpose except cruelty for the sake of cruelty. It is vengeance, nothing more, rooted in hatred and dehumanization. This is why, for example, prisoners are frequently denied access to educational opportunities, which are shown to reduce recidivism–criminals, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, are one of our most hated Others, and our society revels in brutalizing and enslaving them. (It is also not an accident that the prison population is disproportionately made up of the descendants of the last Other we brutalized and enslaved.)

All of this is why, in the “Lock-Up” essay, I identified the titular villain’s brutal retributive “justice” with the Bat, Batman’s drive for vengeance rooted in his fear and pain at the loss of his parents. Two-Face, meanwhile, is ostentatiously a figure all about duality, and part of that is the degree, as discussed in my essay on “Two-Face,” to which he is a mirror of Batman. It makes a kind of sense, then, for him to produce his own equivalent to the Bat, his own figure to externalize his rage at the crime and criminality which have hurt him so. Rather shrewdly, he takes the form of a figure one might expect to strike fear into criminals–a harsh, faceless judge who will stop at nothing to punish them, the vengeance of the system designed to brutalize and dehumanize those it has marked as Other.

Note, too, whom the Judge attacks: Penguin, Killer Croc, and Two-Face, all villains whose character designs use the grotesque to mark their Otherness. As always, our culture is less interested in right or wrong than in identifying and punishing deviance from arbitrary norms. Two-Face’s embrace of randomness is in part a recognition of that fact–he is openly arbitrary in mockery of a “justice” that is anything but fair.

But there is a major difference: Bruce Wayne was a victim of a crime that left him traumatized and his parents dead, and created the Bat to protect himself. The show has fairly consistently, however, portrayed Harvey Dent as the primary victim of Two-Face, which is to say he is his own first and greatest victim. As such, the Judge exists not to protect him, but to punish him; it is not a protector fantasy, nor even a power fantasy, but a revenge fantasy. On some level, he is sick of the suffering he has caused himself, angry at himself for that suffering, and wants to avenge himself against himself.

This is why the Judge is so much more lethal than Batman. The whole point of a protector fantasy is that we are dreaming of someone who will protect us no matter what–ultimately, superheroes must protect their villains because they must protect everyone. A vengeance fantasy has no such limitation; its job is to destroy the Other. In this it has far more in common with the more traditional figure of the Hero than superheroes do: a hero is someone you point at your enemies and hope they die tragically before they get home, because heroes make terrible neighbors, while a superhero is someone you hope sticks around in case you get mugged or fall out of a twentieth-story window.

This, in turn, is why the Judge is so popular: people love heroes, which is why almost every culture has at least one. At least, we love heroes when they’re pointed at our enemies; we’re not so fond of them once they start targeting us. And given enough time, sooner or later, they always do.

To get back to the core concern of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, after a very long digression into the grotesque and the figure of the Other (which is far from over): we cannot look to the Hero as a model to strip the authoritarianism from the Superhero. Heroes are, if anything, worse.

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Retroactive Continuity: Another Castle: Grimoire

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

The original Super Mario Bros., which of course is the referent in the title Another Castle, does not actually have an ending. At the end of every world, Toad informs you that the princess is in another castle, until you finish World 8 and find her–but even then, she just tells you to try a more challenging game, starting you over from the game’s beginning, but now the enemies are stronger or faster. Reach her again, and she does it again, over and over, until eventually the game runs out of more challenging versions of itself to throw at you–but even then, you’re not done. The game just returns to its original version and repeats the entire cycle over again.

The princess is unattainable. The only ways to end are to give up, to die, or to play a different game. The last option being the only one that leads to further choices, it’s clearly the way to go.

The concept of the princess is shifting now. Once, as Another Castle observes, princesses were passive entities traded as pawns in diplomatic games. The daughters of royalty–indeed, of nobility in general–were married off to unite families and generate heirs, and fairy tales reflect that old reality. The princess is a prize to be won, a symbol of the hero’s ascension into the rank of royalty, with little in the way of agency. Fantasy, in turn, reflects the fairy tales its writers grew up on, and so the video game princess is the unattainable prize dangled in front of the player, a promise of ascension never fulfilled to pull us along the game’s path.

But something has changed in recent years. “Princess” doesn’t always mean passive feminine object anymore. It never entirely did–Princess Leia largely rescues herself in Star Wars–but in animation and comics in particular, it’s starting to mean something else entirely. In Disney movies like Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph, and Frozen, and cartoons from a variety of sources, like Adventure Time,  My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,  and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the position of princess is increasingly depicted as one of political authority and magical prowess. Indeed, in those last two, it has little to do with royalty at all, and instead means something akin to “archmage.”

Another Castle: Grimoire is in large part about that transition. Beldora is, at first, a fairly typical princess of the Disney Renaissance: she feels oppressed by castle etiquette and politics, bound by conventions and rules, and yearns for More(tm). When she is forced to surrender to the evil Lord Badlug to protect her kingdom from destruction, her path seems as clear to her as it is to us: get the magic sword, slay him, and rescue herself. It is classic 90s Grrl Power libfem: the problem is that women are second-class citizens, and the solution is empowerment, which is to say More(tm): princesses who slay monsters and rule their own kingdoms, more women as CEOs, more women as cops and soldiers.

