Crisis on N Earths: US Embassy Bombings, Osama bin Laden

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It’s August 7, 1998, and two American embassies in Africa–one in Tanzania, the other in Kenya–were just bombed nigh-simultaneously by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The shadowy figure fingered as being behind the attack had an origin story straight out of a superhero comic: scion of a wealthy family, he founded an organization which, probably with American funding and support, aided the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion of a country near his own.

The resistance movement was the Mujahideen, the organization was al-Qaeda, and we are of course talking about Osama bin Laden. Today is the day most of America first hears his name.

Whether or not the US provided funding or other assistance to al-Qaeda in its early days fighting the Soviet Union is controversial, but it is generally agreed that if it happened, this was a major error that came back to bite the people who made it. I’m not so sure.

To be clear, two hundred people died. Nobody, except maybe the people who carried them out and their ideological fellow travelers, thinks these attacks were a good thing.

But American culture, for nearly half a century, had been built around the Cold War. It was the go-to argument for the oppressor class: can’t pay living wages or fund social programs because that’s socialism and we don’t want to be like those godless commies, you know? Can’t roll back the dominance of arbitrary Christian mores standing in the way of women’s and queer liberation; that’s secularism, the kind of thing those godless commies would do. Even the Civil Rights Movement was treated as a potential communist plot!

We have, multiple times, looked at the way the sudden, anticlimactic end of the Cold War impacted the national psyche. For a solid decade, the US was a nation flailing, a massively oversized military-industrial complex suddenly without an enemy to (never actually) fight, a police and surveillance state without infiltrators and agents of foreign powers to ferret out.

Some relics remained intact. To this day, conservatives will still argue against any proposed or extant social program by pointing to the Soviet Union, but instead of implying that we will become like the Soviets at their most brutally oppressive, now the implication is that we will become like the Soviet Union in the sense of collapsing. And much of the rhetoric is unchanged; the only difference now is that we are exhorted to report suspicious activity from our neighbors because they might be terrorists, as opposed to because they might be communists. (And before that, Nazis. And before that, communists. And before that, anarchists. And before that…)

And that there is the key. These bombings are not the moment at which terrorists became the new communists, but they are the prequel. They are the moment at which the new villain became known.

He’s a great fit. The best villains, we’re always told, are mirrors of the heroes. And if the American military-industrial-police complex, which is to say the American right, is the self-declared hero, then in bin Laden we have a perfectly cast villain. Most obviously, like the American right, he is extremely devoted to a far-right regressive religion which he believes should be the basis for government, which is to say forcibly imposed on all. He also comes from money, just like the American right. Most of all, however, he is motivated by a powerful hostility to the Other, a belief that violence is the appropriate response to any difference.

Hero and villain, in other words, believe precisely the same things, with the only difference being where and in what culture they happen to have been born. But of course, when your motivating belief is the hatred of the Other, that’s all it takes to be bitter enemies.

The common refrain in the late 90s and early 2000s, regarding right-wing Muslim terrorism, was “they hate us for our freedoms.” And that’s not untrue, insofar as diversity is a product of freedom: when people are free to be openly different, their differences are naturally more visible. Of course rather more significant a factor is that we have been conquering, manipulating, and oil-drilling the Middle East for generations; those of “them” who hate “us” by and large have fairly good reason to do so. But the common thread between all the world’s right wings, whether of empires or their colonies current and former, is that us/them division in the first place. “They” hate “us” for the same reason “we” hate “them”: because once you’ve divided the world into an us and a them, a Self and an Other, a normal and a deviant, hating and fearing the Other becomes natural, and killing them feels like self-defense.

Most terrorism in the United States is carried out by American-born conservative white men. That is simply a fact, and as true in 1998 as it is now. And for them as well, it is not untrue that they hate us for our freedoms, for our difference. Right-wing terrorism is motivated by the same hatred and fear and desire to kill the invading outsider–because, to those who draw those little circles of normalcy, everything deviant is an outsider.

