Call it a… (Joker’s Millions)

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Beginning of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 4: Childhood’s End.

It’s February 21, 1998. The top song this week is Usher with “Nice & Slow”; Janet Jackson, Savage Garden, and Leanne Rimes also chart. The top movie is still Titanic, with The Wedding Singer, Good Will Hunting, and L.A. Confidential also in the top 10.

In the news, a China Airlines flight crashes into a residential neighborhood in Tayuan, China, killing over 200 people, on the 16th. In slightly less disastrous news, the Winter Olympics end tomorrow.

And, unfortunately, we’ve got this episode. Not that it’s at all a bad episode! It’s just inconveniently timed for me, coming immediately after the very finale-esque “Apokolips… Now!” and thus serving as the opening for this book. Which I normally wouldn’t bring up, except that the episode does it too, forgoing the usual static title card to instead display the title on an oversized computer monitor in the back of the electronics store the Joker and Harley Quinn rob in the opening scene, ever so slightly stretching the edges of what an episode contain in ways we haven’t seen since early Batman Adventures comics, if not all the way back to “Christmas with the Joker.”

Fittingly for an episode that is essentially about the Joker having lost his groove, the opening is a reminder that there was a time when the Joker was the preeminent force of chaos in Batman’s little world, forcing it to contain something wider and weirder, before Harley showed up and proved she was better at that role in every way–funnier, cooler, more honest, and much, much queerer. But instead of recognizing that fact, he just doubles down, using his inherited millions not to free Harley, but to try to recreate his own past glory.
The result is a glorious parody of that key feature of capitalism, affluenza: the ability of the very wealthy to weasel out of consequences for their actions. He buys his way out of the courts, hiring a clear parody of infamous O.J. Simpson attorney Johnny Cochran to (presumably at a very high price) clear his name with obfuscatory arguments. He buys his way into high society of a sort–a penthouse apartment, attendance at the high-end club the suddenly-gone-straight Penguin suddenly has, and the like.

But where he errs is when he tries to buy a replacement Harley Quinn. That’s when it all comes crashing down for him. Typical capitalist, he assumes one artist is as good as another–one clown, one worker of magic, one force of chaos. Because that is what Harley is: an artist. Her medium is crime, but she is at heart a comedian–and unlike the Joker, she’s a good one.

When captured, her temporary replacement claims to have thought she was performing “an Equity gig”–a reference to the union to which most American actors belong. In other words, the Joker tried to replace Harley with another performer; earlier, in the sequence in which he vets candidates, he judges them solely on appearance and physique. He is essentially a TV or film producer casting a role on the assumption that what matters is looking the part, replacing someone who brought genuine talent and craft to the role with whoever “looks right.” He is, as capitalism does, treating the assembly line as the archetypal form of human labor, a machine in which human beings are just another cog. It is an approach that simply doesn’t work for artistic endeavors, but wealthy capitalists have no other way of understanding labor, and so they persist in taking that same approach–hence, for example, the endless proliferation of remakes and adaptations in film and television. Of course, adaptation and remaking have always been a key part of art: painters traditionally learned by copying the masters, composers re-orchestrate and do variations on one another’s themes, storytellers present their versions of traditional tales, and so on. But artistic repetition of this kind has two points: to understand what it was that made the original special, and to place the new artist’s own imprimatur on it, so that the “remake” is special in its own right. As far as the entertainment industry is concerned, however, the goal is to seek out the magic formula that turns money spent on a product into more money spent by consumers, which is to say that the remakes and adaptations we see in film in television are inevitably formulaic and therefore boring, as opposed to new art building off the old.

This episode works as an example of the difference, being an adaptation of a 1952 Detective Comics story written by David Vern. However, as Harley Quinn didn’t exist until Dini, Timm, and Sorkin invented her for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, everything related to her–which is almost everything that makes the episode interesting–is original to this episode. It is Harley who upstages the Joker, Harley whom he realizes he needs, and, ultimately, Harley that brings the Joker down. Despite her escape from prison being played for laughs, she is the one who ultimately gets to punish him, when she turns out to be the “policewoman” waiting for him in the car.

