Kweku? (Mxyzpixilated)

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Keeping on with this exceedingly rapid flurry of Superman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series episodes, just a day after “Target,” on September 20, 1997, we have the vastly more memorable and entertaining “Mxyzpixilated.”
Like many cartoon characters–albeit relatively few in superhero cartoons–Mxyzptlk is presented as a kind of trickster. As is common in folklore, however, this is a story of the trickster tricked–compare for example “The Farmer and the Devil,” in which a humble but clever farmer repeatedly tricks the devil into accepting the worthless part of his crops–turnip leaves, wheat roots, and the like–in exchange for large quantities of gold. The Devil, in folklore, is generally depicted as a kind of con man, tricking people into accepting bargains that sound good but work out very poorly for them indeed; the farmer, however, turns the tables. “Mxyzpixilated” works much the same way, except the humble farmer is Clark Kent and the devil is a fifth-dimensional imp.
Traditionally, the role of the trickster is to encourage us not to blindly accept the limitations we place on ourselves. Tricksters break the rules and are rewarded for it, crossing boundaries and violating the “normal” order of things. They might bring the abject into normally safe spaces (as Mxyzptlk does when he transforms the Daily Planets taff into animals rarely seen in an office building), flaunt social convention (as Mxyzptlk does when he walks out into a busy street), profane the sacred (Mxyzptlk transforms one of the acknowledged great works of sculpture, The Thinker, into an ally to fight Superman), and generally sow chaos. Trickster stories show us that convention is just that, mere convention–if we choose to, we can discard it. The question tricksters force us to ask is why we follow convention–who benefits from it, do we want them to, and are there better ways we might be ignoring?
Perhaps the most extreme bucking of convention is when the trickster is themselves tricked by their mark. It is nearly always someone of humble status–a peasant, a slave, a child–who beats the trickster at their own game, because what could be a greater upset, a greater blow against convention, than a mere peasant defeating a god at that god’s own specialty? Nearly always, the story involves some kind of deal or bargain, which is where the trickster makes their mistake: once bound by rules and conventions, they have lost their power. For all that Mxyzptlk can alter reality around him at a whim, he has already lost from the moment he accepts Superman’s argument that a game must have rules. Therein lies the slight oddity of this particular trickster story, however: Superman is anything but humble. He might affect softspoken, aw-shucks nice-boy-from-a-small-town mannerisms, but he’s Superman: his high status is right there in the name! Mxyzptlk even concedes it at the end of the episode, outright stating that Superman is the superior being, to which Superman can only reply, “Well…” However, Mxyzptlk certainly doesn’t think so at first, and it’s clear why: first, Superman is notoriously vulnerable to magic, which Mxyzptlk has in spades. Perhaps more importantly, this is a cartoon, and the mix of trickster behavior and comical distortions of “normal” reality Mxyzptlk exemplifies is so common in the medium–from Bugs Bunny to Uncle Grandpa–that it has become the definition of “cartoonish.”
Zany antics of this kind are, of course, familiar territory for creators who cut their teeth on Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Freakazoid.  Mxyzptlk just pops up and starts annoying an authority figure–which Superman, self-appointed champion of law and justice, necessarily is–and demonstrates the usual cartoon-character power of being able to do essentially anything when and only when it’s funny, to paraphrase Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s thus when Mxyzptlk abandons comedy in favor of trying to outright kill Superman and countless others–by taking the form of a Kryptonite missile–that he is thoroughly and completely defeated.
