Panel Video: Weaving a Story: Narrative Traps, Collapse, and Substitution in Anime at Anime Boston 2017


A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2017, talking about narrative structure in anime.
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Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures #1-5

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Given the success of Batman: The Animated Series‘ spinoff comics The Batman Adventures and The Batman and Robin Adventures, it was essentially inevitable that the launch of Superman: The Animated Series would be followed by a spinoff comic called The Superman Adventures.
And so it was, debuting in November 1996 with a direct sequel to the pilot episode. Issue #1, “Men of Steel,” continues the general season 1 theme of Superman as a new hero, but instead of focusing on Superman learning the ropes, it is instead about the other characters learning more about Superman. It opens with a near-panel-for-shot remake of the climactic battle between Superman and the Corben-piloted mech from “Last Son of Krypton,” and continues into a meeting at the Daily Planet, where Lois is depicted as being suspicious of Superman. Little details–Clark Kent telling his parents he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to refer to himself as “Superman” with a straight face, Perry White telling Jimmy Olson not to call him “Chief”–emphasize that we are in the first days of Superman’s presence in the world, which is important to his interactions with Luthor. It also reveals–nearly a decade before Superman’s fantastic speech in the Justice League Unlimited finale–that Superman holds back, as he explains to Luthor that the robot designed based on measurements of the power he displayed in combat with Corben’s mech didn’t require him to fight at the limits of his own power, but at the limits of Luthor’s.
Issue #2, “Be Careful What You Wish For,”  takes this idea of Superman’s early days in a rather sillier direction, as a young woman named Kelly (the second Adventures character in just a few months to bear a distinct resemblance to Carrie Kelley), having a bad day–she’s having trouble finding work and considering leaving Metropolis to go back home to Kansas–gets a little positive attention for herself by claiming to be Superman’s girlfriend. Unfortunately the rumor reaches Corben, who kidnaps Kelly as a way of getting to Superman. Of course Superman saves the day and Kelly disavows being his girlfriend, not wanting to be targeted again–but, not wanting to be caught in a lie, she claims she dumped him because she saw him with Lois. The joke, of course, is the same as the details in the previous episode, a bit of dramatic irony in that both Lois and Superman’s expressions indicate they find this ridiculous–but this story came out only a few months after Superman: The Wedding Album, in which he and Lois finally married in the main DC continuity.
Issue #3 follows with a transition of sorts, a sense in which we are passing from Superman’s first days to a period in which he is still young, but firmly established as part of the landscape of Metropolis. The episode is framed by the idea that the light from Krypton’s destruction will shortly reach Earth, allowing Superman to watch it. At the beginning of the story, Superman is at STAR Labs, examining the Orb of Krypton–the record of all Kryptonian data collected by Brainiac, taken from him by Superman in the episode “Stolen Memories.” Tantalizingly, it is colored the same shade of green as Corben’s kryptonite heart in “Be Careful What You Wish For.” Like kryptonite, the orb is a memory of Krypton, but Superman is able to watch its record of the events of “Last Son of Krypton, Part 1” without difficulty. The reason is simple: he’s in control of the experience, watching it at second hand, instead of confronted with his trigger by surprise. Patient-directed, controlled self-exposure in a safe environment has been shown not only to not trigger a trauma response, but to reduce the impact of future encounters with the trigger; through the Orb of Krypton, Superman is exploring and building resistance to his trauma.
He and Dr. Hamilton then go outside to look at the stars, where they located Krypton and discuss the aforementioned approach of the light of its destruction. From the start, we are thus presented with the idea that this is a story about Superman’s relationship to Krypton, and its position as a memory–and, perhaps more importantly, that that memory is a part of the present. Modern physics–specifically, relativity–defines events as simultaneous if one occurs just as the light from another reaches it. In other words, this story isn’t just about the memory of Krypton, it is occurring simultaneously with the destruction of Krypton. (Yes, this feels paradoxical, but that’s because combining relativity with faster-than-light travel makes causality fall to pieces.)
Of course, then, the villain is Brainiac, as he is the villain of Krypton’s destruction. Having escaped the Lexcorp computers, Brainiac attacks Metropolis with an army of small robots, which for some reason all look like black cats. His goal is to acquire the Orb of Krypton and then destroy the Earth. He takes Lois hostage, but Superman eventually convinces him to accept becoming data within the Orb of Krypton, though Brainiac warns he will someday free himself. Superman then angrily destroys the (now inactive) Brainiac robot, declaring, “Never again.” Finally, he once again stargazes with Hamilton, watching the end of Krypton “live,” and Hamilton reminds Superman that the memory of Krypton lives on in both the Orb and Superman himself.
