Animated Discussions launch date and excerpt!

My latest book, Animated Discussions is finished and has been sent out to Kickstarter backers! It formally launches Thursday, June 15!
I am in the process of sending out review copies now. If you are interested in reviewing the book for your publication/blog/podcast/what-have-you, contact me here, via e-mail (froborr@gmail.com), or on Twitter (@froborr) and I will send you an ebook. I am also available as a guest for podcasts or can provide an excerpt as a guest blogpost.
Below is an excerpt of the book, a backer commission. I left it up to the backer whether it should be book-exclusive or not, and he chose for it to be posted publicly.
The Fist of God: One-Punch Man and the Menace of the Divine
Gods like a joke as much as anyone else.
—Terry Pratchett[1]
 
This essay was commissioned by Shane Martin DeNota-Hoffman through the Kickstarter campaign that funded publication of this book. His requested topic was “godhood in season one of One-Punch Man.” I have no idea what he expected, but this is what he’s getting.
One-Punch Man is a silly show. The story of an unemployed slacker and “superhero for fun,”[2] Saitama, a man so powerful that he can defeat any foe in a single punch—usually by causing them to explode into a ridiculous spray of gore. In the entire series to date,[3] only one opponent, the alien superwarrior Boros, survives multiple punches from Saitama, and even he died the moment Saitama shifted from using “Consecutive Normal Punches” to “Serious Series Serious Punch,” implied to be the first time Saitama has ever put forth any kind of effort in a battle.[4] Along the way to that final battle, Saitama’s adventures include taking an exam to be certified and registered as a superhero—he aces the physical but barely squeaks by in the written, resulting in him being classified as the lowest possible rank of hero[5]—scrambling to find street crime to foil because low-ranked heroes have to meet a quota to maintain their license,[6] taking advantage of grocery store sales,[7] and being picked on by higher-ranked heroes.[8]
Saitama is a complex character, or at least as complex as a 12-episode parody of shonen action series and superhero comics can produce. His primary motivation is the desire for combat: he wants, more than anything, an interesting battle with a challenging foe, and has descended into ennui since he became so strong that no one can stand against him.[9] However, he is neither a blood-drenched, gritty warrior, noble champion, nor tragic redemption- or vengeance-seeker, but a generally calm, lazy, impatient man. He knows he has nothing to teach the cyborg hero Genos, his self-declared “disciple”[10] and roommate,[11] so he just feeds him vague platitudes about patience and mindfulness.[12]
The only explanation the anime ever provides for Saitama’s abilities are his own: that for three years he did strength training consisting of 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and a 10 kilometer run, every day without fail.[13] However, the anime heavily implies that this explanation is mistaken, with other characters responding that, as intensive strength training regimens go, Saitama’s is nothing special[14] and speculating that his powers may come from some source even he is unaware of.[15] One staff member of the Hero Association even muses regarding Saitama’s record-breaking success at the physical exam, “It’s as if there’s a god residing in that body.”
This might stand as simply a hyperbolic way of commenting on Saitama’s absurd strength and skill if not for the fact that it’s one of only two references to gods in the series. The other is the threat-level classification system the Hero Association uses: Tiger for threats to human life, Demon for threats potentially capable of wiping out a city, Dragon for threats capable of destroying a large area including multiple cities, and finally God for threats to the survival of the human species.[16]
It is perhaps interesting, then, that so many of the villains which appear in the series can be understood as “nature’s wrath” type monsters. The first villain shown in the series declares himself such: he announces himself as Vaccine Man, born from humanity’s pollution, now out to destroy us.[17] Primed by that example, we can read the next monster shown—the first Saitama ever killed, before he began training as a hero—in a similar light: it claims to have once been a normal human, but after eating too much crab it became a crab monster, and is trying to kill a little boy who drew on its shell while it was sleeping.[18] As a species, we are devouring the oceans in our gluttonous consumption of this planet’s resources,[19] and here is a person punished for gluttonous consumption of seafood by being transformed into seafood. In turn, the monster rampages, targeting a child for mistreating it by attempting to kill them. Not even our children are innocent; they pollute, destroy, treat the natural world and other living things of this planet as toys for their amusement. Other monsters throughout the series take plant or animal forms or represent a part of the natural world rising to destroy humanity, including Mosquito Girl, whom Saitama turns into a bloody splatter on a wall; [20] the deadly seaweed monster Kombu Infinity, whom Saitama kills and uses as soup stock;[21] and the Deep Sea King and his fellow fish monsters who try to invade and conquer the surface.[22]
Nature has good reason to be wrathful in One-Punch Man: the series depicts a world which is almost entirely urban. The only rural or wild spaces depicted are bleak landscapes: a farm occupied entirely by dead cows,[23] a mountainside occupied by the headquarters of a monster-making scientist,[24] a barren canyon,[25] the bottom of the sea.[26] Even the fight between Hammerhead’s gang and Sonic, while visually taking place in a space with grass, trees, and large boulders, occurs while Hammerhead’s gang was moving from one skyscraper to another, visibly in the same city; [27] this is not a natural space, but rather a park, created for human use and human pleasure.
