There were three of us then (Girls’ Night Out)

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It’s October 17, 1998. The top song is the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”; Monica, Aerosmith, Jennifer Paige, Faith Hill, and INOJ also chart, the last with a fantastic cover of “Time After Time.” The top movie is Practical Magic, and I recall rolling my eyes at trailers for it when I was 17, but honestly it sounds like something I’d have fun with now.

In the news, on the 12th 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten and murdered in Wyoming, probably at least partially for being gay; 11 years later a federal law bearing his name will (after a decade of failed attempts) be passed, extending federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability; on the day this episode airs, an oil pipeline explodes in Nigeria, killing over 1000 people.

“Girls’ Night Out” is a fun episode. It features two great team-ups that sadly will never be seen again: Supergirl/Batgirl vs. Harley Quinn/Poison Ivy/Livewire. And those slashes are quite intentional on my part: this episode drips in shipper bait for those sets of characters: Harley and Ivy are again pictured living together and hanging out in very little clothing, and Harley is notably jealous when Ivy praises Livewire; meanwhile on the cape side, Supergirl looks at Batgirl with what can only be described as a melting expression at one point, and at the end of the episode they are hanging out in bathrobes and slippers, very clearly having a “sleepover.”

Supergirl gazes adoringly at Batgirl, who has her hand on Supergirl's shoulder

Get you a girl that looks at you like Supergirl looks at Batgirl

But there’s something slightly off about that final scene, too, something that points toward what holds this episode back from greatness: Supergirl and Batgirl, established, skilled superheroes who just took down three villains, each of whom individually posed a significant challenge to Batman or Superman, high-fiving in happiness because a formerly dismissive cop said they had “potential.” Taking down three of the deadliest women in the world isn’t potential, it’s actuality, and Supergirl and Batgirl ought to know that–but instead the entire episode is held back by the very 1990s notion that “girls can do just as well as boys” is a radically progressive statement deserving of kudos.

There’s a kind of episode that shows up in science fiction shows now and then–Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Lower Decks” and Babylon 5‘s “A View from the Gallery” are good examples–which do “a day in the life” of characters who would normally be single-line one-off characters or background extras, while the main cast are relegated to background status. The idea, more or less, is to show that these characters have inner lives too, that they are the protagonists of their own stories, and the results are generally, much like “Girls’ Night Out,” pretty entertaining.

But something about those episodes rankles too, and it’s baked into their very premise. For starters, it assumes that we need the reminder that these characters have inner lives–that if we weren’t explicitly told that, we might forget, which speaks poorly to at least one of the show’s ability to present rounded minor characters or the creators’ opinion of their audience. It also relegates this depiction to a single episode, signaling the choice to depict these characters’ perspective as remarkable, which is to say it reinforces the notion that these characters are Other while congratulating itself for acknowledging they exist. Given that the type of show notable for doing this sort of thing tends to follow officers and these episodes tend to focus on enlisted crew–a distinction which maps fairly neatly onto the class divide–there’s something more than faintly patronizing about these episodes.

And that’s what “Girls’ Night Out” is: it’s the New Batman/Superman Adventures equivalent to “Lower Decks”–characters who would not “normally” get their own episode do. See, we think women are people too! Why, they can even be main characters for one episode out of a couple hundred!

Again, this episode is fun–but it’s also a reminder of how few episodes of the DCAU center women as their main characters. So far, it’s really just been this, “Shadow of the Bat,” and arguably “Little Girl Lost,” and there won’t be that many in the future. In particular, there will never be a DCAU TV series about a woman; every one of them will center a male character or male-dominated team. (Yes, the robot counts as a man; we’ll get there.) Sure, there’ll be Gotham Girls, but that really just compounds the problem–when women do get a DCAU series, it’s a bunch of web shorts so obscure that I didn’t even know they existed until about a month before I started NA09.

