Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E1 "Let's Be Heroes"/"Let's Be Friends"

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!Ian Jones-Quartey, I am given to understand, does not like the way people keep referencing RPG World when discussing his work, but it’s hard not to. Part of that difficulty, doubtlessly, is that it was abandoned, and particularly that it was abandoned so close to what appeared to be the grand climax. This lack of closure makes RPG World a sort of wound–scabbed over, mostly forgotten, but difficult to stop picking at, a place to seek themes and ideas that echo throughout Jones-Quartey’s career. It is the curse of the Millennial creator: our juvenilia are still out there in dark corners of the Internet, just waiting to return and embarrass us–and the more successful our juvenilia were, the more often we encounter them.
On the other hand, OK KO‘s first two 11-minute stories don’t try very hard to hide the resemblance. Jones-Quartey’s style has some distinct hallmarks, both visual and narrative, and they’re quite apparent here: large, squarish heads and upper bodies; extensive references to video games and animation of the long 1990s*; a male lead who is innocent to the point of naivete and blissfully unaware of how goofy he is; a snarky female lead who is completely jaded about the shenanigans that surround her; gentle mockery of genre conventions.
None of this is a criticism of OK KO; it’s just acknowledgment that it is very, very much a pure Jones-Quartey project in ways that, say, Steven Universe is not. For our purposes, however, the most notable thing about OK KO is that it serves as a handy illustration of the differences between a hero and a superhero. Jones-Quartey’s most visible influences, consistently throughout his career, have been primarily Japanese, whether that’s JRPGs in RPG World, anime in Steven Universe, or platform and beat-em-up games in OK KO. Superheroes, while not exclusively Western, are much more a Western phenomenon, and so the conception of heroism presented in OK KO is notably different.
Both models of heroism involve the protector fantasy, of course, because that’s most of what we mean when we say “hero”: a proactive protector, someone who goes out to slay monsters or capture criminals who seek to do us harm. So, by the end of “Let’s Be Friends,” KO’s quest to become a hero has been deliberately and explicitly entangled with the protection of Lakewood Plaza Turbo; he has completed the first step toward his goal, namely establishing or acquiring a place and people to protect.
The differences become clearer, however, when we examine the other two pillars of this project: there is no near-apocalypse for KO to prevent, but rather an ongoing status quo of which he is seeking to become a part. Lakewood Plaza Turbo and Boxmore exist in balanced opposition, one (as stated in the pilot short, released some years prior to the show proper) providing supplies for heroes while the other provides evil robots for villains. (Separated, according to the pilot, by Route 1. US Route 1 is a major highway that passes through Jones-Quartey’s native Baltimore; his work is as much about his childhood’s re-creation as its recreation.) Perhaps more importantly, what is KO’s origin story? He wanted to be a hero, so he tried to be a hero, with mixed success; now he’s learning to be a hero. There is no trauma here–some slapstick combat injuries, but no genuine suffering, no distortion of memory, time, and identity.
That said, OK KO may not be using the superheroic model, but it is using a model of heroism we have seen before, fairly recently in fact: unsurprisingly for the work of someone as influenced by Japanese culture as Jones-Quartey, OK KO is running on a shonen fighting show’s model of heroism. As in Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and countless others, the hero is originally characterized more by enthusiasm than prowess; however, through determination, training, and the help of a circle of friends, KO grows stronger and begins to discover his abilities.
The show itself appears to be aware of this: again, one of Jones-Quartey’s signatures is gentle mockery of generic conventions, and here he has Lord Boxman declaring a hatred for and desire to destroy all friendship, on the grounds that people who get along are less likely to purchase evil killer robots. His comically inept attempt to accomplish this, of course, only cements that Enid and Rad like, respect, and admire KO, establishing their friendship.
One argument we can make–and will definitely examine–is that by 2017, the time of the superhero is over. As we have been coming to realize, the superhero’s engagement with near-apocalypse can emphasize the most problematic, authoritarian readings of the protector fantasy. Looking at other models of heroism is a good idea, whether our goal is to fix the superhero or replace it–and the creators who grew up on superheroes aren’t a likely place to find those models. It is to creators like Jones-Quartey and his partner, Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar, who grew up on different models of heroism, that we should look for answers.
And three or four hundred entries from now, we will.
*I spotted references to Street Fighter (KO’s design is clearly based on Ryu), Final Fight (Mr. Gar is equally clearly based on Mike Haggar), Mega Man (the robot-building villain’s skull-themed lair, Darrell and Shannon’s designs), Sonic the Hedgehog (Lord Boxman’s design resembles, and he shares a voice actor with, Dr. Robotnik), and My Life as a Teenage Robot (Shannon’s design). I know that last is 2003, but its visual style, sense of humor, and premise (young person who is different from, but more powerful than, everyone else as a consequence of superscience) put it firmly in the tradition of 90s Cartoon Network classics like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. Anyway, at least as far as we’re concerned, the long 90s end with the finale of Justice League Unlimited and premiere of Avatar: The Last Airbender both in 2005. Everything really did change when the Fire Nation attacked.