Indeed, a map of the world shows a single gigantic continent divided into cities, which cover it entirely.[28] The world of One-Punch Man is completely urbanized, completely conquered by humanity—and yet it is not conquered at all, rising constantly in rebellion. Humanity has attempted to subjugate nature, and nature is striking back with all the violence at its disposal.
Yet this progression of successively more devastating personified forces of nature is interrupted by the alien invasion that occupies the final three episodes. Boros presented, not as a force of nature, but as a foil and Shadow for Saitama.[29] Like Saitama, he was the most powerful fighter on his planet, to the point that no battle even required effort on his part. Like Saitama, he yearns to find a challenging opponent. Unlike Saitama, whose general passivity keeps his violence restrained until a challenger comes to him, however, Boros sought out powerful fighters to kill.[30] He invades Earth, destroys A City, and threatens to annihilate the Earth purely to satisfy his desire for combat. How does he fit in, if he does at all?
Nature and the divine are frequently equated in anime. Shinto shrines are often depicted as idyllic locations rich in vegetation, whether atop a mountain,[31] deep in the woods near a small rural town,[32] or in a city.[33] In Miyazaki’s famous film Princess Mononoke, the animal gods[34] of nature declare war on the polluting, forest-destroying humans of Iron Town.[35] The wrath of nature and the wrath of the gods are one; the most threatening of the monsters attacking humanity on nature’s behalf are called God-level threats because they are gods.
And perhaps that isn’t such a bad way to describe Saitama’s ability. Remember, the fight against Boros was the first time he had to put in effort; all the fights where he disintegrates giant monsters into ludicrous sprays of blood with a single punch are him holding back. His battles cause so much devastation that his entire neighborhood has been abandoned,[36] and during his training with Genos he annihilates a mountain.[37] Boros claims his final attack can destroy a planet; Saitama punches it back at him, suggesting Saitama’s “Serious Series Serious Punch” is even more powerful—if they were equally powerful, the punch would have simply stopped Boros’ attack, not reversed it. Even then, Boros insists that Saitama is lying about it being a close battle.[38] Saitama, in short, is potentially capable of destroying the planet, wiping out the human species; by the standards of the Hero Association, he is a God-level threat.
The idea of superheroes as gods is nothing new, of course. Superhero comics are often referred to as “modern mythology,”[39] ignoring the rather crucial difference that myths are believed to be true by the cultures that create them, not to mention usually associated with religion in some way.[40] True, Grant Morrison believes the superheroes of DC Comics are nonetheless gods and their stories a mythology,[41] but this is within the context of his belief that cosmic beings came to him in Kathmandu and showed him visions of the universe as a living being, and that his work as a comics writer is to help our universe to give birth to baby universes,[42] which is not really a metanarrative compatible with this book.[43]
Morrison describes Superman as “A man who was invulnerable to all harm,”[44] which, much like claiming that superheroes are gods, seems to miss some glaring inconsistencies. Superman is invulnerable to physical harm, true, but he can be hurt, and hurt badly: by harm to people he cares about, by exposure of his secret identity,[45] by the realization that he may be doing more harm than good.[46] Despite Morrison’s protestations to the contrary,[47] Superman would not be perpetually relaxed and confident; he knows pain, and therefore knows that pain is a possibility. After all, superheroes are born in trauma.[48]
But not Saitama. He is a parody of superheroes as much as he is a parody of shonen fighting anime characters; his strange combination of general unconcern with the world around him and driving passion for combat is an exaggeration of traits found in many shonen protagonists,[49] but his costume—pajamas and a cape—and the Hero Association are clearly parodies of Western superheroes, calling to mind organizations like the Justice League[50] and claims that superheroes were referred to as “long underwear characters” in the comics industry.[51] And as a parody of superheroes, one of his most important features is that he has no originating trauma; he simply decided being a hero would be fun and started training,[52] creating a marked (and very funny) contrast to characters like Genos, whose tragic backstory involves the death of his family, the reconstruction of his body, and a quest for revenge.[53]
Saitama is more like Morrison’s Superman than the one in the comics, TV shows, and movies: laid back, lackadaisical, comfortable in the knowledge that nothing can hurt him. However, Morrison’s Superman cares, and to care is to be vulnerable, to be open to hurt via harm to that which one cares about. The gods, too, care. That care makes them vulnerable, and vulnerability creates a space for fear, worry, anxiety, grief, loss, pain—and anger. The natural world they guard is being destroyed by overweening, rapacious humanity; plundered, then paved over and covered in skyscrapers, reduced to parks, or used as a dumping ground. That which they protect has been harmed, and that harms them; so they respond by harming humanity.
