Not the Victor (Cold Comfort)

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It’s still the 11th. Don’t worry–time will unfreeze after this, with a couple weeks’ gap before the next episode.

On The New Batman Adventures, we have the return of Mister Freeze, and as always he brings tragedy with him. Interestingly, this episode appears to be set after the movie Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero, even though that movie won’t be released for another five months–but then, this is the show that just aired its Christmas special in September, so that’s just how TNBA rolls, I suppose.

In a way, this works in the episode’s favor–it places whatever happened with Nora Fries in the same intriguingly nebulous space as the question of whatever happened to Dick Grayson, just another change due to Harley’s apocalypse. In the bad old world she was fridged; in the brave new world she is free and alive, and it is the sickness of his own body that drives Freeze to rage.

Because, as always, the character who claims to have no emotions is lying. He has no affect, but he is clearly acting out of fury at his helplessness and hopelessness in the face of impending death, and the way the deterioration of his body means he can never return to Nora. Ultimately his actions are driven by fear, grief, and love, transmuted into rage by the alchemy of futility.

Where have we heard that before? A character maintaining a cold, distant exterior to mass his intense pain? The episode practically screams for us to compare Freeze to the Batman, his destruction of hope to Batman’s spreading of fear–and by spending most of the second act on the Bat family, to compare that to Freeze’s isolation.

The Bat Family, at this point, consists of Alfred, Batgirl, and Tim Drake/Robin. (I am choosing not to include Barbara Gordon because she remains in costume, implying that unlike Tim she is only part of the family as Batgirl. That makes sense, seeing as unlike Tim, she has another family as Barbara.) With two exceptions, the relationships between them are quite clear: Alfred is a parental figure to both Bruce and Tim, Bruce is an additional parental figure to Tim, and Batgirl and Tim have a sibling-like relationship. The exceptions are Batgirl’s two other relationships: there’s just no indication of what her relationship with Alfred is like, or if she even has one, and her relationship with Batman is ambiguous.

In the training montage, Batman is readable as a kind of authority, imparting knowledge and discipline in a teacher-student or master-apprentice relationship. Batgirl’s playfulness is thus readable as her being an impetuous youngster, someone who’ll get herself in trouble and only then learn the lesson Batman is trying to impart. To an extent that’s true, and pays off in her underestimating Freeze’s (suit’s) strength–but if so, it’s a pretty weak payoff to a lengthy scene.

There is another way to read their relationship, however, by bringing in outside information–one piece from the future and one from the past. From the future, the strong implication in Batman Beyond that Batgirl and Batman had a sexual relationship at some point; from the past, Batman’s obvious interest in and enjoyment of BDSM in Batman Returns (not that it takes much additional evidence to reach the conclusion that a man who enjoys dressing up in a costume and dispensing pain might be into such pastimes). In that reading, this scene is Batgirl being a “brat”–a submissive who enjoys teasing their dominant, pushing boundaries, and being punished for it–and Batman provides her the discipline (and, in the form of the training device, harmless pain) she desires.

In short, the strongest reading of this scene is as an indicator that yes, they are definitely fucking.

This is, to say the least, problematic. Both are consenting adults, of course, but he is her mentor and teacher, and at least a decade older than her. It is, at the least, inappropriate. But it also adds some interesting extra dimensions to Freeze’s choice of who to try to take from Bruce Wayne and Batman: Alfred and Gotham, respectively.

Because while I described the Alfred-Bruce Wayne relationship as parental, it has hierarchical elements that push against that. Wayne is Alfred’s employer, and Alfred hews closely to a code of etiquette that demands deference, ritual acknowledgment of Wayne’s power over him even if they both know their emotional connection supersedes that, and even calling him “Master.” But within that code, Alfred constantly pushes the boundaries of the rules to tease Wayne. Even calling him “Master” is a tease, as “Master” is typically only used as a title for boys too young to be called “Mister”; Alfred is essentially calling him by his childhood nickname.

But that’s the point: the snarky but eternally devoted butler is the familial equivalent of a brat. It’s the same combination of submission to authority and unserious gestures toward defiance. Gotham does the same: it lets Batman do his thing, accepts him as the ruler of its nights and its back streets (and Gotham is essentially made of nothing but nights and back streets), but occasionally puts up mild token resistance in the form of criminals and supervillains and Harvey Bullock. Gotham, in short, is also a brat, and Batman is its dom.

