Retroactive Continuity: The Death and Return of Superman, Superman: Doomsday

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

They should have left him dead and let Steel take over.


1992’s The Death and Return of Superman was an emergency filler arc, and it shows. The basic problem was this: Superman and Lois Lane’s relationship, which had spent most of the 20th century in stasis, had been developing rapidly since Crisis on Infinite Earthsand the ensuing 1987 Superman reboot. She learned his secret identity, met his parents, and by 1992, they were engaged, their wedding soon to be a major event across all four Superman titles (Superman, The Adventures of Superman (not to be confused with The Superman Adventures, the all-ages spinoff of Superman: The Animated Series), Action Comics, and Superman: The Man of Steel).
But at the time, Warner Bros was developing a new Superman TV series, Lois and Clark, focused on the relationship between its title characters. There were already plans for there to be a wedding episode eventually, so the wedding in the comics was put on hold until the TV series could get there. This meant the writers of the Superman comics had to cancel stories that had been planned for the better part of a year, and hastily assemble a replacement. According to (probably apocryphal) lore, Gerry Ordway jokingly proposed solving their problem by simply killing Superman off, and this became a running gag in ensuing meetings among the pressured, frustrated writers. Finally–unable to come up with an actually good idea that could be executed in the time available–they ended up just going with it.
That the event was born from a dearth of good ideas becomes obvious when Doomsday, the villain of the first of four arcs comprising the event, is considered. He is given no backstory or context: each of the four Superman comics showed, in the last page of its final issue before the beginning of the event, Doomsday’s arm as he punched his way out of a metal box somewhere, and that’s it. He appears to have been bound by someone in metal rods or cables and something like a green straightjacket, stuck in a box, and left in a random patch of countryside somewhere near the Great Lakes. When, how, or why is never answered (within the event and its tie-ins, though an origin was retconned in later), nor is how or why he escaped. He has no dialogue (except slurring the word “Metropolis” after seeing an ad for a wrestling match there), no motivation except evident pleasure in killing things, and initially not even a name–during his fight with the JLA, Booster Gold dubs him Doomsday. He has literally no identity except being a Really Big Strong Guy.
Which, in turn, means the entire first arc is incredibly boring. It is nothing but Doomsday killing things until the JLA shows up, then beating on the JLA, then fighting Superman. Other than the title and marketing, there is no reason to believe Doomsday is any different from the other Really Big Strong Guys Superman has fought–but it turns out Doomsday is a Really Bigger Stronger-er Guy, so Superman dies. The second arc which follows is mildly interesting: Lois and the Kents’ grief is palpable, and Jonathan Kent’s ambiguous hallucination/journey through the afterlife to find and rescue Clark’s soul from demons posing as his Kryptonian family is a beautiful, moving portrait of an adoptive father’s grief over losing his son and lingering self-doubt about whether he counts as a father. (Later issues subsequently ruin this by loudly and firmly declaring the afterlife journey to have been entirely real.)
The Reign of the Supermen arc then settles back into comic-book business as usual, as four new characters compete to be Superman’s successor: the Cyborg Superman, who has prostheses and looks weird and is therefore an evil impostor in league with Mongul and out to destroy the world; the Eradicator, who looks like Superman and is therefore not that bad no matter how many people he murders; Steel, who is easily and unquestionably the best thing to come out of this benighted plotline; and Superboy, who is an obnoxious little fuckhead apparently created solely to mock creators DC has cheated out of their characters and then beaten in lawsuits–his issues consist mostly of him seeking publicity, demanding not to be called Superboy, and trying to trademark the name “Superman” and associated logos.
Finally Superman comes back from the dead through complicated contrivances that (once again demonstrating how poorly thought through this entire arc was) characters repeatedly assure us cannot happen again Because Reasons, and leads the various Supermen in an assault on the Cyborg Superman and Mongul, who have fridged 7 million people to set up the next big Green Lantern storyline. (This then leads to the attached image, from Adventures of Superman#504, which I  saved as “peak 90s.png.”) Several issues of robot- and alien-punching later, they win.
