The rest of the League's stationed near Alpha Centauri (World's Finest)

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It’s October 4, 1997. Top songs and films are unchanged from yesterday, and the only news of note today is that 600,000 evangelical Christian men gather for the Promise Keeper’s “Stand in the Gap” event in Washington, DC.
The Promise Keepers are largely irrelevant as an organization today, but their model of masculinity and organization has been widely imitated by other “men’s movements,” so they are worth taking a brief look at. An evangelical Christian men’s organization, they promote “spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity” and “strong marriages and families through love, protection, and Biblical values.” In other words, they’re sexist homophobes whose model of masculinity is based in aggression and dominance, although their particular approach also emphasizes “brotherhood,” which is to say it permits some degree of sensitivity and compassion within the context of homosocial relationships.
But there’s a key word in there that should interest us: protection. The Promise Keepers’ model of masculinity emphasizes a male role that includes being a protector of their spouse and children–it places the ordinary man in the position of superhero, guarding helpless innocents against the dangers of the world. It is, in other words, not a protector fantasy, but a heroic power fantasy–something which normally only small children engage in.
But then, thanks to Batman, we know exactly what kind of adult man would position himself as a superhero: the kind that’s emotionally stuck in childhood. We should therefore predict that men’s movements would be marked by childishness, and indeed they are notoriously short-sighted, self-centered, aggressive, whiny, resentful, and irrational–and just like superheroes, they slide into fascism with disturbing ease, which is essentially how the alt-right was born.
So that’s Batman. But what of Superman? His trauma lies in infancy, manifesting only in the physical symptoms of Kryptonite exposure; Clark Kent appears to be a perfectly well-adjusted person emotionally.
But perfectly well-adjusted people do not compulsively put on primary-colored costumes and punch bank robbers, especially not at the expense of their relationships. Yet that is exactly what Superman does early in “World’s Finest,” simply flying off to deal with a robbery while Lois is trying to ask him out. As Clark Kent, he never quite straight-out denies, but never expresses, the attraction and romantic interest in Lois he clearly feels. Even if it was not obvious to the audience how Clark feels (remember, this show’s target audience is prepubescent), Batman spells it out repeatedly.
I have stated before–most recently in discussing DC vs. Marvel–that having two superheroes fight each other is just about the least interesting thing they can do. Thankfully, other than a very brief tussle at their first encounter, Superman and Batman do not fight each other in this story. They conflict, constantly, but in terms of clashing personalities, incompatible methodologies, and romantic rivalry, all of which are more interesting than just hitting each other.
