Walking into a trap (The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
It’s October 14, 1992, two days after “Mad as a Hatter,” so see that entry for charts and news. On Batman we have “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy,” adapted by Elliot S! Maggin from his own 1975 comic, “The Cape and Cowl Death Trap.” Maggin is an important figure in comics, having been quite prominent among D.C.’s writers in the late 1970s through the 1980s, and as such has a fairly significant influence on the DCAU; most significantly, he created LexCorp, and through it the “evil business tycoon” version of Lex Luthor who is used throughout the DCAU to great effect.
However, he only wrote one actual episode in the entire franchise, this one, and it’s a curious beast. We open with the gloriously named Josiah Wormwood using a riddle to lead a diplomatic courier into an elaborate death trap. This scene is very effective at establishing Wormwood as a villain, between his sadistic torment of the courier and Bud Cort’s excellent voice-acting, which gives Wormwood a childlike cadence and high-pitched, detached dark playfulness that Cort would memorably reuse as the Toyman in Superman the Animated Series. Wormwood tortures the courier into giving up the information, the location of some bearer bonds.
In the next scene we see the first use of the Bat Signal in the series, as Commissioner Gordon deploys it to get Batman’s attention; their conversation makes clear that this is the first use diagetically as well. This is an important moment, as it signifies that Gordon and Batman are firmly allies, and that Batman is now at the beck and call of the state–or, at least, of the portions thereof the series treats as uncorrupted and therefore legitimate. For the Adam West Batman, his association with the hapless state is clearly parodic, the joke being that the state must be utterly helpless if relying on a man who dresses up as a bat is the best move available to it. For the Kevin Conroy Batman, however, his association with the state is depicted entirely seriously; Gordon outright says that the normal authorities have been unable to catch Wormwood, but he believes Batman can. In other words, where in the West Batman the state is weak and ridiculous, here it is beset by enemies so powerful that unusual measures must be taken.
What exactly those measures are is revealed in the next scene, as Batman captures a known associate of Wormwood, Baron Josek (inexplicably played by the usually excellent John Rhys-Davies with a hilariously terrible Russian accent), and places him into a life-threatening situation, using it to torture him into revealing the information Batman wants. This, of course, is precisely what Wormwood did to his victim in the first scene, and Gordon reiterated it again as Wormwood’s modus operandi in the second scene. This is what Batman can do that the state cannot: he can go outside the law and morality, and be a villain.
Because let’s be clear here: Batman tortures people. There is no other word for dangling a person off a rooftop and threatening to kill them if they don’t tell you what you want to know. And it’s not something he did in the past and seeks redemption for now; it’s a habitual part of his standard approach to crime, as much a part of his modus operandi as Wormwood’s.
Batman spends the rest of the episode being targeted by Wormwood for his cape and cowl, as part of an elaborate scheme to get Wormwood to reveal where he hid the bearer bonds and who hired him to acquire them, which is very clever and entertaining. The reveal that the Josek Wormwood has been dealing with was actually Batman all along is masterfully executed, and the ensuing fight sequence is likewise very well done, as both Wormwood and Batman make use of anything they can find in their environment in competing efforts to get and keep the upper hand (and the key to Wormwood’s storage locker).
But it cannot escape the implications of those opening scenes. There have been several episodes already where Batman tortures people for information, but this episode takes it further, emphatically insisting that “bad guys” torturing people is wrong, while taking pains to show that Batman is one of the “good guys” (by use of the Bat Signal) and that him torturing people is fine.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what you do, just who you do it to. “Good” and “evil” aren’t attitudes or approaches to life, but just names for opposing sides. Any action, even torture, is acceptable as long as you’re doing it to a “bad guy” to advance the cause of the “good guys,” but the bad guys doing the same thing is proof of how evil they are.
It is an appallingly cynical, amoral attitude for a show ostensibly not just about a hero, but a superhero, to take–and thus very 90s (perhaps surprisingly, given that this episode is based on a 1975 comic). After all, from one perspective, the Cold War was over, “good” triumphed over “evil,” so the struggle was over and it was no longer necessary to worry about such things. From another, the apocalypse, the revolution, the wiping away of corruption and building of utopia from the ashes, didn’t happen when expected. Clearly, it was never going to happen, so might as well embrace cynicism and corruption. The 90s are awash in “heroes” who are just as violent, destructive, uncaring, and dark as the villains they fight, and Batman is in many ways the archetype of this kind of superhero.
But there is nothing inevitable about this depiction of him. The Adam West version proves that. Somewhere in Batman there is a lighter, less villainous incarnation, one who isn’t just the rage and terror of the Bat, one who understands that to be on the side of good requires one to be good, to voluntarily subject oneself to the restraints of morality. But as we have observed before, Batman needs someone to remind him of this responsibility, of his humanity, lest the Bat overtake him entirely.
Fortunately, Robin’s coming back.