In particular, it hurts to see Harley, the breaker of worlds, the one who summoned the Harlequinade and destroyed Krypton so that she and Ivy could be free, so easily defeated by champions of conventionality who have so much internalized sexism that they can cheer for the patronizing words of the same slob whose sexism Harley called out in her first appearance. But such is the nature of near-apocalypse: the world is broken and set free, but the superheroes will always be there to put it back as it was.


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Let’s Play and Vlog Reviews: Doki Doki Literature Club Part 6, My Hero Academia 3-4, and Ducktales S2E5-6!

The video posting swarm continues! Here’s three:

Some Let’s Play… well, I was going to say action, but it’s a visual novel, so.

Another commission for Benny Blue:

And a bonus video:

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

Here before (Legends of the Dark Knight)

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It’s still October 10, 1998, as The New Batman Adventures contributes its part of the block with “Legends of the Dark Knight,” a series of homages to takes on Batman from outside the DCAU, most notably Dick Sprang and Frank Miller, embedded within a frame story about a group of children arguing over their differing ideas of who Batman is and what he’s like.

The art style shifts–along with the fact that nowadays this episode is generally watched on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming–obscure something important in the episode’s structure, however, an unusual choice to not align the embedded stories with the act break. Both commercial breaks occur at cliffhanger moments in their respective embedded stories, which is not unusual–but after the breaks, we return immediately to the embedded story, which is. Most shows either time their act breaks to fall between embedded stories, or start the next act with a brief return to the frame story before continuing the embedded story, both for the same reason: people tend to change channels during commercial breaks, and they might not recognize the embedded story while channel-flipping.

This is one of two choices that jumps out as odd. The other is the incredibly mean-spirited caricature of Joel Schumacher as a child who appears briefly between the first and second story. Admittedly, as we’ve discussed, Schumacher’s Batman films are pretty mean-spirited in themselves, but that’s still no cause to depict him as a skinny, androgynous, mincing gay stereotype. Generalized misanthropy is one thing; homophobia is quite another.

Insofar as there is a reason for the character Joel to exist, it’s to reject the Schumacher take on Batman. The trio of kids we’ve followed reject that take unanimously, while the other three–Nick’s monstrous conception, Matt’s Golden-Age old chum, and Carrie’s dark, hulking bruiser–are each rejected by two of the children. Yet all three are not-uncommon interpretations of Batman. Nick’s is the Bat, the inner demon unleashed onto the outer world, Matt’s typical of Batman comics of the 1950s or the 1960s TV show, and Carrie’s is The Dark Knight Returns.

In other words, while the two embedded stories are homages to or pastiches of interpretations of Batman from outside the DCAU, the framing device is primarily about rejecting them. Like Joel, whose interest in Batman is depicted as superficial and precociously sexual, the three children we follow through the framing device misunderstand Batman because they each see only part of who he is–the frightening lurker in the shadows, the protector, the violent vigilante. Even after seeing Batman, they argue, because each sees only the aspects of him that they described.

It is the frame that makes the art. (More precisely, art is that which is presented as art by an artist to an art-public; the framing is where the “presented as” happens.) Each of the two segments is a homage or a pastiche if taken as an isolated unit–especially the Miller-influenced one, much of which is a near-verbatim recreation of part of The Dark Knight Returns–but neither actually is an isolated unit. Both are emboited within, and therefore transformed by, the frame story; the rejection is part of the homage. Much like Animaniacs before it–and remember, many of the same people worked on both–the show is acknowledging its forebears while declaring itself to have moved beyond them. The DCAU Batman is the complete one, the true Batman of whom all these others are only partial reflections, imperfect copies. Batman-as-monster ignores his humanity; the friendly neighborhood Batman ignores his darkness; the murderhobo Batman ignores his light.

By contrast, this episode argues, the DCAU Batman is the Batman, the complete Batman. He wears and wields the Bat, but there is a man within, not a monster. He is a highly capable hand-to-hand combatant, but he also makes quips and uses gadgets. He will act to protect children, but he’ll also leave an arsonist hanging off the side of a burning building, at serious risk of death if fire-and-rescue and the police don’t arrive quickly. He is a figure in the shadows, ambiguous, amorphous, difficult to entirely pin down, flitting about the edges of the narrative until it is time to insert himself surgically into it. (The one gem of truth in the Miller pastiche–this is an operating table, and Batman’s the surgeon. It’s the nature of the patient that Carrie/Miller gets wrong.)