Here we have the inversion of Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin. As I discussed at the end of the previous volume, for all that they represent an Other allowed into the circles of normalcy, their role as cops makes them enforcers of that same normalcy, which is to say supporters of the very power structures that divide people into “normal” and Other. Harley is the opposite: she is playing the role of cop as a role, abusing a prisoner not as a cog in the brutal machine of criminal “justice,” but as an expression of her personal feelings over her abuse at the hands of the Joker. In doing so she proves she is once again the Harlequin, the one who laughs at structure, the one who waves her magic batte and brings chaos into the boring, oppressive, orderly, normal world. She twists and parodies them as  a Jewish lesbian criminal cop, engaging in a crime, and in the process acting exactly as cops normally do: by engaging in violence against someone who violated society’s norms.

In so doing, she reveals the hypocrisy and self-contradiction of a system that turns yesterday’s Other into today’s enforcer of violence against the Other–to be Jewish, to be lesbian, were both once criminal, both things which got you beaten by cops. The same contradiction Harley deliberately performs is the one Sawyer and Turpin embody, the essential contradiction of a society that judges on the basis of what’s “not normal” instead of what’s harmful.

Which is to say that Harley herself knows her apocalypse was inadequate. That isn’t a police baton she taps menacingly into her hand, much as it may look like one; that is her magic batte. It’s time for round two. It will take nearly a year, but it’s time for scared little Bruce Wayne, Age 8 to step aside and allow for the possibility of growth and change. It’s time for childhood to end, and the apocalypse of adolescence to begin.

It’s time for Batman to go to high school.


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Think maybe you're becoming (Apokolips… Now!)