And so the great transference can begin. Where once communists were the terrible Other, whose agents infiltrated the state and must be expunged, now it is terrorists. Where once being anything other than a conservative Christian white allocishet man made you suspect as a commie, now it makes you, if not a terrorist, at least suspect of aiding and abetting them. (Hence the nonsense about Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking across the border among undocumented immigrants from Latin America: to the rightwing mind, Middle Eastern people, terrorists, and Latin@ people are all Other, and therefore more or less interchangeably equivalent.)

We are, at least partially, free to be who we are. And they hate us for that freedom.

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Vlog Review: Heart Catch Pretty Cure 7 & 15 and Star vs. Evil S2E20

Regular episode of a new series…

..and a bonus episode! As long as my Patreon stays above $150/mo, I’ll post two of these every month!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

Vlog Review: CatGhost 5-8


Extremely late regular episode… plus an extremely late bonus episode! As long as the Patreon remains above $150/mo, I’ll post two extra vlogs every month!
Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!

Crisis on N Earths: Cowboy Bebop

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Okay, let’s jam. 3, 2, 1…

It’s like this. Cowboy Bebop is one of the most critically acclaimed anime series of all time. In the US in particular it was a massive hit, in many ways the peak of the wave of anime imported to American television that began with Pokemon. It’s where the wave crashed over us, a mountain of foam, gorgeous, sublime even.

But still just foam. (So many people are mad at me right now.)

The thing about Cowboy Bebop is that it’s all style. The characters are incredibly cool, but they’re also completely stock archetypes out of Westerns and film noir. They get backstories, which is what anime usually substitutes for character development, but those backstories are basically pure cliche.

(Except Ed and Ein. Ed and Ein are strikingly original and criminally underused. They also get even less development than the central trio, despite being vastly more interesting. The Adventures of Ed and Ein when?)

It’s visually stunning in its execution of familiar scenes out of space opera, wushu, and, again, Westerns. The music is spectacular, including a serious contender for the greatest opening theme of all time, and note that I didn’t limit that to anime or even television. It is very clearly the product of a group of artists absolutely at the top of their game and having a tremendously good time. That alone is enough to make it deserving of most of the praise it’s received.

But that doesn’t change that it doesn’t actually have anything to say. (So mad.)

Anyway, if we’re gonna talk about it, and we’re talking about the DCAU, we gotta talk “Pierre le Fou.” See, Sunrise worked on a number of early Batman: The Animated Series episodes. (“Pretty Poison” for one. So there’s another femme fatale they’ve animated; the difference is that Faye is what Ivy performs. “I Am the Night” and “The Man Who Killed Batman,” also.) “Pierre le Fou” is their homage to that work, and it shows.

A horror story about an “insane,” murderous clown with the mind of a child, a backstory of torment and abuse at the hands of institutional power, and a character design that seems largely based on a cross between the Penguin and the Mad Hatter. Also the climactic fight sequence takes place in an abandoned amusement park at night.

It’s pretty BTAS, is what I’m saying.

It’s not really a sympathetic villain story, though, despite the backstory. Cowboy Bebop mostly doesn’t do sympathetic. Tragic, maybe, but that’s hardly the same thing.

It’s a great episode. Besides all the BTAS, there’s a healthy does of Akira in there (look at how the flashback to Pierrot’s “training” is lit!), the villain is terrifying, and the fight scenes are brutal. This is solid horror, on top of everything else, and horror in a very different vein than “Toys in the Attic”–deadly serious and gothic, much like the Bat, as opposed to light and Weird. (Which I want to say is like Superman, but… eh. Not as neatly as I’d like.)

But there really isn’t much to chew on here. It’s meat-flavored, but it’s got no meat. It takes pieces from many places, puts them together into something that works, and that’s great… but that’s all it is. The whole is precisely equal to the sum of its parts. Everything’s on its sleeve, everything’s pure shiny surface–and like Pierrot himself, despite a bulky appearance, what’s in there is mostly just guns.

