Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra: Princess of Power S1E1-5 and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S1E1-2

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Commissioned vlog for Suzyn Smith-Webb

One would expect, based solely on the titles, that 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power (hereafter She-Ra ’85) is more tightly focused on its singular titular character than the plurality of characters implied by 2018’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (hereafter She-Ra). This is very much not the case, however, at least where the two series’ respective multi-part introductory stories* are concerned; the degree to which She-Ra was not the main character of the first story of She-Ra ’85 is remarkable.

That main character is very clearly He-Man, which makes more sense when one realizes the circumstances under which this five-episode arc originally aired: as a theatrically released movie under the name The Secret of the Sword. More specifically, despite being produced as the first five episodes of She-Ra ’85, it was framed as a He-Man and She-Ra ’85 movie, because She-Ra ’85 was an as-yet little-known and unaired spinoff of He-Man.

She-Ra is thus framed from the start not as a character in her own right, but an extension and reflection of He-Man, who is the primary locus of agency in the movie. She is his long-lost sister, her sword a counterpart to his, her villain the mentor of his; his coming to Etheria in search of her is what kicks off the plot. Even her departure from the Horde and joining of the Rebellion–which should be her character arc here, the transformation from unwitting villain to hero–is easily accomplished once she is out of range of Shadow Weaver’s mind control. The rightness of the Rebellion, in other words, is framed as obvious to any good person, so once her nature as such is no longer being magically suppressed, she switches sides easily.

By contrast, She-Ra presents Adora as its main character from the start. Its first story is about her development entirely, her gradual (at least compared to She-Ra ’85, despite that spending more than twice the time on its first story) transformation from someone who sees Princesses as a monstrous enemy to someone who embraces becoming one in order to fight her own former comrades. To put it another way, The Secret of the Sword is the story of how She-Ra was discovered; “The Sword” is the story of how Adora left the cult that raised her. The former is passive, the latter active.

A key distinction, too, is how the two shows construct the titular character. She-Ra ’85 views her as She-Ra, who happens also to be Adora. She essentially asserts this herself, as she not only leaves the Horde but also turns down living with her birth parents; the one genuine choice she makes for herself is to be She-Ra, defender of Etheria, rather than Princess Adora of Eternia. Her agency lies not in making a moral choice, but in severing herself and her show from He-Man; necessary to establishing the spin-off, but also necessarily near the end of the movie, guaranteeing she remains in his shadow for most of it.

She-Ra instead centers Adora-as-Adora from the start. She is given far more personality and focus, and her life with the Horde far more detail; in particular, her best friend/love interest Catra and abusive foster-mother Shadow Weaver are fleshed out much more than in She-Ra ’85, where neither had much depth or relationship with Adora at all. Here they have both, especially Catra, a complex study in contrasts, not just between her prickliness and obvious deep caring and affection for Adora, but in her status as a rebellious loyalist, an iconoclast who nonetheless chooses to remain an agent of an authoritarian regime.

More to the point where Adora is concerned, she has no one to explain to her what She-Ra even is. She stumbles onto the Sword of Protection seemingly by accident, and initially transforms unintentionally. She-Ra is a role she assumes, not a discovery of her true self, with her transformation occurring independently of any revelations about her parentage or origin. (Which is not revealed in “The Sword,” or indeed the first season at all.) Ultimately, she does become She-Ra deliberately, but only after an internal struggle between her loyalty to and misconceptions about the Horde on the one hand, and her moral objection to the violence she witnesses firsthand in Thaymor. Adora doesn’t become She-Ra and therefore join the Rebellion; she chooses to rebel against the Horde, and therefore becomes She-Ra. To put it another way, becoming She-Ra doesn’t change who Adora is; she becomes She-Ra because of who she is.

Ultimately this difference lies in the very different environments in which the two series emerged. Partially that’s the already-addressed difference between a spinoff and a standalone series, but perhaps even moreso it’s a difference between cartoons of the mid-80s and cartoons of the late 2010s–and for once I’m not just referring to the difference between the dark age American animation was struggling through in 1985 and the golden age it’s experiencing now. Instead, I’m referring to what for lack of a better term we can call “lineage”–the works that most visibly influenced the work in question.

