Think maybe you’re becoming (Apokolips… Now!)

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It’s February 7 and 14, 1998. The top songs this week are Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” and Usher’s “Nice & Slow”–in that order on the 7th, and swapping places by the 14th. The top movie remains Titanic throughout.

In the news since last November, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11, two days after sales of the Toyota Prius, the first mass-production hybrid car, began. On January 12, nearly 20 European nations agree to ban human cloning for some reason, and on the 17th the right-wing tabloid site Drudge Report breaks the Lewinsky scandal, about which more in a later post. And on the day part one of this story aired, the Nagano Winter Olympics began.

In Superman: The Animated Series, we have something that feels very much like a season finale, even though it actually isn’t–that’s the next two episodes, which aired in May after another brief hiatus. Nonetheless, “Apokolips… Now!” feels more like a season-ending event than “Little Girl Lost”: the former wraps up plot threads from prior episodes in a way that leads naturally into a new story, while the latter is entirely about introducing a new plot thread–and not the one created by “Apokolips… Now!.”

That thread–the war between Darkseid and Superman–will end up continuing throughout the entire DCAU, and ultimately end it, ending universes being what Apokolipses are for. Its creation involves the closing out of past threads: the end of the “Intergang uses alien weapons” thread that appeared in a couple of prior STAS episodes, the (heavily implied) death of Intergang leader Bruno Mannheim, and the (outright shown) death of Dan Turpin.

This is a shocking event, and not just for the diegetic audience that witnesses Darkseid’s casual murder of Turpin as he flees in the face of a freed Superman, defiant humanity, and Orion-led New Genesis army. The DCAU has strongly implied deaths before, as with Mannheim in this episode, and it has depicted off-screen deaths and deaths of non-human creatures, but this is an outright killing of a human being on screen, in a children’s cartoon.

In that, Turpin’s death near the end of the second part reflects a similarly shocking (in the “I can’t believe they got away with showing that” sense) moment early in the first part: after she is injured in an Intergang attack, we see Maggie Sawyer in a hospital bed holding hands with her girlfriend; the episode admittedly never explicitly states their relationship, so a viewer could infer they are sisters given they both have Timm’s default Adult Young Woman face and body. However, allowing for stylistic differences between the two media, it is nonetheless clearly Toby Reynes, established as Sawyer’s partner in the comics a decade before this episode aired.

That the two moments–one an expression of love and support, the other heart-breaking and violent–are mirrors of one another is confirmed by Turpin’s funeral scene that ends the episode: specifically, a Jewish funeral. Confirming a cartoon character to not be Christian is only slightly less surprising than confirming them to be queer–remember, this is a medium that habitually depicts Christmas (under one name or another) as something celebrated on alien planets and in fantasy visions of the ancient past. Openly Jewish cartoon characters were not as unheard of as openly queer ones even in 1998, but it was still quite rare, and even rarer to see a Jewish ceremonial rite like a wedding or, in this case, funeral.

Here we see is the advantage of the outward turn STAS represents: the expansion of the space of the possible. To face the weird is to encounter the non-normative, which creates the possibility of accepting it. There is room here!

We dismissed Harley Quinn’s apocalypse as a failure, as creating the wrong new world, but here we see that it succeeded. She made a world where lesbians can just exist, just be, just love each other, without having to be monsters or supervillains. She even made room for her religion as well–remember, prior to this, she was the only major supporting character depicted as being Jewish, too. The revolution has farther to go, and injustices remain, but it succeeded in changing the injustice it started in response to. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy won.

But victory comes at a price, as Darkseid made sure to remind us. In gaining representation of lesbianism and Judaism as normative things “normal” characters can be, as opposed to only found in the monstrous, the bizarre, and the outcast, we have expanded the circles of normativity. Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin are, after all, both cops, the front-line troops of normativity in its war against difference. We see that here: masked and armored cops, faceless stormtroopers gunning down equally faceless parademons.

Yes, the parademons are agents of evil, trying to destroy the world and replace it with a hellish landscape of fire, but then of course they are: apocalypse is revolution viewed from above. Darkseid is just another conqueror, but that’s the point: like Mala and Jax-Ur, he is emblematic of the fact that the general American experience of fascism was, until recently, that it was something that started elsewhere. But the cops are indistinguishable just as the parademons are indistinguishable: they represent the erasure of human difference, human diversity, human life just as much as Darkseid’s forces do.

And herein lies the problem of the simplistic binary this episode presents of Apokolips and New Genesis: Apokolips is a world of slavery and bondage, yes, but New Genesis merely opposes their evil. That is a necessary condition for goodness to be sure, but it does not mean that New Genesis is good–the most visually obvious distinction between the two, after all, is that Apokoliptians are ugly and New Gods beautiful according to conventional (read: white) standards. In other words, New Genesis’ opposition to Apokolips is not good against evil, but normalcy–the maintenance of the status quo and the extant structures of power–against transgression and the grotesque.

New Genesis, in other words, is a planet of superheroes, and Apokolips a planet of supervillains: not good against evil, but cops against criminals. And the more things that get accepted as normal without challenging normativity itself, the greater the pool from which to draw cops, and the fewer to oppose them.

But, we might ask, isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want people of all backgrounds, all orientations and genders, all religions and ethnicities, to be considered normal?

