If I have a bat problem (Rebirth)

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It’s January 10, 1999, about six weeks since “Little Big Head Man.” The bizarre duo of R. Kelly and Celine Dion top the charts, with “I’m Your Angel.” Deborah Cox, Brandy, and Britney Spears also chart, the last with her first big hit, “…Baby One More Time.” The top movie is A Civil Action, which managed the rare feat of jumping up 44 places between weekends. Also in the top ten are Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams, You’ve Got Mail, animated classic The Prince of Egypt and semi-classic A Bug’s Life, Shakespeare in Love, and cult horror favorite The Faculty.

And on TV, Batman dies the way he always had to: some punk with a gun. 20 years on from The New Batman Adventures, fighting to save what’s implied to be Veronica Vreeland’s teen daughter from a random gang of kidnappers, he suffers a heart attack and is nearly killed by one of the kidnappers. Desperate, he picks up a gun and threatens the man with it. Remember, he lives in a world of archetypes. For Batman, every night is The Night, and every gun is The Gun. Holding it, menacing someone with it, makes him The Punk and allows all the survivor’s guilt he feels about his parents, the guilt he made the Bat to keep at bay, to rush in at once. The Bat is dead, and with it, the Batman.

Bruce Wayne, however, is not free. He will never not be trapped in The Night, never not be that frightened, helpless eight-year-old boy, and now he is the murderer of his parents to boot. He shuts himself away from the world, cuts off his ties with others, retreats into solitude. The Punk, unleashed, flows into Gotham, and goes cyber.

Cue dead-television sky.

Terry McGinnis is an angry young man. We’re not given a clear reason for his anger–there’s some implication it’s his parents’ divorce, but it equally well could be the natural consequent of the dim world in which he lives. Certainly he seems to take his anger out primarily on manifestations of The Punk, starting the episode in a brawl with a member of the Jokerz street gang. This is not Bruce Wayne’s anger, however; that was cold, and he wore it like armor. Terry’s is hot, and it wears him.

At least until he steals the batsuit, anyway. He quickly finds it a way to channel his anger into righteous violence, which as uses for hot anger go is probably the most constructive one. He takes obvious joy in using the suit, a pleasure, almost playfulness, that we never saw in Bruce Wayne, though there were perhaps hints of it in Tim Drake. In all though, Terry is something new, neither the brooding darkness of Bruce Wayne nor the shining paragon that is Superman. He’s yet a third kind of hero: someone who never had power, only anger, and on receiving it, chooses to use it not for his own gain, but to fight against those who abuse power (and killed his dad, admittedly).

He is, in other words, a hero who is very nearly a villain, but not in the trite Dark Age of Comics sense of a “hero” who shoots lots of guns indiscriminately in service of some authority or ideal. Rather, he is a hero who is not entirely on the side of power, because this is cyberpunk and power–in the form of the unsubtly named Derek Powers–is suspect and corrupt.

And beside that, he has one key advantage over Bruce Wayne: he can take the suit off. Unlike Wayne, he has family who don’t know that he’s Batman, and genuine friends in his “civilian” persona. He has a life, and while that will create conflict down the line, it also creates opportunity: he can heal in a way Bruce Wayne never could. Ironically, the boy who now has the Bat doesn’t really need it. He is hurt and angry, but he has the support he’ll need to recover, in time.

I say “has the Bat,” but the Bat isn’t really something you have. It’s something you are, or are not–and Terry is not. The episode title is a misnomer: the Bat is dead and remains such. Instead we have something more interesting: a boy who isn’t substantially different between civilian and heroic personae, who seems to deliberately resist fragmenting his identity as so many superheroes do. This isn’t a rebirth of something we’ve seen before; this is, fittingly for an episode revolving around a destructive mutagen, an evolution. Rebirth implies on some level a return to where we’ve been, but that’s not where we’re going; we’re going Beyond.

And as for McGinnis, a Batperson who can take the suit off and be just a person? We’ve seen that before, in a previous partner of Bruce Wayne: Batgirl. Of course she was his partner in more ways than one, but then so will Terry be, albeit in a very different way.

We’ll be meeting her next episode.

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Retroactive Continuity: Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Sucked into the game. I’ve always hated that premise. I hated it in Tron and Captain N and the countless 80s cartoons that used it to for a one-off episode when I was a kid. I hated it in Reboot when I was a teen, and I hate it in the glut of isekai anime now. If I’d known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon–acknowledged by writer Kieron Gillen as one of Die‘s major inspirations–when it was on the air, I would doubtless have hated the premise there.

Fortunately, Die hates that premise, too.

And it deserves that hatred. (Of course I think so, why else would I hate it?) In college, I read an essay about games whose title and author I no longer remember, but a key point stuck with me. The essay discussed, in its introduction, a child trying to learn to play chess, but who kept losing because they refused to do anything to put the queen’s-side knight in danger. They had developed an emotional attachment to that piece, embued it personality as children sometimes do, and could not set that feeling aside to play the game. Part of what makes games games, the essay argued, is that they don’t really have stakes. Oh, we may wager something on the outcome of the game–money, pride, advancement in a tournament–but the individual actions and moves, the actual playing, has no stakes. Nobody is tortured when a pawn is captured, no fields razed when a football team loses ground. We do not care about the queen’s-side knight, or empathize with the pain our marker feels when devoured by snakes in its effort to climb to the top of the ladder.

But this begins to complexify in the latter half of the twentieth century, as various new genres–interactive books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, video games, roleplaying games–begin incorporating gamelike elements into fiction or using games as a storytelling medium. Now we do care about our gamepieces, because now they are characters, and become emotionally invested in characters–though never in quite the same way as real people. Much of what is interesting about games as storytelling media arises from this tension between ludic elements and narrative, the knowledge that an errant roll of a d20 could spell the difference between a dramatic rescue and a tragicomic fumble, that our own button-pressing skill is all that stands between the brave hero taking a stand against evil and annihilation.

