Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby S1E4 "Come, Akira"

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After an intense and action-packed first three episodes, Devilman Crybaby settles down into a rather calmer, more character-focused episode. Of course this is still Devilman Crybaby, so calmer and more character focused still involves a demon absorbing a busload of people and then wearing their tormented, moaning faces all over its torso.
Last episode, I posited that Akira had abandonment issues owing to his parents’ death; well, he likely does now, but apparently they were alive up to this point, simply traveling abroad for work. This is still a clear source of abandonment issues in this episode, as his hybrid flashback/daydream shows. It even ties his involvement in the school track team to those issues: he is racing to catch up to them, to grow up so that he can join them in their travels.
Despite his frequent crying, I don’t believe Akira has cried for himselfin the series thus far. His tears have always been rooted in compassion for others’ suffering, rather than expressions of his own. But here, talking with his mother’s face and realizing a demon has infected his father and killed her, he finally does cry for himself.
But this moment has a curious parallel earlier in the episode, when Kukun pours his heart out to Miko. His rap starts out slow and awkward, but soon picks up the pace and becomes more passionate as he transitions from expressing his interest in Miko to talking about how his anxiety holds him back but he has much to offer underneath, as well as expressing envy for the ease with which his friends express themselves.
Miko reciprocates because she recognizes herself, her shyness and her envy of Miki, in Kukun’s rap. She connects with him on that level, and goes with him to Sabbath, where  they are killed by a demon (presumably–the episode ends in a cliffhanger, but Akira is nowhere nearby and as far as we know no one else is rescuing people from the demons).
Similarly, Akira starts out unable to act when confronted with his mother’s dead, pleading face and his demonic father. He tries to connect to his father on common ground: they are both humans infected by demons, so he exhorts his father to overcome the demon as he did. Unfortunately, his father is already too far gone; the demon slices the top of his head off, so that even if he were able to revert to human form, he would die immediately.
He is slowly pulled into action, moving faster and more aggressively–more passionately–once he finally snaps and transforms, after Ryo destroys the little girl face. But just as in the B-story with Miko and Kukun, it still ends in violence tragedy, with both his parents dead.
Curiously, the cliffhanger of the previous episode is treated as essentially a C-story. The episode opens with the same confrontation between Akira and Ryo over whether to let Miki live, but it’s interrupted by a phone call from Akira’s mother–after which we just cut to Miki and Akira having dinner with her family the next day, having a conversation that serves mostly to establish that she doesn’t remember anything after she got into the tub in the studio, though she has a vague notion Akira rescued her from something.
Other than that, the issue is not raised, and nothing about Ryo and Akira’s interactions suggests two people who were on the verge of trying to murder each other the previous day. It’s a curious storytelling choice, and one that implies that Ryo and Akira have had serious fights before, that it’s just an accepted part of their relationship.
Regardless, the focus in this episode is on the characters’ anxieties: Miko and Kukun are shy and envious of others, while Akira struggles with abandonment issues. In that sense, his fierce defense of Miki is of a piece with the climax of this episode: he doesn’t want to lose anyone close to him, so he is willing to fight Ryo to protect her, and he is unwilling to accept that his mother is dead or that he has to kill his father, because he doesn’t want to go through losing them again.
It’s not clear exactly how close he is to Miko, but she is definitely within his social circle, as they’re on the same track team and she’s friendly with Miki. Losing her is thus likely to impact him strongly (assuming, again, that he does, which seems probable but far from certain). But the deaths of his parents is likely to impact him even more strongly, and possibly cause him to retreat. The question is what form that retreat takes–pulling away from fighting demons so he can hide from the world? Or throwing himself into fighting demons so he can bury his feelings of loss under anger and violence?
It seems likely Ryo will push him towards the latter. His casual exhortation  to Akira, to trust no one except him, is intensely sinister. He is already Akira’s main–pretty much only–source of information about the demonic, and now he’s trying to isolate Akira from everyone except himself. In that light, his desire to kill Miki last episode shifts from a cold, ruthless character making a harsh but plausibly necessary decision, to an attempt to eliminate a rival for possession of Akira. Any attempt on Akira’s part to deal with his parents’ death by fighting the demons more fiercely thus just plays into Ryo’s hands.
And, increasingly, it seems like doing so is a bad idea. He remains enigmatic, and there is still reason to think he is seeking some form of enlightenment, or at least knowledge, but he is also extremely dangerous and highly untrustworthy. Unfortunately, Akira seems to trust him anyway.
Learning his mistake will, I suspect, be painful. Hopefully the events of this and the prior episode will help Akira come to that conclusion.