There is one curious scene in the middle of the story, however, where Superman rants, while demolishing the largest of Brainiac’s “henchrobots,” that Brainiac and his creations are parodies of living things, created to serve people, not to be their masters. It’s a strange moment, since neither show nor comic gives any sense that Brainiac is anything less than fully sapient or other than an independently willed, moral agent, which is to say that Brainiac is depicted as being, in all the ways that matter, a person. Superman, however, insists that he is “just” information. It seems out of character, a sort of fantasy bigotry (though far from the only time Superman will be inconsistently willing to kill people based on how much they differ from humans physically). Which is not to say that it is necessarily wrong for Superman to be willing to kill Brainiac, just that it would seem the same moral arguments have to apply as to killing Lex Luthor or the Parasite. Certainly the idea of people created to be servants is something which we would normally expect to appall Superman.
But again, this is a story about memory. A big deal is made of the fact that Brainiac’s essence is not his body, but information: he is a construct of data, which is to say memory. He is, more specifically, a part of Superman’s memory, and it is that which Superman is attacking in a rage. He is not willing to kill Brainiac because he is machine life, but because he is a memory of that which destroyed Krypton, as much a reification of Superman’s trauma as kryptonite. Yet in the end Superman does not destroy him; he puts him where he belongs, as part of the memory. Just as he deliberately exposes himself to the destruction of Krypton–in the orb at the issue’s beginning, and watching the stars at issue’s end–as part of his healing process, so does he accept Brainiac as a part of those memories. Memories which truly exist only as data, constructed in the present from fragments of the past, little stories outfolded from a handful of impressions–which of course is all we are, too. The light of Krypton’s destruction is here in the present. All memories are born in the moment of remembering.
And so we move on to the final two issues corresponding with the first season of STAS, as Superman settles into his adopted world by finally, deliberately watching the destruction of the old. The next issue, “Eye to Eye,” isn’t particularly eventful, being a story about Jimmy Olson finding the courage to put himself in danger to get a good photograph. It’s notable mostly for a scene where Jimmy wishes to Clark that he were as brave as Superman, and Clark responds that he doesn’t consider Superman brave, because when you’re that strong you don’t need bravery. For an example of real courage, he suggests Jimmy consider Lois, who has no super-strength or invulnerability, and yet puts herself into one dangerous situation after another in pursuit of the truth.
Clark is, in essence, acknowledging his superhuman privilege: doing what Lois does is harder and takes more courage than doing what Superman does, because Superman has unearned advantages Lois does not. This feeds well into the fifth issue, “Balance of Power,” in which Livewire is enraged by a radio host and his callers spewing misogynistic garbage about the evils of feminism and women in the workplace. She decides to take frankly jaw-dropping action which hammers home just how powerful she can be when she’s motivated: deciding that to balance thousands of years of male dominance, a similar period of female dominance is needed, she blocks all media containing or about men: broadcasts are replaced by static, news stories by male reporters are erased from the Planet‘s computers, and only women are able to have their voices heard. It is not clear whether this is occurring on a Metropolis- or world-wide scale, but either way it’s an outstandingly creative application of her powers: she has in essence no-platformed the entire male gender.
Most impressively, while critical of her methods, the issue remains absolutely and consistently sympathetic with her anger.  Much of the issue focuses on Lois and Angela, as the former becomes the only Planet reporter able to work and the latter the only newscaster on her network. Angela in particular gets more focus than in any episode of the show or prior issue of the comic, as she confesses to Lois that while she knows Livewire can’t be allowed to get away with her actions, she nonetheless loves no longer being forced to work in the shadow of regular anchor Reggie Banks. The issue doesn’t spell it out, but it really doesn’t need to–the way Angela talks about Banks, and his brief appearance, both make clear that he is the classic case of the white man celebrated for mediocrity and elevated over a woman of color who works her ass off for half the recognition.
And while it’s true that Livewire probably goes too far, no-platforming itself is not a bad approach to bigotry. While there is no justification for no-platforming people on demographic lines, there is a fairly strong case to be made, rooted in the Paradox of Tolerance, that ideological positions which involve dehumanizing and marginalizing people–bigotry, in other words–have a silencing effect on the people thus marginalized, and that therefore a greater number of people experience greater freedom of expression if endorsements of those ideologies are censored. Silencing all men, in other words, is probably not a way forward (though it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be poetic justice); silencing statements like those made by the radio host and his callers at the beginning of the issue may well be.