For She-Ra ’85, the obvious influence is He-Man, but that doesn’t tell us much. If we push back a little further, however, to the question of what works influenced He-Man, we can see two apparent choices, both dating to the 1970s. Visually, it has much in common with Star Trek: The Animated Series, in the sense of being quite detailed, imaginative, and static. (Not to mention sharing a studio, Filmation.) Settings are visually complex and generally alien, with bright, bold colors reminiscent of comic books; non-human characters are similarly imaginative and frequently grotesque, such as the new aliens introduced in ST:TAS or, in She-Ra ’85, butterfly-wing-eared owl-creature Cowl or the bug-eyed goblin-thing Mantenna; human characters, by contrast, are limited to a couple of narrowly defined base designs onto which costumes are added, to facilitate easier creation of dolls based on them (or, as with She-Ra ’85, to reflect that they are based on dolls); the animation of those figures is awkward and stiff. Narrative elements, meanwhile, bear a strong kinship to the lineage of action cartoons exemplified by Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends: the characters are depicted as essentially superheroes, with names reflective of their abilities or visual design, and their heroic identity is the focus, with little attention to characterizing or humanizing the individual taking on the heroic role.

The two strongest influences on She-Ra, by contrast, are not from the 70s or 80s–She-Ra ’85 contributes a premise and some superficial details, but it is (thankfully–we’re still talking about a Filmation cartoon from the 80s here!) not all that strong an influence on the way the show presents its story. Instead, it seems to draw most heavily on cartoons from around 2005-2015. The most obvious comparison storywise is to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like that show, it presents us with a main character who is themselves first and their destined heroic role second, even initially resisting that role; it starts with their discovery by a couple of close allies who receive significant character development of their own–Glimmer and Bow even have similar personalities to Katara and Sokka!–and it also includes a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of a conflicted antagonist character, without forgiving their actions or losing sight of the evil of the villains as a whole; later it depicts the “good guys” as severely flawed as well, ATLA through the corruption and authoritarianism of the Earth Kingdom, She-Ra through the disastrous raid on Horde HQ and consequent dissolution of the Princess League and defection of Entrapta.

Visually, She-Ra shares in common with She-Ra ’85 that the backgrounds are exotic and highly detailed, but little else. Its color palette leans toward less intense colors, and character designs of humans are highly stylized and varied, often placed in contrasting pairs–tall, slender Angella and her stocky daughter Glimmer, or lean, lithe Catra and the simply massive Scorpia. Non-human characters largely depart only slightly from the human, essentially looking like humans in costumes–there is nothing here as alien as eyes on extendable stalks or owls that fly using their rainbow ears, just human-with-antlers, human-with-fur, lizard-ish-human. Even Scorpia and Catra, who as a scorpion-woman and catgirl are more “monstrous” than most, are still depicted as more attractive than grotesque, as emphasized in “Princess Prom.” Perhaps most importantly, character animation is far more fluid than in She-Ra ’85: characters flow through motions, stretching and squashing, exaggerated facial expressions and postures emphasizing their emotions and actions. At the same time, when characters aren’t doing anything, they are less mobile than in She-Ra ’85–there’s a lot more blinking in the older show.

These are again features common to shows of the last 15 years, but with a somewhat different origin: the combination of detailed, naturalistic backgrounds and heavily stylized characters, fluidly animated movement and complete absence of “unnecessary” movement, are hallmarks of Japanese animation. The “anime boom” on American television in the late 90s and early 2000s led to a host of imitators, followed closely by a generation of creators for whom 90s anime are as much a part of their youthful influences as the American cartoons of the same period, and She-Ra follows closely in that tradition.

All of this, in turn, is why the greater focus on Adora in the newer series: in 1985 She-Ra was a reflection of He-Man, who was essentially coded as a superhero, with a superpowered alternate form, secret identity, sidekick, and small group of close companions who know both hero and secret identity. In 2018, however, she’s a magical girl. Her transformation is not a bridge across two halves of a fractured identity, but rather an accelerated maturation, from young teen to adult hero who is nonetheless entirely the same person. There is no neurotic need to maintain separation between the identities, no questioning of who is “the real person”; She-Ra is a tool Adora uses to kick ass.

*Neither is, strictly speaking, a pilot: both were produced after their respective series were already greenlit. Nor does She-Ra technically have a premiere: all episodes of the first season “aired” on Netflix simultaneously.