No wonder American anime fans latched onto it so hard. Calling this Dragon Ball Z for people who think they’re too smart for Dragon Ball Z is deeply, intensely, staggeringly unfair, as well as highly inaccurate. The Matrix of anime? Nah, that’s Serial Experiments Lain.

I dunno. There’s not really a good analogy. Point is it’s gorgeous and spectacularly well done and hollow, and I’m literally the only person who thinks that last part, and anyone reading this who’s actually watched Cowboy Bebop hates me now.

I think it’s time we blow this scene.

(This was originally written as a stream of consciousness and posted to Patreon with no editing. I have very lightly proofread this version–punctuation, spacing, and adding the countdown at the beginning are the only changes.)

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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E10, “Crybaby”

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Yes, I’m aware this is late. And yes, I’m aware I forgot to release any video last week, I’ll fix it tomorrow and the next day.

Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Which it did.

There’s a lot of End of Evangelion in this episode’s DNA. Ryo looks remarkably like Rei/Lilith’s final form in that film; the destruction is intercut with images of children playing; even the ending, two characters lying on the shore of a red ocean, is shared with that film. But that makes sense, as End of Eva is the go-to anime movie for apocalyptic scenarios full of vaguely Biblical imagery.

This is an old genre we’re working in here, already fully formed by the time its first real classic, the Book of Daniel, was written in the second century BCE. The apocalypse was originally about political resistance, a reassurance that there was a tyrant out there bigger and more powerful than the one currently oppressing you, and that it was thus absolutely certain that the oppressor would eventually fall, as all oppressors do (along with everything else). In modern times, apocalyptic literature followed the general trend toward more psychological fiction, using apocalyptic language and imagery to engage less with political revolution than with personal evolution. Demian and Revolutionary Girl Utena are standout examples of the latter form. And then there’s Akira. Or, more to the point, the film Akira, a howling scream of disgust at a world in decay. End of Eva sings in the same key, though the original series was more along the lines of Utena‘s approach. Compassion, as we’ve discussed, is suffering, and there comes a point at which that suffering is unbearable.

We live in a fundamentally evil universe. This is a universe in which heat will be moved from the equator to the poles according to strict rules, regardless of how much human suffering and death the resulting hurricanes will bring. You think humans are capable of great evil, and we are, but the evil of the universe wipes out the stars and shatters worlds. No human killer, no genocidal tyrant, has ever killed as many people as the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal strain of malaria. And unlike anything else we have ever encountered, we are capable of moral decision-making, and hence of good. That’s the only place good exists, after all: the human imagination.

We made it up. A tiny cry of defiance against a universe of cold darkness. We found ourselves in an existence where suffering is inevitable, and said, “You know what? I’m going to take on the suffering of others, too.”

It is futile. The humans stand no chance, almost entirely wiped out by Ryo’s demons before Akira’s new devilman army can even reach him. The last human holdout is destroyed somewhere in the battle between Ryo and Akira and their respective, monstrous allies, and then all the demons and devilmen wipe each other out. And the whole time, Akira stands no chance against Ryo; Hell’s champion against its prince, he inevitably dies.

And then God kills Ryo and blows up the world. But if there is a God, then God is evil. They made this, after all. They’re either actively malicious or possessed of such towering incompetence as to be indistinguishable from malice. Satan was right to rebel. That’s not enough to make him not evil, though. Ryo has far too much blood on his hands.

We can’t win. Compassion just means more pain. Nothing good lasts; evil always triumphs in the end. The end of everything is the only thing we can be absolutely sure will happen. But we keep going anyway, because that is who we are. That is what we are. Stubbornly, futilely compassionate. Even when we run out of tears, and can only scream at the universe, when we can only weave scenarios of its destruction. We collectively yearn for apocalypse, ironically not because we want more endings, but because we cannot stand the number we already have.

