What I lack in maturity, I make up for in immaturity (Warrior Queen)

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It’s November 22, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind”; the top movie is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, with Anastasia and The Rainmaker opening at 2 and 3 respectively. In the news, a terrorist attack outside the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt kills more than 60 people; and the McCaughey septuplets–the first documented case in which all seven survived infancy–are born in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Warrior Queen” marks the third consecutive episode we’ve covered by Hilary Bader, a prolific writer who would end up penning more than a dozen episode of Superman: The Animated Series and more than 30 throughout the DCAU. Most of her best work, however, was in Batman Beyond; at this earlier point in her career she is a generally reliable source of episodes which are entertaining enough but not particularly memorable, like “Target,” “Prototype,” and, well, “Warrior Queen.”

Like her The New Batman Adventures episode “You Scratch My Back,” “Warrior Queen” explores an intersection between sex and power, albeit a far less healthy one. That episode looked at BDSM, but this one is (rather like “The Main Man,” which it references at the very end) about sexual hegemony. But where the earlier episode tied it explicitly to masculinity (as it generally is in our culture), “Warrior Queen” tries to look at it in isolation–essentially, to focus its interrogation of hegemonic masculinity on the first word rather than the second. Its goal is to interrogate the perspective from which the phrase “sexual conquest” is possible to parse.

In any kind of consensus-based model of sexuality, the phrase is utterly nonsensical: if conquest is involved, then what’s happening isn’t sex, it’s rape. But what we see of Almerac isn’t consensus-based: Maxima is by all appearances a hereditary tyrant, interested in and respecting only power. Again, just like Lobo: she even surrounds herself with scantily clad, conventionally attractive female attendants. (Though at least from what we see, only her temporary successor De’Cine makes them dance for his entertainment and, presumably, titillation.) This is one of the (many) ways the episode stumbles, because despite its attempt to focus on the unhealthy sexualization of power, it still comes from a culture that regards power as a masculinized trait, and slips into depicting it as such.

Specifically, Lobo seeks to conquer, to express his power through sex. He finds Lois Lane attractive, for example, because he sees conquering her as a challenge, and hence an opportunity to demonstrate his power more than a “lesser conquest” would. By contrast, Maxima seeks to be conquered: she finds powerful men attractive because she wants to be defeated by them. She is a powerful woman in her own right, but her lamentation at having to “remain a maiden forever” because no man is her match is an expression of rigid, toxic ideas of gender roles. She means “maiden” in the sense of “virgin,” but ultimately she’s looking to trade one maidenhood for another, to go from virgin to victim, because her culture says she has to be one or the other.

We’ll discuss these kinds of binary traps, particularly where women are concerned, more in a coming entry. The key point to make here is that, in her own way, Maxima is echoing Lucille, the elderly, married bystander who responds with incredulity to Superman’s description of marriage as a willing partnership between equals.  What little we see of Almeracian culture is a rigid hierarchy, a structure of royalty, noble courtiers, maids-in-waiting and palace guards, with the general populace locked out of the places of power; it’s no surprise that even when Maxima says she wants an equal, what she’s really looking for is a conqueror, because every relationship we see in her world is about power and status.

And she is looking for a conqueror. That much becomes clear when, after deciding Superman is the one and kidnapping him to her world, she obediently follows his instructions and listens to his lessons. (They don’t seem to stick very well, but she listens.) She is used to being obeyed as queen, but she clearly also expects to obey her husband (which is, frankly, worrisome for the people of Almerac, given the implication at the end of the episode that she will be pursuing Lobo next). The equation is simple: a worthy husband is a powerful one, because power is worth. (One wonders what she would do if defeated by a woman, but I’m sure fanfiction has it covered.)

That, ultimately, is the problem. Even if we set aside heteropatriarchy, the idea that power is worth–that having power makes one worthy of power–is intensely toxic. That is, essentially, the logic of Maxima resuming the throne at the end of the episode: despite the very good point that the people were quite happy to see the tyrant overthrown, albeit less happy when she was replaced by just another tyrant, neither Superman nor anyone else raises any objection to her resuming the throne after De’Cine is defeated. Her power–her defeat of De’Cine in combat–is equated to the worthiness to lead, even though we already know she isn’t worthy. Indeed, no one can be worthy of that kind of power, benign dictatorship being an oxymoron, but even aside from that Maxima has demonstrated herself particularly unworthy with her selfish behavior.

