Retroactive Continuity: Insexts Vol. 2

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I am, it seems, destined to reading Insexts volumes at oddly apropos times. I read the first volume, about monstrously feminine interiority that bursts outward into horrifying beauty, intense love, and righteous wrath, mere days before realizing I was a woman. Now I find myself having read the second volume within hours of being catcalled for the first time–treated, in other words, as an object that exists for the pleasure and entertainment of a strange man.

Insexts vol. 2 is, pretty explicitly, about the goddess/monster binary, which is of course the infamous Madonna/whore binary. It is about a cult of men who objectify women, literally, feeding them into a gaping maw in the form of a mirror so that they are transformed into works of art–static, passive, depicted by and for men as victims, monsters, or perfect goddesses upon pedestals, but never with any interiority of their own.

This is as subtle as the first volume, which is to say not at all, but again, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross” and a synonym for that is “grotesque.” Horror, and especially body horror, is so well-suited to morality tales because it is so rarely anything approaching subtle. And there is, in truth, nothing subtle about patriarchy; like the smell of garbage fifteen minutes into a visit to the dump, it turns invisible from familiarity, not because it is at all hard to notice to begin with.

The book’s epilogue is particularly trenchant here: it follows the first-person perspective of a voyeur as he pursues Mariah and the Lady onto a ship, and peeps into their cabin to watch them having sex. Previous sexual encounters between them always involved some degree of monstrosity, such as a passionate embrace while the Lady had the jaws and limbs of a preying mantis, but here we get nearly a full-page spread of the two lovers in fully human form, their bodies positioned so as to hide neither of them. But running down the side of the page are the panels in which they spot the voyeur and–still depicted from his first-person perspective–berate him for thinking they existed for his pleasure, then stab him in the eyes.

The whole comic, in other words, is about the male gaze in media. By transporting it into the belle epoque–the so-called “golden age” before World War I, which is of course also the era of robber barons, colonial genocides, and industrialization, but also the height of first-wave feminism–the comic reminds us that the male gaze is not only or even primarily a problem of popular media; it is endemic to art. For much of our history, women were actively erased from creative roles in the arts; they could only be models or muses, depicted but forbidden from depicting. History itself gazes with a male gaze, because almost all other stories were deliberately erased.

And, simply put, representation matters on both ends. First, because, as Phoebe laments at length, you cannot be what you cannot see: the deliberate erasure of trans women from history and the arts led her to question if she is alone, and ultimately even whether she existed at all. But the comic is more concerned with the other end: ultimately, a man can tell a story about women, but he cannot tell a story of women. Nor can a white person tell the stories of people of color. You must know a story before you can tell it, and so the stories that are never told can only be learned by living them.

As witness the cis women who write and draw Insexts trying to tell the story of a trans woman. What they end up telling is the version that gets told: Phoebe always knew she was a woman, and said so from early childhood, but at the same time she was originally “one of” the cult of men who objectify women into art, for which she has repented. To put it in terms endemic to cis accounts of transition, she “lived as a man” and “had male privilege” before she transitioned. Her transition is thus framed as an act of repentance; her happy ending is to magically become a cis woman, killed by a goddess-turned-monster and reborn into a conventionally female body crafted from stone by her mother. She is thus thematically connected to Pygmalion’s “perfect woman”; but because she is created by a mother seeking a daughter rather than a man seeking a perfect object, she is alive and vibrant, her own person.

It is not, so far as it goes, a bad story; but it is not the story of this or many other trans women. Ironically, the story of Lady and Mariah feels more like mine than Phoebe’s does. I, too, was repelled by and constrained within my body my entire life, feeling constantly on the verge of erupting into something horrific and grotesque. I, too, discovered that, once I let it out, it was both monstrous and divine, wonderful and powerful, full of rage and beauty and love.

And yet today I met a man, a stranger, who looked at me and saw an object for his enjoyment. He called out in appreciation, yes, but not appreciation of me–he does not know me and therefore cannot appreciate me. He didn’t even appreciate my body. The comic suggests that that is what men want from the women they objectify, but it’s not really true in the comic or in real life: the men here rob women of their bodies as well as their personalities, minds, and lives, transforming them into paint on canvas or stone. And the truth is, no catcaller expects the women he accosts to touch him.