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It’s February 7 and 14, 1998. The top songs this week are Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” and Usher’s “Nice & Slow”–in that order on the 7th, and swapping places by the 14th. The top movie remains Titanic throughout.
In the news since last November, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11, two days after sales of the Toyota Prius, the first mass-production hybrid car, began. On January 12, nearly 20 European nations agree to ban human cloning for some reason, and on the 17th the right-wing tabloid site Drudge Report breaks the Lewinsky scandal, about which more in a later post. And on the day part one of this story aired, the Nagano Winter Olympics began.
In Superman: The Animated Series, we have something that feels very much like a season finale, even though it actually isn’t–that’s the next two episodes, which aired in May after another brief hiatus. Nonetheless, “Apokolips… Now!” feels more like a season-ending event than “Little Girl Lost”: the former wraps up plot threads from prior episodes in a way that leads naturally into a new story, while the latter is entirely about introducing a new plot thread–and not the one created by “Apokolips… Now!.”
That thread–the war between Darkseid and Superman–will end up continuing throughout the entire DCAU, and ultimately end it, ending universes being what Apokolipses are for. Its creation involves the closing out of past threads: the end of the “Intergang uses alien weapons” thread that appeared in a couple of prior STAS episodes, the (heavily implied) death of Intergang leader Bruno Mannheim, and the (outright shown) death of Dan Turpin.
This is a shocking event, and not just for the diegetic audience that witnesses Darkseid’s casual murder of Turpin as he flees in the face of a freed Superman, defiant humanity, and Orion-led New Genesis army. The DCAU has strongly implied deaths before, as with Mannheim in this episode, and it has depicted off-screen deaths and deaths of non-human creatures, but this is an outright killing of a human being on screen, in a children’s cartoon.
In that, Turpin’s death near the end of the second part reflects a similarly shocking (in the “I can’t believe they got away with showing that” sense) moment early in the first part: after she is injured in an Intergang attack, we see Maggie Sawyer in a hospital bed holding hands with her girlfriend; the episode admittedly never explicitly states their relationship, so a viewer could infer they are sisters given they both have Timm’s default Adult Young Woman face and body. However, allowing for stylistic differences between the two media, it is nonetheless clearly Toby Reynes, established as Sawyer’s partner in the comics a decade before this episode aired.
That the two moments–one an expression of love and support, the other heart-breaking and violent–are mirrors of one another is confirmed by Turpin’s funeral scene that ends the episode: specifically, a Jewish funeral. Confirming a cartoon character to not be Christian is only slightly less surprising than confirming them to be queer–remember, this is a medium that habitually depicts Christmas (under one name or another) as something celebrated on alien planets and in fantasy visions of the ancient past. Openly Jewish cartoon characters were not as unheard of as openly queer ones even in 1998, but it was still quite rare, and even rarer to see a Jewish ceremonial rite like a wedding or, in this case, funeral.
Here we see is the advantage of the outward turn STAS represents: the expansion of the space of the possible. To face the weird is to encounter the non-normative, which creates the possibility of accepting it. There is room here!
We dismissed Harley Quinn’s apocalypse as a failure, as creating the wrong new world, but here we see that it succeeded. She made a world where lesbians can just exist, just be, just love each other, without having to be monsters or supervillains. She even made room for her religion as well–remember, prior to this, she was the only major supporting character depicted as being Jewish, too. The revolution has farther to go, and injustices remain, but it succeeded in changing the injustice it started in response to. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy won.
But victory comes at a price, as Darkseid made sure to remind us. In gaining representation of lesbianism and Judaism as normative things “normal” characters can be, as opposed to only found in the monstrous, the bizarre, and the outcast, we have expanded the circles of normativity. Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin are, after all, both cops, the front-line troops of normativity in its war against difference. We see that here: masked and armored cops, faceless stormtroopers gunning down equally faceless parademons.
Yes, the parademons are agents of evil, trying to destroy the world and replace it with a hellish landscape of fire, but then of course they are: apocalypse is revolution viewed from above. Darkseid is just another conqueror, but that’s the point: like Mala and Jax-Ur, he is emblematic of the fact that the general American experience of fascism was, until recently, that it was something that started elsewhere. But the cops are indistinguishable just as the parademons are indistinguishable: they represent the erasure of human difference, human diversity, human life just as much as Darkseid’s forces do.
And herein lies the problem of the simplistic binary this episode presents of Apokolips and New Genesis: Apokolips is a world of slavery and bondage, yes, but New Genesis merely opposes their evil. That is a necessary condition for goodness to be sure, but it does not mean that New Genesis is good–the most visually obvious distinction between the two, after all, is that Apokoliptians are ugly and New Gods beautiful according to conventional (read: white) standards. In other words, New Genesis’ opposition to Apokolips is not good against evil, but normalcy–the maintenance of the status quo and the extant structures of power–against transgression and the grotesque.
New Genesis, in other words, is a planet of superheroes, and Apokolips a planet of supervillains: not good against evil, but cops against criminals. And the more things that get accepted as normal without challenging normativity itself, the greater the pool from which to draw cops, and the fewer to oppose them.
But, we might ask, isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want people of all backgrounds, all orientations and genders, all religions and ethnicities, to be considered normal?
And the answer is, no we don’t. No one is normal; what we want is to smash the very idea of normalcy. So long as deviance from an arbitrary norm is the standard by which we judge others, rather than harm, there will always be some people on the outside who aren’t hurting anyone, some people denied acceptance and treated as threats solely for failing to fit arbitrary standards, as opposed to actually demonstrably posing a threat of harm–and there will always be harmful, toxic people on the inside who remain accepted because they fit those same arbitrary standards. In other words, so long as we value normalcy, privilege and marginalization will continue to exist. We can stop subjecting Asians to unfair immigration standards and internment camps, but we’ll just be doing the same to Latin@s a generation later; if it isn’t Jews being marginalized, it’s Muslims; if it isn’t lesbians, it’s trans people; if it isn’t black people, it’s–well, we’ve never stopped marginalizing black people. Which is not to say that we’ve stopped marginalizing any of the other groups, either–but they’ve all taken strides toward normalization, and the result has been that some of them have taken to defending that normalization by attacking the “next group out,” so to speak. Hence, for example, conservative Jews and transphobic lesbians aligning themselves with the Christian right out of shared Islamophobia and transphobia, respectively.*
But there is time yet for more apocalypses, and we can still hope for a future where everyone accepts everyone else, where everything save nonconsensual harm is permitted. A world where everything is tolerated except intolerance; that is the new genesis we want, and it can only happen after apocalypse.
In the meantime, improvement is improvement. For now, as we close out this chapter of our search, we can simply enjoy Harley Quinn’s brave new world–destroying it, revolutionizing it, making it better, those are all things we can worry about tomorrow. For now, let us simply celebrate that this world has room for as much variety as it does–not just a hero who flies, but a black superhero who built himself skin of steel. Not just Space Moses, but an actual Jewish man. Not just the Man of Tomorrow who loves and protects mankind, but women loving each other.
We celebrate them all–but even as we do, we know we must go further.
.*Not to single out anyone in particular. I chose Jews and lesbians for this example simply because I’m a Jewish lesbian.
 
