Retroactive Continuity 13: Megas XLR S1E1: "Test Drive"

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

As the Long 90s draw to their close, new possibilities open. A lengthy struggle with the ideas of good and evil, which gave us villainous heroes, heroic villains, and 90s antiheroes galore, has been brutally interrupted by conflict for conflict’s sake. No longer is the battle between protagonist and antagonist a war between ideals; now it’s a game played by ten-year-olds and their yellow electric rodents.
The anime boom ushered in by Pokemon had a massive transformative impact on American cartoons, one which eventually back-trickled into comics as well. It encouraged increased serialization–a trend which, as we saw all the way back in Deep Space Nine, was already being felt from the other direction, live action science fiction and fantasy–younger protagonists, and most importantly for Megas XLR, a very different conception of both hero and antihero.
Neither Pokemon nor most of the series added to American television in its wake contain the particular element we’re looking at, but it was common in the media available to someone who was an anime fan or Japanophile before the Pokemon craze. Given that this form of fandom was until recently almost exclusively a pursuit of (and is still dominated by) teens and young 20-somethings, anyone who was a professional adult far enough in their career to head their own show in 2004 must have had their primary exposure to anime no later than the early 1990s, more likely the 80s or even 70s. Rather than Pokemon, Sailor Moon, or Dragon Ball Z, the primary influences one would expect to see in an anime-influenced American cartoon in 2004 are the classic mecha anime of the 70s and 80s, and maybe kaiju movies.
Precisely the influences, in other words, that visibly inform Megas XLR. For instance, the Gundam-esque robots massacred by aliens who, in turn, are massacred by a unique prototype super robot, recall Gainax’s early work Gunbuster, while the giant beam cannon which emerges from Megas’ chest is very obviously the prow of the titular Space Battleship Yamato, firing its infamous Wave Motion Gun. Perhaps the biggest influences, however, are Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and the Godzilla franchise, in the sense of a heroic titular entity that does colossal amounts of damage to that which it is supposed to protect. Just like Megas, Godzilla frequently ravages Tokyo even while protecting it from greater threats; the SDF Macross, meanwhile, does massive damage to the civilian sectors of the ship every time it transforms into its robot mode.
All three are notably distinct from the kind of destruction brought about by 90s antiheroes, who typically do a better job of focusing it on their enemies. The difference can perhaps be summarized by noting that the 90s antihero chooses to slaughter his (and it is, almost always, his) enemies, while Megas and its antecedents do so accidentally. The antiheroism of the 90s, in other words, comes from hatred, rage, and machismo, while, on the other hand, the antiheroism of the anime-influenced 2000s comes from ineptitude, carelessness, and a capacity for destruction so great that it cannot be contained to the chosen target. The antiheroes of the 90s are deadly serious, and hence absurd; the antiheroes of the 2000s are absurd, and therefore can be taken seriously.
Which brings us to the absurd figures of Coop, a genius technician who repairs an alien robot from the future for fun, yet is somehow still consistently lazy and sloppy; Kiva, highly skilled military commander from the future who can’t control two lazy teenagers to save her life; and perhaps best of all Jamie, the epitome of 90s cool, with his goth wardrobe and snarky attitude, his laid-back aimlessness, his pursuit of wealth and women over all else–so of course he contributes nothing and just tries to take credit for Coop’s work, being ultimately just as lazy and sloppy.
It’s very funny, but there’s something underneath, as well. Remember the essential struggle that gave rise to the 90s antihero: the apocalypse was averted, the great war between good and evil fizzled out, so was there ever any such conflict? Are they distinguishable, or is good simply evil with better PR?
By contrast, what Megas (and its predecessors, as well as early- and mid-90s comedy anime like The Slayers) present is a hero whose power is so much greater than those around it that simply to be near it is dangerous. It gives us a world that we must destroy to save, a near-apocalypse that occurs not because the hero stops the villain from destroying the world at the last second, but rather because the hero nearly destroys the world in the course of stopping the villain. There is good in the world, buried deep beneath sarcasm and incompetence and greed, but there will be collateral damage when it bursts out. To be saved, the world must be changed, which means the world-that-was must be destroyed.
And we can destroy it, or so Megas XLR, laughing, tells us. All we have to do is find first gear in our giant robot car.