This is not a review series, and I normally don’t include plot outlines of the things I discuss–certainly not to this extent. Why, then, have I spent several paragraphs outlining the plot and awfulness of The Death and Return of Superman? Well, the truth is, I haven’t: the above left out quite a bit of the awfulness. For example, I barely mentioned Supergirl, whose compliant fawning over an obviously, blatantly evil Lex Luthor is frankly the most sickening element of the entire arc–quite an accomplishment in the arc that created Superboy! But that fawning is part of an ongoing storyline that began before Death and Return and continued after; it cannot be laid at the feet of Death and Return.
The point was not to catalog everything wrong with Death and Return, but rather to establish that it was a handful of bad ideas executed with, at best, uneven results, leading to the main question of this piece: why, if it’s so bad, does it have such staying power? Why is Death and Return the most well-known and oft-repeated Superman story after his origin? Why has every reboot since included or been followed by some reference to confirm that something like Death and Return is still “in continuity”? Why do elements of it show up in Smallville, the live-action Superman Returns and Batman v. Superman films and the Justice League cartoon? (Not to mention further elements implied in the trailers for the Justice League film.) Why was it adapted as the first of DC’s direct-to-video animated movie series, with another animated adaptation recently announced as of this writing?
Consider Superman: Doomsday, that first DTV animated adaptation. It makes significant changes to the story, most obviously that the four replacement Supermen are collapsed into one (he’s a clone like Superboy; identical in appearance to Superman, but overzealous and excessively violent, like the Eradicator; the monster whose defeat forms the story’s climax, like the Cyborg Superman; and ultimately just wanted to protect the people of Metropolis, like Steel) and the action confined almost entirely to Metropolis itself. More importantly, the story is given a single main villain and a single main protagonist. As villain, Luthor releases Doomsday (mostly by accident) and creates the replacement. This is already a massive improvement, because it shifts Doomsday from being the villain of the first act to being a weapon wielded by the villain of the entire story; his utter lack of personality is thus not that important.
Superman is the hero of the story–that is, he is a virtuous warrior who defeats the monsters unleashed by the villain–but he is not the protagonist. He spends most of the story dead, and even when he’s around, he is usually just punching. He has no character arc or development; he’s just alive, then dead, then alive again. The protagonist of this adaptation is, instead, Lois Lane–she’s the character whose interiority is shared with the audience, whose feelings we get to see. She is the window through which we see Superman’s defeat, the one whose grief we witness, the one who rejects the replacement Superman and whose investigation uncovers the Luthor connection. And, in the denouement, she’s the one who gets the happy ending–Superman does exactly what she asked for at the beginning, allowing her into both his identities. In other words, the Lois Lane/Clark Kent relationship is depicted as Lois‘ reward, not Superman’s, though of course it’s a positive development for both.
More important than what changed, however, is what didn’t: Superman died at the hands of Doomsday, was replaced, then came back from the dead and saved the day by defeating (one of) his replacement(s). Consider some of the other adaptations we’ve mentioned: Smallville keeps Doomsday as a villain but discards almost everything else; of the three Justice League episodes which adapt elements of Death and Return, “A Better World” and “The Doomsday Sanction” feature variations on the fight with Doomsday, while “Hereafter” (which is mostly an adaptation of a different Superman comic, “Under the Red Sun”) depicts Superman’s (apparent) death, public funeral, and return; Batman v. Supermanhas him fight Doomsday to their mutual deaths and its sequel Justice League is slated to depict his return.
In other words, the specific elements which endure and recur are Superman’s fight against Doomsday, and his death and return itself. Those are the elements which are remembered, and therefore which are recreated in adaptations and homages. So it is those elements themselves which we must examine to answer the question of why.