Freeze, on some level, sees this. Earlier in the episode, he destroys people’s life’s work: a complete dinosaur skeleton painstakingly found and assembled by a paleontologist, and a masterpiece, years in the making, by an artist to old to be able to finish another. What he takes is more than property; by destroying life-defining work they cannot recreate, he takes away any sense of power or control in their lives, leaving them helpless and hopeless. For Bruce Wayne and Batman, he goes for that power and control more directly, by trying to kill his subs.

Because in the end, what is a fantasy of a loving protector, who will discipline you if you’re bad even while still lovingly protecting you, if not a fantasy of submission? That’s why so many superheroes have no-kill rules: it’s a very bad dom who kills their sub, no matter how bratty the sub is being. Batman may be heavily into discipline, Superman more of a service top, and Wonder Woman very obviously a switch, but they’re all dominants.

And we are all their subs.


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby S1E2 “One Hand Is Enough”

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I’ve talked quite a bit about heroic trauma in regards to superheroes, but (outside of one chapter of Animated Discussions) I’ve rarely discussed it in regards to anime.

In part this is because of structural differences between the media. Superheroes arise, generally speaking, from very long-running serial formats–comics that run, in one sense or another, for decades. Key to Elizabeth Sandifer’s original argument for the heroic trauma model is that “continuity” is impossible across such time scales and the associated changes in both authorship and audience, and that’s just not the case for anime and manga, which tend to shorter, more unitary runs. The logic that comic-book continuity thus resembles memories–unreliable, reconstructive, constantly recasting past events in light of present mood and concerns–more than recordings simply doesn’t apply.

Nonetheless, cross-influences between the two media mean they can share themes even when they don’t share the structures that gave rise to those themes, and so anime characters can experience heroic trauma, though it is not as integral to anime heroes as it is to superheroes. It is thus important, for discussing heroic trauma in anime, to distinguish between heroic trauma and traumatized heroes; that is, between heroes whose trauma is integral to their heroism, and those whose trauma is merely incidental. (There is, of course, the third category of heroes who have no trauma at all–Ash Ketchum comes immediately to mind.)

A good example of the latter group is Simon from Gurren Lagann: he suffers deep trauma from the death of his parents, but that has no connection with the Spiral Energy that empowers him, or the discovery of Lagann that begins his journey, and he appears to be pretty much over it by mid-series. For contrast, consider Edward Elric, whose powers–his ability to transmute without a circle, and the automail arm that serves as his primary weapon–derive directly from the traumatic experience of losing his mother and passing through the Gate of Truth, and he does not truly heal until the end of the series, at which point he loses both.

So far, Akira from Devilman Crybaby appears to demonstrate classic heroic trauma. He demonstrates a number of symptoms in Episode 2: amnesia around the event itself, his horrifying night and grotesque transformation at Sabbath; a sense of discontinuity between the person he was before the event and the person he is now; and intense, clearly painful flashbacks when confronted with reminders of the event. But this same event has empowered him, and the discontinuity he feels is real: he is physically and mentally transformed in the aftermath of the event.

At the same time, he is still himself: his physical capabilities are now superhuman, his libido and appetite drastically increased, and he feels unbound by social norms such as “don’t watch porn in the high school A/V room,” but he retains his defining trait, the essential compassion that brings him to tears when he learns of the suffering of others.

But now there’s a monster inside him, able to transform that compassion into violent rage against the causes of suffering. That’s not uncommon in survivors of trauma either–not the violence per se, but the barely restrained anger. He is filled with unresolved pain, the pain of having been left entirely alone to face things beyond his capacity. He is angry at the unfairness and the feeling of abandonment–note the brief flashes of his nightmare that appear to equate his transformation with his parents’ departure on a trip, whether abandoning him or headed to their deaths unclear and irrelevant–and afraid that it could happen again. He feels like a monster, because why else would he have been left alone?