I’m so tired of caring. So tired of raging at the evils and injustices that surround me. Tired of drowning in an ocean of hatred that grows deeper every day. Tired of crying for friends, and loved ones, and strangers, and myself. There are no tears left to douse the flames. There is only rage, futile, desperate rage, because the alternative to rage is terror and despair. Despair because our defeat, the defeat and destruction of everything good, is inevitable. But rage can focus us elsewhere, can remind us of the central lesson of the apocalypse genre: the tyrant will die, too. Perhaps we can accelerate that.

Success is guaranteed, after all. We might not survive it, but the fascists and the bigots and the laughing lying rats will inevitably die. Everything they built will crumble away. Everything they believed in, if they believed in anything, will be forgotten. Of course failure is also guaranteed, as we and anything we build and anything we believe in are all just as doomed, just as temporary. But at least we can be sure that those fuckers will get theirs.

The power of the oppressor will break. Everyone dies. All nations crumble, and all regimes fall.

All worlds end.

From the ashes and the rubble, a new world forms. It will be evil, too, of course, but in different ways. We will make different mistakes, and really that’s all you can ask of anyone. And so we cycle on.

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Crisis on N Earths: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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There are a handful of shows pointed to as the beginning of a shift in American television, and especially science fiction and fantasy, from being mostly or entirely episodic to the “arc” structure ubiquitous today. Lost is often cited, and certainly coincides with the point at which long-running plots became ubiquitous. At the other end of the 90s, Twin Peaks is sometimes credited, but that misses that Twin Peaks was pitched and structured as a prime time soap opera, which is to say as part of a genre in which such plotting was a long-established element. Where explicit science fiction is concerned, Babylon 5 is also frequently pointed to. But it and Lost share the same counter-indicator: they aren’t actually structured much like most modern serialized television. Neither is Twin Peaks, for that matter.

Twin Peaks is, like most soap operas and, for that matter, superhero comics, a true serial: a sequence of overlapping stories that don’t collectively move to a shared end so much as coming to a stop with cancellation. Babylon 5 is structured as a single story, with its own arc, containing multiple smaller stories, including the individual episodes. (An overarching story which was, by the end, unrecognizable as the originally planned story, but an overarching story nonetheless.) Lost is an attempt to achieve the latter, or at least the appearance of the latter, while actually doing the former. None of these shows share the structure on display in most modern, serialized science fiction and fantasy television, in which most or all episodes in a given season follow contain some reference to an ongoing, overarching story; some episodes advance that story significantly; and the season finale concludes the story, with the next season starting a new story where the first left off. We’ve seen where that structure really arrives on American television, with Sailor Moon; what we have not seen is where it entered the mainstream.

Until now. In 1998, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired the end of the second season and beginning of the third, arguably its strongest run of episodes, with only the fifth season really challenging them. It was a huge hit for the still quite young WB network, and, for better (post-2005 Doctor Who) or worse (TVTropes), had a profound influence on television and how we talk about television in the early 21st century.

And it shows extremely clear similarities to Sailor Moon: a blonde teen girl, the titular Buffy, who is chosen to inherit the power to fight evil, gathers a group of friends who aide her, explicitly cites their friendship as the reason for her success, and frequently faces monsters as metaphors for common teen problems, all structured as season-long arcs peppered with monster-of-the-week standalones. There does not appear to be any evidence that Joss Whedon ever actually saw Sailor Moon, and it is almost certainly a coincidence that Firefly also shows strong similarities to anime that aired on American television around the time it would have been in initial development, namely Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. Nonetheless, the similarity stands; in ideaspace, Sailor Moon and Buffy have a lengthy border.