This brings Boros in line with the other monsters. He and Saitama both care about getting to have a good fight, and so both are vulnerable to the lack of such fights.[54] Saitama gets frustrated, upset, even angry when he kills a seemingly impressive monster too easily;[55] Boros has been hurting for a long time, driven by the frustration of being unable to find someone who can oppose him.[56] Saitama is that person, the reason a seer sent Boros to Earth to meet his match,[57] and so it is Saitama’s training to become a hero which has, ultimately, brought Boros to Earth. Like his ruined neighborhood[58] or the city destroyed by the debris of the meteor Saitama punched,[59] the destruction of A City is a product of Saitama’s desire to fight.
Saitama is a force of destruction, a God-tier monster who threatens the entire world. Compare his origin to the crab monster’s. That man wanted crab, so he ate too much crab and became a crab monster, punishment to humanity for our destruction of the seas. Saitama wanted strength, so he did too much strength training and became a strength monster, punishment to humanity for our power. Though he does not know it, he is a god, the instrument of our demise.
Fortunately for us—both as a species and as viewers—he’s also quite silly, and surrounded by a world that’s even sillier.
[1] Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (New York: HarperTorch, 2000).
[2] “The Strongest Man,” One-Punch Man (Madhouse, 2015). Daisuki.net.
[3] As of this writing, a second season has been announced, but not yet released. “One-Punch Man TV Anime Gets 2nd Season, Game App,” Anime News Network September 25, 2016. http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-09-25/one-punch-man-tv-anime-gets-2nd-season-game-app/.106871
[4] “The Strongest Hero,” One-Punch Man.
[5] “The Ultimate Master,” One-Punch Man.
[6] “The Terrifying City,” One-Punch Man.
[7] “The Obsessive Scientist,” One-Punch Man.
[8] “The Terrifying City” and “The Ultimate Disciple,” One-Punch Man.
[9] “The Strongest Man,” One-Punch Man.
[10] “The Lone Cyborg,” One-Punch Man.
[11] “The Ultimate Master,” One-Punch Man.
[12] “The Terrifying City,” One-Punch Man.
[13] “The Obsessive Scientist,” One-Punch Man.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “The Ultimate Master,” One-Punch Man.
[16] “The Ultimate Disciple,” One-Punch Man.
[17] “The Strongest Man,” One-Punch Man.
[18] Ibid.
[19] John Roach, “Seafood May Be Gone by 2048, Study Says,” National Geographic News November 2, 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/11/061102-seafood-threat.html
[20] “The Lone Cyborg,” One-Punch Man.
[21] “The Terrifying City,” One-Punch Man.
[22] “The Ultimate Disciple,” “The Deep Sea King,” and “Unyielding Justice,” One-Punch Man.
[23] “The Strongest Man” and “The Lone Cyborg,” One-Punch Man.
[24] “The Obsessive Scientist,” One-Punch Man.
[25] “The Ultimate Master,” One-Punch Man.
[26] “The Ultimate Disciple,” One-Punch Man.
[27] “The Modern Ninja,” One-Punch Man.
[28] “The Ultimate Disciple,” One-Punch Man.
[29] See Chapter 10 for a discussion of the foil, the Shadow, and how they differ.
[30] “The Dominator of the Universe,” One-Punch Man.
[31] See the Misaki Shrine in most of the various Tenchi Muyo series, for example in Tenchi Muyo! Tenchi Universe: The Complete Series (Funimation, 2012).
[32] Such as the Furude Shrine in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, dedicated to the local god Oyashiro-sama. When They Cry: Season 1 (Section 23, 2016).
[33] For instance, the gorgeous and magical trees of Ms. Masaki’s shrine in “Sakura and the Shrine of Memories,” Cardcaptor Sakura: Complete Collection (NIS America, 2014). Additionally, although it is in a grotto rather than the more typical lush, green environment, the shrine Sakura’s class visits during their beach trip is nonetheless in a natural, as opposed to human, space. “Sakura’s Scary Test of Courage,” Cardcaptor Sakura.
[34] Technically speaking, kami, which are not quite the same thing as gods. For purposes of this discussion, however, they are close enough.
[35] Hayao Miyazaki (dir.), Princess Mononoke (Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2016).
[36] “The Terrifying City,” One-Punch Man.
[37] “The Ultimate Master,” One-Punch Man.
[38] “The Strongest Hero,” One-Punch Man.
[39] See for example the headline and interviewees in Archie Bland, “Comic book superheroes: the gods of modern mythology,” The Guardian May 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/27/comic-book-superheroes-the-gods-of-modern-mythology
[40] Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, “Myth,” The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997).