What is now inside him is beyond the bounds of “normal” society; painful and dangerous and wrong. The wrongness of the event that caused his trauma is internalized, remade into a sense of his own wrongness; the event was grotesque, and now Akira feels grotesque himself. But then, heroes always are; by their very nature they transgress social boundaries, if only to guard those boundaries from what lies beyond. To fight monsters is to be monstrous.

The show acknowledges this. Akira is afraid of his own power, afraid that he will lose control of his feelings and destroy too much. Again, this is a direct response to the experience of trauma: he was overwhelmed by the event that gave him this power, so he fears the power will overwhelm him too. That’s the lesson trauma teaches: “Life can and will dish out more than you can take. There are things you cannot handle alone, and there will be times that you have to face them alone.”

To his credit, Akira is taking all that pain and fear and anger out into the world. He is focusing it through his essential compassion, taming the monster–Devilman rather than Devil. He is trying–and thus far succeeding–to be the good monster.

And as I observed above, “good monster” is just another word for “hero.”


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Taser-Punch (Prototype)

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Content Warning: Racism, violence against BIPOC, police violence

It’s still October 11, 1997.

But more importantly, it’s February 28, 2018 as I write this, and the police are a white supremacist gang with tax funding and military-grade equipment.

Which is, honestly, what they always were. The colonizers who settled New England employed Indian Constables to “control” (read: displace, assault, and murder) Native Americans. The St. Louis police were founded for precisely the same purpose when that city was still a small frontier outpost–the military pushed the Native Americans out initially, but the police kept them out. And of course throughout the South, slave patrols were employed to capture black people trying to escape to freedom and return them to bondage, with the first official, government-employed patrols starting in the Colony of Carolina (today North Carolina) in 1704. Additional activities of the slave patrols included acting as a state-sponsored program of terror to keep slaves demoralized and disorganized, and carrying out summary judgment and punishment of slaves, outside the law.

This is of course entirely unlike modern police forces, who engage in state-sponsored terror to keep people of color demoralized and disorganized, and habitually harass, assault, and outright murder people of color. But not slaves, we don’t have those any more.

Well, except that the minute someone is sent to prison they can be legally used as slave labor, and at this point the majority of our prisoners are held in for-profit prisons that make those profits by selling the labor of their inmates. So really, nothing has changed: the police are a state-funded white supremacist organization that exists to terrorize, demoralize, disorganize, enslave, and outright murder people of color.

And Superman is all for giving them power suits that permit them to rival his power. He’ll regret that when ICE agents in Lexcorp-built armor stick him in one of their camps.

This, of course, answers the question of why Luthor would want to empower the police. After all, he’s a career criminal; why would he want organizations whose job it is to protect people from criminals to be more powerful?

The answer is simple: the police don’t exist to protect people, but to maintain order, which is to say they exist to protect hierarchy. If a poor person breaks into a rich person’s house and steals their property, the police will act to protect the rich; if the rich steal the surplus value generated by the labor of the poor, the police do nothing. If a white teen shoots up a school, the police carefully capture them unharmed; if a black teen so much as blinks, the police murder them.

That is why Luthor would fund the creation of a suit to give cops superpowers: he wants them to be strong, because he knows that, as a rich white man, they’re on his side. It’s also why the claim that the suit had corrupting effects on the cop who wore it is absurd: nobody becomes a cop unless they want to perform acts of violence in the service of the extant social order. (This is also why cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers than the general populace: they establish a hierarchy within their household, and then become violent in its defense.)

So no, the suit doesn’t corrupt the cop; it just gives him free reign to be a cop, all the time, with even less consequence than the occasional slap on the wrist that is all the most violent, abusive cops ever face in real life. The title of the episode, “Prototype,” isn’t referring to the suit as a prototype for the armor its inventor John Henry Irons will later don as Steel, because the difference between this cop and Steel isn’t the armor but the man inside: the difference between a white supremacist thug and a black engineer, a power-obsessed destroyer and an intelligent builder.

No, in hindsight the suit is a prototype not for the show’s future but for our own: the police state of 2018 America. The show cannot, of course, recognize this, partially because it’s 20 years old, but mostly because it is tied so closely to Superman’s positionality, and Superman, as we have observed repeatedly, deliberately blinds himself to the structures of power in his society.