And the answer is, no we don’t. No one is normal; what we want is to smash the very idea of normalcy. So long as deviance from an arbitrary norm is the standard by which we judge others, rather than harm, there will always be some people on the outside who aren’t hurting anyone, some people denied acceptance and treated as threats solely for failing to fit arbitrary standards, as opposed to actually demonstrably posing a threat of harm–and there will always be harmful, toxic people on the inside who remain accepted because they fit those same arbitrary standards. In other words, so long as we value normalcy, privilege and marginalization will continue to exist. We can stop subjecting Asians to unfair immigration standards and internment camps, but we’ll just be doing the same to Latin@s a generation later; if it isn’t Jews being marginalized, it’s Muslims; if it isn’t lesbians, it’s trans people; if it isn’t black people, it’s–well, we’ve never stopped marginalizing black people. Which is not to say that we’ve stopped marginalizing any of the other groups, either–but they’ve all taken strides toward normalization, and the result has been that some of them have taken to defending that normalization by attacking the “next group out,” so to speak. Hence, for example, conservative Jews and transphobic lesbians aligning themselves with the Christian right out of shared Islamophobia and transphobia, respectively.*

But there is time yet for more apocalypses, and we can still hope for a future where everyone accepts everyone else, where everything save nonconsensual harm is permitted. A world where everything is tolerated except intolerance; that is the new genesis we want, and it can only happen after apocalypse.

In the meantime, improvement is improvement. For now, as we close out this chapter of our search, we can simply enjoy Harley Quinn’s brave new world–destroying it, revolutionizing it, making it better, those are all things we can worry about tomorrow. For now, let us simply celebrate that this world has room for as much variety as it does–not just a hero who flies, but a black superhero who built himself skin of steel. Not just Space Moses, but an actual Jewish man. Not just the Man of Tomorrow who loves and protects mankind, but women loving each other.

We celebrate them all–but even as we do, we know we must go further.

.*Not to single out anyone in particular. I chose Jews and lesbians for this example simply because I’m a Jewish lesbian.

 

End of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 3: That Has Such People In It. Volume 4 is titled Childhood’s End.

 


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Imaginary Story: The Batman and Robin Adventures #25 and Annual #2

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On one level, The Batman And Robin Adventures Annual #2 and The Superman Adventures Annual #1 are a sort of crossover, telling two sides of a story involving magical amulets. But the amount of actual crossover is quite small, and tonally these are very different stories that function almost entirely independently of each other. The elements of each story that appear in the other are readable, if one hasn’t read the other, as simple Easter Eggs. “Oh, Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to Zatara when Superman met him.” “Oh, Zatara was involved in some kind of Superman adventure while Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to him.”

Instead of something like “World’s Finest,” which had both Superman and Batman working together against both Superman-style and Batman-style problems, this “crossover” maintains each of them alone, in their own space, dealing with their own styles, with only Zatara himself bridging the gap. Unlike “World’s Finest,” therefore, which has the overall effect of uniting the BTAS and STAS ideaspaces into the beginnings of the DCAU, this serves instead to highlight their differences, as illustrated by the two’s respective treatment of the shared character Zatara–and through him, of magic.

For Superman, Zatara was a wizard, a provider of magical artifacts that could be invoked by the power of words, that led to a chaotic realm of demons and time travel. But for Batman Zatara is much more mundane, a stage magician who operates by trickery. The villain of the Batman story has mind-control powers, but they are simply an advanced form of mundane persuasion, not spells of enchantment–and any apparent magic is actually a product of self-deception, whether accidental (the villain’s belief that the amulet grants his powers boosts his confidence sufficiently to allow him to employ them) or deliberate (the “meditation ritual” Zatara teaches Batman and Batman teaches Robin is fairly obviously the same kind of confidence booster, in this case to resist control).

Both take a playful approach to the ideas within, but ultimately the Superman comic is far more playful, extending that even to the structure of the comic itself (with, as we’ve discussed, mixed results). It jumps gleefully into concepts like demons, magic, and time travel, while the Batman comic tries to be more straightforwardly logical, to lay the groundwork to explain everything that happens in mundane terms. At the same time, it’s more aware of mundane darkness: Superman’s demon is just a generic evil, monstrous invader who destroys and disrupts and must be fought, while the Batman story takes pains to have its villain point out that he does not and will not use his powers for rape.

Compare the Batman annual to issue #25, the final issue of The Batman and Robin Adventures (though, just like TBA before it, TBRA will be followed by a functionally identical series under a new name). In this story, Batman is kidnapped by a flying saucer piloted by Ra’s al-Ghul, who claims he stole it from aliens who abducted him. Batman breaks free and is contacted by the Men in Black (generic, X-Files-esque ones rather than the ones from the Aircel/Malibu comic book that inspired the Men in Black movies–those characters were purchased by Marvel in 1994 and are thus unfortunately unlikely to show up in a Batman story), then takes on Ra’s again and stops him from using the saucer to destroy the polar ice caps.

This comic, which came out the month after the Annual, flirts rather more openly with what the Annual merely hinted at: that Batman’s world of dark alleys and gothic villains is embedded in something larger and weirder, a realm of aliens and speedsters and actual magic, psychic gorillas and Amazons and living radiation. Batman resists this, insisting right up until the end of the comic that the saucer is a craft built by Ra’s al-Ghul, not an alien vessel, but the fact that it can be controlled by holding a crystal and focusing one’s will makes clear that he is wrong: this is magic–space-themed magic, as aliens and spaceships in fiction usually are, but magic nonetheless.

He is in denial, but he cannot remain there forever. The future of the DCAU is not to delve deeper into dark streets, solving dark mysteries and exploring the corners of dark minds; it is striking out into the wild and the weird, outward rather than inward, expanding into new ideaspaces rather than lurking in the one. We’ve known this, of course, since the apocalypse and the art style shift–but here is confirmation.

The Batman of the Future is coming, and like Superman’s epithet, he is a Man of Tomorrow. His world may look superficially like Batman’s, but it lies within Superman’s–dark streets occupied by mutants and aliens and psychics. It is a world that the Bruce Wayne Batman cannot fight in and cannot fight against–but as we see here, he will break himself trying.


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Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures Annual #1

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Sorry this is late! Between the long weekend and being sick yesterday, I just lost track of what day it was.