Or you can just abandon all that and use a traditional medium for a story about a bunch of characters sucked into a game, which accomplishes nothing except giving you an excuse to have characters make pop culture references in a fantasy world.

Die takes a different approach. It recognizes that fantasy worlds and games alike are frequently rife with violence, death, and suffering, and that most people have lives to which they feel some degree of attachment, so being sucked into the fantasy world of a game is a fucking nightmare. And, too, that if the worlds evoked by narrative games are in any sense real–as the geek-default “suspension of disbelief”/secondary creation school of narrative engagement insists on treating them–players are monsters, and game creators even more so.

Being sucked into a game is a horror premise, and for once Die actually treats it as such, briefly exploring how having been sucked into a game as teens warped the lives of a quintet of fortysomethings, and perhaps more importantly how it didn’t–for all their trauma, most of them actually lead pretty normative lives of marriage, children, employment–before flinging them back into the game once more. Bad enough having to live your fantasies; how much worse having to live the fantasies of the immature, overwrought teen you once were?

It helps, too, that the story acknowledges one of my longheld critiques of D&D-style fantasy, namely that people are nowhere near frightened enough of bards and enchanters. A powerful necromancer may send a zombie horde to enslave the kingdom, but a powerful bard can make them happy to be enslaved–and that is essentially the main character’s power, to tell others what to feel. (Intriguingly, they are also to all appearances a het man in the real world and a het woman in the game world. When asked about this by other characters, we are privy to their thoughts that they feel more free as Lady Ash, but they change the subject before we can learn much. Mind control is an extremely common fantasy among trans women, almost to the point of being an ingroup stereotype, I’m just saying.)

And yet despite all of that, there are still people who think they want to go to a fantasy world. Enough of them to keep isekai the latest obnoxiously big thing in anime, anyway. And in Die, we see them too: ultimately, the characters split between those who wish to escape the nightmare world of fantasy and those who, whether out of a sense of duty or because they’ve bought into the power fantasy aspect, want to stay longer.


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Of the Future (Recapitulation)

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The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

-William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

What the famous opening line of Gibson’s cyberpunk classic describes is not a Metropolis-blue sky, though that is the color of a dead channel today. Nor is it the apocalypse-red sky of Gotham with which our first opening began, at the very beginning of near-apocalypse. No, Gibson’s sky is a dead television in 1984, and that means the mottled, ever-shifting grays of static.

(No, not him. He’s later.)

Static has retained a curious power as a signifier, despite its relatively brief presence in actual life. It is an acutely analogue phenomenon, near-vanished in a digital world, and equally unknown to our pre-electronic great grandparents. Even in 1999, it was increasingly uncommon.

But nonetheless, it remains in our collective visual memory. In Neuromancer, of course, it refers to a dense layer of gray clouds, and so here in our new opening it does as well: we open with a burst of static, and then pan up over gray ocean to gray looming city and gray industrial kanji-flecked towers looming over that, with, yes, patches of gray sky visible between a few buildings.

Static is so many things. It denotes something lost, a gap, a place where the message is missing, a flickering discontinuity. A sky of static offers no hope and betides no apocalypse; it speaks nothing. But too, it is noise, speaking too much for anything to be made out but a sibilant hiss. Inundated with information, we retain nothing; that is the future, and how can we respond but with apathy?

But the apathy predates the static. The first frame of this opening is not the gray sky of the city; it is a brief flash of an image seen more fully later, a lurid spiral centered on a hand holding an eye, quickly vanishing into the static. This is not a difficult image to interpret, especially associated with the static of a dead television: it is at once lurid and hypnotic, a vision given to us by an unseen hand. It is television itself, entertainment masquerading as information, propagandized news that sells itself as entertainment, all in the service of power, corruption, and greed. The word “Apathy” itself flickers past soon after, followed by images of our main characters, mired as they are in apathy at the start of this story: elderly Bruce Wayne, and young Terry McGinnis, standing in a graveyard, the quick flickering between them suggesting that they are standing together in that graveyard, and yet they are not both on the screen at once.

But all of this is buried in the first second, nigh-subliminal, and fittingly is soon after buried in the liminal image of the sea. It is only after we see the city and its dead-television sky that we get a fuller view of the hand, eye, and spiral, animated now to make it clear that the hand is giving the eye to us–and then, flickering long enough to read and associate with that image, the word “Apathy” once more.

The image flickers again: people in futuristic armor with futuristic guns, again in lurid colors, and a young woman screaming, all in shades of gray. She is not pure light, it seems, a victim but not no innocent, while the armored people are blood and darkness against a backdrop of fire, unquestionably an image of menace and evil. This, we are told, is “Greed.” That, after all, is what comes after apathy: if we no longer care, then what else is there but to selfishly pursue our own desires?

The images accelerate. Briefly, we see police cars, and then the word “Corruption.” Enough said; we know where the greed of the powerful leads. Wayne, alone once more; his word is “Power,” followed immediately by that image of Terry in the graveyard and “Hope.” The progression continues: greed and corruption intensify power and encourage the continued apathy of the powerful, while placing their hope in another, a heroic figure perhaps, gives the powerless a reason to continue to be apathetic, abetting the cycle anew.

But then something cuts through all that. There is another direction hope can go: not hope that we will be rescued, but hope that we can find a way out ourselves, an encouragement to action rather than apathy. A swarm of bats flies past to reveal a figure standing atop a roof, at once familiar and new, while a distorted but familiar melody shrieks out over what was until now a driving but directionless bassline: the notes are different lengths and the key has changed, but the progression of intervals remains, so that with only a little effort we can recognize that we are hearing a version of the Elfman-Walker Batman theme.