[41] Grant Morrison, Supergods (Spiegal & Grau, 2012).
[42] Ibid.
[43] See the introduction to Chapter 12 for discussion of why.
[44] Grant Morrison, Supergods.
[45] Both of which occur in Alan Moore, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore (DC Comics, 2006).
[46] As happens in Mark Millar, Superman: Red Son (DC Comics, 2004).
[47] Grant Morrison, Supergods. I feel compelled to note that while I am fairly harsh on Morrison when he writes about superhero comics, his writing of superhero comics is generally excellent.
[48] See Chapter 7.
[49] The most familiar such character to Western audiences probably being Goku, the main protagonist of the Dragon Ball franchise. See for example Dragon Ball Z: Season One (Funimation, 1996).
[50] Like the Hero Association, a large organization with a shifting membership of heroes of wildly varying abilities and power, with facilities all over the world and a support staff of non-heroes, backed by a billionaire and headed by a small council, in at least one cartoon incarnation. Justice League: The Complete Series (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2010).
[51] “Spider-Man!” Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962).
[52] “The Strongest Man,” One-Punch Man.
[53] “The Lone Cyborg,” One-Punch Man.
[54] “The Dominator of the Universe,” One-Punch Man.
[55] “The Strongest Hero,” One-Punch Man.
[56] “The Dominator of the Universe,” One-Punch Man.
[57] Ibid.
[58] “The Terrifying City,” One-Punch Man.
[59] “The Ultimate Disciple,” One-Punch Man.

I am relaxed (The Main Man)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
Content warning: discussion of toxic masculinity and implied rape threats
It’s November 9 and 16, 1996. The top song both weeks is “No Diggety” by Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre; Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Donna Lewis, and Los Del Rio make up the rest of the top five, though the order varies between weeks. At the box office, Ransom opens at number one the weekend of the 9th, and Space Jam does the same on the 16th.
In the news, Bill Clinton is reelected as President on the 5th. NASA launches the Mars Global Surveyor on the 7th. A cyclone kills over 2,000 people in Andhra Pradesh, India on the 8th. And it’s a bad time to fly: a Nigerian plane crashes into the Atlantic on the 8th, killing all 141 people on board, and a midair collision between a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight and a Kazakhstan Airlines flight over New Delhi, India kills over 300 people on the 12th.
On Superman: The Animated Series, we have the two-part episode “The Main Man,” introducing the comics character Lobo to the DC Animated Universe. Created in the 80s as a villain for The Omega Men, Lobo largely faded into obscurity until he was resurrected as an antihero in the 90s. According to co-creator Keith Gillen, Lobo was intended as a parody of Wolverine and the Punisher, a selfish, remorseless, violent, absurdly heavily armed bounty hunter with a nasty attitude who could heal near-instantly from the most gruesome injuries. Which makes sense of his revival in the 90s, since Wolverine and the Punisher (and Wolverine-as-the-Punisher) were the template for the boom of absurdly overmuscled, massive gun-toting, trigger-happy mass murderers that dominated the comics of the decade.
A character who once killed Santa Claus at the behest of the Easter Bunny might seem an odd choice for a children’s cartoon, especially one which has already positioned itself as the (literally) lighter, more optimistic answer to Batman: The Animated Series, but then on the other hand the first word that comes to mind when considering Lobo is “cartoonish.” Everything about this type of character is an absurd caricature; the only difference between Lobo and the constipated stacks of guns and biceps which emerged from the pens of Rob Liefeld and his ilk is that Lobo’s creators know he’s a parody.
The second and third words which come to mind regarding Lobo and the panoply of characters he parodies (despite predating most of them) are “testosterone poisoning.” That is to say, Lobo’s entire character is about toxic, fragile masculinity. He exists in a state of permanent swagger, constantly positioning himself as the most powerful, most violent being in the room. He hits on Lois as an assertion of power, utterly unfazed that she is repulsed by him; he is just demonstrating that she can’t stop him from hitting on her, with the implied threat that she couldn’t stop him from going further, either. Later, while gloating at Superman, he comments that he might go back to Earth to see Lois, again as an assertion that Superman cannot stop him. I am not, to be clear, suggesting that he intends to rape Lois; rather, he is saying that he could if he wanted to, as part of a perpetual and toxic need to demonstrate that he is unstoppably powerful, a need which is closely tied to his conception of sex and gender.
Hegemonic masculinity, after all, is inherently about power and violence; that’s what “hegemony” means. To lack power is to be “impotent” or “emasculated”: for the kind of toxic masculinity that Lobo represents, masculinity means having and wielding power, and sex is an expression of that power. Manhood is something easily lost–any weakness, any vulnerability, any failure to dominate is unmanly. Something like Superman’s flirtatious, back-and-forth mutual teasing with Lois early in the episode is, to this mindset, unacceptable, because it requires treating each other as equals.