But that’s not a question this episode is willing to explore; it doesn’t really want to explore any questions at all, which is where Bader’s work often falls short. It is content with surfaces–and as I said, a much better opportunity to look at the intertwined structures of power, gender, and sexuality will be here in just a couple more entries. We need wait only a little longer for the next revolution of the world to begin.

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Don’t see the boy (You Scratch My Back)

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Sorry about missing so many posts this and last week. I was super sick last week, but I don’t really have an excuse this week. Consider this Tuesday’s NA09 post; today’s video will go up tomorrow.

It’s November 15, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind,” and the top movie is The Jackal, with The Man Who Knew Too Little and a re-release of The Little Mermaid also in the top five. In the week since “Heavy Metal,” WorldCom and MCI formed MCI WorldCom in (at the time) the largest merger in US history; Mary Robinson became Ireland’s second female President in a row, the first time any nation elected two successive female heads of state; and Ramzi Yousef is found guilty of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

On The New Batman Adventures, the burgeoning “what happened to Dick Grayson?” plot thread takes a strange turn, as the answer appears to be “he changed costumes and moved out, but everything is fine.” It’s a deeply unsatisfying answer that results in a bizarre episode where everyone is attempting to trick everyone else, even when there’s no reason to. Dick’s behavior toward Barbara Gordon when she visits him in his apartment is worthy of his name, for example–but if his antipathy toward Batman and Batgirl was an act to lure in Catwoman, why keep it up when she’s not around? The episode seems to be trying to play Nightwing’s final line about always accepting help as a development or change in attitude–but its central twist is that he was working with Batman from the start, a contradiction that just doesn’t make sense.

On the surface, anyway. Underneath, it actually fits perfectly into the ongoing exploration of the Batman/Nightwing rift–but only in hindsight. We are seeing the story out of order: we saw its beginning in Batman: The Animated Series, but we won’t see most of the middle until later this season of The New Batman Adventures, and we won’t have all the pieces until Batman Beyond.

The level on which this episode works is as a psychosexual drama–because it’s a Catwoman episode, so of course that’s the level on which it works–about Nightwing’s resentment of the fact that Batman’s fucking his ex, and to a lesser extent Catwoman’s resentment of the fact that her sub is now domming someone else. The picture of Dick and Barbara the latter finds in the former’s apartment is pretty clear: they used to be an item; the chilly distance between them that Dick maintains makes clear they’re not one anymore. Dick already resents Batman for (from Dick’s perspective) standing in the way of him growing up, and like a lot of people (unfortunately) he equates adulthood, masculinity, and the sexual possession of women.

A BDSM relationship–or, more specifically, one involving dominance and submission–can contain elements of possession or ownership, of course. However, as these are consensual, they’re really just role-play (assuming the relationship isn’t abusive, which we have no reason to think is the case here); the dominant partner doesn’t actually own the submissive or have genuine coercive power over them, only what the sub gives them, and what the sub gives, the sub can take away. Here, however, we’re talking about the idea of actual possession–that a man in some sense actually owns, or gets to control, the women in his life, or the ones he’s slept with at any rate. (There is, of course, much heteronormativity here as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)

When one has internalized hegemonic masculinity, any loss of power or reminder that one lacks power is perceived as emasculation (hence the use of the term as a synonym for powerlessness), and this is exactly how Dick perceives it: the status of sidekick felt emasculating, as does Bruce “taking” Barbara, who on some level Dick still sees as “his woman.” (To his credit, Dick seems to be over this by the end of the episode and in future episodes. Consciously, he tries to be decent, but like everyone else, he’s internalized some garbage from the larger culture.) Catwoman, meanwhile, on some level sees Batman as her sub, so she tries to do the same thing to him when he rejects this role via his relationship with Batgirl, so she tries to do the same thing to him by taking away his sidekick. Nightwing is up for it, both because he has enough in common with Batman to find Catwoman intriguing, and to stick it to Batman. (A phrase which again reflects this association of masculinity, heteronormative sexuality, and dominance–consider what the “it” is and where it is presumably being stuck!)

