Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 73

I am really sucking at getting posts in on time this week, aren’t I? I’ll endeavor to do better next week.
You may have noticed all the links in the TOC on e-n-morwen.tumblr.com are still broken. I got it about 3/4 done last week, and then all the links broke again. I’m probably going to have to move it off Tumblr.
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.

  • Sunrise: A star in Ferengi space suddenly begins behaving very oddly, and the Inverse investigates.
  • Hearts and Minds: Morwen goes looking for a Section 31 agent that’s suddenly gone silent.

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.

Something happened to you, didn't it? (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
It’s December 17, 1993, exactly three months since the first season of Batman: The Animated Series ended. The top song is Janet Jackson with “Again”; Ace of Base, Mariah Carey, Meat Loaf, and Salt-N-Pepa also chart. The top movie is The Pelican Brief, with Mrs. Doubtfire, Wayne’s World 2, Beethoven’s 2nd, and Sister Act 2 rounding out the top five. Not making it onto the charts is the only theatrically released DCAU movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though it does make it up to 11th place next weekend and will cling stubbornly onto the bottom half of the top twenty for most of January.
The movie opens much as episodes of the series do, with a dark skyline set against ominously red skies, harbingers of apocalypse, accompanied by an absolutely stunning score–this film represents some of BTAS composer Shirley Walker’s best work. But this is no tale of apocalypse deferred; rather, it is a story about decay, the loss of a bright past promise.
The film weaves together a present crisis–mobsters are being murdered by a shadowy figure eyewitnesses mistook for Batman–with flashbacks to a period in Batman’s life we haven’t seen before, at the very beginning of his crimefighting career. We are past his training with Zatara and Yoru, but before he put on his mask, the last moment of choice before he gave himself over to the Bat.
Batman is, as we have discussed several times, a trauma survivor. His identity is fractured by the horror of seeing his parents murdered in front of him, the guilt he feels for being unable to stop their killer, for being alive when they are dead. Bruce Wayne and the Bat are both masks worn by the frightened child underneath, but what we see in this film is a moment when both are still half-formed, still visibly full of raw pain and determination. Andrea Beaumont is able to see this pain in Bruce, and is fascinated by it, most likely because she has lost a parent as well.
In the course of the love affair that follows, we see Bruce in a ski mask trying to fight crime and nearly getting killed because criminals don’t fear him. The Bat has driven him to become the protector he never had, but at this stage it is still half-formed, nameless and vague, and hence it is the Bruce-mask that must fight, with limited success both times we see him do it. He is vengeance, but he is not yet the night.
We also see Bruce and Andrea attend the Gotham World’s Fair, a glittering promise of a shining future full of wonders, a deliberate contrast to the modern day, when the Joker is living in the dark, squalid, creepy ruins of that same World’s Fair. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but the point is made: the future ain’t what it used to be. Bruce Wayne makes several references to “the plan” in flashback, first as his intent to fight crime, and later his new plan to spend his life with Andrea. There was a plan for the world, too. If, as seems likely, the flashbacks are about ten years prior to the present-day segments–long enough that Alfred has gone gray, but the people who were young in the flashbacks are still relatively young in the present–then that places them in the early 1980s, when the future of the world was known: fiery apocalyptic conflagration, the final triumph of good (read: the capitalist West) over evil (read: the Soviet Union), and then somehow this would lead into an era of prosperity and peace that looked exactly like Leave It to Beaver.