It is a bold move. This episode declares the DCAU interpretation of Batman to be the definitive take, the best of all worlds. All the evolution of the character over the decades, all the shifts in perspective as times and tastes and writers changed, distilled down to a Bruce Timm design and Kevin Conroy’s voice. It isn’t the first time they’ve implied this–Gotham’s anachronisms have always implied a distillation of the eras–but it is the loudest and clearest. And they’re not wrong.

Which is yet another reason to replace him.


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Retroactive Continuity: Animosity vol. 2

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And we’re back! Sorry for the lengthy absence; this was a hell of a summer, but everything should be smooth from here!

Commissioned essay for Shane DeNota-Hoffman

Where Animosity vol. 1 was about establishing animals as an oppressed but rising underclass, vol. 2 is much more about showing us the various ways in which humans and animals have adapted (or failed to adapt) to the new reality that, whatever form civilization is to take, it will necessarily contain both. Nowhere is this more clear than the lengthy guide at the back of the book that describes what is happening in all the states of the U.S. and DC, as well as many other countries around the world. The highlights here are the “horse lords” of Kansas, a ruthless regime ruled by a triumvirate of horses that dominates the state and is beginning to expand into neighboring states; the beloved elephant matriarch who rules much of North Africa in a seemingly benign, utopian dictatorship maintained by a secret alliance with mosquitoes that spread malaria to her enemies; the Mad Max biker gangs that rule Ethiopia, led by a hyena matriarch in a blood feud with the elephant; and the penguin microkingdoms that squabble over control of Antarctica.

All of these are postapocalyptic scenarios in which oppressed people claim power for themselves, which of course is the core concept of our equation of apocalypse and revolution. At the same time, they all show the core problem: to claim power is to become the oppressor. The horse lords create a traditional empire; the elephant something more utopian and the hyena something less organized, but they all end up creating regimes maintained through violence. The penguins fragment into many tiny kingdoms, but a kingdom is still a kingdom, maintained through coercive violence whether it governs a hundred people or a million.

Other scenarios abound. There are places where humans scheme to undo the Wake, which is in essence genocide against animals, and places where animals scheme genocide against humans; places where humans have driven out all animals and now face starvation; places where humans and animals work together to try to understand what’s happened; places where animals rule, or humans rule, or humans and animals cooperate.

All have their flaws, even cooperation.

Most obvious are the flaws in the human-animal cooperation that is the “dragon” cult Jesse and Sandor encounter in teh first couple of chapters of this volume. Humans in animal skins and animals in human skins, working together to devour any animal or human that enters their territory, led by a giant red acid-spitting vulture. It’s undeniably weird, and extremely comic-book-y, but it’s also readable as oppressor and oppressed teaming up–but only to declare themselves a new hegemonic power and begin literally feeding on every outsider they meet. The most prominent example of this in real life is probably large religious organizations of that invite people of many races to join–but as part of an Us that defines itself oppositionally to a Them, or a grand narrative that demands adherents try to assimilate all others into the group.

This then prepares us for the contrast of the more ecumenical group at the waterfall in Virginia. This group is friendly, open, and cooperative, inviting humans and animals alike to gather, rest, and discuss philosophy, religion, and news of what’s happening elsewhere in the world. At the same time, though, the leader is gently but unwaveringly insistent on his own religious interpretation rooted in Christian texts, reminding us that while “ecumenical” is frequently used as if it describes a cooperative venture of people of many different beliefs and worldviews, its dictionary definition refers to cooperation between multiple Christian churches, and in practice it generally means “multiple kinds of Protestants and maybe some Catholics if we’re feeling generous.” There is no violence here that we see, but there are still norms, still demands for a curretn kind of behavior and, even more, a certain kind of person.

Even given apocalypse and a chance to do better, are we doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over?


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