Like turning on lights in a roach motel (Two’s a Crowd)

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It’s February 15, 1997. The top songs are largely the same as two weeks ago, with a slight difference in order; Toni Braxton is still at the top, however. The Star Wars Special Edition is still number one at the box office, too. In the news, on the 10th George McKinney, Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, will be suspended pending court martial for multiple counts of sexual harassment, part of a succession of sexual harassment scandals which have plagued the U.S. military from the 90s to today; on the 13th the Hubble Space Telescope receives some much-needed upgrades; and on the 22nd scientists in Scotland will announce that Dolly the Sheep–the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult–was born last July.

Yawn. The same boring, pointless rote repetition of boring, pointless factoids as every entry. Why even bother? It’s not like you ever do anything with it.

Superman: The Animated Series ends its first season a bit oddly, with something that feels like just another episode, as opposed to a season finale. This was the norm for Batman: The Animated Series, which tended to end its seasons with relatively weak episodes, but subsequent seasons of STAS will end with Apokolips and major upheavals to the status quo–the second season with the introduction of Supergirl, and the third and final season with Superman tarnished in the eyes of the world, transformed into a figure of fear.

But the choice to do a BTAS-style, lower-key finale is fitting, as in many ways this season has been about figuring out how Superman: The Animated Series differs from Batman: The Animated Series. We’ve already discussed some of those differences–the art style, Superman’s desire to be loved rather than feared–but this episode highlights a major difference: the villains. Batman’s villains are, generally speaking, physically and mentally grotesque; that is, their bodies are distorted from the supposed norm in ways that reflect their mental deviation from similar norms–even when it is arguably the norm, rather than the deviation, which is grotesque, as with Poison Ivy.

Did you really just describe Poison Ivy–Poison Ivy!–as grotesque?

Superman’s greatest foe, however, is not grotesque at all; both physically and mentally, Lex Luthor is what society says he should be, a physically fit master capitalist, the ubermensch from which Superman derives his name. Metallo is somewhat more like the “tragic villain” figure which BTAS did so well, and as an entirely inorganic being, it’s unclear whether this concept of the grotesque applies to Brainiac at all.

Which brings us to this episode’s villain: the Parasite. Physically grotesque, a purple hairless monstrosity that feeds on the living energy of human beings, we see in this episode that Rudy is actually fairly rational: he is selfish and opportunistic, yes, but no more so than Luthor, and perfectly willing to help save the city if it will get him a cable hookup in his cell. By contrast–

Ugh. You’re obviously flailing. Do you even know where you’re going with this? Something half-assed about class? Or back yet again to beat the Superman/trauma horse some more?

–Earl Garver, despite his apparent conviction that he is always the smartest person in the room, lets his sense of superiority blind him to the fact that playing along is his best bet. Earl’s constant dismissal of Rudy and gradual takeover of the Parasite gestalt jeopardizes not only the comforts Rudy seeks, but their prospects of survival, as they find themselves fighting Superman while a literal ticking clock counts down to an explosion that would kill them.

Pathetic. Your puerile observations aren’t improved by injecting this second voice pointing out how pitiful they are. This is a gimmick, and it isn’t working any better than the plain entry you were stuck on. Face it: you’ve got nothing worthwhile to say about this episode. Not that that’s different from any other entry, you fraud.

As Earl grows stronger, both Rudy and Superman grow weaker. That’s the Parasite’s power, of course: it grows stronger by weakening others, leaving them drained, listless, and in extreme cases even dead. One of the common results of trauma–

And here we go. Learn a new song! Find something else Phil Sandifer wrote about that you can crib off! Lord knows you can’t come up with anything on your own.

–is depression, which likewise leaves one drained, listless, and in extreme cases even dead. In addition to the trauma itself, social isolation, difficulty in expressing oneself, and the lack of a stable sense of self can contribute to an extremely negative self-image–feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing are quite common among trauma survivors.

Coward. How many times did you erase that paragraph and rewrite it? Holding back, keeping yourself out of this story, leaving it as dry and empty as everything else you attempt. And you think this italicized shit can make up for that?

Depression is very much like a parasite. It eats at you, denying you nourishment in the form of positive memories and feelings of achievement, while a vicious, nasty voice tells you how worthless you are. And that voice is smart, very smart, able to twist anything into a negative, to come up with the flaws in any plan to get better, to manipulate its way into survival no matter how you try to eliminate it.

Again: yawn. It doesn’t matter if you manage to pull something out of your ass for this episode, you know you’re fucked on Retroactive Continuities and Crisis on N Earths to follow this. It’s a good thing you’ve barely got any readers–just think about how many people you could bore and disappoint if you had more!

But that’s not the really dangerous voice. It’s the other, more insidious voice that’s the real threat. The one that doesn’t say “you suck,” but rather asks “why bother?” The voice that advocates the easy way out, the feeling of tiredness that leads you to not take care of yourself that leads to more tiredness, the seeking of comfort instead of doing what needs to be done. That’s the most insidious side of depression, because it is so hard to tell the difference between genuinely running out of energy such that rest is a form of self-care, and falsely feeling out of energy such that doing nothing is a form of self-harm–and as difficult as it is to tell the difference when you’re depressed, it’s impossible for anyone else to tell at all.

For other people, maybe. It’s easy to tell where you’re concerned, though: you’re always faking. You’re always giving up too easily. No amount of work will ever be enough to make up for what you are, especially when your work is this bad. But that’s no excuse for how often you blow it off to feel sorry for yourself, or how much of a coward you are for not just coming out and saying what you mean.

