Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures Annual #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well. Hail Icthultu!

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Vlog Review: Star vs Evil S2E12

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

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Well, that ended abruptly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which, of course, is Ryo in a nutshell.

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

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