Lobo is not the only example of this toxic need to dominate; the Preserver presents another side of it. He is a curious choice of villain, with an interestingly symbiotic relationship to last episode’s villain Brainiac: Brainiac destroys entire worlds and countless species to freeze them in a moment of time that he can remember forever, while the Preserver collects the last survivors of destroyed worlds and species. To the Preserver, it is not the information that matters but the rarity, as he builds a collection of unique and special entities, carefully sealed in transparent containers designed to keep them safe so that he can view them but never interact and look let’s stop pretending I’m not talking about comic collectors.
After all, the other major thing going on in superhero comics at this point, besides the rise of toxically masculine musclebound murderers, was the speculator boom. With the shift of comic sales from newsstands to specialty shops in the 1980s, the audience shifted as well. Comics were now something which had to be actively sought out by the buyer, which meant a smaller, more dedicated audience. If you didn’t already buy comics, it was quite easy to never see a comic for sale at all, which meant the business of comics became less about bringing in people who didn’t read comics at all, and more about getting people who already read comics to spend their money on your comic. One of the ways in which companies did this was by playing up comics as an investment; rather than periodicals to be read once and then thrown away, as implied by flimsy construction and cheap printing, the ephemerality of comic books was pushed as a reason to keep them until they became rare antiques. Increasingly fanciful gimmicks aimed at these collectors–first issues, “zeroth” issues, alternate covers, foil covers, holographic covers–became commonplace as publishers fought to expand their piece of a shrinking pie.
The Preserver is one of these collectors. He clearly cares not at all for the creatures he collects, as witness his complete lack of interest in the fact that Lobo and Superman don’t want to be prisoners; the only reason he provides tailored environments in the cages and display cases is preserve his specimens. It is the ownership, the possession, which matters to him, not the creatures themselves, just like a comic collector buying a comic to put in a plastic sheath and preserve in mint condition, preventing it from ever being read. A mint comic is a wasted comic, a piece of art owned instead of appreciated.
His closeness to Brainiac–both in the sense of appearing in consecutive episodes, and in their curiously symbiotic relationship–is no accident either. Several shots throughout the second part of “The Main Man” depict, as a background detail, the mind-controlling, parasitic villain Starro as one of the Preserver’s collection. Starro presumably ends up in the Fortress of Solitude along with the other animals at the end of the episode, and there he stays until he becomes the villain of a two-part episode, set 20 years later, aired three years later, on another show. In comics, this kind of absurd callback–an entire story hinging on a background detail of an issue of a different comic released years prior–started becoming more common in the late 60s, but its frequency greatly accelerated in the 1980s with crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths. The contraction of comics’ audience to a small pool of dedicated fans was tailor-made for this kind of writing, which rewarded the careful curation of a mental library of tiny details gathered through years of reading every issue of multiple comics, and also encouraged curious fans who hadn’t read the comic with the background detail to find and buy it at the specialty shop.
Unfortunately, this approach to text has side effects, one of which is that it enslaves writers to the tyranny of dead stories. Instead of living, amorphous tales which change with the teller and the telling, stories become fixed in a single form that cannot be contradicted, creating an ever-shrinking ideaspace within which to tell new stories. The need to catalog, collect, collate, and curate continuity requires freezing it, killing it; where the Preserver is a collector, Brainiac is a continuity hound. What we see here is the degree to which they are fundamentally related, because both are ultimately about possessing instead of experiencing; one neglects and the other destroys what they claim as their own, and thus neither gets to actually enjoy it in and for itself. Superman cannot be Superman, Lobo cannot be Lobo, in the Preserver’s cages or Brainiac’s memory banks; they can only be looked at from afar, through plastic. They must be suppressed, Lobo by gas and Superman by red-sun radiation, so that they can be contained and controlled.
Both the Preserver and Brainiac, in other words, are about possession as an assertion of power. They are seeking hegemony, Brainiac demonstrating his superiority to others by possessing knowledge inaccessible to them, the Preserver by possessing unique creatures that therefore cannot be possessed by others. Brainiac’s power takes the form of dominating the trivia contest, the Preserver’s the form of “I have it and you don’t.” The fundamental similarity of these approaches to Lobo’s violence is exposed when the Preserver reveals his true, monstrous form and attacks Lobo and Superman; at its core, this is the same need to dominate, just channeled in a different way.
Superman’s power, on the other hand, is positioned as being fundamentally different. Just as his teasing with Lois is contrasted to Lobo’s aggression (note the implied violence of the phrase I used for it before, hitting on her) in the first part, their positionality relative to women is more subtly contrasted again in the second. Where Superman is caged alone–complete in himself–Lobo is given two scantily clad female-presenting robots to wait on him. Given someone to dominate, he is happy, and the mise-en-scene is cheesily complicit in his dominion, with smoky saxophones playing while the camera focuses on the robots’ butts. Until Lobo fails to comply with the Preserver’s control, at least, at which point their jaws unhinge and hoses emerge to gas him. It is about as subtle as the vagina dentata in “Pretty Poison”: they are temporarily decapitated by phalluses that allow them to dominate and control Lobo.