Superman’s interactions with Batman thus start out hilariously petty; the first thing Superman says to him is that he doesn’t allow vigilantism. Unstated but obvious is the exception he makes for his own vigilantism. But as Lois Lane falls for Bruce Wayne–to the point that she applies for a job transfer to Gotham because “it’s that serious”–Clark Kent becomes increasingly passive-aggressive toward both. He questions Lois’ relationship with Wayne and badmouths Batman in her presence, refuses to work with Batman or listen to his warnings about the Joker, and as a result very nearly dies in the Joker’s trap.
It is only after Batman saves him so that he can save Batman and Lois that Superman comes around and begins treating Batman as an ally rather than a rival. In the words of the Promise Keepers, he “pursu[es] vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.” [Emphasis mine.] Because of course a man can’t have a large support network; that would imply that he needs a lot of support, which is to say that he is weak and vulnerable. No, he must be Superman or Batman–untouchable, unstoppable, so that he can be the perfect protector for the helpless and weak.
Which of course positions Lois as helpless and weak. In general, this episode deals with its female characters strangely. There are essentially seven characters in this story, other than assorted bit players: four men (Superman, Batman, Lex Luthor, and the Joker) and three women (Lois, Harley Quinn, and Mercy). Harley and Mercy are depicted as hating each other immediately, and attack each other whenever they’re in the same room, culminating in a near-literal catfight (the sound effects include a cat shrieking) that moves on- and off-screen while Luthor and the Joker argue–and every time Harley and Mercy are seen on the screen again, they have more injuries and less clothing. Luthor and the Joker are centered, focused on, and relatively calm despite their disagreement; Harley and Mercy never state their dislike, and just attack each other violently and fetishistically. (Given that Lois spends much of the story either bound and gagged or melting into a puddle and submissively handing her life over to Bruce Wayne, it seems pretty clear which fetish we’re talking about, too.)
That ties into our theme here, too: the Promise Keeper/MRA/PUA/alt-right construction of masculinity demands that men be dominant, and therefore that women be submissive. But the Harley/Mercy fight adds an extra dimension. Harley and Mercy are each individually submissive toward their respective crime/sex partners, in profoundly unhealthy ways (as we saw with Mercy in “Ghost in the Machine” and Harley in pretty much all of her BTAS appearances). By contrast, Luthor and the Joker dominate them, and their rivalry mostly plays out verbally, until the Joker calmly double-crosses Luthor.
Compare them to another pair of characters who start their relationship with a punch: Superman and Batman. While initially hostile, they are able to recognize that they are on the same side, and Clark Kent’s childish behavior over Lois rapidly diminishes and disappears after the first half-hour. Men’s competition and aggression, in other words, are depicted as more mature and reasonable, while women’s are depicted as childish, irrational, and strictly the domain of “bad” women.
In short: Harley Quinn’s spell failed. The new world has the same problems as the old, the same constraints.
It is, therefore, perhaps a good thing that, as last episode implied, another Apokolips is coming.