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Wayne, you alive? (Holiday Knights)

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It’s still September 13, 1997. Mere minutes have elapsed since the end of “Speed Demons,” so the headlines and charts are unchanged.
One thing of note, at least for us, did happen in those minutes: a new opening sequence proclaiming the next hour of Kids’ WB to be The New Batman/Superman Adventures, a programming block which aired reruns of BTAS and STAS on weekdays, and a mix of reruns and new episodes on Saturdays. New episodes of STAS would sometimes air immediately before NBSA, sometimes as part of it, but from here out all new episodes of BTAS–including this one–aired as part of NBSA, and as such have no opening sequence of their own (although streaming and DVD versions often replace the NBSA opening with the original BTAS or New Adventures of Batman and Robin opening).
The new opening heavily plays up the idea of the block as combining Batman’s and Superman’s respective shows in a number of ways. The color palette shifts back and forth between Superman’s blue skies and Batman’s red; characters are initially shown only in monochrome silhouette, but once color starts showing up it almost always fits the pattern, the two exceptions being the transition from young Bruce screaming by his parents’ corpses (silhouettes on red) to the Batman logo, which then dissolves into a swarm of bats on a yellow background, and the transition from Superman flying up to Krypton turning yellow and exploding into Darkseid, wreathed in yellow flames. Otherwise, however, all scenes from STAS episodes have a blue filter and all scenes from BTAS have a red one. Yellow is reserved to mark that which the characters share: both, when they were young, had their worlds shattered.
(Interestingly, Darkseid–who, keep in mind, has not yet actually appeared in an episode–is thus presented as parallel to the Bat. More on this quite a bit later.)
Even more than the imagery, the music serves as an announcement that BTAS and STAS aren’t just being aired next to each other, but are being in some sense combined into one, as it meshes two themes, one stylistically similar to the BTAS theme and the other stylistically similar to the STAS theme (although neither actually reprises or remixes a prior theme). The final shot before the title shows this as well, being a brief scene from the (not yet released when “Holiday Knights” first aired) crossover film/three-part episode “World’s Finest,” in which Batman and Superman meet in person–the only time they, or indeed any characters introduced in their respective shows, are onscreen together in this opening.
But note the music in that brief shot: it is the triumphal STAS-style theme. The filter on the shot, too, is blue, which is associated with STAS characters and clips throughout the rest of the opening. The one moment which has both of them is being treated as, essentially, a Superman moment–as, indeed, will be “World’s Finest” as a whole: it is primarily set in Metropolis, uses STAS’ lighter color palette and Bruce Timm character designs, and would subsequently be included in STAS collections, not BTAS collections. Appropriately enough, Superman is still the one who gets to be in the sun; Batman remains in his shadow.
This is true for the entire final season of BTAS, especially where color palette and character designs are concerned, all of which have been changed to integrate better with STAS. The look of STAS will be the look of the DCAU from here out.
“Holiday Knights” itself thus serves as something of a transition between the old BTAS look and the new. An adaptation of the Batman Adventures Holiday Special we covered some time back, it takes stories originally written for and drawn in the style of the old BTAS and changes them to the new. Since it occurs entirely at night, the shift in color palette is also not as obvious. Similarly, the sequence of stories is changed from the Holiday Special, moving “The Harley and the Ivy” to the beginning so that the first characters seen are Poison Ivy (whose character design changed significantly in the revamp) and Harley Quinn (whose design barely changed at all): the opening scene thus simultaneously demonstrates that we are looking at a visually revamped show, and that it is nonetheless the same show as past seasons of BTAS.
