Twip (Animal Act)

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It’s September 26, 1998. The top song is Aerosmith with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica and Jennifer Paige also chart. The top movie is still Rush Hour, with Ronin and Urban Legend opening at second and third, respectively.

In the news, English-language media report that the President of Iran retracted a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie, ending that country’s official support of and call for his assassination. By failing to translate the word, said media perpetuate the common, but Islamophobic, misunderstanding of what a fatwa actually is: it is a judgment on a point of religious law, and thus almost never a call for assassination. (Indeed, whether it can legitimately be used to call for assassination is a matter of some debate among Muslim scholars.)

There are days when I really regret committing myself to doing a chapter for every single episode of every single DCAU show, and this is one of those days. “Animal Acts” is not, despite Bruce Timm’s claims, one of the worst episodes of Batman: The Animated Series or The New Batman Adventures; however, it is exceedingly mediocre, and those are always the hardest episodes to write about.

This episode’s purpose seems mostly to be as set-up for “Old Wounds,” reminding us that Nightwing exists and is Dick Grayson, former acrobat. Things are suitably tense between him and Batman, but he is clearly bonding with Robin. He also makes some snide remarks to Batman that imply he sees being Robin as less than healthy for a young boy, which of course it is; thus, in the next episode he will launch into the story of how he left as a kind of warning to Tim.

This is also the second episode in a row to feature animals as the villain’s primary muscle, but in a very different way than the previous episode. Farmer Brown’s genetically engineered livestock were grotesque; these animals are physically ordinary, with only their behavior surprising. Both Brown and Mad Hatter use their technological and scientific expertise to acquire their minions, but what Brown does to the animals is framed as inherently horrifying in a way that what Hatter does isn’t.

This is a very strange decision. Brown, ultimately, doesn’t actually violate any living thing: he uses and exploits them, but he is a genetic engineer; everything he does to his animals is done before they’re alive. The Mad Hatter, meanwhile, controls living animals, forcing them into unnatural behaviors in ways that are likely physically painful, and almost certainly psychologically damaging. And of course, at the episode’s climax he falls back on his old standby, controlling people. Surely, in any remotely moral accounting, he is far worse than Brown?

But this is the old familiar problem of substituting Us and Them for right and wrong, now projected onto the body instead of onto others. The “natural” body and “natural” behaviors are good and right, in this view, and “unnatural” is wrong, with “natural” inevitably being defined as whatever is most familiar. The animals and even people under Mad Hatter’s control are not abject; they remain intact bodies, under the control of a different mind from the usual, but then we are used to thinking of bodies as being distinct entities under the control of minds. Hatter’s control doesn’t force us to confront that we are bodies; we can continue to pretend that we are something else that merely inhabits a body, and is momentarily displaced by his technology. It’s wrong, but not inherently distressing in the manner of the grotesque.

To put it simply, the Mad Hatter’s treatment of animals doesn’t seem as bad as Farmer Brown’s because we’re used to seeing animals perform under human control. The circus environment in particular is one where animals are forced, often under extremely poor conditions, to act for human gain and amusement. It is familiar, and therefore non-threatening; he simply does with technology what Miranda does with a whip. At least the technology probably involves less pain and fear.

But then, what of the humans he controls? But again, this is a circus–show business, as Dick reminds us at episode’s end. We are used to seeing people perform here, too; Mad Hatter simply does with technology what the circus does with a paycheck and tradition. What any job does with a paycheck and social norms, the carrot and stick by which we are all conditioned to perform.

That really is all there is to it. The Mad Hatter ultimately violates neither the social order nor the body; he is a loathsome little parasite guilty of, at minimum, sexual assault, but he is not a threat to order. Batman and company take him out with absurd ease once he reveals himself, and everything is returned to normal: animals in their cages, people performing their roles.