Briefly, we see what he sees, a thick, hunched figure with a gun, a silhouette much like the ones we saw in the Batman: The Animated Series opening. Hazy images of the city flicker past, forming a name we know: Batman, of course, and then in a white flash a new word appears over it: Beyond.

But beyond what? What lies between the sharp, noir contrasts of Gotham and the neo-noir cyberpunk grays and neon of New Gotham? It will be quite a few episodes before the show gives us an answer, but it is one we have been anticipating since the beginning of this project: the near-apocalypse of ’09 happened. We never find out the details of this event, but we know what it is–a near-apocalypse. And we know what its aftermath, its consequent is: a dingy world of smog and darkness, corporate greed and biological horrors, a world where all the problems of the present have continued and metastasized into the pustulant growth that is this world of power and greed, apathy and corruption.

More images flicker past, a sequence bookended by images denoting Terry’s enemies: an ace of spades pierced by a bullet for the Royal Flush Gang, a feminine silhouette in swirling blues for Inque. In between, two images: the “blind justice” statue in a jumbled sea of words, looming menacingly closer, followed by “Courage,” and Terry’s classmates dancing energetically against a background of writhing, flickering figures, followed by a brief focus on his girlfriend Dana and the word “Honor.” Dana, from whom Terry consistently keeps the truth throughout the series, to whom he constantly lies–that is who receives “Honor”? A choice as bitterly ironic as assigning “Courage” to the symbol of the justice system, institutional violence wielded by the powerful from a position of safety to keep themselves safe. This is cyberpunk: our heroes and their allies are light gray in a dark gray world, at best. Look at what comes next: images of violence in the street, but now it’s Batman doing it at Bruce’s instruction, and so it gets the word “Justice.” Precious little of that here; just superheroics.

Because, outside the show, we know what near-apocalypse is. Apocalypse is just revolution seen from above; near-apocalypse is failed or aborted revolution. It’s a vision of justice that consists solely of protecting the status quo from those who would upset it, whether for their own gain or in an effort to accomplish something better. It is the same old stagnation and decay, because we fear toppling the structures might be worse. It’s what superheroes do, and thus that is what this future is Beyond: it is beyond the choice not to take the risk and try for something better. It is beyond the decision to stay safe, to indulge our protector fantasies.

It is a world of political corruption, corporate greed, public apathy, and environmental decay. It is, in short, the world we chose.

The pilot opens in 2019.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E1-2

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It’s April 26, 2019. I don’t always bother with a date for these Retroactive Continuity posts, but this time it matters, because today is Lesbian Visibility Day, and Netflix just happens to suddenly drop several episodes of She-Ra–a show the central relationships of which are all, to put it in sober, clinical terms, gay as fuck.

And actually, that would be completely believable as a coincidence, if not for three facts: first, this is much faster than new seasons of Netflix shows typically drop, barely six months since Season 1. Second, the episode count is much lower, a mere seven to Season 1’s thirteen. And third, this doesn’t feel like a complete season, but more like half of one.

Fully unpacking that statement is easier now that Season 3 has dropped–four months after Season 2, meaning that the two together came out 10 months after Season 1, a much more reasonable time span between Netflix seasons. In addition, Season 3 is six episodes, meaning the two seasons combined have the same episode count as Season 1. And finally, Season 2 has a premiere, but then just sort of… stops, not ending with any kind of final spectacle but simply a cliffhanger on an otherwise cute-but-inconsequential episode. Season 3, by contrast, doesn’t so much have a premiere as just start, but it ends in a massive spectacle.

In other words, despite statements to the contrary from showrunner Noelle Stevenson, it seems very likely that Seasons 2 and 3 were planned and written as a single season that was later divided in two–and finishing in time to release on Lesbian Visibility Day seems as likely an explanation as any. Of course, Netflix also seems to be moving toward more frequent releases with smaller episode counts, so it’s plausible the split was made for that reason–but even so, the release’s timing is probably not coincidental.

In  “The Frozen Forest,” the focus is on cleaning up after the finale, in a  couple of senses. Most literally, the magic forest that protects Bright  Moon was severely damaged by Entrapta’s hacking of the Black Garnet  Runestone and the Horde army led by Catra, so the titular Princesses of  Power (plus Bow) are holding off Horde robots while seeking a way to  restore the forest. At the same time, individual characters deal with  the repercussions of the events of and around the finale, most notably  Adora training alone to better control the powers of She-Ra while the  Princesses deal with interpersonal conflicts in their still-new team.  Most overtly, this involves Glimmer adapting to a leadership role and  dealing with Frosta, who behaves (as Glimmer eventually acknowledges)  much like Glimmer did in the first season. However, the team as a whole  also show issues coordinating, stepping on each other’s attacks and  sniping at one another verbally.

Once  they put these issues aside and fight cooperatively, however, the  rainbow glow they shared at the climax of “The Battle of Bright Moon”  returns and restores the forest to life. As in the finale, this is a manifestation of that cartoon classic, the “power of friendship.” But much of what these two episodes are doing is exploring exactly what that means, and perhaps just as importantly, what it doesn’t. In “The Frozen Forest,” the initial conflict, followed by cooperation, of the largely egalitarian rebels is contrasted with the hierarchy and enforced unity of the Horde. Even though Catra, Scorpia, and Entrapta are developing into a parallel trio to the “Best Friends Squad” of Adora, Glimmer, and Bow, they remain at odds, each too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice the others. Even Scorpia is oblivious to Catra’s indifference and hostility, while Entrapta is too wrapped up in her work to really acknowledge others, and Catra is, well, indifferent and hostile. What holds the Horde together is obedience to hierarchy and discipline that keeps everyone working to the same goals, which is not friendship at all.