Instead, as the comic notes, what patriarchy appreciates about women isn’t even their bodies. Bodies are real, and patriarchy doesn’t value the reality of women, only the simulation thereof: images and ideas unconnected to women themselves. What patriarchy appreciates about women is its power over us, and key to that power is the power to define us, as goddesses when we submit and conform and keep quite, and as monsters when we fight back.

This happens to all the women in the story, but especially to the unnamed Indonesian goddess that manifests for most of the volume as Medusa, and ultimately leads the other women in vengeance against the men who stole her from her home and imprisoned the others in art. Fighting back violently against the oppressors of women, she soon turns her gaze to Phoebe–and now it is the cis gaze rather than the male one, which looks at a trans woman and sees a man trying to hide in femininity. The goddess is, essentially, a TERF, convinced that trans women are really men and therefore to be attacked and driven from female spaces. Phoebe’s return as a cis woman places her in a position to be listened to by the TERF goddess, as she persuades her that she must be more than a monster–and so she must be, able to temper her rage and direct it at the targets that deserve it.

But to be more than a monster, a monster-plus, one must be partially a monster, and so we circle back to the comic’s epilogue. We are our bodies, but those bodies are ours; they are as dread and as powerful, as monstrous and divine, as grotesque and beautiful, as we are. We are more than monsters, more than goddesses, more than bodies, and yet we are all those things at once. We are people. We are not perfect.

We’re better than that.


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Vlog Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Ducktales S2E1-2

Commissioned vlog by Nick Barovic…

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

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Like you, alone (Cult of the Cat)

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It’s September 18, 1998. Aerosmith tops the charts with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart. At the box office, buddy-cop comedy Rush Hour opens at number one; There’s Something About Mary, Saving Private Ryan, and Blade are lower in the top ten.

On The New Batman Adventures we have the final televised appearance of Catwoman in the DCAU, the rather lackluster “Cult of the Cat.”

Catwoman stories tend to fall into two broad groups. The first consists of episodes which depict her as one half of a complex BDSM-tinged psychodrama, a skilled manipulator whose genuine (and requited) affection for Batman is complicated by her criminal impulses, such as “The Cat and the Claw” or “You Scratch My Back.” The other group depicts her as just a cat-themed thief, physically skilled but prone to bizarre predicaments, such as “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Tyger, Tyger,” and, well, this.

If you’ve been following along, you can guess which depiction I prefer.

“Cult of the Cat” is very much an episode that exists. It is not, by any means, a bad episode. It is competently executed, but it has no particular ambition and no particular point to make. It takes no risks and attains no heights. It is about as comfortably middle-of-the-road as TNBA episodes get, which in itself serves as a clear signpost that it’s time to move on. When a Catwoman-centric episode about a secret cult of cat-worshippers who capture Batman with her help elicits no more response than “meh,” there is a good chance the show is running on fumes. There just isn’t that much to say about Batman or his supporting cast anymore–at least, not without extensively recontextualizing them.

Which of course is exactly what happens–but other than the occasional mention, that recontextualization more or less necessarily leaves Catwoman out. Diegetically, there’s no reason she couldn’t have appeared in Justice League or Justice League Unlimited; unfortunately, due to the infamous Bat Embargo (about which more when we reach the shows impacted by it), JL(U) had to be extremely judicious about its use of the Batman supporting cast, and Catwoman never made it in.

So we have here, possibly unintentionally, her sendoff, and viewed that way the episode actually becomes mildly interesting. After all, though I pegged it as a bizarre-predicament Catwoman episode, there are hints of the other Catwoman as well. She and Batman both spend some time in bondage, and he gets slashed up quite a bit–enough to destroy clothing, but never break his skin, which is likely due to network censorship but nonetheless only makes the violence seem that much less serious, and therefore kinkier. She tricks and manipulates him to keep the cult from suspecting her intent to rob them, then rescues him so that he can cover her escape–and she ultimately does, with piles of jewels. She wins–and then she leaves for Paris, never to return.