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One of the good guys (Double Talk)

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It’s still November 22, 1997, so the charts and headlines are unchanged. (Not that they’ve been changing much anyway.) On The New Batman Adventures, we have a rarity: a genuine, permanentvillain reformation.
As we’ve discussed before, there is a tendency in comics and comics-derived media for characters to revert back to their “most interesting” or “classic” form, due to the continual rollover of writers. Even if a given writer intends for a change to be permanent, sooner or later another writer comes along who prefers the “classic” version of the character, and the change is reverted or retconned. Since villains are usually created to be villains–and, more to the point, since therefore the dominant trait of most villains is their villainy–there is a high probability that any attempt by the writers to reform them will eventually be undone because a later writer wants to play with the villainous version of the character.
But if ever there was an exception, it’s Arnold Wesker. An unwilling participant in crime, dragged along by his violent alternate persona manifested through the dummy Scarface, the most interesting thing about him is not that he’s a villain, but that he isn’t one. He is the purest example we have of someone whose criminal activity is entirely a product of his circumstances–he doesn’t commit crimes because of an inherent criminality, but because of an external force.
And Scarface is external. Product of psychological trauma and mental illness or not, it’s very clear that from Wesker’s perspective Scarface isn’t a part of who he really is; the Wesker persona is the only one he wants to be. Contrast another character with fragmented identity here: Superman is as much Clark Kent as he is Superman, and episodes have variously emphasized both aspects. Both are a part of who he is, and he needs both–and we know this about him because he tells us it’s so.
That contrast is important. To get personal for a moment, I have been diagnosed at various times with depression, PTSD, avoidant personality disorder, and gender dysphoria. I don’t regard any of those as an essential part of who I am: they are external in the same sense that a broken arm is external. They are wounds, left in me by life, and their healing would allow me to be more myself, not less. But for some people, a so-called disorder or a disability is a part of who they are, not something to seek or wish for freedom from.  That’s their prerogative; nobody gets to define anyone else’s narrative for them.
But the point stands: the most interesting thing about Wesker is that he’s not really a criminal; he’s someone who’s committed crimes. In real life, of course, that’s everyone who commits crimes–there’s not really any such thing as criminals as a separate class of human beings. But in superhero comics generally, and the DCAU in particular, some people are criminals, some are heroes, and some are ordinary people who need protection; Wesker is the last category.
This duality makes him one of the most interesting characters to watch try to reform, for much the same reason as Harvey Dent. With “a criminal,” there’s no tension: we know they will fail because criminality is a part of who they are. Nobody gets to define anyone else’s narrative when we’re talking about real people, but of course a fictional character’s narrative is defined for them by their writers, and their writers have defined them as criminals. Wesker, by contrast, is defined as an innocent pulled into crime by circumstance–and unlike, say, Mister Freeze, Baby Doll, or Harley Quinn, he remains innocent, bullied and cowed into committing crimes rather than choosing them or convincing himself of their necessity.
“Double Talk” in particular plays with Scarface’s existence as a separate character, as an impersonator gaslights a rehabilitated Wesker into bringing back the alternate persona. More interesting is that Batman and Batgirl’s analysis suggests that the voice Batman hears over the phone is Scarface, which appears impossible–unless that phone call actually is from Scarface, not the impersonator. Initially that might not appear to make sense, since Scarface’s voice is just a projection of Wesker’s, which is impossible over the phone; however, remember that Batman’s relationship to Bruce Wayne is equivalent. Scarface and Batman are both protector fantasies a traumatized child created to shield them from a world of terror, then turned outward to terrorize that world in turn; of course, as entities of the same order of being, Batman can hear Scarface.
And that’s ultimately the most important thing. Batman wants his villains to reform, needs them to, where Superman is content just to put them away, because Batman feels his fractured identity as something imposed on him rather than a part of who he is. For all that he thinks of himself as Batman first and Bruce Wayne second, he nonetheless experiences Batman as a burden, a weight, an imposition–he dreams of freedom. (Literally, in “Perchance to Dream.”) Batman needs them to reform, to save them, because he needs to believe he can be reformed and saved.
And here he succeeds. Partially that’s because there are only 14 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series/The New Batman Adventures left, and the Bat Embargo will prevent Wesker from showing up in other DCAU series. But that’s just it: knowing that this was the final season, the writers chose to bring Wesker’s narrative to a close with peace, healing, and freedom.
There is hope. But there is a tension as well; just as two forces, represented by Batman and Scarface, pull in opposite directions on Wesker, two forces pull in opposite directions on Batman: the desire to be healed, and the fact that Batman is the foundation of the DCAU. There has to always be a Batman; Bruce Wayne cannot truly even begin to heal unless he somehow becomes unnecessary to Batman–until there can be a Batman beyond him.