He didn’t always. In the Golden Age, Superman could be seen fighting the Klan, taking on corrupt politicians, or telling schoolchildren that prejudice is un-American. But then the Comics Code came along, with this little gem of a rule: “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” (Emphasis mine.)

Suddenly, Superman had to take as a given that institutional power was deserved. Established authority had to be respected, in a complete reversal of how it should be treated: in reality, disrespect for established authority is a moral imperative under the principle of “afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” Even after the Code was abolished, a generation had grown up with that Superman, not the original; the Code Superman became the only Superman. He permanently became someone who sees that suit as a basically good idea gone awry, as opposed to recognizing the necessity of demilitarizing, disarming, and ideally disbanding the police.

Courtesy of the Comics Code, Superman became anti-revolutionary, and therefore anti-justice. But even without the Code, the shift would have happened eventually, because it’s in the DNA of the protector fantasy to resist frightening change, which is to say all change. If Superman must protect Luthor from the guillotines of the people–which he must if he is to be the paragon of protector fantasies he is presented as–he must be anti-revolutionary. He stands with the police, not against them, which means he stands with the slaveowners and the capitalists, the white supremacists and the rich.

And the tragedy of it all is that he’s still preferable to real-life cops.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that there’s much line between the two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d rather be bizarro any day.


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The rest of the League’s stationed near Alpha Centauri (World’s Finest)

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It’s October 4, 1997. Top songs and films are unchanged from yesterday, and the only news of note today is that 600,000 evangelical Christian men gather for the Promise Keeper’s “Stand in the Gap” event in Washington, DC.

The Promise Keepers are largely irrelevant as an organization today, but their model of masculinity and organization has been widely imitated by other “men’s movements,” so they are worth taking a brief look at. An evangelical Christian men’s organization, they promote “spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity” and “strong marriages and families through love, protection, and Biblical values.” In other words, they’re sexist homophobes whose model of masculinity is based in aggression and dominance, although their particular approach also emphasizes “brotherhood,” which is to say it permits some degree of sensitivity and compassion within the context of homosocial relationships.

But there’s a key word in there that should interest us: protection. The Promise Keepers’ model of masculinity emphasizes a male role that includes being a protector of their spouse and children–it places the ordinary man in the position of superhero, guarding helpless innocents against the dangers of the world. It is, in other words, not a protector fantasy, but a heroic power fantasy–something which normally only small children engage in.

But then, thanks to Batman, we know exactly what kind of adult man would position himself as a superhero: the kind that’s emotionally stuck in childhood. We should therefore predict that men’s movements would be marked by childishness, and indeed they are notoriously short-sighted, self-centered, aggressive, whiny, resentful, and irrational–and just like superheroes, they slide into fascism with disturbing ease, which is essentially how the alt-right was born.

So that’s Batman. But what of Superman? His trauma lies in infancy, manifesting only in the physical symptoms of Kryptonite exposure; Clark Kent appears to be a perfectly well-adjusted person emotionally.

But perfectly well-adjusted people do not compulsively put on primary-colored costumes and punch bank robbers, especially not at the expense of their relationships. Yet that is exactly what Superman does early in “World’s Finest,” simply flying off to deal with a robbery while Lois is trying to ask him out. As Clark Kent, he never quite straight-out denies, but never expresses, the attraction and romantic interest in Lois he clearly feels. Even if it was not obvious to the audience how Clark feels (remember, this show’s target audience is prepubescent), Batman spells it out repeatedly.

I have stated before–most recently in discussing DC vs. Marvel–that having two superheroes fight each other is just about the least interesting thing they can do. Thankfully, other than a very brief tussle at their first encounter, Superman and Batman do not fight each other in this story. They conflict, constantly, but in terms of clashing personalities, incompatible methodologies, and romantic rivalry, all of which are more interesting than just hitting each other.

Superman’s interactions with Batman thus start out hilariously petty; the first thing Superman says to him is that he doesn’t allow vigilantism. Unstated but obvious is the exception he makes for his own vigilantism. But as Lois Lane falls for Bruce Wayne–to the point that she applies for a job transfer to Gotham because “it’s that serious”–Clark Kent becomes increasingly passive-aggressive toward both. He questions Lois’ relationship with Wayne and badmouths Batman in her presence, refuses to work with Batman or listen to his warnings about the Joker, and as a result very nearly dies in the Joker’s trap.