Doomsday is relatively easy to understand. Despite being generally uninteresting as a villain (note that both Superman: Doomsday and Batman v. Superman make Doomsday a weapon used by Luthor rather than a villain in his own right, while Smallville gives him a human alter-ego), he is the near-apocalypse made manifest, a seemingly unstoppable force of total destruction. He also resonates with Superman in particular, as Superman’s originating trauma isapocalypse. Like the destruction of Krypton itself, Doomsday is introduced as an a priori fact, something that simply is, without any need for causation, because it itself is the cause of the ensuing story. He is uninspired and uninspiring as a character, but it nonetheless makes sense that he would be what kills Superman, for the same reasons that it makes sense that Kryptonite hurts Superman: both are recreations of his original trauma, in their own ways.
The death and return, on the other hand, is a little more problematic. Lots of superheroes die and come back–they’re rather notorious for it. The Death and Return of Superman, however, is notably messianic about it. Little references to Christian stories of Jesus’ resurrection abound, including the underground tomb from which his body disappears (twice!), battling demons in the afterlife before returning to the living, the grieving women who discover the disappearance of his body and are the first to see him return, and of course just the general structure of a supernaturally empowered man who sacrificed his life to save humanity. Death and Return, in other words, is the completion of a process which began almost as soon as Superman was introduced as a character. Siegel and Shuster, both Jewish, created a Superman who clearly draws on Moses, a foundling who is raised by members of the dominant culture but eventually discovers and embraces his identity as an outsider, then goes on to perform miracles and espouse a moral code. (Admittedly, they did this over some time–the character shown in Action Comics #1 is barely recognizable by this description.) With time, however, he became more and more like Jesus instead: by the 1978 film, for instance, he is depicted as Jor-El’s only begotten son sent deliberately to Earth to serve as a moral exemplar and savior. That series of Superman films ended with Superman Returns, in which Superman’s death and return is again referenced, both in its beginning, when he returns after having departed the Earth for a time, and at its climax, when Superman is stabbed in the side and then hangs apparently dead in a crucifixion pose until he is resurrected by light.
Death and Returns keeps bubbling back up because it is Superman’s martyrdom, his sanctification. A bad idea poorly executed, it creates a paradox: a Christ-figure who can’t be hurt. But then, that’s what the Christ-figure has always been. The Jesus story is one of a martyr who cheats death, an elaborate sleight-of-hand by a god who sacrifices himself to himself, only to steal the sacrifice from himself. Jesus is depicted as a figure with two distinct, seemingly incompatible identities, an immense power who nonetheless suffers an intensely traumatic experience, after which he decides to protect all the little people. And, wrapped up in this story that purports to be about someone perfectly good, are all sorts of problematic ideas about authority, hierarchy, violence, and punishment.
In short, we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the most enduring Superman stories echoes one of European cultures’ most popular myths. Nor should we be surprised that the first superhero eventually turned into Jesus; after all, Jesus was the first superhero.
And in a few entries, we’ll see just how destructive outright worshiping a superhero can be.

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Wayne, you alive? (Holiday Knights)
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Ducktales S1E2-3
  • Latest Milestone: $130/mo: Jed Plays Undertale monthly series–a new episode of Jed  Plays Undertale every month until I finish the game!
  • Next Milestone: $150/mo ($20 away!): More bonus vlogs! Two bonus vlogs a month instead of just one!

Interlude: Talking to Myself

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

When art speaks to us, it speaks in our own voice.
When I was first gearing up to start this project, I happened to mention it to Phil Sandifer. I had already come up with the approach of Near-Apocalypse and grappling with the authoritarianism inherent in the concept of the superhero, but Phil added the missing piece of the puzzle: a copy of his PhD thesis, on what I’ve taken to calling heroic trauma.