By contrast, the two examples of the power of friendship we get in these episodes–the aforementioned rainbow glow and the “sacred bond” of She-Ra and Swift Wind–are both examples of people initially at loggerheads (Glimmer and Frosta, She-Ra and Swift Wind) recognizing both the common traits that make empathizing and connecting with one another possible, and the differences that make it worthwhile. They see each other, including where they are different, and choose to embrace that difference rather than being annoyed by it or seeking to stamp it out.

That last–dealing with being annoyed by others–is a recurring theme throughout the episodes. Already mentioned are Glimmer’s frustration with Frosta’s overeagerness and tendency to act without thinking, and Adora’s frustration with Swift Wind seemingly not taking their mission seriously. But there are also two other instances of characters having to deal with a nuisance, and how they play out is telling. First, in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is exasperated by Entrapta and Scorpia as usual, most notably when they treat the fight between the ELS bots and the Princesses as a game or show; second, when Glitter and Bow capture Catra in “The Ties That Bind,” Catra spends their entire journey needling Glitter and trying to get her to exhaust her powers.

Neither of these conflicts is resolved by characters talking it out and coming to an understanding, which is how both the Glimmer/Frosta and Adora/Swift Wind conflicts play out. Instead, Catra remains exasperated with Scorpia and Entrapta while they remain oblivious to her exasperation, while Glimmer and Catra ultimately fight, inconclusively (though Glimmer does demonstrate she is not as easily manipulated as Catra thinks). Notably, it is the conflicts in which Catra is involved that do not end well, because, as Adora and Light Hope discuss early in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is “mean”: she doesn’t accept the foibles of others, their difference, as anything other than levers by which they can be manipulated, and therefore she cannot connect with anyone, and no conflict with her can ever truly be resolved.

The final bit of “cleanup” from the finale is the loose end that the Rebellion don’t know Entrapta has defected to the Horde. By the end of “The Ties That Bind,” Bow and Glimmer learn the truth, and the episode closes with them about to reveal that Entrapta has “fallen,” as it were. Unlike them, we saw the circumstances of Entrapta’s fall, and understand that, ultimately, it was because she felt (rightly or wrongly) that there were things she needed to do that were worth the risk of destabilizing the planet. In this, she serves as foreshadowing for the other “fallen” woman in “The Ties That Bind,” Mara, who (as we are reminded) cared about “the wrong things” in Light Hope’s view and attacked Etheria. Like Entrapta, as we will learn, she did what seemed right to her, and seriously damaged the planet–and understanding what she did and why will drive much of the rest of this and the next season.

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Can’t get rid of us that easily (Little Big Head Man)

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It’s November 21, 1998. The top song is “Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill; 98 Degrees, Barenaked Ladies, and Faith Hill also chart. The Rugrats Movie and Enemy of the State open at numbers 1 and 2 in the box office, respectively.

Two days ago, the House Judiciary Committee initiated impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton; yesterday, the first component of the International Space Station launched; today, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time releases in Japan. It’ll be out in the U.S. the day after tomorrow, and ultimately accomplish the feat of being really quite good and massively overrated at the same time.

I’ve been absent for a while, in multiple senses. First, I took a lengthy and much-needed break from this series in the couple of months between writing the last entry and this one. Second, I-as-I-was-at-the-time-of-broadcast have not made an appearance in quite some time. There’s a simple reason for that: I wasn’t doing too well.

In late 1998, I am badly underweight and somewhat malnourished due to physical illness. I am also deeply depressed and failing at some critical courses that mean I will not be getting the special diploma issued to graduates of my elitist pressure-cooker high school, but merely the “higher” of the two diplomas issued in my county. I’m pretty messed up about that, and turning inward more than ever. I feel helpless and alone, and repulsed by the wrongness of my distorted, failing, grotesque body. (It’s still nearly twenty years until I figure out that’s gender dysphoria.)

We’ve talked about the grotesque before, and we have two clear examples in this episode, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk are both distorted human forms, Bizarro a troll-like twisting of Superman, while Mr. Mxyzptlk, with his tiny body and disproportionately large feet, hands, and head, is more like a classical homunculus. It is perhaps inevitable that they would be teamed, not because there is actually any commonality between them, but because we lump the grotesque together; all Other is treated as homogenously Other, while the relatively far more homogenous extended Self is treated as multifaceted and complex.

That said, the two do have something in common besides being Other, however: neither considers themselves an Other. This is for very different reasons, however. Mr. Mxyzptlk, for all his misbehavior, is a normative member of fifth-dimensional society. His life in his own realm is depicted as resembling that of a typical comics character–beautiful redheaded love interest, nice home without clear indicator of how he affords it, in a culture enough like ours to have recognizable trials. In other words, he is part of a culture that maintains a “normal”/Other distinction–the existence of courts alone demonstrates that–but thinks of himself as “normal” and humans as Other.

Bizarro, meanwhile, crudely imitates the typical superhero life, “patrolling” his stone model city and pretending to save its citizens (failing as often as not, not that he lets it stop him). He is not part of a society at all, but thinks he is successfully mimicking, and therefore part of, normative Metropolis society. Note that in his play, he rescues his “citizens” from a natural disaster, a rolling boulder, not a criminal–there is no indication that he recognizes that such a thing as an Other exists!

Until, that is, Mr. Mxyzptlk reveals it to him. It’s a horrifying moment, when you first realize that you’re different and other people hate you for it. It’s like drowning, shrinking, being swallowed into the earth, a moment of overwhelming shame that never entirely ends. Suddenly, you have to see yourself not as the subject of your life, the “I” who experiences and acts, but an object perceived and judged by others. It hurts, and it isn’t fair, and it unsurprisingly produces a great deal of anger.

What we have here is a clearly drawn bridge between the grotesque, the state of being both Self and Other, both person and body, and double consciousness, the state of being both subject and object. That liminal space between is one we know well at this point: abjection. Kristelva’s and duBois’ concepts, arrived at independently from being subject to sexism and racism, are facets of the same phenomenon. Which of course we knew: they’re both experiences of being marginalized, and so broadly similar in their psychological effects, though obviously the details differ.