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Let's Play Undertale Episode 10


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Wow. Difficulty spike much? (Alternative explanation: I just suck.)
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Vlog Review: Coco


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Commissioned vlog for Nick Barovic.
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Crisis on N Earths: Devilman Crybaby S1E1 "I Need You"

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Quick heads up before we start: Very soon, possibly by this weekend, I will be transitioning (lol) to jenablue.com. This should be more or less seamless for most visitors, but if you have specific posts bookmarked or linked, please update them or they will redirect to the jenablue.com front page.
Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing!
There’s a story–an urban legend that’s hung around anime fandom for decades–that Lex Dunbar likes to tell at conventions. It goes like this:
This guy was going to his first con, and he wanted to go all out: he wanted to cosplay. He was a pretty big, buff guy, so he decided to cosplay Devilman. He put enormous effort into it, and the results were excellent: horns, wings, fangs, head-to-toe red body paint, no clothes except a pair of shorts.
The convention was held at one of those huge Midwestern conference hotels, the kind that can host two or three large conventions at once, and this year it happened to be sharing its space with an evangelical Christian prayer retreat. The guy’s room is on the top floor, and the convention is way down at the bottom, so he’s got a long elevator ride. After going down a few floors, the door opens, and he sees this little old lady waiting for the elevator, clutching a Bible.
And the little old lady sees him, in his amazing Devilman cosplay. Her eyes widen in horror, and her knuckles turn white she’s holding onto that Bible so hard. And the guy says, in the deepest, most sinister voice he can muster, “Going down?
The woman just stands there. The elevator doors close, and down he goes to the convention. Eventually he notices that there are ambulances parked outside and asks his friend if something happened.
“Oh man, didn’t you hear?” the friend replies. “Some old lady was waiting for the elevator, and she suddenly had a heart attack and died!”
Dunbar’s researched this story, and according to them the earliest versions they can find aren’t about anime at all: they’re set at a science fiction convention, and the cosplayer is dressed as Tim Curry’s devil character from the movie Legend. That’s not the point.
The point is that up until now, that story, and a prior, vague notion of what the character looked like, was the entirety of my knowledge of Devilman. So I entered this anime having essentially no idea what it was about.
Which turns out to be a pretty good approach, because it is clearly trying to be deliberately disorienting. First episodes of anime do that a lot–the first episode of Baccano!, for example, is essentially incomprehensible, then slowly starts to make sense retroactively as the series unfolds. But Devilman Crybaby does it differently: Baccano!confused the viewer by presenting overwhelming quantities of information, an enormous cast, and quick-cutting, complex images that tended toward sensory overload, while Devilman Crybaby focuses on just a few characters with a deceptively simplistic, slow-paced visual style and narrative. However, just as the viewer is lulled into complacency by this simplicity, the narrative throws in a strange reference or horrific image, before finally culminating in the nightmarish Sabbath.
It is, in short, probably not an accident that this first episode shares a title with the final scene of End of Evangelion (specifically, on-screen titles immediately before the final scene of that film read “Neon Genesis Evangelion One Last Final: I need you”), which is likewise slow, quiet, relatively simple, and utterly shocking.
In this confusing, almost hypnotic episode, it is tempting to latch onto the familiar. The equation of sex and debauchery to violence, for example, is a staple of horror. The aesthetic of carnival is the grotesque; the violation of social boundaries is reified in the violation of the body’s limits. So too is the colonialist depiction of an ancient Amazonian tribe–Othered in both space and time–as secret devils in the process of returning. Once again, that which is socially Other becomes equated to distortion of and violence against the body. But there are hints that there could be something else here, as well, in the person of Professor Fikira.
At least, that’s what the subtitles call him; however, when Ryo speaks to him in English in the flashback to the Amazon, he distinctly calls him Professor Ficula. Latin for “little fig,” the word may well be a reference to the Biblical fig leaf, donned by Adam and Eve to hide their suddenly shameful bodies. In other words, Ficula (or Fikira) is a costume being worn by something grotesque. But another interpretation is more interesting: that his name is a reference to Ficula religiosa, the bodhi tree. It was while meditating under the bodhi tree that the Buddha attained enlightenment; perhaps it is under Fikira–that is, inspired by and learning from him–that someone is seeking enlightenment.
The obvious candidate is Ryo, who is easily the most compelling character in the show so far. By all appearances he is, and has been since childhood, a violent, amoral killer who cares nothing for the rules of society–and thus cannot become a demon, because for him there is no transgression. If one’s entire life is carnivalesque, then one cannot experience the carnival. He thus tries to get his childhood friend possessed by Amon, so that he can learn more about the demons.
But a more interesting possibility is that it is Akira who is becoming enlightened. After all, the enlightened state necessarily lies outside the norms of society, and crossing those lines is the entire point of carnival. The “crybaby” of the title is almost certainly Akira, and refers to his profound compassion, to the point that he cries not for his own sadness, but for the suffering of others. Compassion, however, is not a weakness; it is a source of immense strength.
Strength enough to contain a demon, perhaps. And what would a compassionate demon be? One outside normal society, labeled grotesque, Other, and yet determined to protect and bring healing–that sounds like enlightenment to me.


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Vlog Review: KaBlam Episode 1 (ish)


Note: I found out after posting this to Patreon that my source was wrong and this apparently isn’t actually the first episode. Not sure it matters, though, given the nature of the series.
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Come on, Pops (Father's Day)