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Crisis on N Earths: US Embassy Bombings, Osama bin Laden

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It’s August 7, 1998, and two American embassies in Africa–one in Tanzania, the other in Kenya–were just bombed nigh-simultaneously by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The shadowy figure fingered as being behind the attack had an origin story straight out of a superhero comic: scion of a wealthy family, he founded an organization which, probably with American funding and support, aided the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion of a country near his own.

The resistance movement was the Mujahideen, the organization was al-Qaeda, and we are of course talking about Osama bin Laden. Today is the day most of America first hears his name.

Whether or not the US provided funding or other assistance to al-Qaeda in its early days fighting the Soviet Union is controversial, but it is generally agreed that if it happened, this was a major error that came back to bite the people who made it. I’m not so sure.

To be clear, two hundred people died. Nobody, except maybe the people who carried them out and their ideological fellow travelers, thinks these attacks were a good thing.

But American culture, for nearly half a century, had been built around the Cold War. It was the go-to argument for the oppressor class: can’t pay living wages or fund social programs because that’s socialism and we don’t want to be like those godless commies, you know? Can’t roll back the dominance of arbitrary Christian mores standing in the way of women’s and queer liberation; that’s secularism, the kind of thing those godless commies would do. Even the Civil Rights Movement was treated as a potential communist plot!

We have, multiple times, looked at the way the sudden, anticlimactic end of the Cold War impacted the national psyche. For a solid decade, the US was a nation flailing, a massively oversized military-industrial complex suddenly without an enemy to (never actually) fight, a police and surveillance state without infiltrators and agents of foreign powers to ferret out.

Some relics remained intact. To this day, conservatives will still argue against any proposed or extant social program by pointing to the Soviet Union, but instead of implying that we will become like the Soviets at their most brutally oppressive, now the implication is that we will become like the Soviet Union in the sense of collapsing. And much of the rhetoric is unchanged; the only difference now is that we are exhorted to report suspicious activity from our neighbors because they might be terrorists, as opposed to because they might be communists. (And before that, Nazis. And before that, communists. And before that, anarchists. And before that…)

And that there is the key. These bombings are not the moment at which terrorists became the new communists, but they are the prequel. They are the moment at which the new villain became known.

He’s a great fit. The best villains, we’re always told, are mirrors of the heroes. And if the American military-industrial-police complex, which is to say the American right, is the self-declared hero, then in bin Laden we have a perfectly cast villain. Most obviously, like the American right, he is extremely devoted to a far-right regressive religion which he believes should be the basis for government, which is to say forcibly imposed on all. He also comes from money, just like the American right. Most of all, however, he is motivated by a powerful hostility to the Other, a belief that violence is the appropriate response to any difference.

Hero and villain, in other words, believe precisely the same things, with the only difference being where and in what culture they happen to have been born. But of course, when your motivating belief is the hatred of the Other, that’s all it takes to be bitter enemies.

The common refrain in the late 90s and early 2000s, regarding right-wing Muslim terrorism, was “they hate us for our freedoms.” And that’s not untrue, insofar as diversity is a product of freedom: when people are free to be openly different, their differences are naturally more visible. Of course rather more significant a factor is that we have been conquering, manipulating, and oil-drilling the Middle East for generations; those of “them” who hate “us” by and large have fairly good reason to do so. But the common thread between all the world’s right wings, whether of empires or their colonies current and former, is that us/them division in the first place. “They” hate “us” for the same reason “we” hate “them”: because once you’ve divided the world into an us and a them, a Self and an Other, a normal and a deviant, hating and fearing the Other becomes natural, and killing them feels like self-defense.

Most terrorism in the United States is carried out by American-born conservative white men. That is simply a fact, and as true in 1998 as it is now. And for them as well, it is not untrue that they hate us for our freedoms, for our difference. Right-wing terrorism is motivated by the same hatred and fear and desire to kill the invading outsider–because, to those who draw those little circles of normalcy, everything deviant is an outsider.

And so the great transference can begin. Where once communists were the terrible Other, whose agents infiltrated the state and must be expunged, now it is terrorists. Where once being anything other than a conservative Christian white allocishet man made you suspect as a commie, now it makes you, if not a terrorist, at least suspect of aiding and abetting them. (Hence the nonsense about Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking across the border among undocumented immigrants from Latin America: to the rightwing mind, Middle Eastern people, terrorists, and Latin@ people are all Other, and therefore more or less interchangeably equivalent.)