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Psycho-Pass Season 1 Episodes 13 and 14 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

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Two Questions for 2017

Phil Sandifer asked two excellent questions on Twitter recently, suggesting that answering these would make a good replacement for New Year’s resolutions:
“1) At what point would you consider your government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? 2) At what point does violence become an acceptable tactic for resistance? (Unless you’re a full pacifist, the answer isn’t “never.”)”
He went on to say that sharing our answers publicly would be even better. Here, therefore, are mine. Feel free to comment with yours, or post them wherever, or just write them down on a piece of paper and stick it in a drawer to look at later.
So. When is a government illegitimate and in need of removal outside traditional democratic processes? This is two separate questions. The first is when a government loses legitimacy. In my view, there are two basic functions of government: to promote the general welfare, and to act as an asshole control mechanism. The first should be fairly straightforward: keep the people safe and healthy and ensure they have space within which to be who they are. The second is an acknowledgment that, first, everyone is an asshole sometimes, and some people are assholes most or all of the time–in this case, “asshole” meaning a person who acquires and exploits power over others in order to subjugate or harm them. The second job of government is to therefore minimize opportunities to be an asshole, mitigate the damage caused by assholes, and if necessary cut off assholes’ access to whatever it is that they’re exploiting.
So, simply, a government loses legitimacy when it is no longer able to effectively exercise those two functions. The second part of the question is then fairly straightforward: if traditional democratic processes are unable to restore the ability of government to perform those functions, then the government has failed and must be replaced. This is an inevitable occurrence: the only way an asshole control mechanism can work is if it is able to wield some form of power over them, but that means that the government has power that can be wielded over people. Sooner or later the assholes will get their hands on that power. There are ways to set up internal mechanisms to control the assholes who would exploit the asshole control mechanism itself, but eventually some asshole will solve the system and start exploiting it, and once that happens, nothing can prevent its complete subversion.
This has happened. The assholes solved the system we know as capitalist liberal democracy over a century ago at the latest, as first the assholes we now call robber barons, and later the ones we call fascists, took control. Major overhauls over the next few decades–the welfare state, civil rights movements–kept it lumbering along for a while, but the revised system was clearly solved by assholes by the time Thatcher and Reagan came to power. Everything since then has been collapse and decay. It is now very, very obvious even to the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals that the U.S.’s traditional democratic processes have utterly failed to control the assholes, and in fact are now being exploited to empower them.
The question then is, if not traditional democratic processes, what? We are obviously talking about some form of resistance, but does that necessarily entail violent resistance? If so, when, where, and how?
Let me tell you a story about my father: When my father was young, mandatory prayer and corporal punishment were still both legal and commonplace in U.S. schools. He was also very often the only Jew–indeed, the only non-Christian–in his classes. As Jewish law requires, he habitually refused to take part in Christian prayers, instead just sitting quietly. One day a teacher took exception to this, and used their habitual punishment: he was ordered to place his hands on the desk so that they could be smacked with a ruler. Instead, he snatched the ruler from the teacher, broke it, and threw the pieces in her face.
I have no idea if that story’s true. My parents were both, shall we say, prone to exaggeration. But it’s not really important whether it’s true; the point was that it was held up by my parents as a model of behavior, an act of justified violence.
And that, to me, is when violence is appropriate: when it is recognized by the oppressed as the best available means of destroying the power structures underlying their oppression. There are, of course, moral considerations regarding collateral damage, harm to innocents, reprisals; but ultimately that’s what it comes down to. The only thing that can stand up to power is power, and violence is very often the cheapest and easiest form of power, making it the hardest form to strip away.
Just things to keep in mind for the coming year.

Drop the act (Make 'Em Laugh)