End of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 3: That Has Such People In It. Volume 4 is titled Childhood’s End.
 


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Imaginary Story: The Batman and Robin Adventures #25 and Annual #2

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On one level, The Batman And Robin Adventures Annual #2 and The Superman Adventures Annual #1 are a sort of crossover, telling two sides of a story involving magical amulets. But the amount of actual crossover is quite small, and tonally these are very different stories that function almost entirely independently of each other. The elements of each story that appear in the other are readable, if one hasn’t read the other, as simple Easter Eggs. “Oh, Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to Zatara when Superman met him.” “Oh, Zatara was involved in some kind of Superman adventure while Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to him.”
Instead of something like “World’s Finest,” which had both Superman and Batman working together against both Superman-style and Batman-style problems, this “crossover” maintains each of them alone, in their own space, dealing with their own styles, with only Zatara himself bridging the gap. Unlike “World’s Finest,” therefore, which has the overall effect of uniting the BTAS and STAS ideaspaces into the beginnings of the DCAU, this serves instead to highlight their differences, as illustrated by the two’s respective treatment of the shared character Zatara–and through him, of magic.
For Superman, Zatara was a wizard, a provider of magical artifacts that could be invoked by the power of words, that led to a chaotic realm of demons and time travel. But for Batman Zatara is much more mundane, a stage magician who operates by trickery. The villain of the Batman story has mind-control powers, but they are simply an advanced form of mundane persuasion, not spells of enchantment–and any apparent magic is actually a product of self-deception, whether accidental (the villain’s belief that the amulet grants his powers boosts his confidence sufficiently to allow him to employ them) or deliberate (the “meditation ritual” Zatara teaches Batman and Batman teaches Robin is fairly obviously the same kind of confidence booster, in this case to resist control).
Both take a playful approach to the ideas within, but ultimately the Superman comic is far more playful, extending that even to the structure of the comic itself (with, as we’ve discussed, mixed results). It jumps gleefully into concepts like demons, magic, and time travel, while the Batman comic tries to be more straightforwardly logical, to lay the groundwork to explain everything that happens in mundane terms. At the same time, it’s more aware of mundane darkness: Superman’s demon is just a generic evil, monstrous invader who destroys and disrupts and must be fought, while the Batman story takes pains to have its villain point out that he does not and will not use his powers for rape.
Compare the Batman annual to issue #25, the final issue of The Batman and Robin Adventures (though, just like TBA before it, TBRA will be followed by a functionally identical series under a new name). In this story, Batman is kidnapped by a flying saucer piloted by Ra’s al-Ghul, who claims he stole it from aliens who abducted him. Batman breaks free and is contacted by the Men in Black (generic, X-Files-esque ones rather than the ones from the Aircel/Malibu comic book that inspired the Men in Black movies–those characters were purchased by Marvel in 1994 and are thus unfortunately unlikely to show up in a Batman story), then takes on Ra’s again and stops him from using the saucer to destroy the polar ice caps.
This comic, which came out the month after the Annual, flirts rather more openly with what the Annual merely hinted at: that Batman’s world of dark alleys and gothic villains is embedded in something larger and weirder, a realm of aliens and speedsters and actual magic, psychic gorillas and Amazons and living radiation. Batman resists this, insisting right up until the end of the comic that the saucer is a craft built by Ra’s al-Ghul, not an alien vessel, but the fact that it can be controlled by holding a crystal and focusing one’s will makes clear that he is wrong: this is magic–space-themed magic, as aliens and spaceships in fiction usually are, but magic nonetheless.
He is in denial, but he cannot remain there forever. The future of the DCAU is not to delve deeper into dark streets, solving dark mysteries and exploring the corners of dark minds; it is striking out into the wild and the weird, outward rather than inward, expanding into new ideaspaces rather than lurking in the one. We’ve known this, of course, since the apocalypse and the art style shift–but here is confirmation.
The Batman of the Future is coming, and like Superman’s epithet, he is a Man of Tomorrow. His world may look superficially like Batman’s, but it lies within Superman’s–dark streets occupied by mutants and aliens and psychics. It is a world that the Bruce Wayne Batman cannot fight in and cannot fight against–but as we see here, he will break himself trying.


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