The ending of the second season is a prime example of the Buffy/Sailor Moon approach in action. Angel, Buffy’s vampiric boyfriend, has struggled all season to retain his morality, and the whole cast has had to deal with elements from his evil past returning to haunt them. Then Buffy sleeps with him; diegetically, this causes him the “moment of perfect happiness” that breaks the curse that restored his soul to his body, causing him to revert to the soulless, evil vampire that he was. Extradiegetically, however, this is fairly obviously the old story of a teen girl thinking she’s fallen in love with an older man, who turns abusive the moment he’s successfully gotten her into bed. It’s exactly the kind of thing Sailor Moon did with, for example, an evil gym that sucks the life-force from the young girls who obsessively work out there.

The key thing is that this structure works. Using the fantastic to reify genuine emotional realities is long-established in the genre. Meanwhile, the season-long arc peppered with standalones has the increased room for complex plotting and characterization that a full season affords over a single episode, without committing an entire season’s worth of episodes to furthering one story. On top of that, because every season concludes with the climax to an ongoing story, any season can more or less function as the last; unlike Babylon 5, Buffy never had to scramble to deal with possibly being cut short by the network declining to pick it up for another season. (Indeed, it had the opposite problem: it wasn’t picked up after the fifth season, brought the show to a satisfying and extremely final conclusion, and then got picked up for two more seasons on another network.)

It is precisely this structure that the DCAU would eventually pick up, adopting it for Justice League and even more so Justice League Unlimited. But a more direct result looms closer. On the strength of shows like Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, the WB was developing, and deliberately courting, a reputation as a “young people’s network.” Buffy demonstrated that a high-school superhero was a draw, and the WB wanted more. And where better to turn for superheroes than their own superhero “universe”? The decision to have a show about Batman in high school descended from on high, an instruction from the network to the producers of The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series. TNBA would end, and the young Batman show would take its place.

But as we already observed, the atmosphere of the 90s, the grayness of near-apocalypse, and the darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, made it natural for any such show to incorporate cyberpunk. This show couldn’t be young Bruce Wayne; we’d already seen him in Mask of the Phantasm. It had to be someone new: someone different, with new villains, and a futuristic setting that made Gotham into the Dark City, which it always basically was anyway. This show wouldn’t reach back into Batman’s past, but into his future, past the point at which he could no longer continue. By extension, it would be someone who could face, and do, what the familiar Batman could not. It would be the Batman beyond Batman.

In less than a year, and less than 20 chapters, Batman Beyond begins.

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Crisis on N Earths: Dark City

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It’s February 27, 1998, and none of us know who we are.

That’s more true of some of us than others, of course. I’m a teenager, for instance, still deep in that protean flux of trying on identities until one fits. And I haven’t figured out I’m a trans girl, so I won’t find one that does for another twenty years.

(It will be an incredibly powerful experience once I do. My entire world will realign around me, structuring itself into something that makes sense. It will feel like emerging into the sunlight for the first time.)

But none of us entirely know who we are, because nothing has gone the way it was supposed to. There was no Big One, just a wet fizzle as the Soviet Union imploded a decade ago, and for all the time since, we have been feeling like characters in a story that failed to end, sitting around waiting for something dramatic to happen.

We know who we were supposed to be. The Good Guys, who saved the world from Hitler, who stood up to the evil commies. Oh sure, there was that whole bit about the slavery, but that was a long time ago and it’s over now. And then the Civil Rights movement fixed everything, right?

But we were the evil empire all along, who fought the other evil empires not because we were the Good Guys, but because we wanted to be a bigger evil empire than all the others. We didn’t win the war between good and evil because there was never any such war; we won the war to be the biggest bully on the block. The Nazis learned by watching us, their racial policies just a Germanized Jim Crow, the Holocaust American-pioneered techniques of mass production applied to the American-pioneered techniques of concentration camp and genocide. Lebensraum is just German for “Manifest Destiny,” which is why we fought them–one imperialist expansion smacking into another. (Well, not really. The Germans and Japanese both learned from us, but it was the expanding Japanese empire that smacked into ours first. But they could ally with Germany because they had the Soviet empire in between them, and that’s how we ended up at war with Germany. The point: it’s all empires fighting empires; if you want scrappy bands of heroic rebels, look to the places already conquered.)