Regardless of whether no-platforming is a viable approach, the issue does not shy away from presenting misogyny as a very real problem. At the end of the issue, when Superman and Lex Luthor have taken Livewire down–the two most powerful men in Metropolis, normally opposed to one another, teaming up to destroy the woman who dared stand against misogyny–the paramedics who take her away comment on her attractiveness and declare that her actions are proof women shouldn’t be allowed power, that it’s a “man’s world” (a phrase which immediately conjures the major DC superheroine notably absent from this story, because she doesn’t yet exist in the DCAU: Wonder Woman) and woman should stay at home and raise children. The comic ends with Livewire’s eyes sparking the same way they did right before she started her rampage, belying everything the men said. Feminism didn’t make Livewire angry; misogyny did, and then her anger made her feminist.
But this is a superhero comic, and so the villain must always go too far, so that the hero restores the status quo. For once, in Superman Adventures #5, we see that cycle depicted as the tragedy it is.

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Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #3-10

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Trigger Warning: sexual assault and rape
While we have mostly focused on Superman thus far, the world was not entirely devoid of the DCAU Batman. He wasn’t on television (except in reruns) in 1996-7, but Batman and Robin Adventures continued its regular monthly issues. The eight issues discussed here, corresponding roughly to the period from the beginning of 1996 to the beginning of the first season of Superman: The Animated Series, largely continue with the mood and quality of BTAS, though as always somewhat constrained by the more limited amount of story that can fit into a 22-page comic relative to a 22-minute episode.
There are a couple of recurring themes throughout this handful of months. One is the Riddler as a tragicomic figure, carrying on from his strange Pyrrhic victory in previous issues. Issue #3, “The Christmas Riddle,” begins this trend, as the Riddler publicly declares he has discovered Batman and Robin’s identities despite having at best a vague guess, then pegs two different rich families belonging to the Peregrinator Club as the duo, all as an elaborate distraction from robbing the club. All this succeeds in doing, of course, is drawing Batman to the club, where he foils the robbery and the Riddler’s attempt to discover his identity.
Two issues later, in “Second Banana,” the Joker is incensed when an ex-Arkham doctor states in an interview that the Riddler is the smartest inmate of the asylum (which seems farfetched, to say the least–Batman’s rogues gallery has a significant number of scientists, scholars, and inventors, so at minimum the question should be hard to answer). In response, Joker hatches an elaborate double-blind scheme where he pretends to be planning to murder the Riddle to draw attention away from his real target, the doctor, and then when that fails returns to kill the Riddler, violating the rules of the Riddler-style game he was playing because “I play by my own rules.” This is then turned back on him when Batman, after a rooftop scuffle, saves the Joker’s life–when Joker says it, he means “I do what I want,” but when Batman says it, he means “I act according to a strict moral code.”
Another bad day for the Riddler occurs in #7, “His Master’s Voice,” in which the Riddler’s attempt to break out of Arkham is sabotaged and exploited by Scarface, such that Scarface and the Ventriloquist escape while the Riddler is left unconscious to be recaptured. It’s his final humiliation (at least for now), beaten by quite possibly the silliest and least imposing of Batman’s villains–but it’s all part of the natural progression. In “The Christmas Riddle,” Riddler broke his own rules–he didn’t leave riddles, but instead simply announced what he was doing. As Batman correctly surmised, this lack of riddles was the riddle, his choice of location a clue to what he was really after. But it was still stretching his rules to their breaking point–which, of course, is what the Joker does in “Second Banana.” Notably, the Joker is not only willing to abandon his riddle-hinted plan in favor of another when it doesn’t work out, but his entire plan is to commit one of two murders–as Riddler notes in “His Master’s Voice,” he’s not a killer. (Though of course early in his career he tried to kill someone, unlike Joker he’s never actually succeeded, and does appear to have given up trying.)
Most of “His Master’s Voice,” however, is about the Ventriloquist once again serving as Scarface’s hapless victim. As a result of Riddler’s escape attempt, Scarface discovers Ventriloquist has created a sock-puppet friend. Scarface’s rage is very obviously rooted in existential terror: he nearly ceased to exist (not that he is ever anything but a construct of Ventriloquist’s imagination, but then that makes him as real as Ventriloquist or, for that matter, England) when Wesker gave up being the Ventriloquist in favor of working in children’s television, the frog-puppet incident Scarface mentions. He thus decides that the Ventriloquist needs to be punished, hence hijacking Riddler’s escape attempt and sneaking into the manor house of the Wesker crime family, pursued by Batman and Robin. There we learn that the Ventriloquist is despised by most of his family, and Scarface intends to kill the only person he cares about: his mother. That way Scarface will be all he has left, impossible to abandon.