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What I lack in maturity, I make up for in immaturity (Warrior Queen)

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It’s November 22, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind”; the top movie is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, with Anastasia and The Rainmaker opening at 2 and 3 respectively. In the news, a terrorist attack outside the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt kills more than 60 people; and the McCaughey septuplets–the first documented case in which all seven survived infancy–are born in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Warrior Queen” marks the third consecutive episode we’ve covered by Hilary Bader, a prolific writer who would end up penning more than a dozen episode of Superman: The Animated Series and more than 30 throughout the DCAU. Most of her best work, however, was in Batman Beyond; at this earlier point in her career she is a generally reliable source of episodes which are entertaining enough but not particularly memorable, like “Target,” “Prototype,” and, well, “Warrior Queen.”
Like her The New Batman Adventures episode “You Scratch My Back,” “Warrior Queen” explores an intersection between sex and power, albeit a far less healthy one. That episode looked at BDSM, but this one is (rather like “The Main Man,” which it references at the very end) about sexual hegemony. But where the earlier episode tied it explicitly to masculinity (as it generally is in our culture), “Warrior Queen” tries to look at it in isolation–essentially, to focus its interrogation of hegemonic masculinity on the first word rather than the second. Its goal is to interrogate the perspective from which the phrase “sexual conquest” is possible to parse.
In any kind of consensus-based model of sexuality, the phrase is utterly nonsensical: if conquest is involved, then what’s happening isn’t sex, it’s rape. But what we see of Almerac isn’t consensus-based: Maxima is by all appearances a hereditary tyrant, interested in and respecting only power. Again, just like Lobo: she even surrounds herself with scantily clad, conventionally attractive female attendants. (Though at least from what we see, only her temporary successor De’Cine makes them dance for his entertainment and, presumably, titillation.) This is one of the (many) ways the episode stumbles, because despite its attempt to focus on the unhealthy sexualization of power, it still comes from a culture that regards power as a masculinized trait, and slips into depicting it as such.
Specifically, Lobo seeks to conquer, to express his power through sex. He finds Lois Lane attractive, for example, because he sees conquering her as a challenge, and hence an opportunity to demonstrate his power more than a “lesser conquest” would. By contrast, Maxima seeks to be conquered: she finds powerful men attractive because she wants to be defeated by them. She is a powerful woman in her own right, but her lamentation at having to “remain a maiden forever” because no man is her match is an expression of rigid, toxic ideas of gender roles. She means “maiden” in the sense of “virgin,” but ultimately she’s looking to trade one maidenhood for another, to go from virgin to victim, because her culture says she has to be one or the other.
We’ll discuss these kinds of binary traps, particularly where women are concerned, more in a coming entry. The key point to make here is that, in her own way, Maxima is echoing Lucille, the elderly, married bystander who responds with incredulity to Superman’s description of marriage as a willing partnership between equals.  What little we see of Almeracian culture is a rigid hierarchy, a structure of royalty, noble courtiers, maids-in-waiting and palace guards, with the general populace locked out of the places of power; it’s no surprise that even when Maxima says she wants an equal, what she’s really looking for is a conqueror, because every relationship we see in her world is about power and status.
And she is looking for a conqueror. That much becomes clear when, after deciding Superman is the one and kidnapping him to her world, she obediently follows his instructions and listens to his lessons. (They don’t seem to stick very well, but she listens.) She is used to being obeyed as queen, but she clearly also expects to obey her husband (which is, frankly, worrisome for the people of Almerac, given the implication at the end of the episode that she will be pursuing Lobo next). The equation is simple: a worthy husband is a powerful one, because power is worth. (One wonders what she would do if defeated by a woman, but I’m sure fanfiction has it covered.)
That, ultimately, is the problem. Even if we set aside heteropatriarchy, the idea that power is worth–that having power makes one worthy of power–is intensely toxic. That is, essentially, the logic of Maxima resuming the throne at the end of the episode: despite the very good point that the people were quite happy to see the tyrant overthrown, albeit less happy when she was replaced by just another tyrant, neither Superman nor anyone else raises any objection to her resuming the throne after De’Cine is defeated. Her power–her defeat of De’Cine in combat–is equated to the worthiness to lead, even though we already know she isn’t worthy. Indeed, no one can be worthy of that kind of power, benign dictatorship being an oxymoron, but even aside from that Maxima has demonstrated herself particularly unworthy with her selfish behavior.
But that’s not a question this episode is willing to explore; it doesn’t really want to explore any questions at all, which is where Bader’s work often falls short. It is content with surfaces–and as I said, a much better opportunity to look at the intertwined structures of power, gender, and sexuality will be here in just a couple more entries. We need wait only a little longer for the next revolution of the world to begin.