When I was first planning The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, I knew that unlike past projects, I would be writing entries on topics outside the core works themselves, in this case the individual episodes of the DCAU. I wanted to give them fun titles that tied into the general superheroes theme, and eventually hit on three categories (though I considered others): Retroactive Continuity for discussion of works that significantly pre- or post-date the last episode discussed, which of course is the phrase from which we get the portmanteau “retcon” for an event in a later episode of a serial (such as a comic book issue) that significantly alters or replaces  events in earlier episodes; Crisis on N Earths for discussion of works or events outside of DC comics but close to the air date of the last episode discussed, from the recurring DC title construction for comics that deal with alternate realities, and especially the famous event miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths; and Imaginary Story for discussion of works that involve the characters in the DCAU, but which are nonetheless not part of the DCAU.

I took that title from the tendency, in Golden Age comics, to have “imaginary stories”: issues of a comic which are, unlike most issues of superhero comics, not to be taken as part of an ongoing serial, but rather which present “what-if” scenarios or events with such resounding consequences that they would alter future episodes too much to sustain the serial. Imaginary stories tended to feature the most bizarre ideas of the era, and are responsible for much of the recurring phenomenon of Golden Age covers in which ostensible heroes perform actions which, out of context, appear unconscionable, hilarious, or both.

Of course, we’ve discussed an imaginary story before, in a sense, way back at the beginning of this volume: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” positions itself as one. But, as both we and Moore noted, all stories are imaginary stories; imaginary is a vital component of what it is to be a story. Even a story about events that occurred is still imaginary, in the sense that the events themselves do not recur when the story is retold. They are simply imagined, evoked by the construction of symbols that, together, signify (one storyteller/reader pair’s conception of) the events in question.

So part of the joke in calling things like the DCAU’s comic spinoffs “imaginary stories” is thus that this whole project, being written by someone with at least a basic understanding of how stories actually work, rejects the notion of “canon” on which they’re built: stories depict not worlds but ideas, and ideaspace has neither borders nor laws. Superman Adventures Annual #1 is exactly as fictional as a given episode of the show, which is exactly as fictional as fanfiction, which is exactly as fictional as money or the United States of America, the acquisition of the former and intellectual property laws of the latter being the primary determinants of what comprises “canon.”

That said, while ideaspace is amorphous and ever-moving, one can nonetheless draw distances between ideas. (Those distances will of course change, but one can draw them for a single moment from a particular perspective. One simply cannot, and shouldn’t try to, fix them at those distances for all people and all times.) It is, thus, reasonable to declare that Superman Adventures Annual #1 is in quite a distant realm indeed from our discussion of the DCAU.

For all that it visually resembles the character designs of the show, the tone and structure of the comic is wildly different. It is fitting that its cover uses a design–radially arranged scenes with exclamation point-laden declarations enthusing about the content within–that is commonly associated with Golden Age pastiche (a grid-like variant being used, for example, for the cover of the second part of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”) because it feels far closer to that aesthetic than to the kid-friendly but very 90s-inflected Superman: The Animated Series.

The most visible aesthetic difference is a certain structural tightness that STAS episodes, and Superman Adventures comics, tend to have. Events in those stories follow clearly on one another, either logically following from previously depicted events, setting up future events, or both. Even an in medias res opening, flash-forward, or otherwise initially surprising scene is ultimately made part of a coherent structure that is clear and easy to follow. In other words, the DCAU aesthetic tends to not be structurally challenging because it is simply constructed.

By contrast, SAA #1 sprawls. Time travel, interdimensional travel, and magic intersect, leading to characters experiencing the same scene at different points in the story, passing useful objects or information forward or backward in time or across dimensional barriers; other characters move from realm to realm or change form according to expressed, but arbitrary, rules; the story is a chaotic, shifting dreamscape, with Doctor Fate, champion of order, lurking inscrutably about its edges and acting according to rules only he knows. The story is, ultimately, no more structurally challenging than the DCAU, but for a very different reason: because it wants its reader to stop trying to pin down a logical sequence of events obeying strict rules and just enjoy the ride.

It is the nature of chaos that any finite region thereof can be perceived as orderly. Consider this sequence, which I just pulled off the website random.org (which uses atmospheric noise to create truly random numbers as opposed to the pseudo-random numbers produced by computers): 58,75,61. This is as random, as chaotic, as a sequence of numbers can be–but because it is finite, we can come up with rules that govern it. Looking it up in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, it actually occurs in two known, “mathematically interesting,” sequences. Hitting random.org again, we get 37, which isn’t the next number in either of those sequences–but we could easily enough create one where it is.

So it is with ideaspace. The whole is chaotic, but any part–an individual story, for example–appears orderly, as if it is proceeding according to defined rules like cause and effect or narratological imperative. But these rules do not define the space, they merely describe it, emerging from our study of it. What is actually happening is magic; our words, our perceptions, just shape our ability to understand it. This is what makes Golden Age comics so much fun; where Silver Age comics tended to take place in an absurdist realm of science-flavored nonsense, all giant apes and alien menaces, Golden Age comics can be more overtly magical and surreal.

Ultimately, SAA #1 combines both, the science nonsense of paradox-ridden time travel and the surreal magic of demon-ridden astral planes. It is overstuffed with ideas, none of which land–but it stretches the boundaries of the DCAU in ways that we won’t see again for quite a while. And when we do, they’ll be perceived as a threat, an invading other rather than a new space to explore.

Ah well. Hail Icthultu!


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman: Crybaby Ep 5: “Beautiful Silene”

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Well, that ended abruptly.

Part of the challenge of writing these entries on Devilman: Crybaby–and other episode-by-episode commissions, like Giant Robo–is that unlike most of my entries, where I’ve seen the whole series before I write about a single episode, for these commissions I haven’t seen anything but what I’ve been commissioned to watch. So I have no idea what’s going to happen past the current episode, and thus sometimes get things wrong: for example, last entry I concluded Miko and Kukun were killed at the end of the episode, but after viewing this episode it appears that Miko was possessed by a demon and Kukun has vanished (presumably killed).