Rudy is stronger than Earl, and outlasts him. But in truth, both are ever-present. The Parasite is never not going to be a villain–there is no suggestion, as there is with Batman’s villains, that he can be reformed. Given that we argued that Batman’s insistence on trying to reform his villains is rooted in the hope that he can be healed as well, this would imply that Superman has no such hope.

Which seems to be the case. Batman wears his self-loathing on his sleeve, choosing to become someone who is feared and hated. As we have observed, he fights crime knowing that sooner or later he will be killed, like his parents, by “a punk with a gun,” because on some level he believes he should have died with them. Superman is a little different; as we observed from the start, he actively seeks love and approval. He is not a tortured soul, diegetically speaking; at the same time, he is still a superhero, which is to say a trauma survivor’s protector fantasy. It’s just that in his case, part of the fantasy is that the trauma is largely externalized–so triggers become radioactive poison and red suns, and depression becomes a hulking purple monster that steals life force.

Believe me, if I had the option to stick my depression in prison, I wouldn’t be interested in whether or not it can be reformed either.

This didn’t work and you know it.


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What’s up with (My Girl)

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It’s November 23, 1996. The top movie is Star Trek: First Contact, a solid time travel adventure that’s had a decent zombie movie and a boring, cliche Star Trek Does Moby Dick for the Nth Time smashed into it. Space Jam and Jingle All the Way also chart. The top song is still “No Diggety,” but the Macarena and Donna Lewis have finally been knocked out of the top five by Merrill Bainbridge (with “Mouth”) and Keith Sweat feat. Athena Cage, which is an amazing pair of names. In the news this week, bird expert Tony Silva goes to prison for running a parrot smuggling ring, Romania and Zambia hold their presidential elections, and Angola joins the WTO.

“My Girl” may be the best early showcase of how well Harley Quinn’s apocalyptic spell has worked. Lana Lang arrives in the episode as a redhead in a slinky green dress, on the arm of a powerful man. She is confident, sexy, smart enough to figure out that Clark is Superman on her own (a feat otherwise matched only by Batman), independent, and successful. She owns her sexuality, blatantly trying multiple times to seduce Clark, and her power, commenting on her ability to get others to do what she wants. In short, she is a near-perfect mirror of Poison Ivy in “Pretty Poison,” her introductory Batman: The Animated Series episode, with one critical difference: Lana is not depicted as dangerous or evil.

Lana has all the traits of the “bad girl” without being bad. Alternatively, she is able to be the “good girl” without a trace of submissiveness, foolishness, or weakness. She does get herself into trouble, and does need rescuing, but this isn’t because she’s weak, but rather because her strengths lie elsewhere. At the end of the episode she is still a successful, globetrotting fashion designer, still confident and powerful; she simply isn’t a crimefighter, and comes to that conclusion on her own, without losing one whit of her power or confidence.

This is not, of course, the first time the DCAU has presented us with a woman who breaks the Madonna/whore complex by being both good and powerful. Renee Montoya is the first, most obvious example, but (in sharp contrast to the comics) Montoya is never shown in any context other than her work as a police officer. She is given no life outside that work, and in particular does not display any hint of sexuality, so her ability to serve as a contrast to Poison Ivy’s femme fatale is limited. Batgirl might be a better example; she owns her sexuality in the sense that she feels free to say “no” to her father’s picks, which is good as far as it goes, but in combination with being Batgirl the implication is of an ingenue, a young woman who can be an object of attraction but lacks experience and independence.

Remember that the root of the Madonna/whore complex is a fear of feminine sexuality, and more importantly of women’s sexual agency–a fear that women can and will make their own choices about their sexual activity, based on their own desires and needs. This fear applies powerfully to Poison Ivy because she weaponizes her sexuality to destructive ends. By contrast, Montoya is not frightening because (in the DCAU) she demonstrates no sexuality; Batgirl is not frightening because, the sexual agency demonstrated by rejecting her father’s choice of suitors notwithstanding, she pursues no one and accepts a subordinate (and infantilized) position as one of Batman’s sidekicks.

Lana, by contrast, owns herself and her sexuality, and the episode treats this with respect. For example, there is a male gaze-y shot early in the episode of Lana’s rear and legs as she ascends a staircase; however, where in “Pretty Poison” a similar shot had every man in the room seemingly irresistibly drawn to watch Lana, here the cut to a watching Lex Luthor makes clear that the male gaze is specifically his–that is, that it’s the supervillain who has reduced Lana to a butt with legs with his eyes. The universalized male gaze in “Pretty Poison” implied a helplessness on the part of the men, that the ability to draw their gaze was a dangerous power Ivy possessed; here, looking at Lana in a sexualized, objectifying way is a choice made by the episode’s villain. She owns her own sexuality; how others respond is their own choice and their own responsibility.

In this respect, the episode’s ending has implications of the beginning of a character arc for Clark. Lana is still attracted to him, but recognizes that their lives are on different trajectories, so she tells him that someday he’ll find the woman that’s right for him, describing that woman (in contrast to herself) as quiet, understanding, and patient. However, Clark is called away by Lois, who shouts across the office, demanding he come immediately, either not noticing or not caring that he is having a fairly important personal conversation with his ex.