I latched powerfully onto that concept. Something in it spoke deeply to me, and I began playing with ideas taken from that thesis. They became a core element of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, as well as turning up in my panels and, eventually, Animated Discussions, where an extended discussion of trauma formed the second of the book’s three parts.
Meanwhile, throughout Near-Apocalypse, I’ve commented on how infrequently I show up in the narrative. My own direct involvement has appeared in only a handful of places–off the top of my head, I can think of two, the Adam West Batman movie and one of the Batman and Robin Adventures entries, though I suspect there are others I’m forgetting.
But the thing about exploring an ideaspace is that you are, inevitably, exploring yourself. That’s where ideas exist, after all: inside us. And unless you’re psychic (which you’re not), the only ideas you can explore are the ones in your head. Not, to be clear, necessarily ones that started in your head–we have this whole thing called “language” that exists to put ideas in other people’s heads–but in your head is where you meet them.
I get why Phil’s ideas about trauma and superheroes hit me so powerfully now.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Lego Batman Movie. Batman is isolated, I said. He cuts himself off from the world as protection from the pain and trauma he risks by connecting to people–but in so doing, he just puts himself in more pain.
I have acid reflux disease, and I get chest pains whenever I let myself get too hungry. If I eat something small, like a handful of dry cereal, they go away. That’s not supposed to work–it certainly doesn’t work when I get other kinds of reflux attacks, from eating too much or eating the wrong thing or sleeping at a bad angle.
Because they’re not reflux attacks, they’re panic attacks, I recently realized. See, in my teens I had a rare disorder called achalasia. I’ll spare you the details, but the short version is that I had serious limits on what I could eat, and frequently I was physically incapable of eating at all. I ended up malnourished, severely underweight, and the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I eventually had to be hospitalized and fed intravenously for several days because I couldn’t even swallow water anymore.
The achalasia was surgically corrected when I was nineteen–my acid reflux is actually a side effect of that surgery. But the panic attacks? I was terrified, hungry, and sick in that hospital, and in the years leading up to it. I struggled to keep food down, which made eating in public intensely humiliating–and guess what you have to do every goddamn day in high school?
(I am a fat dude who is triggered by being hungry. Literally triggered, panic attacks and all. Take your shots, people who find the concept of triggers amusing.)
I tell that story because it’s something I only figured out recently, but I was diagnosed with PTSD long ago. Mostly, it’s because I was abused and neglected as a child. A lot of other traumatic shit happened, too. A family member I was close to abandoned us when I was very young, my dad died when I was just hitting my teens, we lived in poverty for a big chunk of my childhood, I was a hostage once, I’ve witnessed a murder, the list goes on. (And if I seem to be making light of all this, that’s because I am. I have to, or else this essay and the all the others I need to write this month would never get done.)
But the big one is the abuse and neglect. Because of it, I’ve cut myself off from people my whole life. Always holding back, always keeping a distance, never trusting. I even justified to myself that I was doing it for their protection–so that they wouldn’t be exposed to whatever it was inside me that made people want to hurt me when I was a child. Everything I wrote about Lego Batman was a message to myself.
Everything I’ve written in the last two years about superheroes and trauma is a message to myself. It’s only now that I’m beginning to listen.

Current status of the Patreon:

Retroactive Continuity: Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing my Patreon, Shane!
We have talked a great deal of late about the secret identity as a metaphor for trauma, and in particular for the fragmentation of identity engendered by trauma. We’ve also looked at a couple of potential challenges to that model, most importantly Wonder Woman (and Wonder Woman).
Ms. Marvel poses another, distinct challenge to the heroic trauma model, namely that Kamala Khan’s origin doesn’t seem to be particularly traumatic: it’s depicted as being more like a superhero-themed mystical experience than the violence and chaos of seeing one’s parents murdered or becoming a refugee from a destroyed world. Instead, the comic deploys Kamala’s emerging dual identities as a metaphor for double consciousness.
Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.