Current status of the Patreon:

Yurikuma Arashi 6 and MLPFIM S5E15 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Yurikuma and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST. We will then be watching MLP at 2:30.

I will update with the chatlog after the chat.
ETA: Chatlog below the cut!
Continue reading

Fundamentals: Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted

Been a while since I’ve done one of these, huh? If you’re not familiar, Fundamentals is a series where I discuss what I regard as fundamental ideas which underpin what I talk about on this site. These are the basic assumptions, How I Approach the World 101, written primarily so that I can point to them and say “go here” instead of having to periodically reiterate them. 
There’s an old maxim in journalism, which occasionally shows up in other fields: “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted.” Its meaning, in journalism at least, is fairly straightforward: avoid running stories in ways that make things worse for people in pain (for example, don’t publish the names of crime victims unless they want you to), and actively seek out stories that help people in trouble (for example, covering the negative impact of oppressive policies) or make life more difficult for people in positions of power (for example, uncovering a political scandal).
But I regard this as more than just a standard of journalistic ethics. It is a fundamental moral principle that underpins a lot of what I do, and so it’s worth unpacking a bit.
That “comfort the afflicted” is an important moral principle should go without saying. When people need help, you offer to help. (Helping, not saving, of course, but I’ve covered that elsewhere.) But why is it necessary to afflict the comfortable?
The answer is simple: communal responsibility. We are each of us responsible for bettering our own communities and cultures, which necessarily means subjecting them to scrutiny and change. This necessarily means that the members of our community who are comfortable with things as they are must be shaken up–if we are not disturbing them, then we are not improving our communities.
And this has wide-reaching implications. The common adage to “punch up, not kick down” is just a restatement of this principle. It’s why “reverse racism,” “men’s rights,” and “class war against the rich” are prima facie nonsensical, because whiteness, manhood, and wealth are excessively comfortable, safe positions in our society, and so puncturing their bubble of comfort is a necessary exercise in communal responsibility. That changes in our society are being perceived as afflictions by the comfortable serve as evidence that these changes are a good idea–or, to put it another way, the comments thread on any post about feminism demonstrates the necessity of feminism.
It is simply not enough to just help people who need help. Fundamental social change is required, and to achieve that will necessarily mean making people uncomfortable.

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 41

A summary of the past week of posts to my in-character Star Trek Online Tumblr, chronicling the adventures of E.N. Morwen, a science-loving and thoughtful young woman trapped in a galaxy of warring space giants.

  • Time in a Bottle: A link to the Krenim leads Morwen back to the Delta Quadrant with Gans and Nog.
  • Broken Circle: In an attempt to buy time to complete the temporal annihilator, Morwen leads a fleet in an offensive against the Iconians.
  • Butterfly: The final tests of the temporal annihilator begin.

As the flag officer of a fleet or tactical group, Starfleet regulations also require Morwen to provide a Fleet Status Report briefly summarizing the current status and mission of all ships under her command, every Stardate that’s a multiple of 10.
I am still trying to get an RP-focused fleet together! Contact me in-game at Morwen@froborr if you’re interested.