When Batman and Robin finally confront Scarface and the Ventriloquist, the latter tells them they’re too late. His mother is dead and has been for years–she died after taking a bullet for him when he was 10, with a single photograph all he had to remember her by. Now Scarface has shredded that photograph, and in response, the Ventriloquist shot him in the head. The issue ends with Wesker pleading for someone to help Scarface, because “he’s all I have left.”
The final panel, Wesker standing alone, bleeding from his puppet-hand, saying the final line, highlights the degree to which Batman and Robin have failed. That’s one of the most interesting things about Scarface as a villain: he almost always wins the main battle, which is not whatever heist he’s planning but the war for the soul of Arnold Wesker. And so much of that war is explained by this issue! Young Arnold lost his mother, the only person who ever cared about him, to gun violence, just like Bruce Wayne. He came to hate guns and crime, just like Wayne. And, just like Wayne, he created a protector-persona modeled on a mixture of his father and a figure from pop entertainment–but instead of Thomas Wayne and the Grey Ghost, he had his crime-syndicate father and the title character of the film Scarface (the 1932 version, not the now-better-known 1983 remake).
As already mentioned, two of the issues in this run involve villains borrowing from one another–Joker using a Riddler-style scheme, and Scarface using the Riddler’s escape plan. Issue #4, “Birdcage,” pulls a similar trick, as the Penguin uses technology given to him by the Mad Hatter to create an army of birds, his goal being to steal rare birds from zoos and aviaries and smuggle them to their home habitats. (Which itself carries more than a whiff of the environmental and animal-rights based motivations often attributed to Poison Ivy and Catwoman, respectively.)
But much like Wesker, the Penguin is undermined by his essential failure to understand that things are not people. For Wesker, that means breaking down at the destruction of a photograph and taking orders from a hand puppet; for the Penguin, it means failing to recognize that captive animals cannot simply be flung back into their original habitats and expected to survive. Wesker ends up miserable and wounded, while the Penguin ends up elated at news that some of the birds he smuggled out seem to have escaped, but in the end they’re both equally deluded.
Deluded characters and borrowed schticks, not to mention people breaking their own rules and having it go awry, are all major factors in the very funny “Round Robin,” Issue #6. National Insider, a tabloid with more than a passing resemblance to National Enquirer and especially its sister publication Weekly World News, reports that Batman has fired Robin, causing numerous people throughout the city to dress up as Robin and engage in various ridiculous attempts to become his replacement. (By far the funniest of these is Carrie, who in a classic BTAS anachronism is very clearly Carrie Kelley from 1983’s The Dark Night Returns wearing the original Robin costume from the 1940s, and whom Batman just cannot get to stop following him, even after she’s arrested.) One of these pretenders is mistaken for the real Robin, kidnapped, and held for ransom, a scenario which could be easily resolved if Batman could go more than five feet without a would-be Robin trying to impress him. While all this is going on, however, Robin succeeds in freeing the kidnapped pretender and taking his place, allowing him to get the drop on the kidnapper.
At the end comes the rule-breaking, as Robin convinces Batman they should allow themselves to be photographed to end the rumors that Robin’s been fired–leading to National Insider using the photo to report that Batman and Robin are secretly agents of the CIA. (Also that Mother Theresa rescued a “wild child” in the Everglades and TV network programmers are secretly aliens, all of which are perfectexamples of the kinds of stories Weekly World News reported without actually being stories Weekly World News reported.) They really should have known better–1996 was the height of the tabloid’s popularity, as well as the year in which the sole season of the TV version aired. Founded in the late 1970s, Weekly World News‘ purpose was to make money off the black-and-white press National Enquirer had recently stopped using after its switch to color. It quickly established itself as the most ridiculous of tabloids; while National Enquirer became mostly celebrity gossip, Weekly World News ran what was in essence weird fiction–tales of Biblical prophecies, Elvis sightings, and aliens secretly advising government officials. Of course its equivalent in the DCAU would run stories about Batman and Robin–the real-life Weekly World News, after all, gave us Batboy, the long-eared child found in a cave in a 1992 issue who, according to later issues over the years, led the capture of Saddam Hussein, endorsed Al Gore’s Presidential bid, and was the subject of a prophecy that he would become President in 2028.