Once free, he subjects them to the male gaze once more: one of the defining features of the male gaze is the way it dismembers female bodies, often by metaphorically decapitating them by placing the top edge of the frame at the neck line, because what the camera is interested in is breasts, butts, and legs. Lobo makes this literal, first destroying the robots’ heads, then their arms, so that they momentarily are nothing but torsos with legs, before falling apart entirely.
This is where the contrast to Superman comes in: the very next shot is a slow pan up Superman’s legs and torso before finally reaching his face, precisely the kind of camera motion that, if he were a woman in a similarly tight, bodyhugging costume, would be accompanied by cheesily smoky saxophones and possibly a wolf whistle. Superman is being positioned as an object of desire; specifically, given the position of the camera and the fact that we just saw Lobo enforcing the male gaze on the robots, he is being positioned as an object of Lobo’s desire.
Which is, of course, the joke. Hegemonic masculinity is reflexively homophobic: if masculine sexuality is about asserting power over the object of desire, then to be desired by a man is to have someone else assert power over you and therefore to be emasculated, while at the same time to desire sex with a man is to desire for him to assert power over one and therefore to be emasculated. Hegemonic masculinity is always fragile, but it is particularly fragile to homoeroticism, because both the subject and object of the desire are emasculated. Yet Lobo’s combination of biker outfit (which in isolation is an attempt to broadcast toughness and defiance of social order) and porn-star mustache (which in isolation is an attempt to broadcast sexual power) screams “leather daddy,” just as his male gaze positions Superman as an object of homoerotic desire–just as his constant braggadocio and violence don’t so much assert his power as demonstrate how desperate to appear powerful he is. Hegemonic masculinity inevitably self-destructs, because the constant need to appear powerful creates unavoidably huge vulnerabilities; hegemony is inherently fragile and toxic.
Superman’s power, by contrast, is shown to not be fragile at all. Unlike Lobo, his real power cannot be taken away: even sapped of his superhuman abilities in the cage, he is able to find a way to get free by relying on the power of others (in this case, a rhino-like alien that he tricks into shattering his cage). Even though Lobo has his full strength and Superman is only partially recovered through most of their escape, it is Superman who leads the way, his willingness to (for example) ask Lobo for help fighting the snake-like alien demonstrating that he feels no need to prove he is powerful. Through wit, manipulation, and straight-up asking for help, he is able to recover his powers and return to Earth. Through it all, he is shown to be comfortable with not dominating a situation, from his conversation with Lois early on to his willingness to rely on others.
Even his decision to take possession of the Preserver’s collection is depicted as an act not of dominance but of caring, with Lobo asserting that he would have let them die, but Superman expended effort to save them and bring them to the Fortress of Solitude. It is the same action as the Preserver, but the motivation is different: Superman is rescuing endangered creatures, not investing in rarities. If the Preserver is a comics collector buying up comics for future rarity value, Superman is the archivist who builds a library of already-rare comics to ensure that they continue to exist.
In short, Superman is depicted as possessing a different sort of masculinity from hegemonic masculinity, and a different sort of power than hegemony. The key difference is that his is less performative and less fragile; like Superman himself, his masculinity is invulnerable. The implication is that his power and masculinity (which have been decoupled from one another as far as such a decoupling is possible within a culture of hegemonic masculinity, which isn’t very) are therefore also non-toxic–but that remains to be seen.


Current status of the Patreon:

I'll fight it with you! (Stolen Memories)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
Guess who forgot to queue an update for yesterday!
It’s November 2, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, may god have mercy on our souls. The top movie is Romeo + Juliet, one of the more commercially successful of the periodic “let’s do Shakespeare in a modern setting but use period language” films. In the news, the heavily sensationalized trial of O.J. Simpson has been going for a little over a week; al-Jazeera began regular broadcasting yesterday; and in three days Bill Clinton will be reelected as President following a substantially less interesting campaign than the previous one.
We’ve already seen how pieces of Krypton hurt Superman in the form of kryptonite, followed by the attack of an (essentially) robotic villain powered by kryptonite. Now we get a different vestige of Krypton: Brainiac.