The next segment, adapting the Holiday Special’s “Jolly Ol’ St. Nicholas,” indicates another change. In both the comic and televised versions of the story, Barbara Gordon is at the mall when Clayface reveals himself and attacks the cops, so she has to put on her Batgirl costume without being seen. Both make a point of showing her taking off her clothes and putting on the costume, implying nakedness in between, but choosing angles where nothing is visible that wouldn’t be allowed in an all-ages comic or Saturday morning cartoon. This is in keeping with one of Timm’s major influences, “good girl art,” a school of pinup and comic artists originating in the 1940s. The style is characterized by conventionally attractive women in skimpy or formfitting outfits, and often involve a voyeuristic element in which the subject is depicted in an improbable or private moment that involves a state of partial undress, such as being in the middle of changing clothes. Indeed, the original script for the Holiday Special was even more voyeuristic, as it called for Batgirl to change her clothes out in the open in a crowded mall, relying on the distraction provided by Clayface to ensure no one saw her naked. The comic’s editors considered this excessively risque, so it was changed so that she ducks into a changing room before stripping.
The episode, however, has her merely duck into the aisle between two rows of shelves, leaving open the possibility that someone unseen is watching her change. It is not quite to the level of the comic script, but still has a distinctly voyeuristic tinge. More importantly, its presence implies that the show is now a little less concerned with being child-friendly than the comics–which is interesting, since the comics repeatedly showed that they were a little less concerned with being child-friendly than the cartoon. That the revamped show is a little less worried about The Children than it was previously–a change at least partially explained by the accompanying shift from initial airings on Fox to WB, which had a generally less strict Standards and Practices policy for children’s programming–is confirmed in the next segment, adapted from the Holiday Special story “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve,” in which we have a successful on-screen murder for the first time in any televised DCAU story (Mask of the Phantasm having been a theatrical release). The act itself is not shown, but Commissioner Gordon shows Batman video of the Joker threatening to go on a killing spree, then tells him that there’s already been a victim and hands him photographs of a chalk outline and a man with the grinning rictus brought on by Joker gas. All previous episodes involving the gas took pains to indicate that victims were hospitalized and treated, but there is no mention of hospitalization here, and both the Joker’s threat and the chalk outline clarify that the man is dead.
The third segment also demonstrates a much bigger change, namely Robin. He does not appear in the comic story, but figures prominently in the episode, and his design has changed even more than Poison Ivy’s. His costume’s color scheme has changed, now more red and black than red and green, he himself is much shorter, and most notably, his voice actor has changed to the much younger-sounding Mathew* Valencia. He also seems to have become less experienced, making the rookie mistake of turning his back on one of Joker’s goons when distracted by what’s happening to Batman. These changes combine to make him seem like a much younger character, which he is: it is stated nowhere in the episode, but this Robin is a new character: Dick Grayson has left and been replaced by Tim Drake. The details of how and why Grayson left, where he went, and how Drake came to be the new Robin will be gradually revealed over the course of the season, forming an ongoing story arc.
This is a huge development, because outside of the occasional two- or three-parter, the DCAU has never attempted a preplanned story arc. Going forward, however, they will become increasingly common, especially in STAS and Justice League. The DCAU is thus both deepening its continuity by introducing ongoing story arcs, and broadening it, by emphasizing that BTAS and STAS are part of a shared continuity.
Story arcs, crossovers, shared continuity: the DCAU is suddenly sounding a lot more like the comics–for better and, as we shall eventually see, for worse.
*Not a misspelling.