(This is the one place so far where I show up in these entries on the comics, since I didn’t read comics as a teen. I did, however, avidly follow Weekly World News in the latter half of the 90s. I found it hilarious.)
Issue #8, “Harley and Ivy and… Robin?” inverts the fake-Robin conceit of “Round Robin.” Here, Robin is real, but forced out of character in a weirdly psychosexual tale of mind control and jealousy that had me double-checking the credits to make sure it wasn’t by Chris Claremont. It opens with Robin in his occasional pervy creeper mode, as he swoops down on a fleeing Harley Quinn saying, “You know, Harley, I love it when a girl plays hard to get.” This gets grosser when he picks her up, and Harley says “Hey, watch those hands, Boy Wonder!” The latter in isolation is an uncomfortable joke about the (presumably horny, as fictional teen boys invariably are) teen boy superhero accidentally grabbing the female supervillain’s breasts; in combination with the first panel,  however, it becomes an actively gross joke about the horny teen boy superhero deliberately molesting the female supervillain he’s just caught.
But Robin has no monopoly on being gross; after she kisses him with her “magic lipstick,” Poison Ivy goes into full-on dominatrix mode, teasing the mind-whammied Robin about him wanting to kiss her again, then telling him he has to “work his way up” starting with kissing her boots. Which might be fine if it were consensual, but Robin is under her control, and can consent to neither the boot-kissing nor the implied promise of performing oral sex on Ivy when he’s “worked his way” about halfway up. And much like Robin’s line in the first panel, this is made even grosser by Ivy commenting on his age, saying there’s “something about” men that young. Given that Robin is described as both a teenager and in college, he is presumably 18 or 19, making Ivy’s comments a gender-swapped version of the kind of thing creepy men say about the “barely legal” young women ubiquitous in porn.
(Me showing up in these is apparently less rare than I thought, because here’s a second place: I worked in a video rental store in the early 2000s, and like most non-chain video stores, new releases got people in the door, but it was children’s movies and porn that kept us in the black. The titles alone were an education on the horrifying sexual proclivities of my fellow man.)
There is one genuinely funny, albeit still horrifying, joke in what’s apparently intended to be a light, comedic issue about Robin being sexually enslaved and possibly raped: Harley, who hates all this because she’s jealous of the time and attention Ivy is giving Robin, makes a crack in response to Ivy calling him “baby”–that if he’s a baby, Ivy is “cradle robin.” Still, this just serves to highlight the ugliness lurking under the surface of this issue, given that it’s exactly the same as what Mad Hatter did to Alice in his origin episode, but played for laughs because men being raped is, apparently, no big deal. (Meanwhile, at the same time as this issue–the summer of 1996–34-year-old elementary school teacher Mary Kate Letourneau is raping her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau, a case which will make national headlines when she’s arrested and tried the following year. She will get six months, and then another two years after she goes right back to Fualaau immediately on release.)
So, to summarize this issue: a teen boy molesting a grown woman is funny, at least if he’s a superhero and she’s a supervillain. Also, a grown woman molesting a teenage boy is funny. It’s rape culture in a handy 22-page child-friendly format.
And then the next issue is also about a female supervillain mind-controlling a man. Titled “Tears,” this is the first half of a two-parter, yet another in which Talia al-Ghul serves as villain for the first part and Ra’s al-Ghul for the second. In this case, Talia attempts to kidnap Barbara Gordon’s chemistry professor, and basically wipes the floor with Batgirl, telling her it takes more than a costume to be a warrior. Batgirl manages to jury-rig together a form of tear gas (entirely fictional, as near as I can tell–there does not appear to be any such substance as denzenel or denzel bromide; perhaps there was concern about giving instructions to make tear gas in an all-ages comic, because apparently teaching children to make weapons is dangerous but teaching them that sexual assault and abuse are funny is A-OK), with which she takes down Talia and rescues her mind-controlled professor. (Oddly, the professor is going by the name Mr. Siddiq, but was once an employee of Ra’s al-Ghul under the name Dr. Fazil; it is difficult to read this as anything other than a reference to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine star Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi changing his stage name from Siddig El-Fadil to Alexander Siddig the year before this comic came out. Coincidentally, as of this writing Siddig has been cast to play Ra’s al-Ghul in Gotham, though he has not yet appeared as the character.)