That outcome makes a lot of sense, given Miko’s (nick-)name. I’m not sure how it’s written, so it may be unrelated (Japanese being prone to homophones), but at least in transliteration it appears to be the same as miko, Japanese for “priestess” or “shrine maiden.” That is, Miko is a secondary figure who channels or represents a divine (or diabolic, in this case) entity, presumably whatever demon has possessed her.

This ties in to the abrupt ending I mentioned in the first sentence of this essay–not the ending of the episode, which was much like any other, but the ending of Silene, a character who previous episodes had positioned as a fairly major antagonist. (Though my money’s still on Ryo as the ultimate primary antagonist.)

Instead, she is dead by episode’s end, and quite unsatisfyingly: she has Akira on the ropes, but then he passes out, apparently about to be killed. And then he wakes up, and Silene has died on her feet from injuries earlier in the fight, without any further input from him. His failure just becomes a success without any real explanation–unless we take his question to Ryo, of whether a demon can experience love, as pointing toward such an explanation.

Earlier in the fight, Silene lay defeated and dying, but her sidekick sacrificed his life, apparently out of love of Silene, to give her a second chance at killing Akira, knowing that they will both die soon after. He tears his own head off, and then Silene possesses his dying body much as the demons possess human bodies, merging with him into a single demon, and it is that which shortly thereafter dies on its feet. Silene even cries when she realizes what he’s done and why, suggesting she has feelings for the other demon too–yet Ryo tells Akira that demons are incapable of love, being creatures of pure appetite.

In their fusion, we see a parody of sorts of the demon-human fusion that is Devilman. Here, the fused opposites are male and female,* rather than human and demon, but it is still a gestalt entity that is more powerful than either. However, it differs dramatically from Akira–or, rather, from the Amon/Akira gestalt that Akira has become.

That he is no longer straightforwardly Akira is clear in scenes earlier in the episode, which show him lusting intensely after Miki, to the point of seeming about to attack her. He does not, however, nor does he attack anyone while walking drooling through the red light district later; he has acquired the demonic appetite for sex and violence, an appetite which draws little distinction between the two, but he seems to have it (barely) under control. He is, in other words, a true gestalt, comprised of the totality of both members: he is fully Amon and fully Akira, and the resulting entity thus expresses the desires and tendencies of both, in this case Amon’s demonic appetite and Akira’s human capacity for restraint.

By contrast, the Silene fusion is just that–Silene. Her personality, her being, is dominant; her head and torso replace her companion’s head, and so too does her behavior entirely replace his. She is possessinghim, seizing control, and that is not an act of love but of violence. This is why they cannot survive for long enough to fight Akira, because their very existence as a gestalt entity is violence against a member of that entity, and the whole suffers.

Demons are incapable of love, not because they cannot become attached to one another or even because they’re not capable of sacrifice for one another; demons are incapable of love because they’re incapable of seeing past their own wants. They lack the key quality that enables Akira and Amon to function as one: Akira’s compassion, the quality from which the series derives its subtitle. His ability to feel pain for another means that he recognizes the pain of others; their relationship is stable because they can mediate and negotiate both their wants and preferences, where Silene must dominate the one she possesses and impose her own will. The result is not love, but abuse; not a synergistic fusion, but a self-destructive monstrosity.

Of course, we must tread carefully. Compassion is necessary for genuine love, but love is not necessary for compassion, nor should we confuse empathy and compassion–the former is a capacity, the latter a choice. People who lack empathy can nonetheless choose to be compassionate when they recognize the pain of others, even if that pain is harder for them to recognize; someone who has empathy but chooses not to be compassionate recognizes the pain more easily, but ignores or even revels in it. That, not a lack of empathy, is what leads to abuse and mistreatment, rendering love impossible.

The episode, unfortunately, doesn’t make this distinction. Indeed, by eliding the distinction and positioning empathy/compassion as a defining human trait, it blunders straight into the ableist implication that people who lack empathy aren’t people–which just ends up excusing a lack of compassion toward them. Likewise, by positioning love as a uniquely human trait in contrast to demonic hunger, it implies that people who do not love are not people, again serving only to encourage that lack of compassion. We must tread carefully in this territory; it is in the nature of the grotesque to serve as the boundary of the human, but if we leave people outside that boundary, abjectify them through ableism or a form of acephobia (or for any other reason), we demonize and marginalize our fellow people, exactly the ones we should be showing compassion toward.

Which, of course, is Ryo in a nutshell.

*Which, like human and demon, or practically any other binary you care to name, are not actually opposites. That’s why they can fuse to begin with–true opposites cannot coexist.


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Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #16-24

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With one exception, the issues of Batman and Robin Adventures that roughly coincide with the second season of Superman: The Animated Series hew fairly closely to a rather apt–and apparently entirely unintended–theme, namely the positioning of women as a marginalized Other and society in general’s tendency to center the desires of individual men (and especially white men) and privilege them over the needs, safety, and desires of women.

As I write this, the toxic ideology of “incels” is being debated in the mainstream press. Incels are a spinoff of the general MRA/PUA/MGTOW nexus of Reddit misogynists (whom I shall hereafter refer to as the patriarchy-industrial complex), with their particular form of sexist bullshit the claim that they are entitled to sex with (conventionally attractive) women, such that not getting laid is a form of oppression that justifies violent response. Disturbingly, the pundit response is not just the typical middle-right pundits pretending to a position of studied “objectivity” as an excuse to lend their platform to far-right extremists. Plenty of that has happened, with Ross Douthat in particular spewing a vile piece that exists in a state of quantum superposition between endorsing the incel concept of “redistributing” access to sex “equally” and satirizing leftist arguments for the redistribution of property by posing similar arguments for the “redistribution” of women. (Which satire fails, of course, because any decent person–a category which clearly does not include Douthat or incels–reading would immediately twig on to the obvious counter that women are people, not property.)

