Taser-Punch (Prototype)

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Content Warning: Racism, violence against BIPOC, police violence

It’s still October 11, 1997.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that there’s much line between the two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d rather be bizarro any day.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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