We are, at least partially, free to be who we are. And they hate us for that freedom.


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Vlog Review: Heart Catch Pretty Cure 7 & 15 and Star vs. Evil S2E20

Regular episode of a new series…

..and a bonus episode! As long as my Patreon stays above $150/mo, I’ll post two of these every month!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

Vlog Review: CatGhost 5-8

 

Extremely late regular episode… plus an extremely late bonus episode! As long as the Patreon remains above $150/mo, I’ll post two extra vlogs every month!
Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!
 

Crisis on N Earths: Cowboy Bebop

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Okay, let’s jam. 3, 2, 1…

It’s like this. Cowboy Bebop is one of the most critically acclaimed anime series of all time. In the US in particular it was a massive hit, in many ways the peak of the wave of anime imported to American television that began with Pokemon. It’s where the wave crashed over us, a mountain of foam, gorgeous, sublime even.

But still just foam. (So many people are mad at me right now.)

The thing about Cowboy Bebop is that it’s all style. The characters are incredibly cool, but they’re also completely stock archetypes out of Westerns and film noir. They get backstories, which is what anime usually substitutes for character development, but those backstories are basically pure cliche.

(Except Ed and Ein. Ed and Ein are strikingly original and criminally underused. They also get even less development than the central trio, despite being vastly more interesting. The Adventures of Ed and Ein when?)

It’s visually stunning in its execution of familiar scenes out of space opera, wushu, and, again, Westerns. The music is spectacular, including a serious contender for the greatest opening theme of all time, and note that I didn’t limit that to anime or even television. It is very clearly the product of a group of artists absolutely at the top of their game and having a tremendously good time. That alone is enough to make it deserving of most of the praise it’s received.

But that doesn’t change that it doesn’t actually have anything to say. (So mad.)

Anyway, if we’re gonna talk about it, and we’re talking about the DCAU, we gotta talk “Pierre le Fou.” See, Sunrise worked on a number of early Batman: The Animated Series episodes. (“Pretty Poison” for one. So there’s another femme fatale they’ve animated; the difference is that Faye is what Ivy performs. “I Am the Night” and “The Man Who Killed Batman,” also.) “Pierre le Fou” is their homage to that work, and it shows.

A horror story about an “insane,” murderous clown with the mind of a child, a backstory of torment and abuse at the hands of institutional power, and a character design that seems largely based on a cross between the Penguin and the Mad Hatter. Also the climactic fight sequence takes place in an abandoned amusement park at night.

It’s pretty BTAS, is what I’m saying.

It’s not really a sympathetic villain story, though, despite the backstory. Cowboy Bebop mostly doesn’t do sympathetic. Tragic, maybe, but that’s hardly the same thing.

It’s a great episode. Besides all the BTAS, there’s a healthy does of Akira in there (look at how the flashback to Pierrot’s “training” is lit!), the villain is terrifying, and the fight scenes are brutal. This is solid horror, on top of everything else, and horror in a very different vein than “Toys in the Attic”–deadly serious and gothic, much like the Bat, as opposed to light and Weird. (Which I want to say is like Superman, but… eh. Not as neatly as I’d like.)

But there really isn’t much to chew on here. It’s meat-flavored, but it’s got no meat. It takes pieces from many places, puts them together into something that works, and that’s great… but that’s all it is. The whole is precisely equal to the sum of its parts. Everything’s on its sleeve, everything’s pure shiny surface–and like Pierrot himself, despite a bulky appearance, what’s in there is mostly just guns.

No wonder American anime fans latched onto it so hard. Calling this Dragon Ball Z for people who think they’re too smart for Dragon Ball Z is deeply, intensely, staggeringly unfair, as well as highly inaccurate. The Matrix of anime? Nah, that’s Serial Experiments Lain.

I dunno. There’s not really a good analogy. Point is it’s gorgeous and spectacularly well done and hollow, and I’m literally the only person who thinks that last part, and anyone reading this who’s actually watched Cowboy Bebop hates me now.

I think it’s time we blow this scene.

(This was originally written as a stream of consciousness and posted to Patreon with no editing. I have very lightly proofread this version–punctuation, spacing, and adding the countdown at the beginning are the only changes.)