A fun story continuing the arc of Batgirl learning both that superheroing is harder than she expected it to be and that she has what it takes, this leads into Issue #10, “Blood of the Demon,” where Talia seeks out Batman’s help after her scheme to capture Fazil/Siddiq fails.  It seems that, prior to fleeing, Fazil created an airborn version of a deadly pathogen previously limited to a single tropical island; al-Ghul plans to release it around the world, killing off everyone but a select few.  Of course Batman is able to stop the scheme with a bit of misdirection and help from Robin, once again averting al-Ghul’s near-apocalypse.
But it’s September 1996, and on TV, there’s nothing near about the apocalypse: Krypton is exploding as we speak. The old world is dead and the new is upon us; Superman: The Animated Series has begun.

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Retroactive Continuity: The Joker's Daughter #1

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Commissioned post for Shane DeNota-Hoffman.The 2014 one-shot Joker’s Daughter comic depicts the origin of one of the stranger DC villains, the eponymous Joker’s Daughter, who is not the daughter of the Joker, though at various times she has claimed to be, along with a dozen other villains including Catwoman, the Riddler, and Doomsday. Her actual name (probably) is Duela Dent, and at least in the pre-Crisis comics,  she was Two-Face’s daughter. While her name has remained, she was not Two-Face’s daughter post-Crisis, and her parentage is unclear in the New 52, to which this comic belongs.
The comic serves as a revised origin story for the character, which slowly unfolds through disjointed flashbacks and narration throughout the comic: an apparently ordinary young woman, she craved tragedy, and made up a number of tragic backstories for herself. Eventually she turned to drugs and cutting, before finding the severed face of the Joker in a sewer. She began wearing it as a mask and set out on a quest to find him–at this point in continuity, he was apparently dead.
Narrating with a repetitive, logorrheic stream-of-consciousness  babble as she goes, she first creates a fake Joker crime, in the hopes Batman will investigate and find the Joker for her. He sees right through it and confronts Duela, telling her she isn’t truly sick but rather a child in need of help. She breaks free of the cops, injuring both but unable to bring herself to kill, and moves on to Arkham Asylum, where she confronts some orderlies in a basement. One berates her, again telling her that she isn’t “sick enough” to be like the Joker, and she murders him and leaves.  She briefly encounters the Anchoress, who accuses her of pretending to be sick and stealing stories that aren’t her own, then seeks out the Dollmaker–the man who removed the Joker’s face–to get his face permanently attached to her own. She ends up in an abandoned building, where she receives a note hinting that the Joker is watching her, and declares herself his heir and prophet.
Duela is a tragic figure. Her thoughts are shown in narration boxes throughout the entire story, and paint a clear picture of a confused and self-loathing young woman, whose self-hatred drives her to ever-greater extremes of self-destruction, from cutting and drugs, to exposing herself to a disease-ridden sewer, to attaching the Joker’s face to her own and seeking out a murderous, volatile, dead supervillain as a father-figure. She wants to be a monster, a supervillain, because she feels monstrous; wants to destroy beauty because she feels ugly. She’s lost track of her past in a chaotic mishmash of invented backstories, and compulsively pursues bizarre quests based on spurious logic.
Yet character after character tells her that she’s “not sick enough.” Not just characters, but authorities and experts, strongly implying that the declaration of Duela’s health is to be taken as fact: Batman, who has dealt with countless supervillains; a psychiatric orderly who has experience working with supervillains in general and the Joker in particular; and the Anchoress, who can manipulate minds; all declare her to be “ordinary,” as if mental illness were a badge that earns one the right to be a costumed supervillain.
It is difficult, given the time of its release and the age (not to mention gender) of its protagonist, to read this comic as anything other than a mean-spirited jab at the communities of distressed and mentally ill young people–especially young women and people on the LGBTQIA spectrum–who can be found online, particularly on Tumblr. Many of these people, due to monetary obstacles or shame, have no formal medical diagnosis, but instead guess at what their issues might be, and thus are commonly dismissed.
Yet by presenting the Joker’s Daughter as a grotesque caricature of this kind of behavior, the comic backfires, because the idea that she isn’t sick is prima facie absurd. Her looping, semicoherent, self-hating thoughts are not the thoughts of a healthy person. Running away from home, cutting, using drugs, and committing crimes in the hopes of finding a father-figure are all obvious and desperate screams for help. Batman, bizarrely, seems to draw a line between “troubled young person” and “truly sick,” but nothing about being young renders one immune to mental illness. She is not well, and the continual failure of everyone around her to help causes her behavior to escalate, until finally she crosses the line into murder.