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It’s October 3, 1997. Top songs are still unchanged. The top movie is something called Kiss the Girls; Soul Food, L.A. Confidential, and The Full Monty are also in the top 10. In the news, British scientists demonstrate that Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans is caused by the same prion as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease.
And Superman: The Animated Series continues the DCAU tradition of airing holiday episodes nowhere near the holiday in question–in this case, an episode about fathers, set on Father’s Day, and called “Father’s Day,” broadcast in early October.
When I came out to my brother, he said, in effect, “All that matters to me is that you live in a way that makes you happy and share your gifts with the world. And, even though dad and I never talked about this kind of thing, I know that’s how he felt, too. He’d be proud of you.” I immediately began to sob. I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how much I needed to hear that. Dad died when I was 13 and my brother was 27; I have no idea how dad would relate to me as an adult, but my brother did get to experience that, so I believe him. But it’s something I’ve never gotten to have, and some part of me has always wondered. Would Dad be proud I am living my life under my terms? Or upset that I didn’t go into STEM, didn’t marry, won’t be having kids, all of which I know were part of his dreams for me when I was younger?
It shouldn’t matter what a dead man thinks of me. But it does, enough so that being told he would be proud, that he would support me in the massive changes I am starting to make, reduced me to tears.
So I get it. It doesn’t matter that Kalibak’s father is a vicious, tyrannical monster, the foundational evil of the DCAU (as the Batman Superman Adventures opening shows); Kalibak needs his approval, and tries desperately to earn it. Admittedly, Kalibak himself isn’t exactly a nice guy, so his father’s evil is unlikely to bother him; but Darkseid is also dismissive and demeaning toward Kalibak, a clear-cut example of emotional abuse. Darkseid’s motivation is not made clear, other than general contempt for Kalibak; however, looking at Kalibak’s two-toed, clawlike feet, squat, broad build, and head the same size as his torso, it is fairly obvious that he is a reference to Caliban, the half-human character in The Tempest. Caliban, an attempted rapist and murderer, is very often depicted as deformed; this is straightforward ableism in the play, but here at least Kalibak’s appearance is readable as not having a direct connection to his behavior. Instead, his behavior is a combination of the general villainy endemic to Apokoliptian culture, and his father’s disregard, which in turn results from his Darkseid’s judgment of Kalibak’s appearance.
In contrast, of course, we have Superman, who is traditionally attractive in a very masculine sort of way, a hero, and clearly doted on by his parents. (That the episode depicts Lois as not immediately catching on that he is their son amounts to slander–there is no conceivable way to reconcile it with her being so tenacious and dedicated a reporter that her response to an alien machine attacking her jogging path is to hide behind a tree, call the Daily Planet, and start dictating notes.)
Superman is the favored son of the kind father, handsome, proud, and strong; Kalibak the despised son of the cruel tyrant, ugly, sniveling, and, while immensely strong by human standards, no match for Superman. One of Kalibak’s first acts upon arrival in Metropolis is to (intentionally but not deliberately) seriously injure and trap Jonathan Kent. Similarly, Superman will hand defeat after defeat to Darkseid. Each son attacks the father of the other; in essence, they can be seen as agents of their fathers, who are at war.
And in that sense, we can see clearly how the DCAU is already positioning Darkseid. Jonathan Kent is typically portrayed as the source of Superman’s values, and hence as an exemplar of “human” (which is to say white Western middle-class* liberal) values. Darkseid is here presented as Kent’s opposite: tyrannical, controlling, malicious, cruel, violent, and ambitious.
And Darkseid is, indeed, all these things. But he is more than that, as well. We have already discussed the three pillars of our approach: near-apocalypse, the protector fantasy, and heroic trauma. Near-apocalypse, as we’ve discussed, is rooted in the simultaneous desire for revolutionary change as an escape from an intolerable status quo, and fear of revolutionary change as the destruction of the familiar. Darkseid is the lord of Apokolips, bent on destroying everything familiar and good and replacing it with a hellish, unending nightmare; he is, in short, the worst case scenario, the avatar of the fears that transform revolutionary fantasies into near-apocalypses. He is, in other words, everything we conjure the protector fantasy to shield us from. And in his relationship to Kalibak, we see that he is an abusive parent, which is to say a creator of trauma.
There’s a reason the opening to The Batman Superman Adventuresequates Darkseid to the destruction of Krypton, and hence to the birth of the DCAU: he is the birth of the DCAU. He is that which creates superheroes. He signifies something unitary, something which links all three pillars.
And, as we will soon see, we have already named that something.
*Yes, middle class. Kent owns property, namely his farm, though it’s almost certainly mortgaged and hence really owned by a bank. That’s what “middle-class” means: working-class, but permitted to roleplay owning private property, creating the illusion that one’s interests align with the ruling class more than the working class.