The decision to make Brainiac a Kryptonian artificial intelligence, rather than Coluan as he (Brainiac presents masculine or genderless, and is consistently referred to with “he” pronouns in the DCAU, so I will follow suit) was in the comics, is an interesting one. Brainiac does have a connection to Krypton in the comics, but it’s a significantly less central one: some time before its destruction, Brainiac miniaturized the Kryptonian capital city of Kandor and kept it on his ship, inhabitants and all. This is largely an excuse to have Kandor eventually end up in Superman’s possession, however, so that he can be miniaturized and have adventures in a Kryptonian city in a bottle. Brainiac’s role as specifically a Superman villain is essentially random: he was first introduced in Superman comics, and therefore is associated with Superman, despite the lack of any innate connection between the characters.
“Last Son of Krypton,” however, ties Brainiac intimately into Superman’s originating trauma; indeed, as he serves the role of villain to Jor-El’s hero in the first part, he can be argued to be responsible for that trauma. It is certainly possible that, had Brainiac not prioritized saving himself and his store of data about Krypton over saving the people of Krypton, little Kal-El might not have ended up last of his kind, or indeed come to Earth at all.
Brainiac’s motives are ruthlessly logical, if we assume that his purpose is to record all of a civilization’s knowledge. On Krypton, this function would have been never-ending: between the physical and biological evolution of the planet, slow as it is, and the cultural evolution and creative output of the Kryptonians, there would always be new data for Brainiac to record. But once Krypton was destroyed, Brainiac possessed a snapshot of all Kryptonian knowledge at the moment of destruction, which is to say all the Kryptonian knowledge that would ever be. It would appear that his purpose has become to collect all the knowledge of other civilizations, which necessitates destroying them as well to achieve the “all” criterion.
It is odd, then, that he takes such interest in Superman. This may be because the data Lex Luthor is feeding him presents Superman as an enigma, and therefore Brainiac wishes to study him further, but that seems unlikely as Brainiac refers to Superman as Kal-El from the start, implying he knows Superman’s secrets. It’s also plausible he wished only to study Superman’s powers–an aspect of Kryptonian biology on which data may have been limited, although it seems the effect of yellow suns on Kryptonians was known to Jor-El at least–but that would appear to have been accomplished by siccing robots on him at their first meeting.
This is not the only odd behavior from Brainiac where Superman is concerned, however. Showing Superman the orb containing Krypton’s memories makes little sense if he wants to keep Superman for study, as presumably Brainiac knows everything the Kryptonians did about their psychology and would therefore know it would function like a delayed flashback trigger, causing Superman to have nightmares about Krypton’s destruction. (Consisting entirely of scenes for which he was not present, presumably picked up from the orb subconsciously.) This in turn served to turn Superman against Brainiac, where before he was cautious but open to the possibility that Brainiac was benign.
It is possible, then, that Brainiac was genuinely trying to recruit Superman as a partner in his explorations, but again, why? Presumably not all worlds have yellow suns, so Superman wouldn’t even have his powers at many of their stops, not to mention that Brainiac doesn’t appear to need any muscle on his side, assuming every one of the dozens of orbs he possesses corresponds to a planet he destroyed.
There doesn’t appear to be a logical explanation–but then, there’s no reason to expect logical behavior from a conscious agent. Brainiac can redefine his own functions, as witness his transformation from everyone’s servant on Krypton to knowledge-gathering destroyer of worlds thereafter. What can he be basing that redefinition on if not some underlying objectives or desires, which is to say that he has wants and needs upon which he can base his behavior. This is not to say that he necessarily possesses human emotion–we cannot conclude that he left the Kryptonians to die out of resentment, or seeks to bond with the last surviving Kryptonian out of guilt or loneliness–but he wants things, and those things aren’t necessarily going to always be possible or consistent. Conflicting desires lead him to undermine himself, and thus turn Superman against him.
Which, ironically, has the effect of driving Superman to team up with the other villain in this episode, Lex Luthor.  There is no real coordination between them, but nonetheless they destroy Brainiac’s ship together, the first of a handful of times they will work together, usually against relics of Krypton and occasionally other menaces from space.
This gives us a hint to a rather darker reading of the episode, and indeed of Superman’s role in general. However, it is one which we will unpack over the course of the remainder of the series, and so for now let us leave it to a single observation: Superman is himself an outsider, though he passes as an insider, and yet as time goes on he will increasingly police Earth against other outsiders–and frequently find himself allying with his personal nemesis, perhaps the most quintessentially reactionary villain in the DCAU, whenever he does so.


Current status of the Patreon:

MLPFIM S7E5-6 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

Actually doing it this time!
How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, 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 MLP there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST. This is one hour before the usual time.
Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.
ETA: Chatlog after the cut!
Continue reading

Retroactive Continuity 16: Batman Annual vol. 2 #2

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
I have, generally speaking, not talked much about Batman after the time of the DCAU. I’ve talked a good bit about versions of Batman before, and I’ve talked about other comics that postdate the DCAU, but this is my first time writing about a 21st Century Batman comic.