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Don't see the boy (You Scratch My Back)

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Sorry about missing so many posts this and last week. I was super sick last week, but I don’t really have an excuse this week. Consider this Tuesday’s NA09 post; today’s video will go up tomorrow.
It’s November 15, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind,” and the top movie is The Jackal, with The Man Who Knew Too Little and a re-release of The Little Mermaid also in the top five. In the week since “Heavy Metal,” WorldCom and MCI formed MCI WorldCom in (at the time) the largest merger in US history; Mary Robinson became Ireland’s second female President in a row, the first time any nation elected two successive female heads of state; and Ramzi Yousef is found guilty of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
On The New Batman Adventures, the burgeoning “what happened to Dick Grayson?” plot thread takes a strange turn, as the answer appears to be “he changed costumes and moved out, but everything is fine.” It’s a deeply unsatisfying answer that results in a bizarre episode where everyone is attempting to trick everyone else, even when there’s no reason to. Dick’s behavior toward Barbara Gordon when she visits him in his apartment is worthy of his name, for example–but if his antipathy toward Batman and Batgirl was an act to lure in Catwoman, why keep it up when she’s not around? The episode seems to be trying to play Nightwing’s final line about always accepting help as a development or change in attitude–but its central twist is that he was working with Batman from the start, a contradiction that just doesn’t make sense.
On the surface, anyway. Underneath, it actually fits perfectly into the ongoing exploration of the Batman/Nightwing rift–but only in hindsight. We are seeing the story out of order: we saw its beginning in Batman: The Animated Series, but we won’t see most of the middle until later this season of The New Batman Adventures, and we won’t have all the pieces until Batman Beyond.
The level on which this episode works is as a psychosexual drama–because it’s a Catwoman episode, so of course that’s the level on which it works–about Nightwing’s resentment of the fact that Batman’s fucking his ex, and to a lesser extent Catwoman’s resentment of the fact that her sub is now domming someone else. The picture of Dick and Barbara the latter finds in the former’s apartment is pretty clear: they used to be an item; the chilly distance between them that Dick maintains makes clear they’re not one anymore. Dick already resents Batman for (from Dick’s perspective) standing in the way of him growing up, and like a lot of people (unfortunately) he equates adulthood, masculinity, and the sexual possession of women.
A BDSM relationship–or, more specifically, one involving dominance and submission–can contain elements of possession or ownership, of course. However, as these are consensual, they’re really just role-play (assuming the relationship isn’t abusive, which we have no reason to think is the case here); the dominant partner doesn’t actually own the submissive or have genuine coercive power over them, only what the sub gives them, and what the sub gives, the sub can take away. Here, however, we’re talking about the idea of actual possession–that a man in some sense actually owns, or gets to control, the women in his life, or the ones he’s slept with at any rate. (There is, of course, much heteronormativity here as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)
When one has internalized hegemonic masculinity, any loss of power or reminder that one lacks power is perceived as emasculation (hence the use of the term as a synonym for powerlessness), and this is exactly how Dick perceives it: the status of sidekick felt emasculating, as does Bruce “taking” Barbara, who on some level Dick still sees as “his woman.” (To his credit, Dick seems to be over this by the end of the episode and in future episodes. Consciously, he tries to be decent, but like everyone else, he’s internalized some garbage from the larger culture.) Catwoman, meanwhile, on some level sees Batman as her sub, so she tries to do the same thing to him when he rejects this role via his relationship with Batgirl, so she tries to do the same thing to him by taking away his sidekick. Nightwing is up for it, both because he has enough in common with Batman to find Catwoman intriguing, and to stick it to Batman. (A phrase which again reflects this association of masculinity, heteronormative sexuality, and dominance–consider what the “it” is and where it is presumably being stuck!)
Of course this is a children’s show and has to keep all this firmly on the level of subtext, so we get Catwoman’s scheme to sneak a stolen emerald into the country using a smuggling operation, and the Bat Family’s scheme to make her think Nightwing is on her side and lead them to the emerald. But scenes like Catwoman’s overt flirtation in and around Ricky the Hook’s penthouse, or Dick’s confrontation with Barbara, make it clear what this is all really about.
Ultimately, this is the climax and denouement of the Nightwing arc that runs through this season, but it is both shown before the main action and occurs entirely in subtext. That it even somewhat works is impressive, but it does: Nightwing catches Catwoman (gets the collar, if you will) and makes peace with Batman and Batgirl, but retains his independence. He ultimately refrains from revenge-fucking Batman’s ex, and in that demonstrates the maturity he was seeking after–one rooted in actually being a grown-up, rather than merely trying to wield the power associated with being one.
In the process, the DCAU Nightwing finally moves into a position resembling the comics character’s: the genuinely good man in a corrupt world, the Lot-figure that even Infinite Crisis‘ Earth-Two Superman had to admit was the equal of his Earth-Two counterpart.
He will thus barely show up again, of course.


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