This is simple dramatic irony; the audience knows that Lois Lane is famously Superman’s primary love interest, and here she is being loud, impatient, and a bit insensitive, not at all the woman Lana described. But Lana is an intelligent and perceptive woman who knows Clark extremely well; she is correct that right now he is looking for someone quiet, understanding, and patient. (Someone rather like his parents, actually.) There is a reason for this: his body language and tone throughout the scene where Lana tries to seduce him most directly, in her suite after he rescues her from the thieves in the elevator, is profoundly uncomfortable. Her open, mildly aggressive sexuality unnerves and intimidates him.

By contrast, Luthor enjoys that same attitude. He clearly has genuine feelings for Lana: he is excited by her, seeming to relish the challenge she represents, as when he speaks approvingly of her curiosity after Mercy catches her spying on him. It is only after she clearly chooses Superman over him that he turns against her, at which point he tries to have her killed. Even then he is the most upset we have ever seen him, unwilling even to hear Mercy’s snarky comments.

Luthor overreacts, but it is an in-character response to understandable feelings: Lana is cheating on him, and he naturally feels angry, hurt, and betrayed. This doesn’t justify murder in the slightest, but he’s a comic-book supervillain, and murder is how he deals with those kinds of feelings. Ultimately, however, his problem is that he misread Lana as a “bad girl,” assuming that her defiance of patriarchal convention also meant that she would ignore his defiance of basic morality.

Clark, meanwhile, struggles with the fact that Lana isn’t a traditional “good girl.” Contrasted to a Neanderthal like Lobo last episode, Superman comes across as the more progressive figure, but he’s still a small-town boy from rural Kansas new-come to the big city, while Lana has presumably been traveling the world for quite some time, if she’s already made enough of a name for herself as a designer to command the kind of show we see at the episode’s beginning. He lacks experience with confident, sexual, powerful women willing to take charge, and therefore has not yet realized that that is what he truly wants in a partner.

He is, in short, not ready to love Lois. He is still too immature, still too rooted in patriarchal traditions. He has some growing up to do. Time around Lois will help, but one suspects something–someone–more extreme and less familiar is needed, and unfortunately it will be several years before she arrives.


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I am relaxed (The Main Man)

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Content warning: discussion of toxic masculinity and implied rape threats

It’s November 9 and 16, 1996. The top song both weeks is “No Diggety” by Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre; Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Donna Lewis, and Los Del Rio make up the rest of the top five, though the order varies between weeks. At the box office, Ransom opens at number one the weekend of the 9th, and Space Jam does the same on the 16th.

In the news, Bill Clinton is reelected as President on the 5th. NASA launches the Mars Global Surveyor on the 7th. A cyclone kills over 2,000 people in Andhra Pradesh, India on the 8th. And it’s a bad time to fly: a Nigerian plane crashes into the Atlantic on the 8th, killing all 141 people on board, and a midair collision between a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight and a Kazakhstan Airlines flight over New Delhi, India kills over 300 people on the 12th.

On Superman: The Animated Series, we have the two-part episode “The Main Man,” introducing the comics character Lobo to the DC Animated Universe. Created in the 80s as a villain for The Omega Men, Lobo largely faded into obscurity until he was resurrected as an antihero in the 90s. According to co-creator Keith Gillen, Lobo was intended as a parody of Wolverine and the Punisher, a selfish, remorseless, violent, absurdly heavily armed bounty hunter with a nasty attitude who could heal near-instantly from the most gruesome injuries. Which makes sense of his revival in the 90s, since Wolverine and the Punisher (and Wolverine-as-the-Punisher) were the template for the boom of absurdly overmuscled, massive gun-toting, trigger-happy mass murderers that dominated the comics of the decade.

A character who once killed Santa Claus at the behest of the Easter Bunny might seem an odd choice for a children’s cartoon, especially one which has already positioned itself as the (literally) lighter, more optimistic answer to Batman: The Animated Series, but then on the other hand the first word that comes to mind when considering Lobo is “cartoonish.” Everything about this type of character is an absurd caricature; the only difference between Lobo and the constipated stacks of guns and biceps which emerged from the pens of Rob Liefeld and his ilk is that Lobo’s creators know he’s a parody.

The second and third words which come to mind regarding Lobo and the panoply of characters he parodies (despite predating most of them) are “testosterone poisoning.” That is to say, Lobo’s entire character is about toxic, fragile masculinity. He exists in a state of permanent swagger, constantly positioning himself as the most powerful, most violent being in the room. He hits on Lois as an assertion of power, utterly unfazed that she is repulsed by him; he is just demonstrating that she can’t stop him from hitting on her, with the implied threat that she couldn’t stop him from going further, either. Later, while gloating at Superman, he comments that he might go back to Earth to see Lois, again as an assertion that Superman cannot stop him. I am not, to be clear, suggesting that he intends to rape Lois; rather, he is saying that he could if he wanted to, as part of a perpetual and toxic need to demonstrate that he is unstoppably powerful, a need which is closely tied to his conception of sex and gender.

Hegemonic masculinity, after all, is inherently about power and violence; that’s what “hegemony” means. To lack power is to be “impotent” or “emasculated”: for the kind of toxic masculinity that Lobo represents, masculinity means having and wielding power, and sex is an expression of that power. Manhood is something easily lost–any weakness, any vulnerability, any failure to dominate is unmanly. Something like Superman’s flirtatious, back-and-forth mutual teasing with Lois early in the episode is, to this mindset, unacceptable, because it requires treating each other as equals.

