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.
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