Especially coming right after “The Ultimate Thrill,” this episode stands out as a rare happy ending for a Batman villain. Recall that, as most villains are created to be villains, they are most interesting as villains. Generally, then, the two end-states they can achieve are to reform, which makes them less interesting as characters, or to remain villains, which is depressing and implies that criminality is a character trait rather than an action.

Here, Selina Kyle does neither. She remains proudly free forever, in Paris enjoying her ill-gotten loot. Like Roxy, she is a thrill-seeker; she will steal again. But she’s beaten Batman and gotten away with it. He has been repeatedly stated and shown to be the ultimate crimefighter; if he can’t contain her, no one can. She’s going to keep getting away with it, offscreen somewhere with Isis.

And that’s glorious. From the start, before the Harlequinade, before Poison Ivy rejected her femme fatale role, there was Catwoman, topping Batman, their dance injecting a decidedly feminine sexual energy to the series that pushed back against its early boys’ club tendencies. When Harley shattered that world, she left cracks and openings through which others could slip. One such was Supergirl, but she is a constrained and contained sexuality, a Good Girl pinup presented for the male gaze to consume. Catwoman eludes that gaze, however. Even as she moves sinuously across the screen, she does not allow herself to be dismembered; she owns the camera when she’s on it, commands the gaze, and will happily interrupt it with a whip or slash if it lingers too long.

Or she’ll just pick the gazer’s pocket and slip away.

Where Supergirl is a Good Girl pinup slipped in through a crack, Catwoman is an adult woman slipping out through the same. The two reflect their associated heroes: one sunny, conventional, innocent; the other shadowy, deviant, jaded. Supergirl pushes back against the show’s constraints with varying success, but Catwoman escapes them entirely. No one else really achieves this. Harley comes closest, but even she ends her story within the confines of the show. She is still Harley, and can only ever be Harley. (Perhaps that is the price she paid for her magic. Perhaps it was worth it. We cannot know.)

But Catwoman isn’t even Catwoman in the end. She’s not even Selina Kyle! Her altered hair style and color in the final scene suggest that she shed that identity as she left the show. She has, Utena-like, left the world and its rules about who and what she can be, to ascend to someone and something else. But that necessarily means she is gone from this world, fading to an empty costume and a photo in a file. That’s the price she pays for this magic. She seems pretty clearly to feel it’s worth it–but for us, it remains a loss.


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Regular episode of a new series (commissioned by Bennett Jackson)…

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

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Good bad (The Ultimate Thrill)

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Yesterday was last week’s NA09, this is this week’s.

It’s September 14, 1998. In the two months and change since the last episode of The New Batman Adventures, the permanent International Criminal Court was established. The U.S. will eventually sign the treaty, but then refuse to ratify it, because nationalism. The Second Congo War begins. Its eventual death toll of 5.4 million people will make it the deadliest war since World War II; it will go almost entirely unmentioned in the U.S., because nationalism and racism. And on September 4, Google is founded, because capitalism.

The top movie was briefly The Mask of Zorro, which would have been deliciously apropos, but alas, no episodes of TNBA aired around July 17-19. Saving Private Ryan had a solid run before being displaced by first Blade and then There’s Something About Mary, which is quite possible the most 90s sentence I’ve ever written. This weekend, the top movie was Rounders, which I’ve never heard of.

The top song was “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica through August, before being supplanted by Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which debuted at number one September 5. Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart.

Sometimes, working on a project like this, you start to wonder if you’ve gone too far out on a rhetorical limb. Is that metaphor getting overstrained? That reading too tenuous?

And then, sometimes, the work will just hand you a big steaming platter of text, an episode you don’t remember but that is nonetheless basically textual confirmation of what you were talking about.

That’s “The Ultimate Thrill.”