But instead of conflagration there was decay. The Soviet Union collapsed. A few years later, so did the U.S. economy. Suddenly a future of rocket ships and friendly robot servants and self-cleaning houses seemed absurd; in their place the expectation was for the decay to continue forever, a steady rotting away of the order of things, a descent into chaos and despair.
So it is that the Joker lives in the ruins of the future, a bitter joke lingering in the wreckage. But he’s not the primary antagonist here: that’s the Phantasm, the assassin killing mobsters. The name carries associations with both ghosts and illusions, death and deception. Of course on one level it’s a straightforward description of what she does, using a strange fog to appear and disappear, confuse her victims, and then kill them.
But, oddly, the Phantasm is never named as such in the film. And the title, note, is “Mask of the Phantasm.” Curious given that, over the course of the flashbacks, Wayne discovers the Bat Cave on a date with Andrea, then when she leaves him (because her father is being hunted by the mobsters who, in the present day, she returns to kill) he quite dramatically dons the Batman costume for the first time, the implication being that the discovery of the cave inspired him, and the loss of Andrea motivated him, to adopt the Bat as his totem. The Mask, and potentially the Phantasm as well, the illusion that haunts, is readable as being the Bat as much as it is Andrea. Or, perhaps more accurately, Andrea can be read as an instance of the true Phantasm, that which truly haunts Bruce Wayne.
This, after all, is the nature of trauma. It can be created by a singular event or a lengthy ordeal, but once the trauma exists, it takes on a cyclical nature. The victim re-experiences their trauma again and again throughout their lives, pulled back into it by the very coping mechanisms that let them survive it, as those coping mechanisms are triggered by stimuli associated with the original trauma. Bruce Wayne revisits his trauma every time his origin story is told, reliving the pain and fear and grief and rage of his parents’ death, the helplessness and guilt, the creation of the Bat and its unleashing upon Crime. The pain of that loss, the risk of experiencing it again, led him to shut himself off for years as he trained–and then when he is on the cusp of turning his pain outward onto the world, Andrea appears. He lets himself love again, after begging for his parents’ permission to be happy in a scene that should have won Kevin Conroy every award there is. He lets her in, and the consequence is that once again someone he loves is torn out of his life without warning or explanation. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and he becomes the Bat. And then she comes back, only to be again “killed,” again torn away from him by his nemesis, Crime. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and the Bat stands brooding on a rooftop, until the Bat-Signal calls him into action.
And it’s not just him. A singular event can be a trauma, but a trauma can be stretched over a long period of time, too. There is such a thing as mass trauma; a natural disaster, a war, these can inflict trauma on large numbers of people. Perhaps trauma can even occur at a cultural scale, in a sense.
What, then, of a decades-long threat of imminent, violent, fiery destruction? Could we not expect a culture which endured that to come out traumatized on the other side? Would we not expect the culture that survived that to stop seeing the shining future of the World’s Fair, to have its vision of the future become the blighted urban decay of cyberpunk instead? The 90s have a reputation for “grimdark,” for entertainment that is obsessed with being loud, angry, violent, grim, dour, despairing, from comics to music to film.
But maybe that’s just the cultural equivalent of putting on a mask to punch crime in the face.