But it isn’t that simple, and the comic, to its credit, reflects that. Trading one tyrant for another doesn’t do much for the people on the street, even if the new tyrant has way better hair. Beldora wants to be someone other than who she’s told to be, but it’s not enough for her alone to do that. She soon learns–courtesy of Robin, the destitute “true king” of Grimoire who desires to be nothing of the sort–that she must seek liberation for all, even peasants and monsters (who, cleverly, are interchangeable in Grimoire). To be genuinely free to choose for herself, she must create a world in which all are free to choose their lifepaths and leaders alike–so in the midst of a popular uprising led by Robin, she beheads Badlug.

And is hailed as king. It is the libfem happy ending; a woman, through individual empowerment, attaining the pinnacle of masculine authority. She has More(tm), and has proven that women can do anything men can do, namely take on roles that derive from and perpetuate patriarchal and kyriarchical structures of power.

So she abdicates in favor of forming a democracy, then announces her intention to bring democracy to the other kingdoms, too, starting with her homeland. She has grown to understand, as few heroes do, the difference between power and freedom, and realized that the latter is worth far more–but is unattainable for the individual. Our entire culture is a game, dangling the unattainable in front of us, to pull us onward on a path, and reaching the end isn’t the end, it just unlocks new enemies. Even if the princess rescues herself, she isn’t free of the game; she just starts from the beginning as Mario, and some other princess is captured in her place.

The only ways out are to die, to give up–or to play a different game. The princess doesn’t rescue herself. She wields Mario as a weapon and helps the Koopas revolt. She changes the game too much for it to ever be played again.

And that is, always, the end goal. The freedom to be who we want to be comes not from playing the game to victory. That just makes us who the game wants us to be. Instead we–together, all at once–have to break the game, so that everyone can play something else.

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Video Multipost: Vlogs: Ducktales S2E7, Rocky & Bullwinkle S1E3-4, and Star vs. S3E1-4

The video posting swarm continues! Here’s three vlogs:

Ducktales bonus vlog!

A commissioned vlog for Nick Barovic…

And a Star vs. bonus vlog!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

I had to save her (Chemistry)

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 24, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; they’re otherwise largely unchanged. Pleasantville opens at number one at the box office, which likewise isn’t otherwise moving very much. In the news, basically nothing is happening, at least according to the exhaustive research I’ve conducted (looking at the Wikipedia page for 1998).

The whole world is basically giving a resounding “meh,” which could well be the response to this episode. It’s not that the idea is a bad one–giving Bruce Wayne a chance at genuine happiness and love, then snatching it away, can be very effective, as demonstrated by Mask of the Phantasm. The problem here is lack of space: there just isn’t room to go through all the beats of this story and show Bruce’s emotional arc in a satisfying way. In the 2010s, TV has hit upon a number of strategies for this, most notably shifting more plot beats from overt text to implied offscreen events, making more room for characterization. This strategy, however, requires trusting the audience to fill in the blanks, and that may not be as possible for children’s entertainment. Modern cartoons have dealt with the issue by employing other strategies–most notably, finding ways to build characterization and execute plot beats simultaneously, and relying more heavily on music and musical numbers to expand the available bandwidth for conveying emotion.

These techniques aren’t really available for a Batman cartoon in 1998, so instead we lose the character beats that made Mask of the Phantasm so powerful. Batman takes longer to show up to the final fight with Poison Ivy than Robin and Batgirl do, so we can guess that he took a moment before putting on the batsuit they brought him. He may have just stood there and mourned Susan, or at least his relationship; he may have needed time to shift back into the Batman headspace; he may have despaired at ever escaping the suit. But that moment, which could have been very effective, is elided in favor of Robin melting a plant man.

There is, in fact, a lot of melting of plant people in this fight sequence. True, they were constructs created by Poison Ivy, but they could obviously pass a Turing Test–they demonstrably trick observers into believing they are human. As Susan notes, the pheromones got things started, but most of the work of getting Bruce Wayne to fall in love with her was “all me.” Michael and Susan both exhibit concern and fear, and Susan shows sadness and pride. They’re plant people, and yet superheroes and supervillain alike treat them with absolute disregard.

The result is that the moment where Susan looks out the window of the sinking yacht, crying as Batman leaves her to her death, falls badly flat. Batman tries and fails to save Poison Ivy from the same fate (in the sense that he is unable to pull her from the sinking wreck; obviously she survives and resurfaces in later shows, most notably Static Shock), because she is a person to him, but the woman he fell in love with no longer is. To him, she’s just a thing, and indeed no one in the episode ever suggests treating the plant monsters as anything but things, with Robin and Batgirl enthusiastically melting them with weed killer.

None of the characters care, and that makes it hard for us to care. The shot through the porthole of Susan crying is the show reflexively reaching for the sympathetic villain buttons, going through the motions, but we only got glimpses of the plant people’s internality, and so we really don’t have anything with which to sympathize. The show leans too heavily on that Us-Other divide to see the plants as anything but Others, and so like robots and aliens, there is no question of whether it is permissible for heroes to kill them.