Lobo is not the only example of this toxic need to dominate; the Preserver presents another side of it. He is a curious choice of villain, with an interestingly symbiotic relationship to last episode’s villain Brainiac: Brainiac destroys entire worlds and countless species to freeze them in a moment of time that he can remember forever, while the Preserver collects the last survivors of destroyed worlds and species. To the Preserver, it is not the information that matters but the rarity, as he builds a collection of unique and special entities, carefully sealed in transparent containers designed to keep them safe so that he can view them but never interact and look let’s stop pretending I’m not talking about comic collectors.

After all, the other major thing going on in superhero comics at this point, besides the rise of toxically masculine musclebound murderers, was the speculator boom. With the shift of comic sales from newsstands to specialty shops in the 1980s, the audience shifted as well. Comics were now something which had to be actively sought out by the buyer, which meant a smaller, more dedicated audience. If you didn’t already buy comics, it was quite easy to never see a comic for sale at all, which meant the business of comics became less about bringing in people who didn’t read comics at all, and more about getting people who already read comics to spend their money on your comic. One of the ways in which companies did this was by playing up comics as an investment; rather than periodicals to be read once and then thrown away, as implied by flimsy construction and cheap printing, the ephemerality of comic books was pushed as a reason to keep them until they became rare antiques. Increasingly fanciful gimmicks aimed at these collectors–first issues, “zeroth” issues, alternate covers, foil covers, holographic covers–became commonplace as publishers fought to expand their piece of a shrinking pie.

The Preserver is one of these collectors. He clearly cares not at all for the creatures he collects, as witness his complete lack of interest in the fact that Lobo and Superman don’t want to be prisoners; the only reason he provides tailored environments in the cages and display cases is preserve his specimens. It is the ownership, the possession, which matters to him, not the creatures themselves, just like a comic collector buying a comic to put in a plastic sheath and preserve in mint condition, preventing it from ever being read. A mint comic is a wasted comic, a piece of art owned instead of appreciated.

His closeness to Brainiac–both in the sense of appearing in consecutive episodes, and in their curiously symbiotic relationship–is no accident either. Several shots throughout the second part of “The Main Man” depict, as a background detail, the mind-controlling, parasitic villain Starro as one of the Preserver’s collection. Starro presumably ends up in the Fortress of Solitude along with the other animals at the end of the episode, and there he stays until he becomes the villain of a two-part episode, set 20 years later, aired three years later, on another show. In comics, this kind of absurd callback–an entire story hinging on a background detail of an issue of a different comic released years prior–started becoming more common in the late 60s, but its frequency greatly accelerated in the 1980s with crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths. The contraction of comics’ audience to a small pool of dedicated fans was tailor-made for this kind of writing, which rewarded the careful curation of a mental library of tiny details gathered through years of reading every issue of multiple comics, and also encouraged curious fans who hadn’t read the comic with the background detail to find and buy it at the specialty shop.

Unfortunately, this approach to text has side effects, one of which is that it enslaves writers to the tyranny of dead stories. Instead of living, amorphous tales which change with the teller and the telling, stories become fixed in a single form that cannot be contradicted, creating an ever-shrinking ideaspace within which to tell new stories. The need to catalog, collect, collate, and curate continuity requires freezing it, killing it; where the Preserver is a collector, Brainiac is a continuity hound. What we see here is the degree to which they are fundamentally related, because both are ultimately about possessing instead of experiencing; one neglects and the other destroys what they claim as their own, and thus neither gets to actually enjoy it in and for itself. Superman cannot be Superman, Lobo cannot be Lobo, in the Preserver’s cages or Brainiac’s memory banks; they can only be looked at from afar, through plastic. They must be suppressed, Lobo by gas and Superman by red-sun radiation, so that they can be contained and controlled.

Both the Preserver and Brainiac, in other words, are about possession as an assertion of power. They are seeking hegemony, Brainiac demonstrating his superiority to others by possessing knowledge inaccessible to them, the Preserver by possessing unique creatures that therefore cannot be possessed by others. Brainiac’s power takes the form of dominating the trivia contest, the Preserver’s the form of “I have it and you don’t.” The fundamental similarity of these approaches to Lobo’s violence is exposed when the Preserver reveals his true, monstrous form and attacks Lobo and Superman; at its core, this is the same need to dominate, just channeled in a different way.

Superman’s power, on the other hand, is positioned as being fundamentally different. Just as his teasing with Lois is contrasted to Lobo’s aggression (note the implied violence of the phrase I used for it before, hitting on her) in the first part, their positionality relative to women is more subtly contrasted again in the second. Where Superman is caged alone–complete in himself–Lobo is given two scantily clad female-presenting robots to wait on him. Given someone to dominate, he is happy, and the mise-en-scene is cheesily complicit in his dominion, with smoky saxophones playing while the camera focuses on the robots’ butts. Until Lobo fails to comply with the Preserver’s control, at least, at which point their jaws unhinge and hoses emerge to gas him. It is about as subtle as the vagina dentata in “Pretty Poison”: they are temporarily decapitated by phalluses that allow them to dominate and control Lobo.

Once free, he subjects them to the male gaze once more: one of the defining features of the male gaze is the way it dismembers female bodies, often by metaphorically decapitating them by placing the top edge of the frame at the neck line, because what the camera is interested in is breasts, butts, and legs. Lobo makes this literal, first destroying the robots’ heads, then their arms, so that they momentarily are nothing but torsos with legs, before falling apart entirely.