On one level, Roxy Rocket’s return is disappointing. The whole point of her character, back in Batman Adventures Annual #1, was to be the one villain that successfully reformed. But here she is, back to theft. It seems even creating a villain specifically to reform is not enough to escape the gravity of the classification. Once the narrative has othered you and defined you by crime–once you have been placed in the class “criminals”–there is no escape.

But her reason for returning to crime is so refreshingly different that it’s worth it: Roxy Rocket is a fear fetishist. She gets what is clearly, blatantly a sexual thrill from risking her life and safety; she is committing her crimes because the risk of being caught excites her. All while gripping a powerful, fast, phallic cartoon rocket between her legs. Except, that is, when she thinks she and Batman are about to die. Then she turns around, grips him between her legs, and cries out in pleasure.

This is all text. Nobody ever uses the word “sex,” but practically every sentence out of Roxy’s mouth is a sexual innuendo, and she specifically describes impending death as “the ultimate thrill” before, as already mentioned, dry-humping the Batman. And given that text, Batgirl flirtatiously claiming that Roxy won’t settle for any thrill less than Batman now that she’s experienced him is pretty clearly yet another pointer at their relationship, though it won’t be confirmed for a few years yet.

But Roxy isn’t entirely one-note, either. While practically everything she says is an innuendo, it’s also almost always a one-liner of the type one might expect from an action hero. In another context, she could easily be read as a heroic thief like Robin Hood or (arguably) Indiana Jones. But in Batman’s world there are no heroic thieves, only criminals and those who fight them, and Roxy lies in the former category.

And she quite probably knows it. Half her comments suggest that she believes herself to be just performing, a character in a movie–which, of course, she essentially is. As is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, Batman flits around the edges of the narrative, lurking in shadows, and freeing her to take the center, which she does. She steals basically every scene she’s in–charismatic, energetic, always moving, always teasing.

Frankly, she’s sexier by far than Poison Ivy’s seductions or Harley Quinn trying to get the Joker’s attention, in large part because she is complete in herself. She desires nothing except to do what she is doing, the pleasure of her own actions the only motivation she needs to take them. She is neither tortured nor haunted; nothing drives her; no trauma lurks in her past. She just thinks it’s hot, and that’s wonderful.

The only character to really compare her to is thus, perhaps oddly, the Joker. Not the Joker as we have come to know him after four seasons—a misogynistic sadist whose “chaos” is really just a flattened pyramid with himself on top—but as he appeared in “Christmas with the Joker,” the trickster who takes over the fringes of the narrative and forces Batman to the center, thereby emboiting him and his show. Roxy, to be clear, does not do that. She seeks the center, the position of gravity. She wants not to absorb the narrative but to live it—the thrilling life of the adventurer, the constant peril, the narrow escapes, all on the strength of her athleticism, wit, and a few choice gadgets. She wants, in short, to be Batman, main character of The New Batman Adventures.

Not, to be clear, Batgirl. They have quite a bit in common: both redheads, though Roxy’s hair is darker, both brave and agile, both seemingly free of trauma. And, of course, both with decidedly kinky attractions to Batman. But Roxy is no one’s sidekick–which is, ultimately, what dooms her. His name is in the title of the show; she may occupy the center for an episode, but she cannot overcome his main character status. The narrative must deform to lead to his victory, because that is the type of story this is; inevitably, his nerve outlasts hers in their final game of chicken.

At the end of the episode, she is cuffed, downcast, her rockets destroyed. She is in the center at last—but, for the only time in the episode, she is held still. Getting what she wanted means losing her defining trait–as it often is, the real thrill was in the chase.


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Retroactive Continuity: Goth Western

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Yes I know this is a week late; I’ll do two essays and two vlog posts this week to make up for last week.

Goth Western really isn’t all that gothic. The webcomic by bonyfish (a.k.a. Livali Wyle) has some light touches of the weird, what with its many-armed forgotten gods haunting the desert landscape of the Old West, but even those aren’t that strong. It’s also got a fascination with death, but purely as a stage in a process; Mag notwithstanding, there is no lurking darkness within the self waiting to reach up and consume us, no haunting echoes of past losses threatening to return. The most goth thing about the comic, really, is the color scheme: monochrome with touches of red for blood and flowers.