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Can handle it (The Terrible Trio).
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Reviews: Steven Universe S2E3-4!
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $150/mo: Bonus vlogs! ($43 away.) A second monthly bonus vlog!

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 72

I noticed all the links in the TOC on e-n-morwen.tumblr.com have broken, not to mention that the TOC hasn’t been updated in ages. I’m taking care of it now–I’ve fixed the entire Klingon War arc so far, and will be working on the rest and on off throughout the day.
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.

  • Vinculum: The Tholians arrive, with genocidal intent.
  • Lost and Found: An old enemy escapes from prison. Something is brewing in Cardassian space…
  • Sunrise: A star in Ferengi space suddenly begins behaving very oddly, and the Inverse investigates.

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.

Retroactive Continuity 8: Strong Female Protagonist

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
The key to Strong Female Protagonist vol. 1–the first collection of the webcomic of the same name, published in 2015–appears near the end of Chapter 4, in the flashback to main character Allison’s childhood. At fourteen, she discovers that her budding superpowers are a strange phenomenon affecting many children her age, all over the world, and is brought to a government camp to learn more about her abilities. There, a boy named Hector invites her to join the superhero team he’s organizing, but she refuses on the grounds that there is no manual for being a superhero.
He counters that there is, and hands her a stack of comic books, at the top of which is clearly All-Star Superman #1–its distinctive Frank Quitely cover is unmistakable. The serene, happy, unflappable Superman of the All-Star Superman covers is based on an experience Grant Morrison recounts in his book Supergods. Assuming any of it actually happened (it is difficult to read anything Morrison has to say about himself or comics without the distinct impression that he is never not trying to sell you something), Morrison was at a convention where he met a Superman cosplayer who had this serene, peaceful, sanguine attitude, which struck Morrison as exactly the way a man who cannot be hurt would behave.
Pretty much all of Strong Female Protagonist is a demonstration of just how wrong Morrison is.  Allison–who, like Superman, is nigh-invincible, with her first and only injury occurring at the hands of a being with powers like herself halfway through the book, and even then it’s barely more than a scratch–is in near-constant pain throughout the book, which picks up with her 20th birthday midway through her freshman year of college, about a year after she quit being a superhero. Physically, she is fine, but she has to cope with everything from a friend taking advantage of Allison’s powers to anti-“biodynamic” bigotry to sick and injured friends and loved ones. Most of all, however, she struggles with the knowledge that her powers of super-strength and invulnerability, while handy for dealing with giant robots or supervillains, are useless for dealing with the world’s real problems: poverty, ignorance, environmental issues, war, bigotry.
In this, Strong Female Protagonist bears a notable resemblance to the 1999-2005 comic series Rising Stars, which is similarly about a mysterious meteorological event that granted superpowers to people in utero when their mothers were exposed, and which similarly has powerful heroes struggling with the inadequacy of their powers to solve real problems. Rising Stars will be covered in more depth later in this project, so for now let’s just say that its characters eventually do find a way to truly help, permanently transforming the Earth.
Strong Female Protagonist strongly suggests that that approach is impossible. First, the supervillain Menace (shortly before abandoning supervillainy; he’s Allison’s friend Patrick now, with his former identity known apparently only to the two of them) revealed to Allison that someone killed all the biodynamic individuals whose powers might have really changed the world for the better–people able to generate unlimited energy or talk to diseases are mentioned. Second, Allison rejects her friend Feral’s choice to use her regeneration power to become an endless organ donor, saving dozens of lives a day at the price of unending agony. As Allison points out, the lives she saves will be the wealthy, the powerful, and the insured, while the poor continue to die.
This is, ultimately, a rejection of the protector fantasy. Throughout the book we see its flaws, starting with Professor Cohen, Allison’s teacher who hates her because his husband was a bystander killed in a fight between Allison and a giant robot. When Allison complains about unfair treatment, he’s fired, because the school administration is afraid of what might happen if Allison feels mistreated. People alternately are afraid of her, hate her, treat her with kid gloves, or simply attack her. Even when Allison outright murders someone–a hate-group member who burned Feral and Feral’s medical team, killing the doctors and nurses–and threatens to murder the entire hate-group on national television, she faces no consequences, because she’s a superhero.
Everything is tied together by Allison’s rejection of All-Star Superman as the instruction manual for being a superhero. She accepts that people need protection sometimes, but she rejects the need for protectors. She has a great speech in Chapter 3 in which she argues that Feral’s mistake is in taking everything on herself; that only if everyone agrees to protect everyone else can the world truly be changed for the better.
“I’m nineteen years old, I’m invincible, I’m stronger than any human being who has ever lived, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
Allison’s words when she reveals her identity on live TV and quits superheroing resonate throughout the book. None of us really know what we’re doing, so we dream of protectors who do. In so doing, however, aren’t we really dreaming of abandoning our responsibility to one another?
Shortly after we see the flashback in which Allison received a copy of All-Star Superman, we learn she is returning home because her father has cancer. In an argument shortly after, her sister Jennifer angrily declares that Allison can do anything, to which Allison responds, “I can’t save Dad.” But in All-Star Superman, Superman actually does cure cancer patients–specifically, he sends in swarms of miniaturized Kryptonians to destroy the cancer cells of all the patients in a children’s hospital, with the possible implication that they will be doing this all over the world.
But Allison isn’t a Supergod. She’s not a transcendent, perfect being, who can shoulder all the burdens of humanity and leave us nothing to do. She’s a person, flawed and complicated, who loves fighting but hates that it can’t really solve anything, who craves friendship and connection, who goes to classes and student protests, and happens to be able to punch very, very hard. We still, ultimately, have to take care of ourselves.
More importantly, we still have to take care of each other.