Yet that still leaves us with the same problem as in every near-apocalypse: ultimately, the role of the superhero is to defend the status quo, which is to say, to uphold convention. For all that he is at a disadvantage due to Mxyzptlk’s magic and mastery of the medium, Superman is still the titular character, and no superhero is going to be defeated on his own show. (At least, not without a “To be continued” and a dramatic reversal in the next episode.) Mxyzptlk is depicted as a comically grotesque intruder, at once child, old man, and god. The scenes in the fifth dimension, where his Bruce Timm pinup wife spends most of her screen time in a succession of sexy outfits trying to seduce her husband, add in a possible queer reading as well: one of the conventions that Mxyzptlk is violating is that he’s less interested in the “good girl” throwing herself at him than he is in Superman–a reading which in turn makes Superman’s victory the triumph of a heteronormative authority figure. Even without that reading, any story of repulsing the invader who wants to change things is readable as an expression of anxiety about the Other, the defense of the nationalistic status quo against the new ideas and norms of immigrant populations. (The fact that Superman is himself an immigrant would mitigate this reading, except that we’re talking about an artifact of American pop culture, which is to say a country in which the nationalists fighting against immigration are themselves usually descended from a mix of immigrants and foreign invaders.)
Xenophobia is normally defined as the fear of strangers or foreigners, but it could just as easily be defined as the fear of the strange, the Other, that which lies outside what we think of as “normal.” In that sense, all marginalization is a product of xenophobia; any hatred and fear toward the Other, whether it take the form of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny, is rooted in the fear of strangeness. This is the same fear that, all too often, the protector fantasy is imagined as a defense against; the world might well be a better place with more tricksters and fewer superheroes–which brings us to the primary point of this essay.
M

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Think she won't (Target)

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It’s September 19, 1997. The top song is still Mariah Carey’s “Honey”; the Backstreet Boys, Usher, and Leann Rimes also chart. The top movie is something called In & Out; LA Confidential, The Full Monty, and GI Jane are also doing well.
Nothing newsworthy continues to happen.
It’s kind of a slow day for Superman: The Animated Series, too, with the rather forgettable (and equally forgettably titled) “Target.” (I thought I remembered one scene in particular, but as the episode went on I realized I was thinking of its sequel, which had a bit more sparkle.) As is often the case with subpar episodes, this one fails due to its very mundane villain, who combines a bit of the “mad scientist” with quite a lot of Nice Guy Syndrome.
Unfortunately, that’s a combination we’ve seen before with a much more memorable villain, the Mad Hatter. By comparison, Lytener is quite boring: just an entitled, whiny little LexCorp engineer who thought he could get into Lois’ pants (well, pleated white skirt) by helping her with her story, and then decides it’s her fault that she did her job as opposed to picking up on the signals he never actually sent.
Even more than dealing with Luthor, this puts Superman outside his normal element. Lytener is unpowered and has limited resources, at least until he suddenly has magic red sun-powered armor so that the requisite (and rather anti-) climactic fight sequence can happen, so his main defense is that no one knows who he is. Batman would have followed a trail of clues to Lytener, but Superman is not as much of a detective, so instead he rescues Lois from Lytener’s traps while being essentially no help whatsoever in determining who’s causing them.
That means it is largely up to Lois herself to solve the mystery, which she does in classic whodunnit fashion, realizing days later that Lytener accidentally let slip that he was spying on her when she won her award. The main challenge in getting to that point, for both Lois and the audience, is the sheer number of suspects: a corrupt cop who hates Lois for, if not exposing him entirely, at least casting enough suspicion on him to disrupt his career; a rival journalist furious that Lois won the award when he didn’t; and of course Lex Luthor, whose business empire was the subject of the investigation that Lois won for.
The presence of these other characters, especially Luthor, helps frame Lytener’s behavior. Luthor has already been shown to be a powerful, ruthless man with an enormous sense of entitlement–in the pilot, he claimed all of Metropolis as his territory, his fiefdom. His schemes have frequently been motivated by a desire to “reclaim” his territory from the interloper, Superman, who has “robbed” him. Bowman, the police officer, has a similar motivation: according to Lois, he believes she “cost him a promotion,” which is to say he felt entitled to it and blames Lois for him not getting it. Frey, the rival journalist, is likewise motivated by entitlement and blames Lois for his own failure. More to the point, all three want to be chosen by others: Luthor wants to be idolized by the people, Bowman to be selected for a promotion, and Frey to be awarded the Excalibur Prize.