No, the worrisome part is articles like Jio Tolentino’s piece for the New Yorker, which criticize the worst behavior of incels but allow bits of their thinking to seep in as “givens”–like the idea that the “sexual marketplace” is a literal market in which people have a “sexual value” that determines their success. That’s a horrifically toxic approach to relationships, because it is inherently transactional. It describes sex purely in terms of a hierarchy, of “haves” and “have-nots.” Instead of two people who find each other interesting, sex becomes about who has enough status to “afford” the object of their desire, with the desires of the “purchased” party largely irrelevant to the equation (since it’s assumed that they will want the “high-value” person).

It is, in other words, exactly the kind of patriarchal, hierarchical view that this run of B&RA critiques, without ever conceding its points or lending it unwarranted sympathy. This run of issues gets a bit Feminism 101 at times, but considering this is a late-90s all-ages comic book, even reaching the level of 101 is impressive–and gets more impressive when one realizes that this steady development of the theme plays out across all these issues despite being apparently entirely unintended.

All these issues, that is, except for Issue 20, “Through the Long Night,” a silly little story about Batman catching a bunch of gun-runners and gang members (plus one drunk driver) with zero characterization, where the only real stakes are whether Bullock will win the nightly Gotham PD pool on how many people Batman will catch for them. It’s a pointless and rather uninteresting issue, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth discussing. It’s just sort of there.

But if we ignore it, we get that unintentional thematic arc, which begins with Issue 16, “It Takes a Cat,” presumably a reference to the saying “it takes a thief to catch a thief.” In this story, Catwoman resumes her criminal activity, but Selena Kyle insists she’s innocent, and investigates to learn who’s stolen her alter ego. It turns out to be a man named Thomas Blake, essentially a wealthy fanboy who is trying to get Selena’s attention because he has a crush on her. He puts her in serious danger of returning to prison, forcing her to go on the run from the law, because he has built up a mental scenario of how she “should” respond to his behavior and he wants those responses. He claims to love her, but treats her like a thing: specifically, like a video game, where giving the “correct” inputs will result in “winning” and receiving what he wants.

Of course when it comes to people treating women as objects, the quintessential example within the Batman oeuvre is the Mad Hatter, the focus of Issue 17, “But a Dream.” Mad Hatter sneaks one of his control devices into Alice’s wedding dress, which causes her to first express pity for him, then run away from the altar and seek him out so they can be married by a mind-controlled priest. In this he is, at least, more honest than Blake, in that he literally uses a machine to manipulate Alice, but in the end he is tricked into and trapped in a fantasy scenario in which Alice’s pity is transmuted by his determination into love, and they run away together. In the end, Hatter is trapped in his fantasy; like the miserable losers who populate the patriarchy-industrial complex, he is unable to get past his instrumental view of women and relationships or insistence on centering his own and only his own feelings, and so remains cut off from reality and any possibility of meaningful connection.

“Joker’s Last Laugh” focuses on a different kind of mistreatment and marginalization of women, as it follows Harley in yet another round of her abusive relationship with the Joker. In this case, as she often does, Harley signifies internalized misogyny: she accepts the Joker’s abuse and takes upon herself the responsibility to make him feel better, while performatively hiding from him the fact that she is vastly more competent than he is. In this case, she dedicates herself to trying to make him laugh, and ultimately succeeds only when he doesn’t realize the situation–the Batmobile getting a parking ticket while Batman and Robin were capturing Joker and Harley–is one she deliberately manufactured. In other words, she uses a performance to protect his ego from the realization of her own competence, skill, and agency.

In direct contrast to Harley, who is a “good bad girl” in that she performs femininity in ways that protect masculine ego (“good”) while violating the law and helping criminals (“bad”), Issue 19, “Duty of the Huntress,” introduces the titular character as a “bad good girl” in that she performs a superheroic role in ways that are unacceptable to Batman. It’s a little difficult to see why–she is depicted using a crossbow loaded with what appear to be tranquilizer darts, which doesn’t seem inherently more violent than the patent Batman technique of dangling people off ledges and threatening to drop them, which he does in this issue (along with countless other stories).

But even accepting that she is being “bad,” what we have is a woman who refuses to play her role, and is punished for it. Her father is killed in a mob hit after a lifetime of “shielding” (read: lying to) his daughter to keep her out of “the business.” His dying wish is that she ensure his enemies cannot profit from his empire by using his records to expose all the crimes he was involved in, but she is so horrified by those crimes–which include forcing immigrants into literal slavery–that she instead begins destroying each enterprise personally.

After Batman forces her to stop and hands over all the information she was using to the police, she is left bereft at her father’s grave. Her final words are haunting: “I only knew you as kind and loving… not… …evil. Somehow you were both. Now you’ve given me a new duty, Poppa. Somehow… …someday… I have to make up for who you were.” It’s more complicated than some men being monsters; monstrosity is a human capacity, and all possess it to some degree. Someone can be loving at home and monstrous at work, or a good friend but an abusive husband, or any other such combination.

But Bertinelli’s choice to “shield” his adult daughter, to lie to her about his work and thereby strip her of agency, is of a parcel with his criminal activity. He simply does not care about the feelings of others; he only cares about what he himself wants. The slaves he forces to work are stripped violently of agency because he wants the product of their labor; his daughter is stripped of agency because he wants her to not become involved in his work. This is not to say that lying to your children about what you do for a living is remotely comparable to slavery; instead, it’s pointing out that the capacity to do the latter implies the capacity for the former, because the former is a vastlylesser form of the latter. We shouldn’t be surprised that monstrous people can seem ordinary or even nice in controlled circumstances–they wouldn’t be able to get away with being monstrous otherwise!