It is only after Batman saves him so that he can save Batman and Lois that Superman comes around and begins treating Batman as an ally rather than a rival. In the words of the Promise Keepers, he “pursu[es] vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.” [Emphasis mine.] Because of course a man can’t have a large support network; that would imply that he needs a lot of support, which is to say that he is weak and vulnerable. No, he must be Superman or Batman–untouchable, unstoppable, so that he can be the perfect protector for the helpless and weak.

Which of course positions Lois as helpless and weak. In general, this episode deals with its female characters strangely. There are essentially seven characters in this story, other than assorted bit players: four men (Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor, and the Joker) and three women (Lois, Harley Quinn, and Mercy). Harley and Mercy are depicted as hating each other immediately, and attack each other whenever they’re in the same room, culminating in a near-literal catfight (the sound effects include a cat shrieking) that moves on- and off-screen while Luthor and the Joker argue–and every time Harley and Mercy are seen on the screen again, they have more injuries and less clothing. Luthor and the Joker are centered, focused on, and relatively calm despite their disagreement; Harley and Mercy never state their dislike, and just attack each other violently and fetishistically. (Given that Lois spends much of the story either bound and gagged or melting into a puddle and submissively handing her life over to Bruce Wayne, it seems pretty clear which fetish we’re talking about, too.)

That ties into our theme here, too: the Promise Keeper/MRA/PUA/alt-right construction of masculinity demands that men be dominant, and therefore that women be submissive. But the Harley/Mercy fight adds an extra dimension. Harley and Mercy are each individually submissive toward their respective crime/sex partners, in profoundly unhealthy ways (as we saw with Mercy in “Ghost in the Machine” and Harley in pretty much all of her BTAS appearances). By contrast, Luthor and the Joker dominate them, and their rivalry mostly plays out verbally, until the Joker calmly double-crosses Luthor.

Compare them to another pair of characters who start their relationship with a punch: Superman and Batman. While initially hostile, they are able to recognize that they are on the same side, and Clark Kent’s childish behavior over Lois rapidly diminishes and disappears after the first half-hour. Men’s competition and aggression, in other words, are depicted as more mature and reasonable, while women’s are depicted as childish, irrational, and strictly the domain of “bad” women.

In short: Harley Quinn’s spell failed. The new world has the same problems as the old, the same constraints.

It is, therefore, perhaps a good thing that, as last episode implied, another Apokolips is coming.


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Crisis on N Earths: Devilman Crybaby S1E1 “I Need You”

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Quick heads up before we start: Very soon, possibly by this weekend, I will be transitioning (lol) to jenablue.com. This should be more or less seamless for most visitors, but if you have specific posts bookmarked or linked, please update them or they will redirect to the jenablue.com front page.

Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing!

There’s a story–an urban legend that’s hung around anime fandom for decades–that Lex Dunbar likes to tell at conventions. It goes like this:

This guy was going to his first con, and he wanted to go all out: he wanted to cosplay. He was a pretty big, buff guy, so he decided to cosplay Devilman. He put enormous effort into it, and the results were excellent: horns, wings, fangs, head-to-toe red body paint, no clothes except a pair of shorts.

The convention was held at one of those huge Midwestern conference hotels, the kind that can host two or three large conventions at once, and this year it happened to be sharing its space with an evangelical Christian prayer retreat. The guy’s room is on the top floor, and the convention is way down at the bottom, so he’s got a long elevator ride. After going down a few floors, the door opens, and he sees this little old lady waiting for the elevator, clutching a Bible.

And the little old lady sees him, in his amazing Devilman cosplay. Her eyes widen in horror, and her knuckles turn white she’s holding onto that Bible so hard. And the guy says, in the deepest, most sinister voice he can muster, “Going down?

The woman just stands there. The elevator doors close, and down he goes to the convention. Eventually he notices that there are ambulances parked outside and asks his friend if something happened.