As we’ve discussed before, superhero comics function more like memory than history. Scott Snyder’s Batman (or, more accurately, his student Marguerite Bennett’s–she wrote the issue based on a story outline by Snyder) is not a replica of any past Batman, anymore than Timm, Dini, and Conroy’s is. But neither are they entirely new, independent creations. They are reconstructions, like all memories. A few impressions of who Batman was in comics, TV shows, and movies past, with the rest filled in by the mind of the rememberer, colored by their mood and interests, their state of mind and preferences.
Snyder/Bennet’s Batman, as presented in this comic, is a figure of rage. Someone who, when he claims to be terror, vengeance, and the night, not only means it but lives it. Consider the initial premise of the comic, the very reason he is in Arkham in the first place: to confirm the inescapability of what is very obviously Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.
Conceived as a more enlightened, more rational form of prison, the Panopticon consists of a central tower with a wraparound window, in the center of a circle formed by prison cells, which are stacked atop one another. Key is that every point in the Panopticon is visible from the central tower, which means that a single guard could be observing any inmate at any time. Bentham’s theory was that this would guarantee good behavior from all inmates at all times, since they never knew whether or when they were under observation.
Probably more well-known than Bentham’s original conception is Michel Foucalt’s critique. The horror of the Panopticon is obvious; it is utterly dehumanizing and cruel, plunging prisoners into a state of perpetual fear and anxiety from which there would be no hope of escape, essentially guaranteeing the kinds of behavior it is supposed to control. But what is less obvious, and the crux of Foucalt’s argument, is that the underlying principles by which Bentham designed the Panopticon–a casual disregard for the humanity of those who deviate in any way from a narrowly defined and rigidly disciplined conception of “normal,” which if need be is imposed by force–not only underlie our existing prisons, but also our hospitals, asylums, schools, and indeed our society in general.
This is what is constructed within Arkham, and Batman’s response is not to acknowledge its horror and destroy it, or at least refuse to help construct it; he instead participates willingly in tests designed to make sure that none of Arkham’s more dangerous occupants can escape.
Intertwined with these tests is the story of the Anchoress, a woman who defied what was “normal” in her time by studying the sciences, and was punished for it. Demands that she accept an arranged marriage or remain shut in her room resulted in her setting off an explosion that killed her parents and transformed her, giving her a withered appearance and a potent superpower. That seems like a superhero origin story, and it well could have been, except that the Anchoress had no one to blame but herself. She created her own prison, voluntarily entering Arkham.
But then, as she tells the story, Batman came along, and transformed Arkham from a place of healing to a place where monsters were imprisoned. The moment at which Arkham changed for her, personally, was when she attacked Batman for violating the privacy of the inmates by sneaking in to read their files, for which she was punished by being moved to a small cell which could imprison her despite her ability to walk through walls.
She was, in short, rebelling against the Panopticon of the asylum, the knowledge that anything the inmates do or say could be recorded by a doctor, kept in a file whose only protection was a set of rules, rules the inmate themselves has been shut away for failing to live by–and for this she was punished. The same logic as the person arrested for resisting arrest, a sadly familiar scenario in this age of police excess and violence.
The violation of privacy, the exposure of secrets, is also the weapon she uses against Batman, forcing him into a cage of his darkest memories. A memory trapped in memories; how apropos.
The last major figure of the comic is a young orderly on his first day working at Arkham, who witnesses the Anchoress’ escape. He is obviously unsettled by the Panopticon, though not enough to voice an objection, and sympathetic to the Anchoress. By the end of the comic he is still insisting that there is a possibility for Arkham to be a place of healing, not just a prison.
Unfortunately, as long as any and all deviance is monitored and punished, no such healing is possible. The Anchoress tells Batman she was “healing, until you,” but that’s exactly the problem: monitoring and punishment beget monitoring and punishment. A Batman more concerned with the containment of Arkham inmates than their humanity subjects those inmates to surveillance, violates their autonomy and privacy, and they justifiably lash out in return, which is taken by their captors as justification for more surveillance, more punishment, more containment.
There are hints of the possibility of a better way. Batman refrains from punching the Anchoress, allowing her to be captured peacefully, and she is given a better cell. The orderly retains his hope that the inmates of Arkham can be healed. But the “heard it before” attitude of the other orderly tells us everything we need to know about that hope: it is deviance, and will be squeezed out of him by the discipline of Arkham.
Like all prisons, it confines the jailers almost as much as the inmates. (Almost.)


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures #1-5
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Gravity Falls S2E12
  • Latest Milestone: $110/mo: One-time goal! Jed Plays Undertale Episode 2, in which I do a blind let’s play of the next ~40 minutes of Undertale.
  • Next Milestone: $120/mo ($10 away!): One-time goal! Jed Plays Undertale Episode 3.

MLPFIM S7E5-6 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, 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 MLP there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST. This is one hour before the usual time.
Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.