The implicit assumption the comic appears to be making is that because there are lines she has not yet crossed, Duela is less sick than someone like the Joker: she, it is implied, can choose to stop. This nonsense arises from the collision of two mutually opposed yet extremely common fallacies about the mentally ill: that one can simply choose to stop being sick, and that mental illness is an inescapable and incurable trap that poses a constant threat to everyone around the sufferer. The former is the origin of the common assertion that mentally ill people are just “seeking attention”; the latter is where attempts to ban the mentally ill from purchasing guns come from. Together, they form the idea that anyone who isn’t uncontrollably violent isn’t “really sick,” precisely the attitude which leads to no one taking Duela’s obvious, dangerous issues seriously until someone is dead.
Therein lies the true tragedy of the Joker’s Daughter: not her sickness, but the fact that next to the lurid, sensational deviance of Gotham’s supervillains, she has to go to horrific extremes before anyone will accept that she is sick and in need of help. It is difficult to say whether that is more or less tragic than someone who can’t turn to violence as easily as she can–not that it is that easy for her, as she takes quite some time to work up to murder–and thus never gets any kind of help.
Except, of course, that that’s precisely who she’s a caricature of: people whose illness is rejected, mocked, or ignored, and so they are  denied the help and support they need. After all,  the argument goes, they’re mostly self-diagnosed, so they must be making a big deal out of nothing–except that even if their inexpert diagnoses are incorrect, the symptoms are real, and therefore something is wrong. Such people are real, unlike Duela, and hence inherently more tragic.

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Retroactive Continuity: Wonder Woman

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
This is actually a few months premature–it’s meant to go roughly halfway between STAS seasons 1 and 2, and we’re still in season 1–but I’m shifting it up because timeliness.
She’s not going to show up in the DCAU for quite some time, other than brief intrusions from outside like DC vs. Marvel, but let’s talk about Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman, which is in theaters as I write this.
It’s June of 2017. Six months ago, after a shock electoral upset which may have involved election tampering by Russian hackers, and definitely involved election tampering by Republican state officials via gerrymandering and assorted forms of voter suppression, confessed sexual predator Donald Trump assumed the Presidency. A major factor in the campaign was the neoreactionary, quasifascist movement that has come to be known as the “alt right,” the dry run for which was the misogynist terror campaign GamerGate.
And all that barely scratches the surface of how nasty things are for women right now.
Enter Wonder Woman, a film directed by a woman about the superwoman, which presents her as an unstoppably powerful warrior motivated by deep compassion, a naif with much to teach, a literal goddess, all without subjecting her to the male gaze. In short, she is presented as a power fantasy for women, by a woman.
Which is as it should be. That’s what Wonder Woman was made for, crafted by a child psychologist to give girls a model of feminine power, to help them realize their own power.
Or, well, that’s the usual narrative. Typically at this point we’d segue into talking about the other two things William Moulton Marston is known for, the lie detector (which he didn’t actually event and doesn’t actually detect lies) and being submissive and poly. But the real key to Wonder Woman, as Phil Sandifer persuasively argues in his A Golden Thread, is neither of those things; rather, the same project underlies all of Marston’s work, which Sandifer memorably described as “feminist bondage utopia”; in short, Marston believed that the world would be a better place if men voluntarily submitted to the loving authority of women.
In his The Emotions of Normal People, Marston argued for the existence of four basic behavioral patterns: dominance, submission, compliance, and inducement. To oversimplify drastically, dominance is forcing another to do what you want, compliance is allowing yourself to be forced to do what another wants, submission is willingly doing what another wants, and inducement is persuading another to willingly do what you want. The world, basically, has too much dominance and compliance in it, and not enough submission and inducement; Marston thus created Wonder Woman as a model for young people in general, but especially girls, of both inducement and submission.
This plan has a number of issues, one of which is that it ran almost immediately headlong into the very different direction in which superheroes evolved during and after World War II. Quite simply, Marston’s conception of Wonder Woman seeks to bring about utopia, to fundamentally alter “Man’s World” such that it ceases to be exclusively Man’s, and therefore is a figure not of near-apocalypse but full-on apocalypse; she does not use dominance and therefore cannot protect us from those unwilling to submit; and she has no particular trauma from which she originates. In short, the character Marston created is not a superhero as they have come to be constructed.
Toss in the misogyny rampant in the comic book industry, and the result is a character which, despite being one of only three continually published without break by DC, has nonetheless proved to be an immense challenge to writers and artists who tried to approach her as a typical superhero. As, indeed, she will be for the DCAU: out of the seven founding members of the Justice League, she is the only one who has no character arc.