I don’t remember watching this episode in the late 90s. Honestly, I don’t remember much of being late-90s me at all. But I remember the constant awareness of difference, the awareness that everyone who looked at me saw something broken, wrong, repulsive. Watching it now, I feel for Bizarro, and I hate the conclusion of this episode. I hate that it pairs him and Mxyzptlk, because it ultimately buys into the normal/Other binary and puts Superman on the normal side, Bizarro and Mxyzptlk on the Other side. They’re not alike at all; Mxyzptlk is malicious and cruel, and should be depowered and separated from the rest of us for that reason, not because he’s “strange”; Bizarro, meanwhile, only ever causes problems through misunderstanding. He needs teaching, not isolation!

But Superman isn’t like Bizarro. Superman is the normal/Other binary, its defender and enforcer, and in his stories, the purpose of the grotesque is to illustrate where that boundary lies and thereby reinforce it. No, he doesn’t actually laugh at Bizarro the way Mxyzptlk claimed; nonetheless, he buys into the same narrative that depicts Bizarro as something to be laughed at. And I can’t just let that go, because that narrative also says someone like me–physically and mentally chronically ill, gay, trans–is more like Bizarro than I am Superman. It says that we’re more like Mxyzptlk, a villain, than we are like Superman or the people he defends. It says, in short, that we’re the villains.

Is it any wonder that they’re our power fantasies?

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Retroactive Continuity: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Children are not tiny adults; in particular, children’s tastes are not necessarily the same as adult tastes. This is fairly obvious in the realm of flavor, which physically changes as a person matures: children tend to like sweet and dislike bitter flavors more than adults do, for example. But it’s equally true in the arts; for example, children tend to be more entertained by scatological humor than adults are.* The benign violation theory of humor makes sense of this phenomenon: references to taboo topics are funny because, as taboos, they violate norms, but as mere references they are not as risky as actually breaking the taboo. The more intense the violation–which is to say, the greater the taboo–the greater the laughter, but at the same time, the greater the violation, the greater the likelihood it will no longer be seen as benign, and hence stop being funny entirely. Adults are aware of much greater taboos than the merely scatalogical, which is largely just a chore, and so we find scatalogical humor unfunny because it’s boring; for prebuscent children, however, nudity and the scatalogical are the only taboos to which they have ready access, and therefore the greatest of taboos. At the same time, they are basically harmless, which is why they’re relatively minor taboos for adults; they are thus ideal joke topics for children.

The variance between children’s tastes and adults’ tastes can be navigated in a few ways. The four most common are appealing to adult tastes while maintaining accessibility for children; appealing to a mixture of adult’s and children’s tastes; appealing to children’s tastes in particular; and mistaking the differences between child and adult tastes for a lack of discernment by children, and just shoveling something out.** In practice, most works combine multiple approaches, but in general my writing focuses on works that take the first two. Captain Underpants is thus a little bit outside my usual wheelhouse, as it’s very emphatically and enthusiastically taking the third approach.

That said, it is still a superhero film, and we can still approach it in terms of the themes we have discussed regarding superheroes in the past. Notably, the Captain Underpants character created by the children in their comics has a classic traumatic origin, namely a parody of the Superman origin story, but the Captain Underpants persona they create within their teacher does not. His dual identity is imposed entirely externally, through hypnosis by the boys, as opposed to arising to cope with trauma. In this, it somewhat resembles the Hulk, in that the superhero persona is not consciously adopted by the character, but rather triggered unwillingly by events.

Nonetheless, the Hulk is still an expression of trauma, namely the trauma of the accident that created him, and an expression of Bruce Banner’s rage over his experience and loss. By contrast, Captain Underpants appears not to be an expression of anything Krupp feels–rather, he is an expression of precisely what Krupp doesn’t feel, joy and fun.

However, the boys’ post-hypnotic suggestion to Krupp is simply that he is Captain Underpants. A great deal of a subject’s response to hypnosis has to do with their own interpretation; for example, guided imagery of floating down a river could be relaxing for some, but provoke anxiety about drowning in others. That Krupp interprets the instruction to be Captain Underpants exactly as the boys do implies, first, that he’s read the comics he confiscated from the boys, and second that he has the capacity to imagine what Captain Underpants who do in the scenarios he encounters throughout the movie–and his imagination matches the boys’.

Early in the film, Professor Poopypants says that the capacity for humor appears to be a necessity for survival. Even he, despite his quest to rid the world of laughter, has things he finds funny. The only character entirely devoid of a sense of humor, and the first such person Poopypants has encountered–and who “doesn’t get” the Captain Underpants comics. Krupp does get them, however, at least enough that his subconscious can call forth a version of the character accurate enough to convince its creators. He does have the capacity for joy, humor, and imagination that the boys do, because without it, he couldn’t be Captain Underpants. He might try to be, under hypnosis, but he wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.

So what, then, has buried his joy so deeply that he can become the humorless, authoritarian jailer of children that is Principle Krupp? We don’t know. The movie never really hints at it; his life is solitary and sad, yes, but is that the cause of his joylessness or caused by it? Authoritarians usually come from authoritarian households, though sometimes they come from overcorrecting for an upbringing with too few, or too vague, boundaries. There may well be something in his past–some trauma, if you will–that robbed him of joy.

If so, then we have an unusual case: a superhero whose non-heroic identity is the one defined by trauma. Captain Underpants is, in the end, too silly to be the solution we’re seeking. Silly is a register in which superheroes work, and work well, but it’s not the only register; a hero who cannot handle any other is not a complete answer to our quest for a less toxic version of the hero. But the inversion is worth keeping an eye out for; perhaps it can help lead us to the answer we do seek.