“Oh man, didn’t you hear?” the friend replies. “Some old lady was waiting for the elevator, and she suddenly had a heart attack and died!”

Dunbar’s researched this story, and according to them the earliest versions they can find aren’t about anime at all: they’re set at a science fiction convention, and the cosplayer is dressed as Tim Curry’s devil character from the movie Legend. That’s not the point.

The point is that up until now, that story, and a prior, vague notion of what the character looked like, was the entirety of my knowledge of Devilman. So I entered this anime having essentially no idea what it was about.

Which turns out to be a pretty good approach, because it is clearly trying to be deliberately disorienting. First episodes of anime do that a lot–the first episode of Baccano!, for example, is essentially incomprehensible, then slowly starts to make sense retroactively as the series unfolds. But Devilman Crybaby does it differently: Baccano!confused the viewer by presenting overwhelming quantities of information, an enormous cast, and quick-cutting, complex images that tended toward sensory overload, while Devilman Crybaby focuses on just a few characters with a deceptively simplistic, slow-paced visual style and narrative. However, just as the viewer is lulled into complacency by this simplicity, the narrative throws in a strange reference or horrific image, before finally culminating in the nightmarish Sabbath.

It is, in short, probably not an accident that this first episode shares a title with the final scene of End of Evangelion (specifically, on-screen titles immediately before the final scene of that film read “Neon Genesis Evangelion One Last Final: I need you”), which is likewise slow, quiet, relatively simple, and utterly shocking.

In this confusing, almost hypnotic episode, it is tempting to latch onto the familiar. The equation of sex and debauchery to violence, for example, is a staple of horror. The aesthetic of carnival is the grotesque; the violation of social boundaries is reified in the violation of the body’s limits. So too is the colonialist depiction of an ancient Amazonian tribe–Othered in both space and time–as secret devils in the process of returning. Once again, that which is socially Other becomes equated to distortion of and violence against the body. But there are hints that there could be something else here, as well, in the person of Professor Fikira.

At least, that’s what the subtitles call him; however, when Ryo speaks to him in English in the flashback to the Amazon, he distinctly calls him Professor Ficula. Latin for “little fig,” the word may well be a reference to the Biblical fig leaf, donned by Adam and Eve to hide their suddenly shameful bodies. In other words, Ficula (or Fikira) is a costume being worn by something grotesque. But another interpretation is more interesting: that his name is a reference to Ficula religiosa, the bodhi tree. It was while meditating under the bodhi tree that the Buddha attained enlightenment; perhaps it is under Fikira–that is, inspired by and learning from him–that someone is seeking enlightenment.

The obvious candidate is Ryo, who is easily the most compelling character in the show so far. By all appearances he is, and has been since childhood, a violent, amoral killer who cares nothing for the rules of society–and thus cannot become a demon, because for him there is no transgression. If one’s entire life is carnivalesque, then one cannot experience the carnival. He thus tries to get his childhood friend possessed by Amon, so that he can learn more about the demons.

But a more interesting possibility is that it is Akira who is becoming enlightened. After all, the enlightened state necessarily lies outside the norms of society, and crossing those lines is the entire point of carnival. The “crybaby” of the title is almost certainly Akira, and refers to his profound compassion, to the point that he cries not for his own sadness, but for the suffering of others. Compassion, however, is not a weakness; it is a source of immense strength.

Strength enough to contain a demon, perhaps. And what would a compassionate demon be? One outside normal society, labeled grotesque, Other, and yet determined to protect and bring healing–that sounds like enlightenment to me.


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Come on, Pops (Father’s Day)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s October 3, 1997. Top songs are still unchanged. The top movie is something called Kiss the Girls; Soul Food, L.A. Confidential, and The Full Monty are also in the top 10. In the news, British scientists demonstrate that Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans is caused by the same prion as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease.

And Superman: The Animated Series continues the DCAU tradition of airing holiday episodes nowhere near the holiday in question–in this case, an episode about fathers, set on Father’s Day, and called “Father’s Day,” broadcast in early October.