Of course this is a children’s show and has to keep all this firmly on the level of subtext, so we get Catwoman’s scheme to sneak a stolen emerald into the country using a smuggling operation, and the Bat Family’s scheme to make her think Nightwing is on her side and lead them to the emerald. But scenes like Catwoman’s overt flirtation in and around Ricky the Hook’s penthouse, or Dick’s confrontation with Barbara, make it clear what this is all really about.

Ultimately, this is the climax and denouement of the Nightwing arc that runs through this season, but it is both shown before the main action and occurs entirely in subtext. That it even somewhat works is impressive, but it does: Nightwing catches Catwoman (gets the collar, if you will) and makes peace with Batman and Batgirl, but retains his independence. He ultimately refrains from revenge-fucking Batman’s ex, and in that demonstrates the maturity he was seeking after–one rooted in actually being a grown-up, rather than merely trying to wield the power associated with being one.

In the process, the DCAU Nightwing finally moves into a position resembling the comics character’s: the genuinely good man in a corrupt world, the Lot-figure that even Infinite Crisis‘ Earth-Two Superman had to admit was the equal of his Earth-Two counterpart.

He will thus barely show up again, of course.

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I think someone’s using it (Heavy Metal)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby S1E3 “Believe me!”

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Nagasaki is slime. That’s been pretty thoroughly established so far; he pressures and manipulates teenaged girls into lewd photoshoots for a living, and clearly enjoys his job. Things like the hidden cameras in his studio’s shower make clear that when all else fails, he regards consent as unnecessary–and frankly, that’s not surprising, since at least some of the girls he targets probably aren’t old enough to consent.

So it’s rather a bit on the nose when he is possessed by the slime-like Gelmer. This is the most literal example yet of the demons as reifications of social transgression, and as such not very interesting–until Gelmer abandons Nagasaki to possess Miki.

On a story level, this is interesting because it raises the question of whether other demons can release those they’ve possessed to move to a new host, and if so, whether they can be forced to do so by Devilman–giving him both a way to defeat demons without the deaths of their hosts, and the moral and emotional crisis of the realization that he could have been doing that all along. But it’s more interesting on a thematic or aesthetic level, because while the Gelmer-possessed Nagasaki is even more of a repulsive, slimy creep, the Gelmer-possessed Miki is assertive, alluring, confident–in a word, she’s sexy. This stands out because, as a general rule, Devilman Crybaby has been very good at depicting extremely unsexy sex, sex that in its own way is more grotesque and unnerving than the monsters.

Compare Akira at Ryo’s apartment earlier in the episode. Under the influence of Amon, he has become–as all the demons seem to–more hedonistic and aggressive, and less mindful of social and personal boundaries and norms. In a sequence tinted with a distinct air of homoeroticism, he first forces food on Ryo, and then throws him into the swimming pool and jumps in after him. This is how the demonic hedonism and disregard for boundaries interacts with Akira’s defining compassion, by becoming aggressive in pushing pleasure onto others. Instead of a vore-and-rape monster, he’s a self-care-and-fun monster.

It increasingly seems like all possessions involve a fusion of personalities. The difference between Devilman and the others is which half forms the conscious will–Akira’s compassion still guides him, and Amon’s hedonistic aggression is channeled through that compassion, while Nagasaki’s sliminess is channeled through Gelmer’s hedonistic aggression. In that light, the difference between Gelmer-as-Miki and Gelmer-as-Nagasaki is that Miki is confident and assertive. That she tries to distract Devilman while the other demon sneaks up to murder him is on Gelmer–the emotional resources drawn upon to accomplish the seduction are Miki’s.