*We are, of course, speaking here of tendencies. As a child, I liked bitter flavors more than most; as adults, my sister and mother like scatological humor more than most. And that’s before we even get into cultural variations, or variations across time within a culture.

**The attitude immortalized by Lindsay Ellis when she quipped, “Entertainment is the only area where parents say, ‘Who cares if it’s good? It’s just for my children.'”

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Young, gifted, and about to be squashed (Obsession)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s November 15, 1998. Lauryn Hill tops the charts with “Doo Wop (That Thing)”; Divine, 98 Degrees, Monica, and Deborah Cox also chart. At the box office, the top movie is The Waterboy; I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Meet Joe Black open at second and third, respectively. In the week since last episode, literally nothing has happened, or at least nothing I could find in my exhaustive research strategy of looking up “1998” on Wikipedia.

We’ve talked before about Superman and gaze theory, and particularly Superman weaponizing it against Lobo in the “The Main Man.” At the beginning of “Obsession,” however, we have Clark Kent and Jimmy Olson unapologetically employing that gaze while they gawk at models. The frame in this sequence centers the two men while models pass back and forth between them and the camera, their heads and limbs severed by the edge of the screen. Clark initially claims not to be looking at the models that way, but once the big-name model Darci comes out, he can’t take his eyes off her, as Jimmy points out.

Darci is, right from the start, objectified by everyone who sees her, but that objectification is not limited to her: the other models are likewise depicted as torsos upon which to hang swimwear. It’s no accident that, just as in “The Main Man,” this scene is almost immediately followed by robots getting their heads and limbs torn off, dismembered just as the camera dismembered the models. As far as the camera is concerned, they’re all just things, robots and women alike.

This is complicated, however, by Darci herself, a robot who spontaneously attained human emotion and free will. In contrast to the models, who are people reduced to things by the way they’re framed, Darci is framed as a thing ascended to personhood. The camera’s gaze is thereby equated to Toyman, who is the one trying to reduce Darci back into being a thing in his possession.

Specifically, he created her as a life-sized version of a doll very clearly based on Mattel’s Barbie, criticism of which had been much in the air around the time this episode would have been written–Aqua’s satirical song “Barbie Girl” peaked in the charts in September 1997, and in November the doll was redesigned to have less absurdly unrealistic proportions. In both cases, the doll is presented as an unrealistic model of human femininity–the redesign tacitly agrees with decades of criticism that Barbie is physically unrealistic, while the song uses Barbie as a frame to critique the idea of women as existing to fulfill male fantasies and desires.

Toyman, in other words, is being positioned in very much the same way that the Mad Hatter was in his origin episode, as someone who desires an entirely compliant woman because he cannot understand or cope with the idea that women are people with wants and needs of our own. He is, in short, an incel: a whiny manchild upset that real life isn’t all fun and games and immediate gratification, upset that others don’t cater to his every whim. Small wonder he builds a sex robot; men who hate women tend to love the idea, as it gives them a way to get their rocks off without having to care about another person, or for that matter acknowledge that a woman is another person and could be cared about.

Toyman views Darci’s escape, independence, and disdain for him as malfunctions, which recalls the bon mot that when men describe their exes as “crazy,” what they mean is “she had an emotion I didn’t want her to have.” He is convinced he can “fix” her, and indeed, having forgotten how the episode ends prior to rewatching it for this essay, her silence and stillness during the climax made me worried he had deleted her personality or “repaired” her emotions. Fortunately, that’s not the case: instead, she finds a loophole in her programmed inability to harm him, and takes down his helicopter, seemingly killing them both.

But this is where the episode’s uncertainty about her comes to a head. Throughout, the show has seemed unable to decide whether Darci is an out-of-control machine, a danger to the people around her, such as when she leaves Lana Lang to die in the fire Darci accidentally started; or if she’s a person trapped in a bad situation, as when she initially starts toward Lana, seemingly wanting to help her, before realizing she cannot make it past the burning chandelier. This ambiguity remains right through to the final scene, which reveals Darci survived and is leaving town with a very heavy case. This is good news, and yet the music seems to imply this is an ominous moment, leaving one to wonder what’s in the case–Toyman, perhaps?

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Darci is at least an attempted murderer, and she’s made very clear that it was deliberate, commenting on how much she wants to hurt Toyman even though her programming prevents it. She is either an out-of-control robot, or an attempted murderer, and in either case has escaped from Superman and her creator alike. (At least as far as this episode, and Superman: The Animated Series, is concerned. We’ll address her return when we get to Static Shock.) In the eyes of the show, that apparently isn’t a happy ending; in the eyes of the show, Darci is morally ambiguous.

But then, the eyes of the show started the episode by slicing women’s heads and limbs off. We can hardly be surprised it thinks Darci is less than she is.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S1E12-13

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

In the penultimate episode of the first season of She-Ra, Adora is confronted with a philosophical dilemma: Light Hope advises her that, in order to serve as the protector of Etheria, she needs to detach from the people she cares about and focus on her training. Light Hope warns that the present state of affairs, in which the Horde is able to run rampant over the world and severely destabilize its natural and magical balance, is a product of the previous She-Ra, Adora, neglecting her duties to the world because she focused on individuals, resulting in disaster, the fall of the First Ones, and the thousand-year gap in the She-Ra line that Adora is just now ending.

Adora, however, is initially unwilling to let go of her friends so easily, and the season finale seems to confirm that she is right to resist that idea: the other princesses are the key to victory in the final battle to protect Bright Moon, and those princesses only came because of their personal connections to Adora, Glimmer, and Bow. It seems curious, then, that Adora appears to be left alone to voice the apparently correct position against Light Hope.

However, there is a character who voices that position throughout the episode, with his position opposite Light Hope exemplified by the fact that he is (re)introduced in the same episode that (fully) introduces her: Swift Wind the horse.