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E10, “Crybaby”

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Yes, I’m aware this is late. And yes, I’m aware I forgot to release any video last week, I’ll fix it tomorrow and the next day.

Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Which it did.

There’s a lot of End of Evangelion in this episode’s DNA. Ryo looks remarkably like Rei/Lilith’s final form in that film; the destruction is intercut with images of children playing; even the ending, two characters lying on the shore of a red ocean, is shared with that film. But that makes sense, as End of Eva is the go-to anime movie for apocalyptic scenarios full of vaguely Biblical imagery.

This is an old genre we’re working in here, already fully formed by the time its first real classic, the Book of Daniel, was written in the second century BCE. The apocalypse was originally about political resistance, a reassurance that there was a tyrant out there bigger and more powerful than the one currently oppressing you, and that it was thus absolutely certain that the oppressor would eventually fall, as all oppressors do (along with everything else). In modern times, apocalyptic literature followed the general trend toward more psychological fiction, using apocalyptic language and imagery to engage less with political revolution than with personal evolution. Demian and Revolutionary Girl Utena are standout examples of the latter form. And then there’s Akira. Or, more to the point, the film Akira, a howling scream of disgust at a world in decay. End of Eva sings in the same key, though the original series was more along the lines of Utena‘s approach. Compassion, as we’ve discussed, is suffering, and there comes a point at which that suffering is unbearable.

We live in a fundamentally evil universe. This is a universe in which heat will be moved from the equator to the poles according to strict rules, regardless of how much human suffering and death the resulting hurricanes will bring. You think humans are capable of great evil, and we are, but the evil of the universe wipes out the stars and shatters worlds. No human killer, no genocidal tyrant, has ever killed as many people as the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal strain of malaria. And unlike anything else we have ever encountered, we are capable of moral decision-making, and hence of good. That’s the only place good exists, after all: the human imagination.

We made it up. A tiny cry of defiance against a universe of cold darkness. We found ourselves in an existence where suffering is inevitable, and said, “You know what? I’m going to take on the suffering of others, too.”

It is futile. The humans stand no chance, almost entirely wiped out by Ryo’s demons before Akira’s new devilman army can even reach him. The last human holdout is destroyed somewhere in the battle between Ryo and Akira and their respective, monstrous allies, and then all the demons and devilmen wipe each other out. And the whole time, Akira stands no chance against Ryo; Hell’s champion against its prince, he inevitably dies.

And then God kills Ryo and blows up the world. But if there is a God, then God is evil. They made this, after all. They’re either actively malicious or possessed of such towering incompetence as to be indistinguishable from malice. Satan was right to rebel. That’s not enough to make him not evil, though. Ryo has far too much blood on his hands.

We can’t win. Compassion just means more pain. Nothing good lasts; evil always triumphs in the end. The end of everything is the only thing we can be absolutely sure will happen. But we keep going anyway, because that is who we are. That is what we are. Stubbornly, futilely compassionate. Even when we run out of tears, and can only scream at the universe, when we can only weave scenarios of its destruction. We collectively yearn for apocalypse, ironically not because we want more endings, but because we cannot stand the number we already have.

I’m so tired of caring. So tired of raging at the evils and injustices that surround me. Tired of drowning in an ocean of hatred that grows deeper every day. Tired of crying for friends, and loved ones, and strangers, and myself. There are no tears left to douse the flames. There is only rage, futile, desperate rage, because the alternative to rage is terror and despair. Despair because our defeat, the defeat and destruction of everything good, is inevitable. But rage can focus us elsewhere, can remind us of the central lesson of the apocalypse genre: the tyrant will die, too. Perhaps we can accelerate that.

Success is guaranteed, after all. We might not survive it, but the fascists and the bigots and the laughing lying rats will inevitably die. Everything they built will crumble away. Everything they believed in, if they believed in anything, will be forgotten. Of course failure is also guaranteed, as we and anything we build and anything we believe in are all just as doomed, just as temporary. But at least we can be sure that those fuckers will get theirs.

The power of the oppressor will break. Everyone dies. All nations crumble, and all regimes fall.

All worlds end.

From the ashes and the rubble, a new world forms. It will be evil, too, of course, but in different ways. We will make different mistakes, and really that’s all you can ask of anyone. And so we cycle on.


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