This theme of the nature of monstrosity is touched on again in Issue 23, “Crocodile Tears.” Killer Croc develops an infatuation with Summer Gleeson after she gives a news report humanizing him. The implication–or, rather, the implied justification Croc gives himself–is that his violent behavior is a reaction to being treated as less-than, being regarded as a monster and an animal instead of a human. However, he reveals himself to be the same kind of monster as all the others we’ve discussed when he smacks Summer’s boyfriend out of the way to talk to Summer. She accuses Croc of hurting her boyfriend, and Croc replies, “He ain’t hurt. He’s just warned. I ain’t here to hurt anybody.”

It doesn’t matter to Croc how the boyfriend feels about being struck, or how Summer responds. In Croc’s world, his feelings and intentions are the arbiters of everything. No one else’s viewpoint matters; his pain justifies his behavior, but his victims’ isn’t real unless it’s intentional on his part. So of course he ignores Summer’s protests and insists on doing “favors” for her that she hasn’t asked for, with an expectation of a reward she hasn’t agreed to. In the end, when she calls him an animal, a monster, it is the simple truth. He is absolutely still human–all monsters are, because monstrosity is a human capacity–but his behavior is monstrous, and so at her words he simply stops and gives up, his justifications stripped away.

Issue 22, “Fifty Fifty,” is a Two-Face story, because of course Issue two-two of the second BTAS-based comic series would be about Two-Face. There’s little in it that touches on the theme, but it is notable that the way the villain tries to force Two-Face to work for him is by threatening Grace. When his henchmen break into her apartment, the one who announces he intends to check the bedroom follows up with a “Heh heh” that speaks volumes–if he finds her, he intends harassment at minimum, and more likely sexual assault.

As is all too often the case in our fiction, the only woman in the story is a target, menaced with kidnapping and assault to motivate a male character. This is one source of the entitlement that drives the behavior of the monstrous men in the other issues we’ve discussed–that fictional women’s feelings and needs are generally subordinated to the feelings and narratives of fictional men. This is the “Women In Refrigerators” problem, that women are treated as objects without agency or internality, their only role in a story to serve as plot devices for the motivation or manipulation of male characters.

Issue 21, “Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?” seems to be consciously pushing against this by inverting the formula. The Riddler, seeking vengeance against Batman, captures Commissioner Gordon and will kill him if he can’t solve an “impossible” riddle by midnight. With Batman and Robin unavailable, Batgirl pursues the case instead–in essence, a significant man in her life is imperiled to motivate her to act. She is the driving force and protagonist of the story, and is granted full internality in the form of an internal monologue as she tries to focus on solving the problem without giving in to her fears of what might happen if she fails.

Nice as this is to say, something is slightly off about it. The fact that Batman and Robin need to be taken off the table, that it’s a rare and special event to have Batgirl headline the book–these are reminders that a female character with agency, with her own internality and positionality, is still a rarity, still outside the norm.

And the norm has great power, as we see in Issue 24, “Touch of Death.” Fittingly for the end of an arc about the marginalization of women, the story is told from the perspective of Poison Ivy as she meets a South American boy who secretes a deadly poison through his skin and bonds with him, then tries to rescue him from the American government, who of course wish to weaponize him. (And Ivy, once they have her.) Ivy’s immunity to poison results in a touching sequence in which the boy–who has clearly not been touched in a long time, perhaps ever–simply holds her hand for an entire day, and even more touchingly, Ivy lets him.

She seems to sense a kindred spirit in him, and that’s not that surprising: she and he are both Others, monsters in the other sense of the word, the sense of being “grotesque,” which is to say outside the norm–just like the Batgirl issue. “Normal” has a terrifying power in our culture; to be within the range of “normal” is to be accepted, to be considered worthy of respect and consideration, to live in a society built around your needs. The experience of being outside the norm is, of course, much more varied–“normal” is a very small sphere inside an infinite space of human diversity, but depending on where in that space you stand, to be outside the norm is to be treated with disgust, or contempt, to be ignored or assumed a criminal or a pervert.

This is not, of course, to say that everything outside the norm is good or right or even acceptable; some monsters deserve the label. Rather, it is to say that the normal/not normal distinction itself is monstrous, but it’s not an individual monstrosity but a social one. The fact that we make such a distinction renders our culture monstrous; the fact that we declare some bodies or harmless behaviors to be monstrous indicts our entire civilization. Ivy and the boy are treated as laboratory specimens so that their unique abilities can be extracted and exploited precisely because those abilities are unique, because they are different–and it is telling that their bodies are precisely the kinds of bodies we most frequently Other, most frequently treat as monstrous perversions of the “normal” body (which is to say, the white cis male body): a woman and a person of color.

To be Other is to be poisonous to “normal” society, because either, like Killer Croc, you fulfill what is expected of you and harm “normal” people, or you defy expectations and expose the lie on which society is built. That is what Ivy brought to the new world Harley created to make room for them: poison.

Although, if the beast that is “normality” takes too long to die, there’s always the traditional method of dealing with monsters, pitchforks and fire. Although in fiction, more common still is the hero–and that is another clue to what we’re looking for, at the still-distant endpoint of this long journey through ideaspace: what the hero we’re looking for needs to do.

We need them to kill the beast.


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Crisis on N Earths: Revolutionary Girl Utena

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It’s December 24, 1997. Christmas Eve. Of course, we’re in Japan, so that doesn’t mean much–Christmas is an excuse to decorate, go on dates, and eat chocolate and KFC. The country is only one percent Christian, after all, but they love the exotic ceremonies and customs of the worshipers of these strange gods from faraway lands.

Tonight, something far more momentous is happening than some lady having a kid in whatever a manger is: the finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena airs.

Auteur theory is largely nonsense, but nonetheless Utena is widely regarded as the brainchild of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, and comparing Utena to other projects of his, it does seem like his creative voice was the dominant, or at least his persistent concerns and themes. But to an extent it’s the other way around: the themes of Utena became the defining themes of Ikuhara’s work, both what is expected from him and what he keeps coming back to.