Wonder Woman, rather cleverly, sidesteps this problem by questioning the idea of heroism itself. Not the superhero–that concept never even comes up within the film–but the hero. Diana begins the film convinced that she is a hero setting out on a classic journey. The first act puts all the pieces in place, straight out of John Campbell’s vile little book: the Mentor Antiope, the arrival of the Herald Steve Trevor, Diana’s Refusal of the Call, the intrusion of the outside world leading to the Death of the Mentor, after which Diana finally sets out into the world–and promptly falls into a war movie by way of fish-out-of-water comedy.
But Diana plows through the complexities of World War I, approaching it as a heroic struggle in which her friends are The Good Guys and her enemies The Bad Guys, where her role is to break through the lines, save the innocent villagers, and slay the evil king, bringing peace to the world. But the cracks are beginning to show: the leadership of the ostensible good guys give Diana her first experience with overt sexism, Steve’s people (i.e., the people who made the movie) committed genocide, and while they may be a (real-life) fascist and a (fictional) mad scientist, neither Ludendorff nor Dr. Poison is an entity of pure evil whose death will solve all.
Even peace isn’t necessarily good: Ares, God of War, is the architect of the peace, the punitive terms of which will help the Nazis rise to power. And yet even killing him does not save the day, though it does give the “good guys” and the previously faceless gas-masked “bad guys” (now revealed as frightened teenagers) a chance to rest; the peace will happen, the Nazis will rise, and Diana’s heroics can change nothing.
Relying on heroes gets us nowhere; not only is Wonder Woman not a superhero, she’s not even a hero. This is where the movie stumbles, as it implies that she spends the next century doing basically nothing. Meaning that an unstoppable force who has already proven she can walk across heavily defended borders like they aren’t there and destroy tanks barehanded sat around doing nothing while the fucking Holocaust happened.
But that stumble was probably inevitable, from two different directions. First, it is a case of the film tripping over its essential liberalism; it cannot endorse Wonder Woman actually carrying out her mission of overthrowing Man’s World, and instead instinctively seeks some kind of “middle way” with mealy-mouthed nonsense about changing the world by loving at it. Which is where the other end comes in: the essential problem with Marston’s project was that meaningful change cannot be achieved through what he calls inducement. People do not, as a general rule, let go of power unless forced to do so, which is to say that only power can oppose power; what Marston calls dominance cannot be induced into submission, only forced to comply.
The film tries at the end to reach for the Marstonian ideal of loving authority. Unfortunately, at least in the realm of politics that ideal is nonsense, an oxymoron. Political authority does not and cannot love, because love requires consent while political authority is built on coercion. So, after an entire movie built on the idea that the myth of the hero, of meaningful change accomplished by isolated individual action, is the fantasy of a child, Wonder Woman declares that she will sit around waiting for meaningful change to happen.
But set aside the ending; if Wonder Woman is not a hero, what is she? The movie answers for us: she is a goddess. And certainly that seems to be the effect she has had: countless women have written about how inspiring, empowering, and energizing they found the movie, which is exactly what gods are supposed to do when they’re being loving (as opposed to when they’re being authorities, which involves a lot more smiting and demanding sacrifices).
So, a goddess. Goddess of what? Wonder Woman was created to bring about a better world. Leave aside Marston’s crank theories on how to achieve such a thing and focus on the better world itself. How do we get there? Not by sitting around doing nothing, to be sure–but for all that she herself spends a century doing it, that doesn’t seem to be what she inspires in moviegoers.
Wonder Woman is a power fantasy, not a protector fantasy. She is a disruptive force, the woman in brightly colored armor holding a sword in a room full of stuffy suit-clad old men. We have, generally speaking, observed that superheroes are protector fantasies while supervillains are power fantasies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all power fantasies are villainous; that relation holds only within the context of superheroes, which context Wonder Woman has rejected. She’s no supervillain, but she is a force for change, a warrior for change.
Marston dreamed of a gentle strength that could guide the world into something better. But he’s been dead for most of a century; Wonder Woman lives on, changes, grows, evolves. We’ve seen what’s needed to make a better world, courtesy of the harlequin: the old world must be removed so the new world can be built. The powerful and the complacent look at revolution and see apocalypse; the disenfranchised and the downtrodden look at apocalypse and see hope.
That is who Wonder Woman is: the goddess of revolution.


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