From the moment he speaks to Bow and Glimmer, he speaks of connection, and not just his personal connection to Adora. He also speaks of working to liberate his species from oppression–humorous because, with the exception of himself, horses are non-sapient animals, but hidden within that joke is a key point. Swift Wind’s position on connection isn’t the same one Adora starts with, that she can’t abandon her friends: he’s included solidarity as well, which is to say that he sees himself as part of an oppressed group and therefore seeks an end to all oppression, not just for his friends or those like him.

This is key, because it exposes the typical misunderstanding of “detachment” presented in shows like She-Ra and one of its major influences, Avatar: The Last Airbender. That show, too, presented a reincarnation of a legendary figure with the idea that, to access his power, he needed to “detach” in the sense of abandoning his friends; it, in turn, was fairly clearly referencing The Empire Strikes Back, and Luke’s decision to abandon his training and face Vader in order to save his friends. Like Luke, Aang’s decision to rescue his friends leads to disaster and nearly gets him killed; in She-Ra, by contrast, at least as of the second season it’s been presented as straightforwardly correct.

This makes sense, as the position of Light Hope/Guru Pathik/the Jedi is, obviously, wrong. Detaching from connection to others and denying emotion are terrible approaches to life, as we have seen all too clearly in recent years; this kind of more-rational-than-thou hyper-individualism is a hallmark of the Internet troll and the alt-right, which are increasingly the same thing. The problem, however, is not detachment as an approach to ethical behavior; the common thread between these fictional philosophies is that, unlike most real-world philosophies and religions that teach detachment, these fictional depictions combine it with individualism, thereby transforming detachment into isolation.

That individual isolation is, here, contrasted with cooperation and solidarity, not just in Swift Wind’s work to free horsekind, but in his final conversation with Adora, in which he bluntly states that her idea of detachment—that her presence is harmful to her friends and she should therefore keep away from them for their good—is “stupid.” Her friends, he points out, can decide for themselves whether they want her around, and by coming after her they’ve clearly indicated that they do.

Adria’s particular take on detachment, in which she is harmful or toxic, resonates strongly with the theme throughout the season in which she is framed as a survivor of and escapee from an abusive upbringing. Sufferers of complex trauma—the type generally caused by ongoing situations such as abusive environments, as opposed to the “simple” trauma caused by a discrete event such as a natural disaster—often develop serious self-worth issues. Adora’s entire upbringing has primed her to believe that she is only as valued as the last thing she did for another, and on top of that she’s just learned that Catra blames her for standing by while Shadow Weaver abused Catra. Adora frames her withdrawal as protecting her loved ones, but in truth her instinct to pull away is that of a hurt child hiding from a world she can’t handle.

And she can’t handle it alone, as “The Battle of Bright Moon” makes clear. Adora does what she always does, charging ahead as She-Ra and fighting by herself, and in the process loses her sword and nearly gets captured, while the Horde nearly destroys the Bright Moon Runestone. What saves her is the same thing that saved her in the First Ones ruin: her friends coming to get her.

Because what Adora really needs to let go of is not her friends. That is not what she’s been clinging to all season. What Adora needs to let go of is the idea that she’s on her own, that she always needs to be the best and can never ask for help. That’s hard for her to do, because her trauma and her ego are aligned, and the two together make a powerful force. But it’s what she needs, both to heal and to be a better She-Ra—and, bit by bit, she has been learning it.

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Is it ever the right thing? (Beware the Creeper)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s November 7, 1998. Monica continues to top the charts, with Barenaked Ladies, Dru Hill, and 98 Degrees also in the top five. The Waterboy and The Siege open at number one and two respectively, with a rerelease of The Wizard of Oz at number five. The Red Violin also opens–in only ten theaters, putting it off the bottom of the scale. In the news, artist Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman among others, died on November 3.

On TV, a tribute of sorts to another of Kane’s co-creations, as we return to the Joker’s beginnings. They have never really been depicted in BTAS, any more than Catgirl’s or the Penguin’s were–the early episodes more or less assumed familiarity with the Tim Burton movies, and tried to avoid retreading ground covered in those. Even here, what we get is a reenactment segment, a show-within-a-show-within-a-show, the middle of which is inexplicably being broadcast live despite consisting of nothing but a man with a microphone standing on a catwalk and talking.

But the double emboitment hints that the live broadcast isn’t so inexplicable after all: we are back in the realm of the Joker’s earliest appearances, inverted now so that it is his narrative that another threatens to overtake. Of course the broadcast is live, because all fiction is fiction; the broadcast is a part of the show, and therefore its placement in time is its placement in the show. And so of course the Joker can interrupt the broadcast, trying to force it back inside his narrative instead of the other way around.

Joker fails, because much as the double emboitment inverts his actions in “Christmas With the Joker,” Ryder’s transformation into the Creeper inverts the Joker. Instead of a criminal who uses a disfiguring injury as an excuse to pretend to be an avatar of chaos, Ryder is a law-abiding person whose similar injury actual does cause serious psychological changes that make him act like a cartoonish parody of a generically “crazy” person of exactly the sort Joker (and, more successfully, Harley Quinn) pretends to be. Where the Joker always has a plan and always seeks to place himself on top, the Creeper really does seem to act entirely on ever-shifting impulses, with no control over himself.

This is a familiar refrain: an innocent victim who, through no fault of his own, becomes a criminal, and whose thought processes we see throughout their origin episode. This is a sympathetic villain episode–or at least it would be, if the Creeper were remotely sympathetic. Instead, his endless chatter strips him of any possible pathos, while his relentless, aggressive pursuit of (culminating in actual assault upon) a thoroughly uninterested Harley Quinn belies any notion that he’s more sinned against than sinning. The episode makes sure we don’t miss this by giving Harley the most sexual agency she’s ever had, courtesy of a giant pie from which she emerges covered in pudding,* gives the Joker her cherry, and then invites him to “try some of [her] pie,” assuring him that he’ll “want seconds.” As innuendos go, it’s about as subtle as the vagina dentata plant in “Pretty Poison,” but where that episode depicted a woman with sexual agency as a menace, Harley is the most sympathetic character in “Beware the Creeper,” as the woman he’s creeping on.