We can see this play out over the course of Ms. Marvel vol. 1. Kamala wishes to be seen as beautiful, but expresses this in terms of wanting blonde hair or looking like her more popular, white classmate Zoe. She wants, as many teens do, to fit in, but the ways in which she doesn’t fit in are racialized: her religion, appearance, and family are all targets both of Zoe’s passive-aggressive racism and Kamala’s own self-criticism. As a young teen, she is in the process of carving out her own identity as young teens do, seeking it in community and culture, but that process is disrupted by the racism all around her. The people she wishes to be like–Zoe and Captain Marvel both–are pretty blonde white women, because a part of what she has learned about herself is that her own appearance and ethnicity are considered less-than.
The reason her superheroic origin is not depicted as traumatic is because her identity is already fragmented. Kamala has an inner Zoe, constantly judging her for being “too Muslim,” “too Pakistani,” “too different.” She considers herself ugly compared to Zoe, yet as she herself notes, donning Pakistani clothing gives her “+5 bling.” When she is within a cultural context where she isn’t othered, she’s beautiful. The problem isn’t her; it’s Zoe and everything Zoe represents–and the internal voice of Zoe that Kamala has had to adopt to protect herself from the Zoes of the world.
And then Kamala gets the power to change her shape and appearance.
At first she has little control over the power, and manifests as a duplicate of Captain Marvel. This makes total sense in terms of the protector fantasy: double consciousness is a survival tactic, after all. Kamala’s internalized racism is her default protector, and so her protector identity is initially an expression of the very white European beauty ideals she negatively judges herself against.
But from the start, Kamala’s consciousness of herself as herself, as opposed to her consciousness of herself as seen by racists and Islamophobes, is pushing back. Her vision when she receives her powers is of an angelic Captain Marvel, yes, but it’s an angelic Captain Marvel reciting Urdu poetry. Kamala soon finds that trying to be Captain Marvel feels wrong, and instead becomes the new Ms. Marvel, making her own costume and sticking to her own face, her own hair. What kind of a protector could she be, if she othered herself, perpetuated one of the greatest evils of our culture against herself? (And it is our culture–she has as good a claim to it as anyone.)
For Kamala, then, becoming Ms. Marvel isn’t a fragmentation of identity. The fragmentation is already there. Ms. Marvel is a path to healing, to finding a way of protecting herself and others while embracing all of who she is.
And who she is, as it turns out, is an immensely likable and entertaining character.

Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Retroactive Continuity: Supergod
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Rick and Morty S3E3
  • Latest Milestone: $130/mo: Jed Plays Undertale monthly series–a new episode of Jed  Plays Undertale every month until I finish the game!
  • Next Milestone: $150/mo ($20 away!): More bonus vlogs! Two bonus vlogs a month instead of just one!

Rainbow Revolution: Color Symbolism in Revolutionary Girl Utena

At the request of Ana Mardoll–who has just started a blog series on Revolutionary Girl Utena that you really ought to read, because she’s awesome–I am compiling all my thoughts on the use of color in Revolutionary Girl Utena in one place. This is a more than usually off-the-cuff post, drawing together (and in some cases copy-pasting) stuff from a bunch of different blog posts I’ve written and notes I’ve taken, so I’m not worrying to much about flow.
The main, most solid sources for what color means in the show are two episodes, “Tracing a Path” and “The End of the World.” The former is a clip show that assigns names to each of the duels in the Student Council Saga. As each duel is named, a stained glass panel is displayed showing the French word for the concept the duel is named after, and dyed the same color as Utena’s opponent’s hair. The latter episode then shows a similar panel as Utena faces off against Akio in the Duel Named Revolution. However, almost every episode has some use of these colors, and there are several prominent colors not assigned duel names, so ultimately the only source I can give for this is “the show as a whole, watched many times.”
So, let’s get into the colors.