The first chapter implies otherwise. It opens with Jack in what looks like an unwinnable standoff, though of course an in medias res opening that implies the main character’s death but cuts away without showing it is essentially an announcement that the climax of the story will be showing us that character survive. But we flash back to the death of Evelyn, and at once we appear to be starting the story with the fridging of one half of a lesbian couple–hardly an auspicious beginning!

But what we have here is a case of narrative substitution. The death of Evelyn is a narrative collapse of sorts, as she is quite clearly alive in the opening. The narrative of the lone gunwoman haunted by the death of her lesbian lover–which would fit quite neatly into the traditions of both westerns and gothic literature–collapses the instant it begins, the opening of the story and beginning of the plot contradicting one another. The substitution occurs only a few pages later, when Jack sells her soul to Millustra in exchange for restoring Evelyn to life.

This is where the story appears to begin to take on elements of the gothic. It is a not unfamiliar tale: driven by love and grief, Jack puts herself at the mercy of a trickster god, described as the god of doomed lovers, to bring back the one she’s lost. We know how this will go: Jack will have to do terrible things in service of her dark master, and most likely lose the restored Evelyn as a result. Evelyn may not even be herself anymore; she might just be a shell, or she might be haunted by having come so close to death. In the end, this will all turn out to have been a terrible mistake, most likely involving the suffering and deaths of Jack and Evelyn.

And yet instead, the story is surprisingly brief. Jack is sent to kill one of Millustra’s enemies, a serial killer trying to get the god’s attention by killing those he has marked. There is little characterization of the villain, but he seems a thoroughly reprehensible sort, and though it takes some effort, Jack and Evelyn kill him and his henchmen before riding off together, still very much alive and in love, and in search of more adventure. They are not suffering, not dead; the ending is joyous and bright. There is very little that could be called gothic here.

What there is, is love. Queer love, specifically. Millustra is, as Jack asserts in the denouement, a god of love first and death second; not, as the beginning of the story implies, a trickster god who dooms lovers to death, but a protector god who defends those who find a love worth dying for. He demands violence, but not against those whom he watches over; he seeks violence against those who would threaten them, like the villain. This is the second and final substitution the narrative performs. In the end, it rejects the “deal with the devil” narrative and embraces love instead.

When narrative substitution occurs, there is inherently an implied criticism of the narrative that has been replaced. The idea of doomed love as something beautiful, even admirable, of art that celebrates the noble suffering and pain of tragic lovers, runs into serious issues when we apply it to stories of queer love. Heteronormative love cannot be othered–that’s what the “normative” part means!–and so depicting a doomed instance of it is not inherently harmful. Queer love, however, is consistently othered, and so showing it as doomed carries implications of negative judgment–implications made all the stronger by the fact that for much of the 20th century, queer love stories could generally only be published if they ended in tragedy, precisely in order to convey a negative judgment.

To put it in terms we have been discussing lately, a lesbian summoning a many-armed, fanged trickster god of death and love to resurrect her lover is an embrace of queer monstrosity. It is a declaration that, if we are to be treated as monsters anyway, we may as well take the chance to destroy our enemies. Millustra, to quote Jack’s already-referenced speech near the end, “looks after us misfits who find that love in strange places, who’ll defend it with everything we’ve got.” A serial killer hunting those who have been touched by Millustra, in other words, is hunting people who have experienced love outside of the boundaries of heteronormativity; our villain is a homophobe.

And he “had it all backwards from the start.” He wasn’t hunting monsters; he was creating them, drawing boundaries and setting definitions, practicing abjection via gunfire. That’s the point of the final substitution, the happy ending: the tragedy and doom were created by him and those like him, suffering imposed in judgment of difference. The real monsters are here on the inside, the part of Us that creates a Them, not the Them themselves; and when those monsters are defeated, there is no further need for an Us or a Them, for normality and deviance. There’s just freedom and love.

Huh. The real monsters are on the inside.

Maybe it’s a little bit gothic after all.


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