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Book Review: Neoreaction a Basilisk by Phil Sandifer

Due diligence: I’m friends with the author, read and commented on an early draft of the titular essay, and backed both this book’s Kickstarter and his Patreon, and received the book through those channels. I have no financial stake in this book.
That out of the way: this book is properly brilliant. Perhaps the best testament to its brilliance is that I’ve tried three times to express how brilliant it is and ended up a couple paragraphs into an inadequate summary of the first essay before I deleted my review and started over.
This is a book full of monsters–philosophical horrors that represent the degree to which the worst ideas of the worst people are strangling our world in their tentacles, with each essay explores a different branch of this theme, one of the tentacles of the skulltopus. One by one, it looks at technophiliac white supremacists, nihilistically misogynistic gamers, Trump, anarcho-capitalist authoritarians, conspiracy theorists, transphobic second-wave feminists, and Peter Thiel, exploring their ideas (or, in the case of Trump, who doesn’t seem to have any, the psychic landscape of New York that spawned him) and seeking the monsters within.
But this is not simply a litany of all the ways in which terrible people are terrible. Instead, Sandifer repeatedly gives his subjects the opportunity to hang themselves by their own ropes, and shows how inevitably they do; ultimately, all seven topics are haunted by what Sandifer calls “basilisks,” ideas from which they flee but which they can never escape. In this, Sandifer borrows the name from Roko’s basilisk, a frankly hilarious incident in which a community of AI cranks accidentally reinvented Pascal’s wager and terrified themselves with it; the concept itself, however, he accredits to Eugene Thacker’s observations on the relationship between philosophy and horror.
Along the way are typically Sandiferian delights. As always, his ability to sensitively elucidate the bizarre thought processes of utter cranks is without peer; the first essay in particular is impressive in this regard, as it is constructed as a widening spiral through the thoughts of AI crank and Harry Potter fanfiction author Eliezer Yudkowsky, political crank and designer of questionable software Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a Mencius Moldbug), and drug-addled philosophy crank Nick Land. Throughout, one gets the feeling that Sandifer is going out of his way to be kind to his subjects, but it is not because they deserve it; instead it is to give them plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. The three ultimately come across, respectively, as a well-meaning crank who’d be harmless if not for the people listening to him, an utterly despicable human being, and a fascinating train wreck. The fifth essay is also a delight along these lines, as it playfully uses David Icke’s “lizard people” conspiracy theory as a basis from which to take apart conspiracy theories as a whole. (But again, Sandifer’s obvious fondness for cranks never quite crosses the line into forgetting that, for example, David Icke’s ideas are repulsively anti-Semitic, or that Land is providing intellectual cover for racism.)
Admittedly, the book is not perfect. I adore “Theses on a President,” for example, but it’s definitely out there–I love the metaphor of a Faustian exchange, giving up his name to become a brand, to represent the kind of toxic performativity that Trump exemplifies, but I suspect readers less familiar with Sandifer (and let’s face it, if you need a review to help you decide whether to buy this book, you’re not) might find it a bridge too far so soon after being asked to swallow the psychogeographic approach. At least, I know I would discounted the essay at that point, if I didn’t already have the introduction to psychogeography Sandifer helpfully provided in his earlier work. At the other end of the scale, the last two chapters feel a little perfunctory–particularly the last. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of words to say “Peter Thiel’s basilisk is that he’s an idiot who got lucky,” but ultimately Thiel gets little more attention than some of the figures discussed in passing in the first essay–and given that he comes up in the first essay, it’s not clear why he deserves a chapter of his own.
All that said, this is still a vitally important book, and more importantly an excellent one. I cannot recommend it enough–and indeed, I intend to recommend it to everyone I know who is even remotely interested in politics, philosophy, or their intersection. This is Phil’s best work yet, and that is saying something.

You can buy Neoreaction a Basilisk here.

How many superheroes does it take to screw in a lightbulb? (Speed Demons)