In that company, Lytener manages to be even more pathetic. Like Luthor, Bowman, and Frey, he constructs a fantasy world where something belongs to him just because he wants it, ignoring that someone else has to decide to give it to him first. Like them, he believes himself to have earned it, only to have it stolen away by someone else. What makes him even more pathetic than them is that the person who would have to decide to give it to him, and the person who “stole” it, are the same person: Lois.
Contrast her closing interactions with Superman to Lytener. By this point, Superman has rescued Lois multiple times, and Lois has rescued him a couple, as well. But there’s no sense of entitlement in their exchange: Lois flirts a little, Superman replies noncommittally, and they leave it there. Superman is not entitled to Lois’ affection no matter how many times he rescues her, any more than Lois is entitled to his. Relationships aren’t transactional. Lois doesn’t like Superman because of what he does for her and Superman doesn’t like Lois because of what she does for him; rather, they do things for each other because they like each other.
That’s why the mad scientist and Nice Guy Syndrome fit so well together as a character concept: Nice Guy Syndrome is the product of an excessively systematic approach to relationships, an attempt to analyze them in terms of inputs and outputs: drop kindness coins in here, sex falls out there. Like the mad scientist, Nice Guy Syndrome blends entitlement, a warped perspective on the world, and an analytical bent of mind into a (self- and otherwise) destructive cocktail of behaviors.
Fortunately, in real life, people with Nice Guy Syndrome rarely have access to power armor and death lasers. The damage they do with reddit and Twitter is already more than enough.

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Crisis on N Earths: Rick and Morty S1E6 "Rick Potion #9"

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This post was commissioned by Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
Trigger warning: Discussion of rape.
Please note that this was written prior to the #metoo movement and associated revelations about Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon. It has not been updated to reflect that news.
Rick and Morty fans are, quite rightly, frequently mocked for an unearned sense of superiority. The claim that the humor of Rick and Morty–a show riddled with fart jokes and gross-out gags–requires unusual intelligence to appreciate is, frankly, absurd, and anyone who sees a miserable, alcoholic, misogynistic, child-abusing mass murderer like Rick as worthy of admiration or emulation has drastically missed the point of the show.
It should not be that surprising, then, that one of the show’s smartest, most insightful, most inciteful jokes goes largely without comment among the sorts of fans who hold up Rick as a paragon of nerd masculinity or queue up for the brief resurrection of an orientalist marketing stunt involving a mix of ketchup and teriyaki:* referring to a love potion as a roofie.
Because of course it is one. What we call “consent” refers to an alignment of perception, emotion, intention, and action. In other words, to truly consent, someone must have capacity to perceive the situation accurately, room to feel genuine emotion about that situation, opportunity to formulate an intention of how they plan to respond to how they feel about the situation, and finally freedom to take action in accord with their intent. Break that chain, knock any element out of alignment, and true consent is no longer possible.
In discussing rape in real life, people usually assume physical force or the threat of violence is involved, disengaging action from intent and making the victim do something they have made clear that they don’t want to. But that’s not the most common scenario; by far the weapon of choice for rapists is alcohol, which mostly operates by distorting perception and cognition, which is to say the first three steps in the process. Consent is just as impossible as when a threat of violence is involved, but because we are so trained by narratives that fixate on the disconnect between action and intent, it becomes easy for those motivated to do so to dismiss.
Fantasy and science fiction stories frequently depict substances (or spells, or machines) that disrupt perception, emotion, or intention, and rarely recognize that they thus violate consent. But a love potion really is just a magical date-rape drug, because it artificially alters emotion. Jessica doesn’t want to have sex with Morty; that is, to the best of our knowledge, she accurately perceives him, has room to feel whatever she feels about him, opportunity to make decisions about those feelings, and freedom to act on them, and chooses not to have sex with Morty. Until he smears her with magical “roofie juice serum,” at which point she becomes so determined to have sex with him that she loses all self-control. He’s distorted her perception of him, altered her emotions, seized control of her intentions, and is thereby forcing her actions: Rick’s name for it is thoroughly accurate.