When I came out to my brother, he said, in effect, “All that matters to me is that you live in a way that makes you happy and share your gifts with the world. And, even though dad and I never talked about this kind of thing, I know that’s how he felt, too. He’d be proud of you.” I immediately began to sob. I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how much I needed to hear that. Dad died when I was 13 and my brother was 27; I have no idea how dad would relate to me as an adult, but my brother did get to experience that, so I believe him. But it’s something I’ve never gotten to have, and some part of me has always wondered. Would Dad be proud I am living my life under my terms? Or upset that I didn’t go into STEM, didn’t marry, won’t be having kids, all of which I know were part of his dreams for me when I was younger?

It shouldn’t matter what a dead man thinks of me. But it does, enough so that being told he would be proud, that he would support me in the massive changes I am starting to make, reduced me to tears.

So I get it. It doesn’t matter that Kalibak’s father is a vicious, tyrannical monster, the foundational evil of the DCAU (as the Batman Superman Adventures opening shows); Kalibak needs his approval, and tries desperately to earn it. Admittedly, Kalibak himself isn’t exactly a nice guy, so his father’s evil is unlikely to bother him; but Darkseid is also dismissive and demeaning toward Kalibak, a clear-cut example of emotional abuse. Darkseid’s motivation is not made clear, other than general contempt for Kalibak; however, looking at Kalibak’s two-toed, clawlike feet, squat, broad build, and head the same size as his torso, it is fairly obvious that he is a reference to Caliban, the half-human character in The Tempest. Caliban, an attempted rapist and murderer, is very often depicted as deformed; this is straightforward ableism in the play, but here at least Kalibak’s appearance is readable as not having a direct connection to his behavior. Instead, his behavior is a combination of the general villainy endemic to Apokoliptian culture, and his father’s disregard, which in turn results from his Darkseid’s judgment of Kalibak’s appearance.

In contrast, of course, we have Superman, who is traditionally attractive in a very masculine sort of way, a hero, and clearly doted on by his parents. (That the episode depicts Lois as not immediately catching on that he is their son amounts to slander–there is no conceivable way to reconcile it with her being so tenacious and dedicated a reporter that her response to an alien machine attacking her jogging path is to hide behind a tree, call the Daily Planet, and start dictating notes.)

Superman is the favored son of the kind father, handsome, proud, and strong; Kalibak the despised son of the cruel tyrant, ugly, sniveling, and, while immensely strong by human standards, no match for Superman. One of Kalibak’s first acts upon arrival in Metropolis is to (intentionally but not deliberately) seriously injure and trap Jonathan Kent. Similarly, Superman will hand defeat after defeat to Darkseid. Each son attacks the father of the other; in essence, they can be seen as agents of their fathers, who are at war.

And in that sense, we can see clearly how the DCAU is already positioning Darkseid. Jonathan Kent is typically portrayed as the source of Superman’s values, and hence as an exemplar of “human” (which is to say white Western middle-class* liberal) values. Darkseid is here presented as Kent’s opposite: tyrannical, controlling, malicious, cruel, violent, and ambitious.

And Darkseid is, indeed, all these things. But he is more than that, as well. We have already discussed the three pillars of our approach: near-apocalypse, the protector fantasy, and heroic trauma. Near-apocalypse, as we’ve discussed, is rooted in the simultaneous desire for revolutionary change as an escape from an intolerable status quo, and fear of revolutionary change as the destruction of the familiar. Darkseid is the lord of Apokolips, bent on destroying everything familiar and good and replacing it with a hellish, unending nightmare; he is, in short, the worst case scenario, the avatar of the fears that transform revolutionary fantasies into near-apocalypses. He is, in other words, everything we conjure the protector fantasy to shield us from. And in his relationship to Kalibak, we see that he is an abusive parent, which is to say a creator of trauma.

There’s a reason the opening to The Batman Superman Adventuresequates Darkseid to the destruction of Krypton, and hence to the birth of the DCAU: he is the birth of the DCAU. He is that which creates superheroes. He signifies something unitary, something which links all three pillars.

And, as we will soon see, we have already named that something.

*Yes, middle class. Kent owns property, namely his farm, though it’s almost certainly mortgaged and hence really owned by a bank. That’s what “middle-class” means: working-class, but permitted to roleplay owning private property, creating the illusion that one’s interests align with the ruling class more than the working class.


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