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): A clue, clowny (Harlequinade).
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Reviews: Steven Universe S2E3-4!
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $150/mo: Bonus vlogs! ($43 away.) A second monthly bonus vlog!

Praising with Faint Damnation: A Defense of Spike

This is a commissioned post for the Phyre Family, who donated very generously to the My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Kickstarter. They have very patiently waited without comment for the months it has taken me to figure out how to approach this article. Thank you!
It should come as no surprise to long-time My Little Po-Mo readers that I am not particularly a fan of Spike. I have in the past been quite harsh on him, probably unfairly so. So when I was commissioned to write an essay about Spike and bullying, with no further information on what was desired, I struggled to figure out how to approach it.
My immediate instinct was to write about Spike as a bully. After all, he frequently displays an entitled attitude, self-centeredness, and greed, and more than one of his focus episodes involves him either self-aggrandizing or taking advantage of a position of power. It should be easy to come up with examples of him bullying others, surely?
It wasn’t. It turned out, in fact, to be essentially impossible. Recall our discussion in regards to “One Bad Apple”: not all poor treatment of others is necessarily bullying. Following David Dupper, we defined bullying as utilizing a position of relative power to create an ongoing pattern of psychological or physical abuse against a victim who cannot defend themselves.
Spike has never done this. Oh, Spike has been in positions of power or authority which he abused, such as when he grew to enormous size in “Secret of My Excess” or foisted all the work involved in his pet-care business onto his unpaid interns, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, in “Just for Sidekicks.” But while he does in fact use this power to harm others and take what he wants from them, that’s not actually bullying.
At the core of bullying is a sense of entitlement to power and status over others. The abuse of others is simply a way of demonstrating or expressing the power that the bully believes is theirs by right. That’s not really what Spike is doing in either the examples above. In “Secret of My Excess” he is, first of all, not entirely in control of his behavior, and second, he’s driven not by a desire to demonstrate power he already possesses, but by a desire to take something others possess. Bullying is not, despite common folk-psychology to the contrary, actually driven by jealousy, but by a desire to put others in “their place,” to remind them that their hierarchical status is below the bully’s. A bully doesn’t steal another child’s lunch money because they want or need the money–or, at least, not solely or primarily because they want or need the money–but rather because they want to demonstrate that the other child possesses nothing the bully cannot take.
That’s simply not the motivation Spike expresses in “Secret of My Excess.” He’s after the possessions of others–actually motivated by greed and jealousy, in other words–not trying to set himself up above them. Likewise, in “Just for Sidekicks” he does mistreat the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the pets, but again it’s not out of a desire to demonstrate power over them, but rather a combination of laziness and greed: he wants to get as many gems as possible with as little effort as possible, and neglecting the pets and exploiting the Cutie Mark Crusaders is how he does it.
In other words, when Spike abuses or mistreats people he has power over, it’s in pursuit of something else, while for bullies, bullying is its own reward. Contrast to Spike the behavior of actual bullies, like Diamond Tiara (pre-“Crusaders of the Lost Mark”) or the dragons Spike encounters in “Dragon Quest” and “Gauntlet of Fire” (with the exception of Princess Ember). To take the latter case, the Dragon Lord is a classic bully. He doesn’t receive anything from the other dragons, isn’t exploiting them to gain anything; he simply uses his size and strength to intimidate them into obedience, and takes pleasure in that.
Garble in “Dragon Quest” is a little more complicated. At first, Spike has nothing he wants or respects, so Garble is dismissive and cruel for the sake of it, encouraging Spike to take part in activities Garble is certain he cannot handle, so that Garble and his friends can laugh at Spike’s humiliation. That’s straightforward bullying, but then when Spike is able to handle a bellyflop into lava without injury, Garble’s view changes. Now he sees Spike as “tough,” or at least not completely without toughness, which is to say that Spike has demonstrated a quality Garble values. Garble remains pushy and manipulative, but he is no longer bullying Spike when he takes him on the phoenix egg hunt, but rather trying to include Spike in an activity–he has accepted Spike as, if not an equal, at least someone who has value beyond being a tool for demonstrating Garble’s own superiority. This of course reverses when Spike refuses to destroy the phoenix egg and is defended by the ponies, which Garble interprets as weakness, negating the value he saw in Spike. Thus by “Gauntlet of Fire” Garble is back to bullying Spike, though that takes a backseat to the titular competition.