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It’s September 13, 1997, the day after “The Prometheon,” and the world is basically unchanged: the same top songs, the same top movies, and more or less the same headlines, at least in the sense of anything which interests us 20 years later.
In the DC Animated Universe, however, major changes are afoot. Suddenly, the Flash is here, a fully realized hero in his own right. He is given no origin story, no secret identity, but a great deal of personality: he is cocky, reckless, and loves attention, but nonetheless a dedicated protector, just like Superman. He’s “that guy from Central City” just like Batman, way back in “The Last Son of Krypton,” was “that nut in Gotham”: someone with his own milieu, his own aesthetic, his own villain, and presumably his own allies and supporting cast. The Flash is a fully fledged superhero, which of course most of us already know from the comics; but he has never before been mentioned in the DCAU. No superhero has outside of Batman, Batgirl, Robin, and Superman. (And technically Wonder Woman, but that was just a shout-out by the writers: diegetically, Lois’ line in “Blasts from the Past” can be read as either referring to an established superhero or just making up a spur-of-the-moment superhero name for herself, but Wonder Woman’s first appearance, in “Secret Origins,” suggests reading Lois as meaning the latter.)
There were, until this episode, two clearly delineated superheroic milieus within the DCAU: Gotham, with its looming darkness and the several avatars of the Bat, and Metropolis, shining home of the Man of Tomorrow. Now we have someone who belongs to neither, the “guy from Central City,” a denizen of the space between. Of course there has always been the idea that Gotham and Metropolis both are part of some larger world, with Batman’s globe-trotting adventure serials and Superman’s science-fictional space journeys, but in terms of ideaspace they were presented as essentially binary. Now we see that there is a between, the ideaspace from which the Flash briefly visits STAS and then moves on. It can only be a visit, because BTAS belongs to one milieu and STAS the other; lying between them, Central City does not belong in either show.
The introduction of a between, the suggestion of a spectrum, emphasizes a kinship between Superman and Batman and their respective aesthetics. A binary implies two opposites with nothing in common, but in truth a line can be drawn between any two points, and what is a spectrum but a line between two points previously presented as binary? The similarities between Batman and Superman–the line that connects them–will soon be far more important than their differences.
What, after all, do they share in common with each other and with the Flash? Some commonalities we have already covered: they’re all protector fantasies, and all divided identities disrupted by trauma (though in the case of the Flash, we will only ever see that trauma in brief flashback). The episode, however, emphasizes a third commonality we have only briefly touched upon: they are all performances.
The Flash showboats. He shows up to the race disruptively late with a humblebrag of an apology about having only woken up two minutes prior. He trash-talks Superman, flirts with Lois, and arrogantly predicts an easy victory. He could not be more clearly playing a role; he hams it up for the crowd, but he’s still playing the same role when he assumes Superman telling him about the ship caught in the Weather Wizard’s first hurricane is a ruse, when he charges into the lightning shield, and when he zips in through the tunnel Superman dug to knock the control rod out of the Weather Wizard’s hand. All of these behaviors are too consistent with a single theme to not be performative: he’s not just fast-running, but fast-talking, always rushing in, quick to jump to conclusions, and speeding to the rescue. There is no need for the episode to show the outcome of the race: we know the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, because that’s the role he’s performing.
In the same sense, Superman is the Man of Steel: he shrugs off both physical harm and Flash’s needling, pushes an entire oil tanker and digs through solid rock with equal ease, and tanks the hits from the villain’s all-powerful weapon.
We’ve observed this before with Barbara Gordon, for whom Batgirl is just a performance, a costume she can take off and put on. But all identity is performative, and not always in a way that can be turned off so easily. Batman is a core part of who Bruce Wayne (who saw his parents murdered at age 8) is, a performance that he can hide, but cannot stop anymore than he can stop performing masculinity, while Bruce Wayne (wealthy playboy) is something he can turn off and on at will. Similarly, Clark Kent can perform the role of a reporter at work, and that’s a part of who he is, but he’d still be himself if he lost his job; he cannot stop being Superman. He could take off the costume and change the name, but he’d still have the powers and the drive to protect; to change that would be to change who he is in a fundamental way.
But Superman is still a performance. Some aspects of who he “really is” are channeled into that performance, just as some aspects of Wally West–his lackadaisical approach, humor, and spooniness*–are channeled into his performance as the Flash. But ultimately, just like every other role played by every other person, real or imagined, these roles are still just a part of who they are, shaped by the constraints of the role itself yet also an extension of the underlying personality.
But the Flash is more consciously, deliberately a role than Superman or Batman. Superman is Clark Kent; elseworlds and what-ifs notwithstanding, there is only one Superman and that is he. The same goes for Batman: yes, Dick Grayson, and yes, Terry McGinnis, but if you ask people who Batman is, the answer any but the most pedantic are going to give is Bruce Wayne.
But the answer to “Who is the Flash?” is “Which one?” There have been many Flashes, with different names, origins, appearances, and personalities, but all playing the role of the Flash, the role we have identified as the Fastest Man Alive. There is no singular iconic Flash, though Barry Allen comes close: he is the best-known and the most likely to appear in adaptations, but he’s not the original, and that complexifies the question in ways that don’t come up for Superman or Batman. What this episode has done, however, is sidestep the question: it’s answered “Who is the Flash?” with “the Fastest Man Alive.” In so doing, it has declared its Flash, this Flash, to be the Platonic form of the Flash, an expression of the essential Flash-ness which all the specific Flashes share. In much the same way that Batman: The Animated Series‘ anachronisms declared its Batman to be the timeless distillation of all eras of Batman, the DCAU Flash is here declared to be a distillation of all versions of the Flash.
Later, in Justice League, this will be further emphasized by giving him Wally West’s name and appearance, but Barry Allen’s job and origin story, while also incorporating elements of both their personalities and Jay Garrick’s status as the first Flash. But the point is already made here: it’s not just Batman and (more subtly, as the anachronisms of his show are more subtle) Superman who are being presented as timeless forms distilled from all depictions of the character. The DCAU as a whole is presenting itself as the best and most iconic elements of DC Comics, mixed and purified down to the deepest essences of its characters and stories. It is a bold declaration of ambition, but as Superman comes to realize about the Flash, underlying those brash words is the skill and dedication to actually mean it.
So, with that said, let the New Adventures begin.
*Yes, “spoony” is a real word. I’m bringing it back.

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