This is where the contrast to Superman comes in: the very next shot is a slow pan up Superman’s legs and torso before finally reaching his face, precisely the kind of camera motion that, if he were a woman in a similarly tight, bodyhugging costume, would be accompanied by cheesily smoky saxophones and possibly a wolf whistle. Superman is being positioned as an object of desire; specifically, given the position of the camera and the fact that we just saw Lobo enforcing the male gaze on the robots, he is being positioned as an object of Lobo’s desire.

Which is, of course, the joke. Hegemonic masculinity is reflexively homophobic: if masculine sexuality is about asserting power over the object of desire, then to be desired by a man is to have someone else assert power over you and therefore to be emasculated, while at the same time to desire sex with a man is to desire for him to assert power over one and therefore to be emasculated. Hegemonic masculinity is always fragile, but it is particularly fragile to homoeroticism, because both the subject and object of the desire are emasculated. Yet Lobo’s combination of biker outfit (which in isolation is an attempt to broadcast toughness and defiance of social order) and porn-star mustache (which in isolation is an attempt to broadcast sexual power) screams “leather daddy,” just as his male gaze positions Superman as an object of homoerotic desire–just as his constant braggadocio and violence don’t so much assert his power as demonstrate how desperate to appear powerful he is. Hegemonic masculinity inevitably self-destructs, because the constant need to appear powerful creates unavoidably huge vulnerabilities; hegemony is inherently fragile and toxic.

Superman’s power, by contrast, is shown to not be fragile at all. Unlike Lobo, his real power cannot be taken away: even sapped of his superhuman abilities in the cage, he is able to find a way to get free by relying on the power of others (in this case, a rhino-like alien that he tricks into shattering his cage). Even though Lobo has his full strength and Superman is only partially recovered through most of their escape, it is Superman who leads the way, his willingness to (for example) ask Lobo for help fighting the snake-like alien demonstrating that he feels no need to prove he is powerful. Through wit, manipulation, and straight-up asking for help, he is able to recover his powers and return to Earth. Through it all, he is shown to be comfortable with not dominating a situation, from his conversation with Lois early on to his willingness to rely on others.

Even his decision to take possession of the Preserver’s collection is depicted as an act not of dominance but of caring, with Lobo asserting that he would have let them die, but Superman expended effort to save them and bring them to the Fortress of Solitude. It is the same action as the Preserver, but the motivation is different: Superman is rescuing endangered creatures, not investing in rarities. If the Preserver is a comics collector buying up comics for future rarity value, Superman is the archivist who builds a library of already-rare comics to ensure that they continue to exist.

In short, Superman is depicted as possessing a different sort of masculinity from hegemonic masculinity, and a different sort of power than hegemony. The key difference is that his is less performative and less fragile; like Superman himself, his masculinity is invulnerable. The implication is that his power and masculinity (which have been decoupled from one another as far as such a decoupling is possible within a culture of hegemonic masculinity, which isn’t very) are therefore also non-toxic–but that remains to be seen.


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I’ll fight it with you! (Stolen Memories)

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Guess who forgot to queue an update for yesterday!

It’s November 2, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, may god have mercy on our souls. The top movie is Romeo + Juliet, one of the more commercially successful of the periodic “let’s do Shakespeare in a modern setting but use period language” films. In the news, the heavily sensationalized trial of O.J. Simpson has been going for a little over a week; al-Jazeera began regular broadcasting yesterday; and in three days Bill Clinton will be reelected as President following a substantially less interesting campaign than the previous one.

We’ve already seen how pieces of Krypton hurt Superman in the form of kryptonite, followed by the attack of an (essentially) robotic villain powered by kryptonite. Now we get a different vestige of Krypton: Brainiac.

The decision to make Brainiac a Kryptonian artificial intelligence, rather than Coluan as he (Brainiac presents masculine or genderless, and is consistently referred to with “he” pronouns in the DCAU, so I will follow suit) was in the comics, is an interesting one. Brainiac does have a connection to Krypton in the comics, but it’s a significantly less central one: some time before its destruction, Brainiac miniaturized the Kryptonian capital city of Kandor and kept it on his ship, inhabitants and all. This is largely an excuse to have Kandor eventually end up in Superman’s possession, however, so that he can be miniaturized and have adventures in a Kryptonian city in a bottle. Brainiac’s role as specifically a Superman villain is essentially random: he was first introduced in Superman comics, and therefore is associated with Superman, despite the lack of any innate connection between the characters.

“Last Son of Krypton,” however, ties Brainiac intimately into Superman’s originating trauma; indeed, as he serves the role of villain to Jor-El’s hero in the first part, he can be argued to be responsible for that trauma. It is certainly possible that, had Brainiac not prioritized saving himself and his store of data about Krypton over saving the people of Krypton, little Kal-El might not have ended up last of his kind, or indeed come to Earth at all.

Brainiac’s motives are ruthlessly logical, if we assume that his purpose is to record all of a civilization’s knowledge. On Krypton, this function would have been never-ending: between the physical and biological evolution of the planet, slow as it is, and the cultural evolution and creative output of the Kryptonians, there would always be new data for Brainiac to record. But once Krypton was destroyed, Brainiac possessed a snapshot of all Kryptonian knowledge at the moment of destruction, which is to say all the Kryptonian knowledge that would ever be. It would appear that his purpose has become to collect all the knowledge of other civilizations, which necessitates destroying them as well to achieve the “all” criterion.