Green
Green is associated with the Duel Named Friendship and the Duel Named Choice. That is, therefore, what green represents: friendship and choice, interpersonal connection and free will. Generally speaking, a character’s hair color indicates what their path or destiny is–what road they are on. Thus, Saionji’s hair is green to indicate he is seeking and defined by his relationships, his friendship with Touga and his (imaginary) romance with Anthy. It is also the color of the dress Nanami sends Anthy to wear to the ball; at the time, Nanami is pretending to be Anthy’s friend, and Utena is trying to get Anthy to make choices for herself. (When characters wear something other than their usual uniform, it generally indicates they are taking on a role or playing a part.)
Green’s opposite color is red; hence it is also the color of the concepts in direct opposition to red’s: doubt or confusion (opposing conviction) and loyalty (opposing the self in both senses of selfishness and self-reliance). Again, these are strong traits in Saionji, who frequently misinterprets situations (such as the whole exchange diary fiasco), and whose loyalty to Touga remains unshakable even when Touga repeatedly demonstrates he doesn’t deserve it.
Blue
Blue is associated with the Duel Named Reason; blue represents reason, the intellect, and the mind, memory and self-expression. Miki’s blue hair indicates his genius, both academic and musical, as well as his fixation on a specific memory he wants to return to, the feeling of playing piano with his sister. Ruka’s blue hair, meanwhile, indicates his calculating, ruthless approach to dueling.
Blue’s opposite color is orange; hence it is also the color of possessiveness (opposing love), the idea that another person is “rightfully” your property. Again, see Ruka; also, that is frequently how Kozue presents herself, and even Miki in his focus episodes tends to start seeing Anthy as someone who “ought to” belong to him.
Orange
Orange is associated with the Duel Named Love; orange represents love, passion, and yearning. Juri’s orange hair indicates that she is driven by both a specific lost love, and quest for love in general–she is a closeted lesbian, and wants the power to revolutionize the world so that she can achieve the miracle of being allowed to love, and being loved in return.
Orange’s opposite color is blue, so it is also associated with that which cannot be understood through reason, the miraculous, the mystical, the spiritual. Again, Juri is seeking a miracle.
Yellow
Yellow is associated with the Duel Named Adoration, and represents that which is placed upon a pedestal, the object of worship and protection. Nanami’s yellow hair signifies both her adoration of her brother, and that she is an object of adoration, the queen bee of the school. Similarly, Tsuwabuki’s yellow hair represents his adoration of Nanami.
Yellow’s opposite color is purple, and so yellow is also the color of stasis (opposing revolution). In the context of Utena, this stasis takes the form of an inability to age or mature, a perpetual childhood or adolescence. The adored child who must be protected and cannot grow up is the Princess, which combines all the meanings of yellow in one; hence the princess in the fairy tale that opens the first episode is wearing a yellow dress, because at the beginning of that story Utena is playing the role of the Princess.
Red
Like green, red is associated with two duels: the Duel Named Conviction and the Duel Named Self. Red is the color of belief, selfishness, self-reliance. It is the color of knowing who you are and what you believe, and acting accordingly. Touga’s red hair and Utena’s pink both represent characters who are confident, proud, certain of their own identities, and always ready to act on their beliefs; the difference is that Touga’s beliefs are cynical and Utena’s idealistic.
Red’s opposite color is green, so it is also the color of manipulation (in opposition to friendship) and power (in opposition to choice). Touga, Utena, and Mikage are the strongest duelists, and all three are highly manipulative in very different ways: Touga uses promises, lies, and seduction; Utena swoops in to save Anthy and in so doing pushes her into performing Utena’s ideas of the savior-prince narrative; Mikage discovers the darkest desires of others and twists them to his purposes. And, of course, red is the color of Akio’s car, where he demonstrates his power and manipulates the duelists into fighting Utena again.