So why didn’t we know that? Why didn’t we know who we were? Because we only knew who we were supposed to be.

“Supposed to be.”

By whom? Who are these supposers, and why do we let their suppositions define us? They’re not Strangers, unfortunately, not hydrophobic leech-mouthed squid inhabiting human corpses. But neither are they people known to us–the people around us transmit the suppositions, enforce them on us, but never seem to be the originators of them.

“Supposed to be” isn’t just passive; it’s in the divine passive. The agent isn’t just moved to a prepositional phrase, it’s dropped entirely, as if this widespread supposition were instituted by an act of God. No one knows who supposes; we’re barely starting to realize that they suppose quite wrong.

And, as it turns out, treating it as an act of god isn’t that far off, and Dark City‘s metaphor is apt. The Strangers are a collective mind inhabiting human corpses, which is to say they are history, and the power structures that result. They are everyone who came before us, and the thing–the hideous, tentacular, reality-defining monstrosity that we call “our culture”–that those people collectively manifested. Not quite a god, but closer than anything else we can reliably locate.

That thing, collectively, tried to hide our memories of the past. Tried to keep us going, still functioning as we had before, even as darkness fell and daylight was forgotten. Tried to manufacture false histories, shift things around, find someone to slot neatly into the place the Soviet Union had once occupied. To persuade us, against all evidence of our eyes, that our society is as fair as we can possibly make it, that oppression is a matter of individual bad actors, that we are not all slaves to forces most of us barely even notice exist.

This is, of course, cyberpunk. The aesthetics of noir given a sci-fi twist, though this is noir-ier than most, in the sense that it retains the 1940s-vintage clothes and cars, and the main character is a good man in a corrupt world, neither of which are commonplace in cyberpunk. But it’s very clearly a point on the trajectory from Blade Runner to The Matrix; like the former, the questions it overtly asks are about personal identity, not the nature of reality like the latter, but it has a blatant messianic element that is more Neo than Deckard.

But questions of identity and reality are, in large part, the same questions. Is there a self independent of culture? Can there be one? It doesn’t seem like there possibly can, since we learn who we are from the people around us. But if there isn’t, how can we possibly hope to change our culture? How is it that people turn out not to be who they were “supposed” to be?

Dark City answers, rather patly, by invoking the soul. That seems overly simplistic. At the same time, there is something that seems to predate our first encounters with the culture: personality research suggests the existence of a handful of traits that can be identified in the womb and remain mostly stable throughout life. Those aren’t enough to make an identity, and without culture, of course, there are no labels by which to name them, but there do seem to be patterns or tendencies that are not derived from external sources. At the same time, we are also greatly shaped by our experiences, and we frequently internalize many of those suppositions.

This, in turn, means that the struggle to define ourselves necessarily involves some kind of engagement with the power structures around us, because it is those structures that establish  “supposed to.” This, in turn, links to the thematic concerns of cyberpunk, its projection of the dystopian present into a dystopian future. “This is the logical endpoint of those structures,” it says. “This is what the world looks like if we all keep doing what we’re supposed to do and being what we’re supposed to be.” Mostly, that means corporate power, the tyranny of wealth swelling until it is singularly able to define our reality, but it includes other forms of power as well, particular in how they violate the self and the body.

It’s February 27, 1998, and I don’t know who I am because I’m in high school, and we don’t know who we are because the apocalypse never came, and the dark city is a vision of a future in which this state of being continues forever. These things fit together, inextricable from one another: high school and adolescence and the uncertainty of identity; the uncertainty of living in the near-apocalypse; cyberpunk. A natural cocktail, if you will, a recipe from which to engineer the next step in our story.

His name is Terry McGinnis.

That’s the what. As for the why…

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