It is odd, then, that he takes such interest in Superman. This may be because the data Lex Luthor is feeding him presents Superman as an enigma, and therefore Brainiac wishes to study him further, but that seems unlikely as Brainiac refers to Superman as Kal-El from the start, implying he knows Superman’s secrets. It’s also plausible he wished only to study Superman’s powers–an aspect of Kryptonian biology on which data may have been limited, although it seems the effect of yellow suns on Kryptonians was known to Jor-El at least–but that would appear to have been accomplished by siccing robots on him at their first meeting.

This is not the only odd behavior from Brainiac where Superman is concerned, however. Showing Superman the orb containing Krypton’s memories makes little sense if he wants to keep Superman for study, as presumably Brainiac knows everything the Kryptonians did about their psychology and would therefore know it would function like a delayed flashback trigger, causing Superman to have nightmares about Krypton’s destruction. (Consisting entirely of scenes for which he was not present, presumably picked up from the orb subconsciously.) This in turn served to turn Superman against Brainiac, where before he was cautious but open to the possibility that Brainiac was benign.

It is possible, then, that Brainiac was genuinely trying to recruit Superman as a partner in his explorations, but again, why? Presumably not all worlds have yellow suns, so Superman wouldn’t even have his powers at many of their stops, not to mention that Brainiac doesn’t appear to need any muscle on his side, assuming every one of the dozens of orbs he possesses corresponds to a planet he destroyed.

There doesn’t appear to be a logical explanation–but then, there’s no reason to expect logical behavior from a conscious agent. Brainiac can redefine his own functions, as witness his transformation from everyone’s servant on Krypton to knowledge-gathering destroyer of worlds thereafter. What can he be basing that redefinition on if not some underlying objectives or desires, which is to say that he has wants and needs upon which he can base his behavior. This is not to say that he necessarily possesses human emotion–we cannot conclude that he left the Kryptonians to die out of resentment, or seeks to bond with the last surviving Kryptonian out of guilt or loneliness–but he wants things, and those things aren’t necessarily going to always be possible or consistent. Conflicting desires lead him to undermine himself, and thus turn Superman against him.

Which, ironically, has the effect of driving Superman to team up with the other villain in this episode, Lex Luthor.  There is no real coordination between them, but nonetheless they destroy Brainiac’s ship together, the first of a handful of times they will work together, usually against relics of Krypton and occasionally other menaces from space.

This gives us a hint to a rather darker reading of the episode, and indeed of Superman’s role in general. However, it is one which we will unpack over the course of the remainder of the series, and so for now let us leave it to a single observation: Superman is himself an outsider, though he passes as an insider, and yet as time goes on he will increasingly police Earth against other outsiders–and frequently find himself allying with his personal nemesis, perhaps the most quintessentially reactionary villain in the DCAU, whenever he does so.


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Metal weapons and (The Way of All Flesh)

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“We were put into this world not for pleasure but duty, and pleasure had in it something more or less sinful in its very essence.”

-Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh

To “go the way of all flesh,” in English, means to die; the phrase originates from a misquote of the Bible, which twice has characters on their deathbeds–Joshua and David–refer to themselves as being about to “go the way of all the Earth.” The distinction matters; the former is a statement that all living things must die, the latter a statement that all material things must come to an end. Both are true, but one is rather broader than the other.

It’s October 19, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, which stubbornly refuses to go the way of all the Earth. Donna Lewis and Celine Dion have the number two and three spots respectively; Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre and No Mercy also chart. At the box office, crime drama Sleepers opens at No. 1; proving that the music charts by no means have a monopoly on horrifying earworms, That Thing You Do is at No. 5. Also charting are The Long Kiss Goodnight and Independence Day.

As the title implies, this episode is the story of a death: John Corben dies and is reborn as the decidedly non-fleshy supervillain Metallo. It is, in its own way, a tragic villain story in the B:TAS vein; I say “tragic” rather than “sympathetic” because it is more of a structural feature than an emotional thread. Corben has always been cold and callous; described as a terrorist, he is really more of a mercenary, hiring out his services as a skilled murderer and destroyer to whomever can afford him. In the first episode, that meant working for Luthor to help terrorists steal his own experimental military technology, but “The Way of All Flesh” establishes that he has had a long career of fighting wherever and whenever. Like all mercenaries, he is, in essence, a hitman on a larger scale.

It is not just his career that makes Corben unsympathetic; his attitude of smug superiority (played to perfection by Malcolm McDowell) contributes, as does his obvious disregard for anyone and everyone around him. His discovery that the loss of most of his senses extends to being unable to feel a touch would be quite sad, for example, if not for the fact that he discovers this while forcibly kissing a struggling Lois Lane. It is difficult to feel sorry for a villain whose biggest complaint is that he can’t enjoy sexual assault anymore.

But structurally, this is tragedy. Corben’s flaw was always that he is unfeeling, in the sense of being utterly callous. He has never cared about the emotions or well-being of others, which is why he became a mercenary in the first place. It’s how he came to Luthor’s attention, and thus how he was chosen to be dosed with a rare virus, to be the frame on which Luthor would build his new anti-Superman weapon. Everything about Metallo is crafted to oppose Superman, from his nigh-invulnerable metallic chassis to strength–nearly as much as Superman’s, according to this episode–to his kryptonite heart. No thought was given to the man within; Corben has fallen afoul of someone as callous as himself and even more powerful.