This episode contains one other example of actually sexy sex: Silene’s masturbation scene. Her transformation from lithe woman to horrifying bird monster (almost certainly intended as a reference to the mythological Siren) at the moment of orgasm is a sort of intermediary point between Miki and Nagasaki: where Nagasaki’s sweat and oozing purple drool evoke images of disease and infection, which is to say, the boundaries of the body violated by the extrusion of what should remain within, and Miki is not physically grotesque at all, Silene retains the base template of “sexy woman doing sexy things” but acquires wings and claws, the boundaries of her body violated by the intrusive addition of what should remain separate and without.

Compare to the only other sex scene in the show so far that wasn’t depicted as physically grotesque, Miko’s masturbation scene last episode. While some of the circumstances around that scene are a little creepy, it is basically the one sexual act in the entire show so far that has no violations of the boundaries of the body, neither intrusions nor extrusions.

It is equally difficult not to observe that all three of our examples involve women either merely being sexy rather than actually engaged in sex, or masturbating. Women, in other words, without men. There are two reads on this. One is that it’s simply catering to the male gaze, which it definitely, on a basic cinematographic level, is. But more interesting is the second read, which is not entirely contradicted by the first: that it is masculine sexuality itself which is grotesque. Spurting and oozing sticky fluids, after all, is what a cis man does when he orgasms–that which was inside extrudes beyond the body. For a cis woman, normative heterosexual sex involves the insertion of the body parts of another creature into her own–that which was outside intrudes into the body.

The equation, then, is of demons to both masculine sexuality and hedonistic aggression, implying that both of those are, in turn, the same thing. That’s not exactly a novel positionality: selfish dedication to one’s own pleasure while aggressively ignoring the boundaries of others is a hallmark of toxic masculinity. More interesting is not that equation but its inverse: that feminine sexuality is not as inherently toxic.

This is hardly a new theme in anime. One could make the case, for instance, that the unifying theme of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work is that toxic masculinity has corrupted all love involving men–the only true romantic love possible under these circumstances is between women (or, presumably, any sufficiently femme non-binary person, which Utena herself is readable as), and even that is rendered supremely difficult by the toxic power structures of the patriarchy.

That Devilman Crybaby is headed down this particular road does seem a bit unlikely, but it may be headed somewhere similar. Early in the episode, Miki’s little brother implies that Akira may be gay, which she initially dismisses but then reconsiders when she remembers him as a small child, crying. In other words, Miki is equating Akira’s crying–which has already been established as rooted in his great power, compassion–with being gay, via the logic that both are “failures” to be masculine. Miki, despite being a woman, is infected by the corrupting influence of toxic masculinity in her evaluations of the men she knows, and it is this disgusting attitude that is reified by the demon that possesses her.

The demons are, thus, readable as not grotesque because they transgress society’s boundaries, but rather because they signify society’s transgression of the boundaries of the self–society’s efforts to contain and suppress identities that do not fit its grand narratives, from assertive and confident women to compassionate men to, perhaps, identities outside of cisheteronormativity entirely.

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I am Gotham’s Darkest Knight, the villains’ darkest fright, turn on the signal light, for Batman! Batman! (Never Fear)

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I know the title of this technically breaks the rule for how I title BTAS entries, but I couldn’t resist.

It’s still November 1, 1997, so no new headlines or charts.

Batman has, of course, essentially always been about fear. As we have unpacked at length, he is Bruce Wayne (age eight)’s fear weaponized, turned outward to terrorize the criminals of Gotham and protect him and its denizens. (Eliding, of course, that it’s the criminals’ home, too.)

But here we get something deeper, that fear is not just Batman’s tool but all of society’s. Fear, we are told–and given every reason to believe is the episode’s positionality, not just the characters’–is the source of social order, and only fear keeps people from abusing one another. Stripped of fear, one man sows chaos by swinging around the city, unperturbed by the terror of the people he is dropping debris upon. Another commits sexual assault on Bruce Wayne’s assistant. Batman attempts murder, twice.

This is, not to put too fine a point to it, bullshit.