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Vlog Review: Star vs Evil S2E8 and Seven Deadly Sins S1E05

A rare two-in-one update!
Video one:

Bonus episode! As long as the Patreon remains above $100/mo, I’ll post an extra vlog every month!
 
Video two:

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So secret that I didn't even know (Ghost in the Machine)

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It’s September 29, 1997. The charts are largely unchanged, although Boyz II Men is now at #1 and Mariah Carey at #2, a reverse of last week. It’s only Monday, so the box office is unchanged; in the news, nothing much continues to happen.
This episode is another step in the loose Luthor/Brainiac saga that will culminate in Justice League Unlimited‘s “Divided We Fall,” but by far the most interesting part of it is just how obvious it makes the fact that Luthor and Mercy are lovers.
It starts with Mercy’s comment about not letting Luthor go off “half-cocked,” before picking some of her own hair off of his lapel (at least, it’s the same color as hers, and it’s unlikely to be his). Double entendres and innuendos appear throughout the episode–it’s practically all Lois does in this one–creating a very strong implication that every character sees that Mercy and Luthor are a thing.
However, their relationship is clearly far from equal. Mercy protects Luthor, serves him, but he shows her no tenderness or favor in return, and at the end of the episode, he abandons her to her fate when he flees the collapsing Sector Six without even trying to help her. If not for Superman, she would have died, and it seems likely Luthor would not have mourned. At most, he might have felt the loss of a thing from which he derived use and pleasure.
In this we see that even the person closest to Luthor (usually literally, but also in the sense of the person he clearly trusts the most) is simply a thing he uses–a human resource to be consumed. Luthor is the capitalist villain par excellence–he only values that which has value in the economic sense, that which he can use. She is simply another machine, like his videophone or LexCorp itself.
But Luthor doesn’t want to be treated that way himself. As he protests to Brainiac, who has him enslaved in Sector Six, he’s “not a machine! I need rest and food!” Brainiac denies him rest and gives him vending machine doughnuts, failing to understand what Luthor needs–but then, it doesn’t matter to Brainiac as long as Luthor continues to work. Once he has what he wants, Luthor is disposable.
Mercy practically worships Luthor. She tells Superman that he earned her loyalty by saving her from the streets. That’s her doughnut; he’ll leave her to die to save himself, but because he saved her once, she’ll continue to function. And since all he cares about is that she continues to function, he has no incentive to give her anything else that she might need–dignity, respect, genuine affection.
That’s the thing about the Luthors of the world. Even suffering can’t teach them empathy. He goes through exactly what Mercy suffers–exactly what all employees suffer at the hands of the rich shareholders who command the soulless corporate machines that use employees as both cogs and fuel–and yet he doesn’t hesitate a moment to discard her, doesn’t even stop to consider that she might change her mind about serving him after he tries to abandon her.
And she doesn’t, because what choice does she have? Go back out on the streets? She felt subhuman there, too–she describes herself as being like a dog. Perhaps being ground in a machine is better–at least there she’s not alone.
It doesn’t matter to Luthor and his ilk. So long as they get what they want, they will continue to grind and grind and grind. Nothing can convince them to change. That’s what guillotines are for.
But Superman would never allow that. An angry mob of LexCorp employees who’ve had enough would be committing a crime if they executed Luthor–and Superman doesn’t allow himself to consider that there might be a higher law. He can’t, for fear of declaring himself that law–which is a legitimate fear, as fascism lurks in the DNA of every superhero, as we’ve discussed.
But instead it makes him an agent of the police state. The Superman who fought political corruption and the KKK in the early years of his comic died in the patriotic fervor of World War II, and was buried forever in the Comics Code. In his place is a Superman who respects the “rule of law” (laws written by and for the powerful, of course). And as the police state serves the Luthors of the world, so ultimately must Superman. There can be no superheroes of the revolution.
Can there?

 

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