But we’ve talked about this before. Increasingly, that’s the problem with Batman: these chapters are getting shorter and shorter, because we’ve talked about everything before. Batman says one thing in this episode that’s definitely true: that it’s time for him to stop being Batman and pass everything on. But even that is repetition for us–more and more over this volume, we’ve been talking about the necessity of the DCAU moving beyond Batman, because this is the volume where it happens, and so I’m laying the groundwork to explain the why before we get to the what.

But now the show knows it, too. The production staff already did, of course–by the time this episode was completed, they would have had to be well into the production of Batman Beyond. Animation lead times are enormous, after all. But I’m not talking about what the people making the show know; I’m talking about what the show knows–what truths it contains and can convey. It has finally admitted its own exhaustion, its own need to evolve into something…

…well, into something Other.

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Video Multipost: Jen and Susan React to Ducktales S1E3, Propaganda Cartoons 4, and She-Ra S1E8-9 vlog

The video posting swarm resumes! Here’s three:

First, y’all seemed to like the Ducktales reaction a lot, so here’s another!



And some more propaganda cartoons–hitting the Cold War now:

And a commission for Aleph Null:

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra S1E9-10

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now: there’ll be NA09 posts today, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

Commissioned essay for AskJeeves.

Where, in terms of character development, episodes 7 and 8 focused on Adora dealing with the abuse she was subjected to by Shadow Weaver and the socialization she was denied, episodes 9 and 10 have a partial focus on Catra beginning to deal with her own abuse in her own way. Underneath this, of course, is the subtext that the end of Adora and Catra’s relationship is treated as just that–the end of a relationship in a bad breakup. That much was clear in “Princess Prom,” but “No Princess Left Behind” brings this practically into text when Catra gives Adora back her sword and says “This is not because I like you.”

Of course, by definition a denial is not textual confirmation, but in this case it comes very close because Catra has been consistently portrayed as a tsundere, a character archetype common in anime, manga, and video games. Typically, a tsundere has a prickly, tough, or hostile outer layer to their personality, but also show themselves capable of softness, vulnerability, and affection under rare circumstances, especially toward their love interest. The stereotypical tsundere action is to do something kind for their love interest while insisting that it’s “not because I like you or anything.”

That said, Catra has more depth to her than the archetypal tsundere. The archetype has that hard outer layer, but their core “true self” is kind and sweet; Catra’s isn’t. Catra is capable of more vulnerability and kindness than her outer persona reveals, and that definitely includes strong feelings–implied to be romantic–regarding Adora, but there are other feelings in there that she doesn’t show. Underneath her snark is genuine rage and pain; underneath her cool detachment is a fear of being perceived as weak.

Like Adora before her, Catra has a scene with Shadow Weaver in which the latter claims her abusive parenting was an effort to make her surrogate daughters strong, but Catra responds differently. Where Adora recognized that Shadow Weaver was lying, Catra accepts the claim as true, and demonstrates that strength (or at least, what Shadow Weaver seems to regard as strength, namely the capacity to hurt others) by saying that it worked, and she therefore no longer needs Shadow Weaver. Adora rejects her abuser, and escapes; Catra decides to overcome and destroy her abuser, and will remain trapped even after she essentially succeeds in later episodes.

Meanwhile, Adora’s team falls apart and Catra’s comes together, because the former abandons Entrapta and the latter embraces her. Of course the rebels think Entrapta died trying to rescue Emily, but they’d abandoned her repeatedly before that: they repeatedly treat her with disdain, dismissing her interests, ignoring her attempts to explain herself, and getting frustrated rather than making sure she understands the situation and helping her stay on task. Catra is, of course, acting in self-interest, but nonetheless she treats Entrapta better than they ever did, listening to her ideas and treating her with surprising patience and sensitivity–but then, “Princess Prom” already demonstrated that she is capable of both when she stands to gain something by it.

This is made easier, of course, by the fact that (as I discussed in regards to “System Failure”) Entrapta is essentially already a villainous character. Her interests and inclinations are more in line with the Horde–technology, power, little concern for any negative consequences to others–and so it is easier for the Horde to recognize and appreciate her talents. At the same time, had the rebels validated her a little more and recognized the potential positive applications of what she was doing, and not constantly left her behind throughout the mission in “No Princess Left Behind,” Catra’s lovebombing in “The Beacon” might not have been as effective.

Again, though, Catra is a tsundere. She may be manipulating Scorpia and Entrapta, but that impersonal distance she maintains is a facade. She isn’t faking that she’s impressed with Entrapta and wants her friendship, and she lets them both in on plans that she needs to keep secret from her superiors, demonstrating that she trusts them. What we have in the last few episodes of the season, in other words, is the formation of a rival team to the Adora/Glimmer/Bow trio, held together by the same bonds of trust and affection, but on the opposite side.

And as we saw back in “The Sword,” this is at least partially a magical girl series–which means those bonds are a force of unrivaled power. Catra may not realize it, but she has already put herself on an equal footing with Adora–and in the next episode, that rivalry will come to a head.

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