Fear has its functions. It is an alarm system, literally: we become alarmed, afraid, as our brain’s way of processing apparent danger. That can indeed steer us away from such dangers, but it is far from the only thing driving our decisions, nor is it what holds society together. A wide spectrum of emotions and learned behaviors inform our actions, and the two interact in complex ways. It is impossible to say how much of, say, giving money to a homeless person is compassion, the desire to be thought of (or to think of oneself as) a good person, emulation of an admired figure, or a host of other reasons that could influence one to charitable action. The answer varies not only from person to person, but instance to instance, and not even the person doing it necessarily knows all their reasons why.

A man with no fear might well go swinging through the city. But it seems unlikely, at least for most people, that he would stop caring about the people below to such an extent that dropping tons of rubble on them–or pulling Batman down to his death–wouldn’t bother him. It’s not, generally speaking, fear that keeps us from murdering each other. Most of the time, we just don’t want to; and when we do want to, it is as likely to be disgust or the desire to be seen as good, or simply that we’ve learned and internalized patterns of behavior that exclude it, that holds us back. (We generally call these internalized patterns of behavior “morality.”)

But if fear is not the only thing holding society together, whence the idea that it is? If fear is not the sole preventative of anti-social behavior, why are we told that it is?

The first answer is that in some people’s eyes, the only kind of order is the kind maintained by fear: authoritarian rule. There is research showing that people become more authoritarian–more inclined to defer to authority figures, more hostile to outsiders and the unfamiliar, more protective of the in-group–when frightened. People who are not afraid find it easier to be open to outsiders, to embrace difference, to trust themselves and each other. Fear really is what keeps authoritarians in power, so if your idea of order is an authoritarian hierarchy, and you regard everything else as chaos, then it’s true, fear is the only thing maintaining social order.

The second, related, answer is that the belief that only fear can maintain a social order is used to justify the existence of powerful institutions. The racist, toxic, broken American criminal justice system is, we are told, the only way to maintain society. If people do not fear the police, do not fear prison or other punishments, we are told, then there is nothing to stop people from raping, pillaging, and murdering each other. The police are militarized slave patrols maintained by a gang of racist bullies and murderers, and black and indigenous people of color must live in fear of them no matter if they’ve engaged in crime or not? That, according to this argument, is justified by the necessity of fear to create order. Most of our prisons are for-profit slave camps, the treatment of prisoners is tantamount to ongoing torture, and imprisonment increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of future crime? Again, we are told, this is justified by the necessity of fear to create order.

There’s more than one kind of deference to authority–not just the surrender of one’s own capacity and responsibility for moral decision-making to a singular leader, but acceptance of a hierarchy that seems insurmountable, as well. The racist murders committed by police aren’t a side effect or a regrettable consequence of a necessary evil; they’re the point. When cops murder black people and the courts fill prisons with nonviolent, black offenders, that helps maintain the racist hierarchy of our culture. When the rich can buy their way out of trouble and the poor cannot, that helps maintain the classist hierarchy. When rapists and domestic abusers–the majority of whom are men, and the majority of whose victims are women–walk free, but a woman who kills her abusive spouse is treated like a monster, that helps maintain the sexist hierarchy.

Cops and prisons exist to terrorize the population into accepting the social hierarchy, and are sold to us with the claim that no other way of ordering society is possible. They exist to terrorize criminals and protect denizens, and even more so, they exist to elide that those are the same thing.

That’s the order that fear brings–the order that Batman maintains.

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Yeah, that’s Richie (The Late Mr. Kent)

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It’s November 1, 1997. The top song is Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997; Usher, Leanne Rimes, and Boyz II Men also chart. The top movie is teen slasher flick I Know What You Did Last Summer; lower in the top 10 are The Devil’s Advocate, Boogie Nights, and Gattaca.

In the news, since last episode NASA launched the Cassini-Huygens probe to Saturn, The New York Times had its first front-page color photo, and in Massachusetts, British au pair Louise Woodward is found guilty of shaking a baby to death, which I recall as the first time I ever encountered the term au pair.

The person who variously goes by Kal-El, Clark Kent, or Superman is, as we have observed repeatedly, a trauma survivor. His entire world was destroyed, and as a result his identity fragmented. He tried for most of his life to suppress his other self, to be “normal,” but he couldn’t. He was raised human, but he isn’t human; he’s Kryptonian, and he needed a way to express his Kryptonian-ness or else “go insane.”