Purple
Purple is the color of the Duel Named Revolution. It is the antithesis of yellow, which is adoration. What is adoration? It is looking up to the object of one’s love, putting them on a pedestal, worshiping them, perhaps not even noticing how that degrades yourself. It is the princess, the Nanami, the one who plays by the rules and is accepted by society as “good,” no matter what she’s really like.
Purple is hate.
Purple is the witch.
Purple is what they’ve all been fighting for all along.
It is that which dwells in the castle.
It is something shining: the morning star, the deceptive beauty, the light which casts the shadow.
It is the power of miracles: the terrible sacrifice, the dark magic of blood and death.
It is something eternal: suffering that never ends.
It is the revolution of the world: the apocalypse.
Purple is the end of innocence. It is corruption and it is maturation. It is stasis and it is change. It is Da’at, the terrible black abyss that is nonetheless the path to enlightenment.
Purple is time.
Purple is putrefaction, the endless decay that endlessly brings forth life.
Purple is Anthy.
Other Colors
There are three prominent colors in the show that are not associated with named duels: white, black, and brown.
White is strongly associated with the Prince: it is the color of Dios’ clothing, Utena’s rose, and the rose frames that appear around Touga when Utena thinks he might be her prince. Lighter colors thus indicate closeness to the Prince and what he represents, so for example Utena is closer to the power of Dios than Touga–pink is red and white combined.
It is tempting to conclude that white is therefore “good” and black “evil,” and to an extent that’s true, but it’s important to remember that one of the strongest influences on Utena is Herman Hesse’s novel Demian (among other things, it’s where the egg speech comes from, as well as the use of apocalypse and global revolution as metaphors for growing up). In Demian, “good” does not mean acting ethically, but rather conforming to social norms, and likewise “evil” does not mean doing harm or violating others, but rather defying social norms. In that respect, it might be more accurate then to say that white represents that which is accepted and black represents that which is rejected, white is the socially acceptable and black the abject.
Sometimes, this aligns with morality: Ruka’s hair is a darker blue than Miki’s, and Touga’s a darker red than Utena’s, and they are definitely much worse people. However, that’s not why they’re darker; Ruka’s blue is darker because sexual assault is less socially acceptable than Nice Guy Syndrome, and Touga’s red is darker because being a lying, cheating playboy is less socially acceptable than being a heroic savior. To use an example where it definitely isn’t aligned with morality: Anthy’s skin is dark because she is utterly abject, the Witch whom society seeks to punish eternally for the sin of being a person instead of a perfect little princess.
Pure black, as we see in the Black Rose Saga, is thus that which is completely rejected, that part of ourselves which we push away so hard that we start to deny it even exists–the Jungian Shadow, in other words. Each of the Black Rose duelists descends into the deep darkness underground and the darkness within themselves, expressing and demonstrating the hidden parts of the people whose heart-swords they wield. For example, Kozue acts on the possessiveness that Miki tries to deny he feels toward Anthy; Wakaba acknowledges feeling unremarkable and overshadowed by her more popular and athletic best friend, while Saionji tries to deny that he feels this way about Touga. The darkness of the Shadow is not the darkness of evil, however, though it is where the idea of evil comes from; the Shadow is dark because it’s hidden. It must be not only faced, but accepted–Utena fights and defeats her Shadow Mikage, and in so doing rejects the aspects of herself he represents, allowing Akio to use those very same traits to manipulate her in the next arc. It is only when she admits and accepts the ways in which she has used Anthy–the same ways Mikage used people–that she becomes able to face Akio in the final duel.
Finally, there is brown, the drab color of the plain, ordinary, unspecial people. Wakaba, in other words, as well as Nanami’s hangers-on, that trio of boys always hitting on Nanami, and the vast majority of the unnamed masses who populate the school. But again, this doesn’t mean that brown is bad, just that it’s neutral; it is the color of not being particularly any one thing. In a way, the brown-haired characters are lucky–they have conventional dreams and acceptable desires, and therefore don’t need to break the world in order to become truly themselves. They get to just be.