What do you call yourself? (Perchance to Dream)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
Content warning: suicide.
“To be or not to be: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them: to die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.”
–Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
–Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii

It’s October 19, 1992, exactly a week after “Mad as a Hatter” and two days before “The Underdwellers,” so see that episode’s entry for charts and news. Today’s episode of Batman the Animated Series is widely hailed as one of its best, and not undeservedly so. The only real negative to “Perchance to Dream” is that it pales in comparison to a much later episode with essentially the same plot, Justice League Unlimited‘s “What Do You Get for the Man Who Has Everything,” but the JLU episode has the advantage of a dozen years of refinements in animation, character development, and improvements in storytelling technique, plus it’s based on an Alan Moore comic. It’s just not a fair comparison to make, even if it is essentially inevitable.
Let us focus, then, on this episode, with the knowledge we will be revisiting its themes later. The highlight of the episode, as has been commented on by multiple critics, is clearly the climactic scene where Bruce Wayne confronts Batman in the church tower. This is, of course, a reversal of the battle between Batman and Man-Bat way back in “On Leather Wings.” There, Batman was the human and Man-Bat the Bat; here, Batman represents the Bat and Bruce Wayne the man–interesting given that later episodes will make clear (most explicitly in Batman Beyond‘s “Shriek,” but implied numerous times in other episodes) that Batman thinks of himself as Batman first, and Bruce Wayne is simply one of his masks.
But here, in his dreams, he is Bruce Wayne and only Bruce Wayne–Bruce the businessman, whose parents are still alive, who is engaged to a Selina Kyle with no criminal record. He may be Batman, but he wants to be Bruce Wayne–Bruce Wayne is who he is when he’s free.
Interesting, then, that once he determines that he’s trapped in a dream, he immediately identifies Batman as his captor. The relationship between man and Bat is far more complex in this episode than it is usually depicted–typically, we have identified the Bat as the protector fantasy, as something dreamed up by a frightened child to defend him from the world of crime and violence. But here it is shown to be equally a captor.
Of course he dreams of having his parents back. Who wouldn’t! But far more telling is that he dreams of being engaged to Kyle–a woman whom he courted as Bruce Wayne and rejected as Batman. It is Batman that sent her to prison, Batman’s rigid code of right and wrong, morality and duty, and adherence to the law (except laws regarding vigilantism and due process, of course) that keeps them apart. In a world where he doesn’t have to be Batman, he can be with her. He can have a family. He can, in his own words in this episode, be “free.”
Because, of course, to be protected is inherently to be constrained. A protector will not allow you to go places or do things they judge unsafe. The violence the protector directs against the dangerous other can just as easily be employed against the transgressive self. Bruce Wayne cannot date a criminal–a revolutionary–while also being Batman, let alone become one himself.
So which world is really the story being told by Batman to contain Bruce Wayne? Is it the one where Batman is a shadow of the Mad Hatter, or the one where Batman is a shadow of Thomas Wayne?
And the answer, of course, is both. They’re both fictions, both stories, because Batman is a fictional character and all fiction is equally fictional. All stories are, by definition, stories.
But what is a person–a real person, any person–but a self-insert story told by a lump of meat? Identity, personhood, self, soul–they’re all stories we tell ourselves, serials that unfold one day-long episode per day over a lifetime. Is Batman any more or less real than Froborr, my online persona?
No: all fictions are equally fictional. All stories are stories.
The title of this episode comes, of course, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, the beginning of which I quoted above. In that scene, Hamlet is no longer willing to live the life he has, and contemplates suicide. He is, mostly, in favor of the idea–but as he remarked earlier in the play, he is plagued by nightmares, and fears that the sleep of death will contain nightmares worse still.
Batman is Bruce Wayne’s nightmare. He has turned it outward, so that it can terrorize his enemies, the enemies of the social structures within which he feels comfortable, but it is nonetheless something he has built from fear. He knows, even this early in his career, that he will almost certainly die as a result of his heroics, and he is resigned to that possibility. After all, for all his wealth, his power, his adventures as a superhero, his life is still something he can describe as “the nightmare.” Like an inverted Hamlet, he is king of infinite space, and it is meaningless because of his bad dreams.
And can you blame him? He saw his parents gunned down in front of him when he was eleven years old! Of course his life has been a nightmare ever since. Of course he has turned that nightmare outward so it can haunt others. And of course he sees death as waking up–that, after all, is when his nightmare ends, when he finally zigs when he should have zagged and dies at the hands of “some punk with a gun.”
Batman has been around, in one form or another, since 1939. He may well be the longest and most elaborate suicide attempt in history.


Current status of the Patreon:

Penguindrum 6 and MLPFIM S5E14 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Penguindrum and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST. We will then be watching MLP at 2:30.

I will update with the chatlog after the chat.
ETA: Chatlog below the cut!
Continue reading