That competition gives us the key to Spike’s relationship with bullying and the best roles he can play as a character–and I’m using the word “key” deliberately as a reference to the Key episodes of the Season Four. Those episodes, along with Season Five’s Map episodes, involve the ponies taking up teacher or mentor roles, learning more about their Element of Harmony by teaching it to others. And at the end of Season Four, Spike was given a seat at the map table, implying that he would be taking on that role despite not having a (stated) Element of Harmony.
And sure enough, at the beginning of “Gauntlet of Fire” Spike starts glowing just as the Mane Six’s cutie marks glow at the beginnings of their Map episodes; “Gauntlet of Fire” is Spike’s Map episode, his opportunity to teach the lessons he’s learned to another. That other is clearly signposted as well: it is Princess Ember who has the clearest character arc over the course of the episode. What, then, is the lesson? What is it that Spike has learned over the course of the series, and now teaches?
Spike is the little guy, literally–he’s smaller than the other characters and the only male main character. He’s less skilled than the others, less experienced, lacks any obvious specialty. He is a prime target for bullying, and that experience means that he knows what it’s like to be bullied. Enter Princess Ember: smaller than the other dragons, the first girl in what the series had previously portrayed as very much a boys’ club–indeed, as I argued regarding “Dragon Quest,” the dragons are easily readable as a portrayal of toxic, fragile masculinity the series holds up in contrast to the healthy, stable femininity of the ponies. And Ember is definitely bullied by the dragons, and particularly the Dragon Lord: her gender, size, and relative lack of physical power are regarded as markers of inferiority, and she is thus denied participation in the Gauntlet of Fire, which is to say access to leadership positions and social power. She is being held down because she’s seen as inferior, as a means of ensuring the other dragons get to continue to feel superior, which is quite close to our definition of bullying above.
Spike then models for her what it takes to survive being bullied. He refuses to allow his power to be taken from him by participating in the Gauntlet, and helps Ember to make the same refusal. He even demonstrates for her how the ostensibly weak can overcome the powerful, by cooperation–a lesson which she gives every sign of having taken to heart in the episode’s closing. And just as the Mane Six’s Map episodes are as much about developing their characters as educating the guest stars, “Gauntlet of Fire” advances Spike significantly as well: he is no longer alone. Before, he was a new kind of dragon, a postdragon if you will, who embraced the pony way of life and experimented with combining it with his own concepts of what it might mean to be a dragon. Now Ember has learned from him, and stands in a position of power, a healthy feminine presence rising above the toxic masculinity of draconic culture. But she’s learned Spike’s lesson, and does not seek to forcibly impose herself or destroy the other dragons’ masculinity. Instead, she ends the episode using her authority to teach rather than force, to show a different way, to give the dragons the freedom to be themselves that was snatched from them by the toxicity and fragility of their conception of masculinity.
So what is the lesson Spike taught? It was the ability to take the best of others and incorporate it into yourself. The ability to transcend, adapt, evolve–ironically for a character who often struggles to retain his lessons from episode to episode, it turns out that Spike’s equivalent to an Element of Harmony is Change itself. He is a vision of a masculinity that starts toxic and fragile, that must dominate or shatter, but over time allows what it previously rejected as feminine into itself, and constructs a new form of masculinity that can deviate from a narrow path without losing itself.
The danger with Spike has always been that as he grew up he would become the monster from “Secret of My Excess,” the creature of power that can only take, never give, that crushed and destroyed and trampled. But now a new path has opened for him: he can grow up to be Big Mac instead.

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 71

Okay, should be able to return to regular posts with this for a while. Apologies to both readers of this series for all the delays and hiatuses.
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.

  • Living Death: The verteron source is discovered, and then things get worse.
  • Vinculum: The Tholians arrive, with genocidal intent.

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.