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It’s November 5, 1994. The top song is, as seemingly always, “I’ll Make Love to You.” In fact, the only difference between who charted (or, rather, would chart) in the last entry and who charted in this one is that this entry has Madonna instead of Bon Jovi; otherwise it’s the same five people. At the movies, Stargate is enjoying its second weekend at number one, followed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein debuting at number two.
Yesterday, the first conference solely about the commercial potential of the Internet was held in San Francisco, but on the bright side, the first Internet radio “broadcast” will take place the day after tomorrow, courtesy of the student radio station at UNC Chapel Hill. The day after that, the Republicans take over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, so you can see how well Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council’s plan to shift the Democrats rightward worked at getting them votes. In between, there’s a bad flood in Piedmont, Italy, but that doesn’t appear to be related to either the corporate takeover of the Internet or of the Democratic Party.
There are basically two ways to look at this episode: as a Joker story, or as a sort of epilogue to the not-actually-a-four-parter about inherent criminality and the inevitability that villains will return to crime. Let’s do both.
Start with the idea of inherent criminality. On the surface, it’s straightforwardly denied here. The three comedians (one clearly a mean-spirited caricature of Roseanne Barr, leading me to suspect the other two are caricatures of early-90s comedians that flew under 13-year-old me’s radar) have to be mind-controlled into committing their crimes, and don’t appear on the show again, implying that they do not resume their criminal activity.
But remember, by now we have fairly thoroughly established that Gotham has four classes: Batman, criminals, government, and victims. Rather than denying that these classes are inherent roles, the mind-controlled comedians prove it. They are almost completely inept villains, with only not-Roseanne posing anything resembling a threat, and even she only a brief one; the reason they never return is that their real role was to be victims of the Joker, who is portrayed as being inherently criminal.
Those, after all, are the two apparent possibilities where the Joker is concerned. Either he is devoid of agenda, simply concerned with creating jokes according to a macabre sense of humor only he entirely understands (as in “The Laughing Fish,”) and occasionally seeking disproportionate revenge for petty slights (as in this episode and “Joker’s Favor”), or else he is playing at being a mercurial force of chaos that seeks to conquer the show and recreate it in his own image (as in “Christmas with the Joker” and Batman Adventures #1-3).
Except in both cases it doesn’t really matter, because in effect he is indistinguishable from the dominator-style villains like Bane and Mad Hatter–even borrowing the latter’s schtick for this episode! Whether he’s playing pranks or trying to conquer the show, he spends his time pushing people under himself, to place himself at the top. Hence his fury at little Sid the Squid in “The Man Who Killed Batman”: there is an order to the Joker’s universe, and part of that order is that Joker is the highest of criminals, one step below Batman in the hierarchy, and therefore he and he alone can be Batman’s killer. When he tries to impose his brand of chaos, it is not through the magical transformation that Harley brings to “Harlequinade” simply by being Harley,  but rather something he creates through force and control,  whether that’s hijacking the airwaves  or people’s brains.  Where Harley’s dedication to the Joker means that every time she is being a criminal she is simultaneously also being a victim, undermining the hierarchy, the Joker forcibly reminds victims of their status as victims, reinforcing the hierarchy he seeks to climb.
Consider again the last comedian, the Roseanne caricature. Joker transforms her into the violent Mighty Mom, who attacks using household implements. This is a riff, most likely, on Barr’s most famous role, the titular matriarch in the sitcom Roseanne, whose acerbic wit and cutting tongue were the glue that held her working class family together. But considered diegetically, this is plainly and simply the Joker being sexist: given control of a conventionally attractive young woman like Harleen Quinzel, he puts her in a skintight suit, but given control of a woman who is not conventionally attractive and a decade or two older, he makes her a domestic figure whose costume and equipment could just as easily be janitor-themed as motherhood-themed.
In other words, to the Joker, women exist to be sexy, submissive sidekicks, or to clean up after him. He clearly buys into the power structure we know as misogyny, and chooses every opportunity to sit at the top of it. Gotham’s peculiar class structure is no different.
Joker is, of course, a power fantasy. All supervillains are. But he is a particular fantasy, a fantasy of being able to do whatever we want, not because the world has changed into the Land of Do-As-You-Please and everyone does whatever they want, but because we have the power to stand beyond rebuke or retribution. The Joker is the terror of anarchy, the frightful possibility that if we remove the people at the top of the hierarchy, the hierarchy will not end, but rather find  itself under the boot of someone much worse.
It is fitting, then, that he and Ra’s al-Ghul are traditionally positioned as Batman’s greatest foes. Al-Ghul is, as we have observed, the near-apocalypse incarnate, the almost-toppling of the social order which the hero averts at the last moment. The Joker is the post-apocalypse, the lawless aftermath of the toppling of the social order, in which we are enslaved by warlords who amplify all the worst excesses of kyriarchy and late capitalism. Neither offers real transformation because, in the end, both seek only to rule, to burn the world and reign over the ashes rather than building something new.
But maybe burning the world is the wrong approach entirely..


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Psycho-Pass Season 1 Episodes 11 and 12 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 Psycho-Pass and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.
I’ll update this post with the log after the chat.
ETA: Chatlog under the cut!
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