As Dick observes Tim, tricked into mucking out the animal’s cages, he says he misses it. The implication is that at least part of him would rather be knee-deep in gorilla shit than out fighting crime as Nightwing. For all its mediocrity, this episode is the perfect setup for “Old Wounds,” because it shows us the source of Dick’s angst. He loves the safety and stability of even the nastiest parts of the social order, which is why he works to preserve it as a superhero; but as a superhero, he is necessarily on the fringes of that order, rather than inside it. He is a guard, but he would rather be inside the cage.


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Crisis on N Earths: She-Ra S1E6: “System Failure”

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In some ways, the sixth episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power continues the pattern previously established in episodes four and five of introducing a princess who is initially unhelpful, but roused by She-Ra to become an ally against the Horde. And this is what happens in this episode, but with a major difference: up until this point, every episode has climaxed in a battle with Horde soldiers, and has a B-plot involving Catra and the other Horde characters. In this episode, however, no Horde characters or soldiers appear at all.

Instead, the A-plot follows Adora and Glimmer as they meet Entrapta, Adora gets infected by the virus afflicting Entrapta’s robots, and the trio has to fight the robots until they can defeat the virus. Meanwhile, the B-Plot follows Bow as he meets Entrapta’s servants, exhorts them to stand up for themselves against the robots, and leads them to save Adora, Glimmer, and Entrapta. We have, in short, what appears to be an episode without villains, since the virus hardly counts.

Or do we have villains?

The character of Entrapta has been somewhat controversial. She is quite popular, likely thanks to the combination of her unflappably positive attitude, eccentricity, and humorously odd priorities, placing her curiosity above the well-being of others. Disability advocates and some autistic people, however, have argued that her hyperfocus to the point of being a danger to herself and lack of empathy combine to form a negative stereotype of autistic people.

Fans of the character argue that, in the words of io9’s Beth Elderkin, “Entrapta is not a bad person.  She only cares about the pursuit of knowledge, to the point where the people  around her are only worth the data they provide.” But that’s just it: Entrapta does not care about others, except in terms of what they can do for her. Her attitude toward other people is entirely instrumental; if there is such a thing as a “bad person,” surely that would be its definition.

Consider again how this episode is structured. We naturally assumed, since it involves the main character of the show and takes up more story time, that Adora, Glimmer, and Entrapta’s scenes comprise the A-plot. But if we reverse the two plots, Bow is the one recruiting people to the Rebellion, people who are at first highly reluctant, but gradually convinced to embrace their own power and aid the Rebels, just as Perfuma and Mermista were in the prior episode. Bow is playing the role of Adora and friends in prior episodes; therefore, we can expect the other plot to follow the pattern of past episodes and place some other characters in the position of Catra and the Horde.

This other plot, of course, is the one that follows Entrapta–who, like Catra, is selfish and dismissive of the needs of others, but nonetheless sympathetic. Entrapta is responsible for this episode’s entire conflict, her recklessness creating an army of evil robots for the heroes to fight. And at the end, she’s learned nothing; instead, the ending of the episode has her scheming to do the same thing all over again.

Entrapta, in short, is the villain of this episode, albeit a villain whom the heroes accept as a friend. Her moral ambiguity, lack of empathy, hyperfocus, and scientific acumen all derive from the same source, the “mad scientist” archetype. That, too, is why she reads as a negative, ableist stereotype: because the “mad scientist” is rooted in just such a stereotype.

“Mad scientists,” generally speaking, come in two varieties. The more traditional type, epitomized by Victor Frankenstein, is arrogant, vengeful, and if not outright villainous, at least prone to creating villains and monsters. The second variety, most common in comic books and related media, combines elements of the “absentminded professor”–good-natured but distracted by their own creative genius and therefore forgetful–with the amorality of the “mad scientist”; their creations are usually “good,” but they are prone to obliviously and inadvertently harming others.