A 39-episode half-hour anime series ostensibly within the shoujogenre (that is, works aimed at girls in roughly the same age range we refer to in book publishing as Young Adult), Utena is an exploration of themes of identity, especially gender; queer sexuality; abuse; and the way we use stories and narrative to construct our world. Utena is a teen girl who decided when she was very young that she would be a prince when she grew up, and still dresses and acts “princely”: she is highly athletic, very popular with the girls, wears a blinged-out variant of a boys’ uniform to school, and is especially quick to rescue those she perceives as being in need. At the same time, however, she is very insistent that she is a girl, and perhaps a little too insistent that she is het, given her relationship with Anthy.

Anthy is a character I’ve written about at great length, particularly in Animated Discussions. I won’t rehash that here; suffice to say, she is Utena’s primary love interest, but oscillates throughout the story between damsel in distress, sidekick, and villain. In reality she is none of those things and all of them, because Utena is also about breaking free of the constraints created by the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and our world. What makes Utena a revolutionary girl is that she revolutionizes the world around her–the bulk of the series is her unwittingly passing test after test to become The One Who Brings the World Revolution–because she is not only determined to be a protector fantasy for everyone around her, but to protect them from abuse of all kinds. She protects people, not structures of power–indeed, the first we see her protecting someone is defending her friend Wakaba in the first episode, from a man who has greater social power, claims the “right” to do what he did, and callously dismisses Wakaba’s pain.

Utena doesn’t care about rights. She understands, at least on an instinctual level, that any society governed according to a list of rights is really an oligarchy governed by the people who decided what those rights are. That person, in the case of Utena, is Akio, the main villain of the series. Akio is also referred to as “End of the World,” but notably, while the English phrase is sometimes used, the series mostly uses a Japanese phrase which would be more accurately translated as “the ends of the Earth.” The bilingual pun, given all the discussion of apocalypse and world revolution in the series, is clearly intentional, but nonetheless the primary meaning of Akio’s title is the edge of reality, the limitation of what can exist.

The show ties these meanings together in the infamous, oft-recurring “egg speech” (which was lifted almost verbatim from Hermann Hesse’s Demian): “The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born.” The apocalyse, the World Revolution, is necessary so that we can take form as our true selves, unrestrained by the limits imposed by the powerful.

But, intriguingly, Utena at least initially appears to fail. Akio’s strength is social power above all else: he wields his high status and charm with great skill to manipulate and control others. It is that power which he uses to defeat Utena: he persuades Anthy that Utena will fail, and in so doing persuades Anthy to ensure that Utena fails. Utena is forced to admit that she cannot be the prince, that she is “just a girl,” and cannot save Anthy or change the world into a place where she and Anthy can be together and be free.

And then she stands back up, shoves Akio out of her way, reaches out her hand to help Anthy, and ultimately Anthy breaks free of Akio’s power and walks forever out of his world.

What the show refers to as the prince is, in its fairy tale-inflected framing, another instance of the protector fantasy. This is made explicit in the episode “The Rose Crest”: “The girls of the world were all princesses! All because we were always protected by the Rose Prince.” Dios, the Rose Prince, is depicted as the hero of a fictionalized past in which he protected all girls from all hardship and pain, enabling them to be princesses–which is to say, pampered but constrained, safe but helpless.

Dios, after all, is Akio–End of the World and the Rose Prince are revealed to be one and the same. Akio compares himself to Lucifer, which is to say that he is fallen from having once been both great and good, but Akio is a manipulator and a liar. He never was a hero; the Rose Prince was always a fantasy, always Akio. Or, more accurately, they’re the same thing. As Utena tearfully confesses to Anthy: “The truth is, my protecting you was just for my own ego… I was the one who cheated you! I was the one who used you! I was the one who betrayed you!”  Akio is a thoroughly terrible, utterly despicable human being and Utena is in many ways highly admirable, yet in the role of the hero they are both ultimately toxic, becaus the role is toxic.

The only difference between a fence and a cage is whether you’re content to stay inside it. The perfect protector, as we have seen again and again, is also the enforcer of the status quo. The hero must prevent the egg from being broken, and therefore must prevent us from being our authentic selves; the Rose Prince is also End of the World.

Yet… Anthy leaves Ohtori on her own, yes, but only after being offered a hand by Utena and choosing to take it. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy leaves Ohtori (literally, in the movie). Acting as the hero in the sense of a savior, all Utena can do is make Anthy more of a princess, building a fence around her that is also a cage. In the final battle, when she and Akio compete to take the Power to Bring the World Revolution, neither gets it, even though Akio wins the battle. But by offering help, by inspiring and performing as an example, Utena is able to give that power to Anthy.

It is not enough to merely perform the “good parts” of the role of the hero, because by its very nature, the role of the protector is the role of the jailer. But as Utena shows us, there is a use for heroes, and there is a way forward for our own project, a way to break the superhero away from its tendency to fascism.

The model of our new kind of superhero, unsurprisingly, will not be Superman. He’s the model of the old kind, after all. Steel is a lot closer–and the end of this season will reveal to us another that’s closer still.

“For the revolution of the world!”


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Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures #6-13

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Most of the Superman Adventures issues which coincide with the 1997 portion of the second season of Superman: The Animated Seriesform a loose arc; #13, however, is a standalone story called “Grand Slam” about a plot by never-before-seen aliens to kill Superman and destroy the Earth by tricking him into winning a competition they made up. The story is essentially nonsense that exists solely to set up a scenario where Professor Emil Hamilton must hit a small round object with a technologically enhanced alien bat to save the world.