That throwaway joke alone would hardly be worthy of an essay. But the rest of the episode builds it into a theme: this is all about the ownership and violation of bodies. Morty’s attempt to violate Jessica’s bodily and mental autonomy goes wildly out of control, and Rick’s attempted solutions make it even worse, as people all over the world unwillingly lose their humanity. They are reduced to monstrous things, abjectified as “Cronenbergs” (referring, of course, to David Cronenberg, master of grotesque horror), and ultimately just abandoned to their fate. Rick doesn’t care about their humanity any more than Morty cares about Jessica’s; Rick just sees something grotesque he wants to escape, while Morty just sees something attractive he wants to possess.
All this comes together in the ending, as Morty is forced to bury his own alternate-universe corpse so that he can slip into that Morty’s life. He passes, silent and bug-eyed, through a world where everything is the same as before he used the roofie juice serum, yet he knows that nothing is the same, because he is not the same. He was forced to confront his own mortality, the reality that he is a body, and see that body treated as an object, buried and forgotten.
Two episodes later, in “Rixty Minutes,” Morty uses the fact of his corpse as an object lesson for Summer on the meaninglessness and horror of existence: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” That is the solution he attempts here in “Rick Potion #9”: he sits in front of the TV. But he remains mute and wide-eyed as ever, making clear that it doesn’t work. He cannot simply forget that he is an object, a monster, a rotting corpse.
None of us can. But that’s the difference between Morty here and Morty two episodes ago: he asks Summer to come watch TV with him. We are all things, animals, bodies; but by treating one another as people, by communicating and asking instead of coercing and forcing, we become people as well.
*Seriously, look at the ingredients list here. Soy sauce + sugar + garlic and spices = Americanized teriyaki sauce. Tomato paste + sugar + vinegar = ketchup. Neither of these things is Chinese. One is an Americanization of a Japanese cooking technique, the other an Americanization of a Malaysian sauce.

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Make me (Identity Crisis)

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It’s September 15, 1997. It’s been two days; the top songs and movies haven’t budged, and nothing really newsworthy has happened.
It’s been an ordinary couple of days for a pretty ordinary Superman: The Animated Series episode. “Identity Crisis” is notable mostly for being one of STAS’s most successful attempts at the kind of “sympathetic villain” episode that BTAS did so well, but even taking that into account, it is still a repetition of things done more interestingly in other episodes: the sympathetic villain was done much better in BTAS episodes like “Heart of Ice” and “Baby Doll,” and the villainous version of Superman done better in “Blasts from the Past.”
Still, it makes a good stab at Bizarro–aptly named, as he is one of Superman’s more bizarre villains. Certainly the idea of a villain that is in some sense an opposite number to the hero isn’t new: the DCAU started by pitting Batman against Man-Bat, and STAS with Lex Luthor, who is human rather than alien, urban and wealthy rather than rural and working class, ruthless rather than compassionate, and so on. But Bizarro in his original conception took the Anti-Superman concept rather literally; he wasn’t so much evil as he was possessed of a bizarre value system.
This version, however, has less in common with the Silver Age Bizarro that Alan Moore killed off in the opening pages of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” than he does with the bizarre creature that Victor Frankenstein brought to life in the 1931 film. Like the iconic Boris Karloff monster, he emerges from an effort to create life in an isolated laboratory, speaks in broken, ungrammatical sentences, and ultimately is immolated in fire.
In this, Bizarro is quite distinct from the the monster depicted in the original novel, who was highly intelligent and articulate, and at the end of the book is still alive and headed into the frozen Arctic, though he does say he intends to incinerate himself. But all three monsters–the two Frankensteins* and Bizarro–share that they are tragic figures, ultimately more sinned against than sinning. But even there Bizarro takes more after the film Frankenstein than the book version, since the problem is an innate flaw in his creation–in Frankenstein’s case, that he was given the brain of a murderer; in Bizarro’s that the process of replicating alien DNA isn’t fully understood.