It is to this second group that Entrapta belongs, and it is here that the ableism enters her character. To create a character in a villainous role readable as a friend, the show uses the latter type of “mad scientist” but has her obliviousness extend to the point of seriously endangering others without caring. The result is that those relatively benign traits of the “absentminded professor,” itself rooted in a lesser form of ableism, become amplified and vilified.

Later in the series, Entrapta will actually straight-up join the Horde. This will be framed as the result of her accidental abandonment by the heroes; however, that abandonment is a direct result of her skewed priorities. We will examine that more in the episode in question; for now, we can leave it at this: Entrapta becomes a villain because she values information too much and human life–her own and others’–too little.

Or, rather, that is why she is villainous from the start.


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Vlog Reviews: She-Ra S1E3-5, Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, and Ducktales S2E3-4

Oops, I didn’t release a video last week. AND I’m due to release a bonus episode. So… have three vlogs at once!

Commissioned by Aleph Null:

Commissioned by Bennett Jackson:

And a bonus vlog!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

Fixed your (Critters)

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It’s still September 19, 1998, so nothing has changed in news or charts. In The New Batman Adventures, however, we have something new on a couple of fronts: a new episode, obviously, with a rare case of a more-or-less entirely new villain: Farmer Brown is original to the DCAU, and this is his only appearance.

Rather understandably so, as it turns out: the episode is basically an excuse for mediocre action sequences with giant animals and silly, not particularly funny gags. There are sight gags like a giant bull attacking a china shop or a stereotypical “farmer’s daughter” hefting giant sacks of feed or large men like they weigh nothing, dialogue gags like referring to said bull as “Ferdinand,” and (in the closest thing the episode has to a genuinely clever joke) even a joke courtesy of one of the DCAU’s unsung (pun intended) heroes, Shirley Jackson. The go-to composer for most of TNBA, she gave Brown a leitmotif of violin double-stops that sounds fiddle-like enough to fit his general American Gothic theme, but which actually comes from Camille Saint-Saens’ Dans Macabre. It is one of the composer’s most familiar works, rivaled only by his equally famous comedic chamber-music piece, The Carnival of the Animals.

Like most villain origin stories, there is at least a whiff of sympathetic villain here: we are told why Brown turns to crime, at least, and shown that he and his daughter do seem to have a bond. But his character as revealed in the recounting of his origin is a libertarian fantasy, a solitary genius and entrepreneur who developed an amazing new technology nipped in the bud by government regulators, so he sought vengeance using that same technology.

In this, he returns us to a familiar space for the DCAU: the equivalency of the grotesque and evil. His creations are monstrous because they are “unnatural,” familiar creatures distorted in size, in proportion, and by incorporating structures from other animals. But they are not the only “monsters” in this episode: Brown is as much a chimera as his toothy-mawed chickens, a hybrid of two stock characters almost never seen together, the “mad scientist” (who is almost always highly educated and from the upper class) and the “redneck farmer” (who is almost never either). Emmylou is likewise “distorted” by her superhuman strength, which is another product of her father’s work.

Emmylou is probably the more interesting of the two, because her generic Timm attractive-young-woman (blonde) design immediately recalls another recently introduced young woman who lives on a farm and has immense strength, Supergirl. Supergirl, however, is never framed as monstrous, her strength never framed as a joke; she is practically a pinup straight out of Timm’s Good Girl Art influences. Why the difference in treatment between the two characters?

The answer, simply, is that which underlies the concept of the grotesque, which we’ve also discussed before: abjection. The abject, the “unnatural,” is a violation of How Things Should Be, and therefore wrong, disturbing, frightening. Supergirl is not abject (or rather, since in a sexist society the female form is always treated as an abjection of a supposed masculine ideal, less abject), because she is natural; it is a “normal” and expected thing for a Kryptonian to have super strength in yellow sunlight. Her body is behaving as bodies like hers typically behave, which is to say that there are no reminders that it is a body, material, mundane, and malleable. By contrast, Emmylou is the product of “mad science,” an “unnatural” creation that was not conceived with the potential for super strength, but had it induced “artificially”–that being more or less the same argument the government regulators used against Brown’s creations.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bupkis. There is reason to be leery of creations like Brown’s, not because they’re “unnatural,” but because they were clearly produced without safety precautions or any care for the well-being of the animals involved. Hubris is a myth invented by the powerful as an excuse to punish the powerless for trying to rebel; the problem is playing with complex, living systems incautiously and without compassion, not that it’s fundamentally wrong to “play God.” Nature, after all, invented pain, hunger, and death; it is our opportunity, and hence our duty, to improve upon it.