I put scare quotes around the phrase–one I normally wouldn’t use–because it is used in this episode, to describe what would happen if Superman tried to live without Clark Kent. He isn’t one or the other; he’s both, because both are expressions of fragments of an underlying self that shattered with Krypton, and neither is able to express all the fragments. When, for example, Clark tries to play the role of the hero who saves the day, which he describes as being driven by an egotistical desire to have a victory go to his credit as Clark, he is “killed” by a car bomb. Only the lucky break–the one witness having extremely poor eyesight–permits him to return without having to reveal his secret to the world.

Superman is sometimes accused of being too perfect, too invulnerable, but he’s not. Oh, there’s very little which can hurt him physically–the fight at the end of this episode, when Detective Bowman shoots him with the helicopter’s cannon and missiles, is utterly devoid of tension for this reason–but he can still be challenged. Before we get into that, though, let’s unpack that: Superman is invulnerable, but so are essentially all action heroes. Tone is a thing; it is usually possible to tell from pretty early on in a narrative work whether the protagonists’ success is guaranteed, and there are entire genres where it almost always is. The tension in such works is not whether the protagonists succeed, but how and at what cost.

The issue with Superman’s vulnerability is that if, say, Batman is shot at with automatic fire, we may know he’ll escape harm, but we don’t know how. With Superman, we do: the bullets will just fail to hurt him. So any tension in that particular scenario must focus on the third question: at what cost? And in the fight with Detective Bowman, no one else is around who might get hurt, so we know the answer is “little or none.”

The car bomb is thus a perfect example of a Superman action sequence well-crafted to evoke tension. We know the bomb can’t hurt Superman physically, but we don’t know what it might cost: the explosion or immersion might damage the evidence disk, for example. The moment we see the fisherman watching the car plunge into the ocean, another possible cost is added: Superman might be exposed. We know, of course, from the episode’s title and first scene that at some point something will cost Superman the ability to live as Clark Kent by convincing the world that he’s dead, but we don’t know how or when that will happen–so that tension is present here, too.

Essentially all of the possibilities happen: the evidence is destroyed, meaning we no longer know how the execution will be prevented; Superman is unable to emerge near the fishing boat for fear of exposure (so the cost of potential exposure creates a brief second challenge, which Superman resolves by sneaking around); and as a consequence of trying to avoid exposure, Superman is unable to prevent the appearance that Kent’s car exploded and went off a cliff, ensuring Kent’s death.

The result is that Superman is in danger of “going insane.” He might lose the ability to express half his identity, and thereby be forced to deny his humanity and disconnect from the world, only ever seeing it from above. This is a fairly serious consequence and a genuine vulnerability, more than able to sustain the episode, especially since the episode takes pains to show us just how much he’d be losing, in the form of Lois Lane. She confesses to Superman that she genuinely likes and respects Clark and regrets not telling him that while he was alive, reminding both him and the audience of the friendship (and, we know, sooner or later, romance) that he stands to lose. Of course Lois likes Superman, too, but it’s difficult to imagine her affectionately teasing him or viewing him as a respected rival.

Lois shines in this episode, independently pursuing the cause of Clark’s death, finding the bug in his apartment, volunteering to confront Bowman with her suspicions and get him to confess so Superman can nab him. She is brave, determined, resourceful–it’s clear why Clark/Superman likes her so much, and that in turn makes it clear why he needs so badly to be Clark.

Heroes, one of my college professors was fond of saying, make terrible neighbors. They’re violent, noisy, and constantly getting into trouble and making messes; really the best thing to do with them is to just point them in the general direction of your enemies and hope they win but die tragically on the way home. Superman is no one’s neighbor; he lives in the sky, or alone at the North Pole. But Clark can have an apartment, coworkers, and friends.

Without Superman, Clark cannot be the protector he feels the need to be. But without Clark, Superman cannot connect to others–without Clark, he has no one to protect.

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Not the Victor (Cold Comfort)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

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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