That, in turn, brings us to the final scene, when Ryder is given a patch that will repress the symptoms that make him the Creeper. Once Batman is gone, Ryder appears to ponder a moment before smiling and peeling off the patch. The episode doesn’t make it explicit, but it seems fairly clear why he’s choosing to go back to being the Creeper: it’s an excuse to behave how he wants to. And since the Creeper spends most of the episode sexually harassing Harley Quinn, it’s pretty clear what that behavior is.

Whatever Ryder may have been at the episode’s beginning, by episode’s end he is not an innocent victim. He chooses to become the Creeper for the same reason Joker chooses to do what he does: he wants to be “free” to assert his power over others. For the Joker, that mostly means taking things and killing people; he shows little in the way of sexual interest in anyone. Creeper, by contrast, likes to, well, creep on women. He’s a predator, deliberately choosing to become more of a predator.

In his work on free will and morality in a deterministic universe, Daniel Dennett discusses the story of Odysseus tying himself to his ship’s mast so he can hear the Sirens without being drawn to them. For Dennet, this story is a metaphor for how moral decision-making works. We know that what we feel is right is often not what we want, and that in the moment of decision, the latter often predominates. The rewards of such behavior, however, look smaller the more distant they are, and thus much of morality consists of trying to construct future traps for ourselves that will force us to choose what seems right now. However, we can–and often do–choose to do the opposite, engineering circumstances in which the thing we want appears right, or at least not wrong.

This is what Ryder does in the final scene: he unties himself, frees himself from the constraints of his own morality. This is not, to be clear, a revolutionary act. Harley destroyed Krypton to free herself from the constraints of others’ morality. Ryder’s goal, by contrast, is to not feel bad about forcing his will onto others. Harley sought liberation; Ryder seeks power.

A thing inverted is still that thing, just at a different angle. The Creeper is just the Joker after all.

*Her oft-repeated pet name for the Joker.

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Crisis on N Earths: Henchgirl

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

I work for a Bond villain.

I joke, but the contract I work on (doing something entirely benign for a government agency) is owned by the civilian branch of a military contractor and weapons manufacturer that, among other things, has been involved in hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal arms deals in the developing world.

You don’t really have an option, where I live: this is a company town, and the company is the United States government, with all the imperial baggage that goes with it. Thing is, you don’t really have an option elsewhere, either: if you are employed by a corporation, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are working for either a supervillain or a supervillain wannabe.

That’s what capitalism does. We all know the slogan, “There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism.” But that’s true from the other side, too: there is no ethical employment under late capitalism. If you work, your work enriches the oppressor class, one way or another.

That’s where Henchgirl comes in: it strips away the pretense, introducing us from the start to Mary Posa, a flunky in an Adam West Batman-style butterfly-themed villain gang, down to every member’s name being a pun. (Mariposa is Spanish for “butterfly.”) She’s underpaid, overworked, expected to be on call at all times, and has no health insurance–just like employees of real-life supervillains.

But it isn’t just economic evil that surrounds her. Underneath its cute art and silly plots, Henchgirl is about many forms of isolation, suffering, and neglect. Mary’s parents, we learn, are famous, top-tier superheroes, and her sister en route to being the same, while Mary is barely acknowledged as existing. The “evil serum” with which first Coco Oon and later Mary are dosed seems to function mostly by stripping the victim of compassion, making them variously sadistic or oblivious to the harm they do to others, but that’s true of Mary’s employer Monsieur Butterfly from the start. Mary seems to be the only one in her criminal/corporate world with a conscience; once it’s taken from her, she wreaks a path of destruction worthy of any supervillain, and even once she tries to be “good,” it’s through murder.

This is why we have the protector fantasy: life is full of people who don’t care about us, and institutions which, not being people, are incapable of caring at all. Our culture actively discourages caring about others, and more specifically Others; “success” is framed, from religion to politics to economics, as being the sole survivor of a ruthless competition for power and influence. Small wonder that so many of us crave the idea of a fantastical figure who would attain power or be gifted with it, and use it to care for us rather than stomping all over us.

Mary is the Other everywhere she goes. In her family she’s the weak one; in the Butterfly gang she’s the timid one; in her shared apartment she’s the criminal one. There is always someone around judging her as less-than, trying to convince her she is wrong and powerless, starting with her parents, thanks to whom Mary believes she doesn’t have a power, despite demonstrating superstrength throughout the comic. Similarly, she repeatedly demonstrates significant courage, befriending Marionette and subverting the orphanage heist right under Monsieur Butterfly’s nose, and really isn’t doing anything more evil than her judgmental roommate, whose employer created the compound on which the evil serum is based.

Mary’s trip through time hammers this point home. When child-Mary starts using her foreknowledge to pretend to be psychic, she is suddenly a favored child, a star, issuing warnings and advice about the future–only to return to find it essentially unchanged. If we define power as the ability to effect change, the new-timeline Mary really wasn’t any more powerful than original-timeline Mary, which is to say original-timeline Mary wasn’t any less powerful. She always had power, it was just her entire world conspired to convince her she didn’t.

But then we timeskip, and learn a woman with the power to extrude carrots from her wrists accidentally ushered in the overthrow of humanity, and Mary is the leader of the freedom fighters. There’s no such thing as a powerless person, only people denied opportunities to recognize and express their power.

That’s why they Other us and oppress us. If we monsters and henchgirls ever woke up and realized what we can do, we’d bring the world to its knees.

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