The result is a Corben who is literally unfeeling, unable to experience taste, smell, or touch. (That he can see and hear without difficulty is perhaps unsurprising; cameras and microphones are fairly standard technology, after all, while the huge number and variety of pressure, temperature, and chemical sensors needed to mimic the other senses would be difficult if not impossible to implement on a human-sized and -shaped frame.) He can no longer experience physical pain, but can also no longer experience physical pleasure, either.

This ties the episode to Butler’s novel of the same name, a scathing satire of Victorian society and mores. Much as Butler’s narrator describes the Victorians as treating all pleasure as a sinful distraction from the only thing that matters, duty, so does Luthor see Corben’s loss as a feature, something that makes him a better weapon against Superman: in Luthor’s words, ” The only hunger you should have is for power… the only thirst, for revenge.”

Corben, over the course of the episode, comes to accept these words. He strips himself of his artificial skin, becoming completely the robotic-looking Metallo. Corben’s body has already gone the way of all flesh; all that remains is the metallic, drawn from the Earth, and a kryptonite heart originating far beyond the Earth. Corben is dead; only Metallo remains.

In creating him, however, Luthor has set up his own tragedy. First, he has created an enemy: all that remains to Metallo is indeed the hunger for power and the thirst for revenge, but he desires power over and revenge on both Superman and Luthor. Second, Luthor’s obsession with creating a weapon to destroy Superman will lead to his encounters with Brainiac, and in turn his desperate quest to reunite with Brainiac. This quest will inevitably lead him to Apokolips, self-sacrifice, and the end of the DCAU.

That is perhaps the biggest difference between the phrase and its original: “the way of all flesh” is a declaration of despair in the face of mortality. “The way of all the Earth” is a declaration of hope: for all that Luthor declares himself untouchable at the end of this episode, shielded by structures of social power far beyond anything Superman can wield, the apocalypse will come. Those structures will end. Luthor will fall. Sooner or later, the Luthors of the world–fictional or otherwise–will go the way of all the Earth.


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He even had purple skin and orange hair! (Feeding Time)

 

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It’s September 21, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena and Donna Lewis’s earwormy “I Love You Always Forever” is still at No. 2. Throw in Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” at 4 and you can understand why I refused to listen to popular music in high school. At the box office, revenge comedy The First Wives Club opens at number one.

In the news,  yesterday Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős died; one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, he collaborated with scientists and scholars in a dizzying array of fields, but is probably best known as the namesake of the  Erdős number, the academic-papers equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  On the 24th, U.S. President Bill Clinton will sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; as of February 2017, it has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, and is still missing approval from eight nations before it can go into effect (including the U.S.)

In S:TAS, we have the first DCAU appearance of Parasite, a rather uninspiringly named villain with energy-draining powers. This episode serves as an excellent example of the primary difference between Batman: The Animated Series and S:TAS, and indeed between the DCAU incarnations of Batman and Superman: Batman lurks in the shadows, and is often a peripheral figure in his own show, while Superman stands out in the light, and is usually the central figure of his show.

Thus Rudy Jones, who seems tailor-made as a “sympathetic villain” of the type B:TAS did so well: a down-on his luck janitor who agrees to help a criminal rob STAR Labs in exchange for help paying off his gambling debts. Unfortunately, the toxic waste he was helping the criminal steal spills while they’re escaping from Superman, transforming Jones into the Parasite, a hulking purple monster that needs to feed on the life force of others to survive.

Parasite could be a tragic figure, forced to hurt people to live, wracked with guilt, but that would require the episode to focus on his internality. Instead, he shows no sign of anything other than pleasure in his newfound power, and the episode’s primary focus is on Superman’s efforts to escape imprisonment and stop him.

The episode’s sympathies thus lie entirely with Superman, whom Parasite chains up in the STAR Labs basement so that he can periodically drain Superman’s energy, keeping him helpless while Parasite steals his powers of flight and superstrength to commit robberies. Superman thus spends much of the episode helpless and immobile, a victim in need of rescue, which comes in the form of Jimmy Olson.

Ironically, Superman’s first few episodes depict him as being far more vulnerable than Batman. Part of that is simply that we are seeing Superman at the beginning of his career, while Batman was already well-established by the time of “On Leather Wings.” But part of it is that Batman is human, and can be killed by a gunshot or a knifewound, and therefore there is a degree of dramatic tension even if his opponents almost never land a blow: we in the audience know that Batman won’t be seriously harmed, but Batman doesn’t, and we can empathize with him. Superman, on the other hand, is virtually invulnerable, and so the early episodes have emphasized the ways in which he is vulnerable, to teach him–and thereby us–that his opponents are dangerous.

Between his vulnerability and focus, Superman comes across very quickly as a more sympathetic, human figure than Batman did initially. Even in their respective secret identities, Clark Kent feels more natural and authentic than the very performative Bruce Wayne, who by comparison is almost Byronic in his confluence of tragedy and privilege. It is almost unthinkable for Bruce Wayne or Batman to be saved from peril by one of Bruce Wayne’s friends; who would that even be? Harvey Dent, perhaps, but only very early on, before he became Two-Face; Alfred is more family than friend; everyone else is linked to Batman rather than Wayne. By contrast, Lois yanked Clark Kent out of the path of fire of Toyman’s toy airplanes two episodes ago–an event important enough to be immortalized in the opening credits of every episode of the series–and then saved Superman from the kryptonite last episode. This episode, Jimmy Olson helped loose Superman from his chains.