The arc is far more interesting. It begins with “Soenimod,” an odd scheme by Mr. Mxyzptlk, in which he transports Superman to the aftermath of a disaster that destroys much of Metropolis and kills presumably millions, including Lois. She is let back out of the fridge a few panels later when it becomes clear that Superman and Mxyzptlk are moving backwards in time, essentially watching the world rewind. This of course makes it easy for Superman to trick Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards–he just has to get him to say it normally, and since they’re going backwards in time, that counts. It’s a clever solution to the Mxyzptlk puzzle, and the backwards gimmick allows Superman to figure out a way to avert the disaster even after his powers are sapped by kryptonite.

The next two issues comprise a two-part story, “All Creatures Great and Small.” Together with issue #9, “Return of the Hero,” and #10, “Don’t Try This At Home,” they explore the limitations of heroism: the idea that heroes can make mistakes, and how the public responds to them. “All Creatures Great and Small” is the weakest of these; it brings back Mala and Jax-Ur with the excuse that the Phantom Zone is “cruel and unusual punishment.” Superman insists that while their imprisonment there was just under the laws of Krypton, it is not acceptable according to his own values (internalized from the supposed, and on rare occasions half-heartedly followed, principles underlying the American system of criminal law). Superman pulls them out of the Phantom Zone, then Hamilton uses a shrink ray on them, and they are locked away from yellow sunlight so they cannot use their powers.

Of course, a few pages in they escape, and we get miniature villains with the powers of Superman. Superman of course shrinks as well, so they can have the same kind of battle Superman typically does against his more physically powerful villains in the streets of Metropolis, but instead of the collateral damage destroying buildings and tearing up sidewalks, it breaks Lois’ coffee table and smashes her vase. It’s a cute conceit, and rather telling that when it’s Lois’ personal property being destroyed, she’s a lot more upset about it than when it’s someone else’s home or communal city property. She’ll happily go on a crusade to defend others, and she cares about harm to the city–she’s not Lex Luthor by any means–but she’s still more worried about the harm to her apartment than she was in “Blasts from the Past” when Jax-Ur and Mala brought the planet to its knees.

The point is that this is a story about Superman failing–he overestimates his ability to keep them contained, and as a result they wreak yet more havoc. Between this and him being nearly killed by kryptonite exposure from random terrorists-without-a-cause, he is clearly slipping.

The next two stories are thus about heroes being knocked off their pedestals.  In the first, a young boy living in poverty idolizes Lex Luthor as  a rags-to-riches story. Of course Luthor achieved this the same way as the other handful of people who’ve ever done it: using the people around him as a ladder, then pulling that ladder up behind him once he was on top. Nobody gets rich except through exploitation, and in this case, part of that exploitation was framing the boy’s own father. Luthor makes an uncharacteristic mistake–trusting an underling without having someone double-check their work–that results in the boy recognizing his true colors, and the boy rejects him as a hero. In the second, Toyman attempts to use Superman toys to rob families who buy them, turning their children against Superman; this fails largely because a bizarre “mad bomber” character blows up his Superman robot, so children know pretty much from the start that their hero hasn’t turned against them.

In the final story of the arc, the two-parter “The War Within,” Superman is increasingly perceived by the public as “slacking off.” Lois in particular tears into him for rescuing people from a collapsing building, but not doing anything about the corrupt politicians and contractors that allowed an inhabited building to decay that far. His argument is one that gets to the heart of the problematic nature of superheroes: “there are institutions to deal with that.” On the one hand, he is saying to trust in the established structures of power–which is to say, let the Luthors of the world run things and hope a Superman shows up to save you when the roof caves in.  At the same time, if he did take it upon himself to root out that corruption, the story would in essence be about a superior, singular man acting as the focus and expression of the will of the people to take the reigns of power, which is to say typical fascist rhetoric.

More interesting is the reason for his “slacking off”: he is gradually weakening due to a Kryptonian virus carried in the lump of kryptonite the terrorists used against him in “Seonimod,” a virus which will eventually kill him if Lois and a team of scientists led by Hamilton cannot extract the cure from the middle of an Eastern European civil war.

In an aside comment in that story, when Superman is searching for the cause of the disaster, Mxyzptlk declares that there is only one cause for everything, the Big Bang. And that is true according to the best available current physics; literally everything that has ever happened was caused by something that was caused by something that… back to the Big Bang. But every event observed by Superman in the story has an immediately preceding cause–the plane crash caused by the oversight in maintenance caused by the distracted sergeant caused by the bystander to the traffic jam calling him caused by the sergeant’s wife giving birth in the traffic jam caused by the traffic jam caused by the car accident caused by the boy running into traffic caused by the other boy’s throw going wild caused by the clock tower exploding caused by the detonation of the bomb set by the terrorists caused by Superman’s failure to stop them in time.

And the detonation of the bomb set by the terrorists was also caused by the terrorists setting it off. And also caused by whatever political ideology they were following. And also caused by the Big Bang. And…

Nothing has just one cause. Superman’s infection with the virus is as much Mxyzptlk (for sending Superman back to try again) or Brainiac’s doing (for covering up the impending destruction of Krypton) as the terrorists’. And, too, while the public rejection of Superman is initially blamed on the mass-media hype cycle, and later on the virus killing him, these causes do not contradict each other. As Superman told the boy that worshiped Luthor, heroes make mistakes; it’s okay to take on the things about them that are admirable while rejecting the things that aren’t.

Which is another way of saying that heroes in themselves are a bad idea, but admiring and imitating heroic qualities may not be, at least as long as we define “heroic” correctly. Luthor is in part a bad choice because he describes a rather pop-Nietzschean approach to heroic virtues that lionizes power, will, and the lack of compassion. All things that we have called out and criticized in heroes and villains alike throughout this series, along with similarly false, dangerous virtues like respect for authority and tradition.

But there are virtues to be found everywhere. Superman’s compassion, Batman’s empathy; as problematic as the characters are, because all characters are problematic, these are positive traits that could be emulated.

So is that our answer? Are we finished early, with a simple solution, that we just need to put together the positive traits and create an unproblematic superhero?

Of course not. And to see why, we need only consider the revolution…


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