The result for film Frankenstein is that he is inarticulate and prone to violence when frightened or upset; for Bizarro, it’s that he gradually breaks down physically and mentally. Initially he looks and acts just like Superman, except for not knowing who Clark Kent is; as the episode goes on, his skin turns completely white, his posture more slumped, and his face increasingly asymmetrical and elongated, while his understanding and language degrade to “Me am hero” and the like. The end result, however, is still violence; the difference is that Bizarro is initially acting not out of anger but confusion, and genuinely believes he’s helping.
That gives us the first reason this doesn’t really work as a sympathetic villain story: Bizarro is sympathetic, but not the villain. The real villains are Lex Luthor and the unnamed scientist, but they’re barely in the episode and entirely unsympathetic.
The second, and more important reason, that it doesn’t work is encapsulated at the end of the episode, in the contrast between two of Lois Lane’s last lines. When Bizarro sacrifices himself so that Lois and Superman can escape, she tells him, “You are a hero,” and he smiles as he dies. Shortly after, in the final line of the episode, Lois tells Superman that his clone turning out to be a hero in the end is to be expected, because “he came from good stock.”
Here the show stumbles in the same way that the 1931 Frankensteindid. In the novel, the monster becomes violent because he is rejected and abandoned by its father, and left to survive on his own in a world that all too often regards him with terror and loathing. He is abject, that which is neither subject (the self) nor object (that which we accept having around us) but entirely Other, pushed to and beyond the margins of society, and he is understandably hurt and angry as a result. By contrast, the film’s monster is violent because he was created with bad material from a bad person, and Bizarro ultimately turns out to be heroic because he was created with good material from a good person. Their moral status is not a result of their choices, but rather an inevitable, albeit tragic, result of their biology.
Consider the most effective sympathetic villains we’ve seen. All are, in some sense, abject: Mister Freeze is cut off from all human contact, literally by his suit and metaphorically by the loss of his wife. Killer Croc is, like the monster in the novel, rejected for his grotesque appearance; in her own way, so is Baby Doll. Even Poison Ivy is treated as a femme fatale, objectified to the point of becoming abject. In all cases, it is the conflict between a deeply human character–a subject–and their abjection that creates the pathosessential for tragedy; we recognize that in their circumstances, we probably wouldn’t make the most prosocial choices either, and thus sympathize with them.
Bizarro is just as abject as they are, but we are never given a subject to contrast that abjection with. He is Superman, and then he’s this strange, distorted version of Superman; there is no sense of who Bizarro is when he’s himself. Even his strange “date” with Lois comes from his belief that he’s Superman, not his own wishes or desires, whatever they are. Lois’ final line then denies completely that he has any identity of his own; he is just his biology, and his struggle throughout the episode was not a sympathetic one between subject and abjection, but an abstract one between “good stock” and flawed construction.
Lois Lane shares vastly more DNA with Lex Luthor than with Superman, seeing as she and Lex are the same species while she and Superman aren’t even from the same planet; technically speaking, Superman isn’t even an animal–he’s not a member of the evolutionary clade that includes both sponges and dogs. Does Luthor’s existence prove that humans are “bad stock”? Or all mammals, all animals, all Earth life? How are Superman and Jax-ur from the same species?
Of course not. Which is entirely the problem, and one of the most important reasons the protector fantasy has to remain just a fantasy: Superman isn’t innately good. He just keeps choosing to do (ostensibly) the right thing.
What if he stops?
*No, pedants, it is not incorrect to refer to the monster as Frankenstein. While he is given no name in the book, many film versions, especially the later Universal films, establish in their titles that their monster is named Frankenstein, just like the scientist. Additionally, the novel depicts Victor Frankenstein as being in essence the monster’s father; that would make the monster a Frankenstein.**
**Why yes, I am preempting pedantry by being even more pedantic.

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