The correct answer to “who’s the mask, the superhero or the secret identity?” is that the question is built on false assumptions. Both and neither are the “real” person, because that’s how fragmentation of identity works. But it’s understandable why people think Bruce Wayne is a mask worn by Batman, while Superman is a mask worn by Clark Kent. Wayne has Alfred and no one else, and seems to do nothing but go to charity galas and product demos, while Batman has Alfred, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl, Catwoman, Leslie Thompkins, and more. Superman is alone at this stage, but Clark has the Kents, Lana, Lois, and Jimmy, and a career. The truth behind the error is that Clark Kent has a life outside of being Superman; without Batman, Bruce Wayne is nothing.


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I could use some help here (A Little Piece of Home)

 

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It’s September 14, 1996. The top movie at the box office this weekend is Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Maximum Risk. The top song is “The Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio, about which the less said the better; also charting are Donna Lewis, LL Cool J, and Eric Clapton. In the news, yesterday famed rapper Tupac Shakur either died or moved into the apartment shared by Elvis Presley and Andy Kaufman; the same day, Alija Izetbegovic won the presidency in newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first election; on the 16th, Scotland Yard will intercept an acid bomb mailed to Icelandic singer Björk, sent by a man named Ricardo Lopez on the same day Tupac died and Izetbegovic won the election. Disappointingly, as far as I can tell no one has linked these events into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Superman, meanwhile, must deal with “A Little Piece of Home,” as The Animated Series introduces a key piece of Superman lore, kryptonite. Kryptonite is, literally, a piece of Superman’s home, a chunk of Krypton transformed by that planet’s destruction into a compound whose radiation is uniquely harmful to Superman. But the phrase “a piece of home” usually refers to a keepsake, memorabilia that serves as a reminder of where you came from. What hurts Superman, when he encounters kryptonite, is memory.

Superman has no direct, conscious memory of Krypton, only of images fed into his brain by the device his parents found in his pod.  Nonetheless, the destruction of Krypton functions for him as a traumatic experience, and not unreasonably so–it is not uncommon for trauma summoners to have amnesia around the traumatic experience, after all. The physical symptoms we see Superman experience when Lois unwittingly hands him kryptonite are consistent with the physical manifestation of extreme anxiety: weakness, dizzyness, heavy sweating, and (not depicted visibly, but likely intended given the number of people saying “you don’t look so good”) pallor.

True, these are also consistent with radiation poisoning, but there’s a major difference: radiation poisoning doesn’t go away when the radiation stops, and radiation poisoning severe enough to cause dizziness is inevitably fatal. Superman’s symptoms, on the other hand, vanish soon after the kryptonite is removed–in the absence of his trigger, his anxiety fades.

That is, after all, what kryptonite is: a toxic reminder of a traumatic past, a “little piece of home” that causes him to become overwhelmed and vulnerable.  It is a trigger, and handled as such: he encounters it once accidentally, thereby discovering that it is a trigger; once he is inadverdently exposed by Lois and tries to cover it up, with limited success, leading her to become concerned but not understand what the problem is; and twice he is deliberately, maliciously exposed by the villains.

It should go without saying that deliberately triggering someone is a vicious, cruel, and cowardly act. Sadly, it does not go without saying; deliberately exposing people to probable triggers is a common part of Internet harassment campaigns, both those targeted at individuals and broader sweeps (for example, coordinated posting of triggering content in Tumblr tags used by survivors). In this respect, the episode is astoundingly prescient: the minions of an uber-wealthy real estate tycoon expose Superman to his trigger, then laugh and deliberately kick him while he’s down. When Superman survives that, said tycoon–Luthor–then sends in a bot to try to trigger Superman for him. (This being a 90s cartoon, said bot is a larger-than-life-size mechanical Tyrannosaur, but still.)

Superman prevails, because of course he does, but only with help. For the first time in the series, he is portrayed as being significantly vulnerable, in need of Lois’ quick thinking and skill–and explicitly her physical skill, namely her ability to accurately throw small objects into bins, established earlier when she was throwing balled-up paper into the trash can.

Even Superman can be traumatized. Even Superman needs help dealing with his triggers. We could read that as hopelessness for the rest of us–that everyone has vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the callous, cruel, and powerful–but on the other hand, flip it around. A trauma survivor can be Superman. Indeed, Superman is Superman because he is a trauma survivor; without the same destruction of Krypton that created kryptonite, he would not live on Earth and therefore not have superpowers.

This is not, to be clear, the “inspirational disability” canard that, for example, a blind person gains super-hearing. That’s just feel-good nonsense for the able-bodied. This is something subtler and more complicated. After all, one doesn’t need trauma to be a classical hero–there’s no particular indication that Gilgamesh, Hercules, Gawain, or Wonder Woman were turned into heroes by trauma, although many of them had traumatic experiences as heroes. But it seems like one does need it to be a superhero (and yes, it was entirely intentional which of those lists I put Wonder Woman on; we’ll get into it when she shows up three series from now).

Which in turn calls attention to the other major difference between Superman and a classical hero: classical heroes make terrible neighbors. You want them out in the field adventuring, protecting your home, maybe occasionally coming back to bestow a boon upon the people before venturing back out. As neighbors, they inevitably get drunk and go on a killing spree, or are ambushed by blood-feud rivals, or bound by a geas to burn the neighborhood down unless obscure and complex conditions are met, or something equally disastrous for the community.

But Superman is a great neighbor. Clark Kent is the kind of guy you give your spare key to so your cats get fed while you’re on vacation.

These two traits–trauma and neighborliness–may not be unrelated. We’ll keep this line of inquiry open for now.


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