Which, ultimately, is why Brown is entirely unsympathetic, to the point of being boring: nature is evil enough as it is, and doesn’t need his or anyone else’s help being even worse.


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Bad enough She-(Where There’s Smoke)

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It’s September 19, 1998. Not much has changed since yesterday.

In more ways than one, as Superman: The Animated Series decides to regress and introduce Volcana in pretty much exactly the same way Batman: The Animated Series did Poison Ivy years ago, as a straightforward and unironic femme fatale. Here her association is not with the vagina dentata that was so blatantly used in “Pretty Poison,” but rather with fire and heat, which of course are so common as metaphors for sexual desire that they cross into cliches.

But there is a key difference here, one that resonates well with Insexts vol. 2 (once again, the timing for my Insexts commissions always works out to be weirdly apropos): this episode was written by a woman, Hilary J. Bader to be precise. So while the story she is telling is the familiar tale of the woman who refuses to be a princess/victim and therefore becomes a witch/monster, the perspective she brings to it is far more sympathetic to that woman. The episode never loses sight of its real villains, the SHIELD-analogues of Project Firestorm. (They’re a clandestine government agency headed by a man with an eyepatch, whose main muscle is a man with a bowler hat and handlebar mustache. There’s no way that’s not a reference to Marvel’s SHIELD.)

For a moment, the episode even flirts with the idea of stepping outside of the normal limitations of the genre, as Superman appears to be fighting against the government, as he angrily tears apart a secret facility already in the process of being abandoned. Of course it would not be the first time a superhero fought the government without crossing into genuinely revolutionary territory, and that’s what proves to be happening here: Project Firestorm (its name another comics reference, to any of several fusion-themed DC superheroes by that name, none of whom ever appear in the DCAU proper) is a rogue operation. Superman isn’t really fighting against the government, he’s fighting against corruption, maintaining the implication that the system is fine, it’s just that some people abuse it.

But the mere presence of Volcana pushes back against that implication. She remains the woman who had power, and whom men therefore tried to make a monster–and who, when they succeeded, turned that very monstrosity against them. Set free from our culture and its patriarchy, she ceases to be a femme fatale as well. Even though her expression of sexuality is still there at the end, it is no longer framed as manipulative, but rather as playful banter of the sort Lois Lane and Clark Kent frequently exchange. She uses her fire, but flirtatiously, to make a little heart she blows into Superman’s cheek knowing he won’t be burned by it.

Except of course that she isn’t free. Her exile to a tropical island is framed as an alternative to prison, but in truth even an outdoor tropical prison is still prison, and solitary confinement at that. She has not attained freedom, which is to say the space in which to be her own best self unhindered by but participating in the culture around her; she has no culture. She has not been accepted but rather Othered completely, Othered so far that, as far as the culture is concerned, she no longer exists.

Meaning, in the end, we are back to the same old choice, which has always had three options, not two: princess, witch, or nonexistence. Utena even admitted that, by having Utena leave Ohtori rather than destroying it; from the perspective of Ohtori, she never existed. Only the destruction of Ohtori, by Anthy’s refusal to participate any longer and insistence on finding Utena, is enough to truly break the princess/witch, victim/monster, Madonna/whore binary.

So, despite ending on friendly terms with Superman and seemingly done with stealing, it should be no surprise that Volcana will return as a villain–eventually.


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