Crisis on N Earths: She-Ra S1E11: “Promise”

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

Let’s talk about how She-Ra uses liminality. Much of its story, after all, takes place in liminal spaces, from the forest where Adora first found the Sword of Protection to the windowsill in which, two episodes ago, the new Princess Alliance was formed and determined to rescue Bow and Glimmer.

This reliance on liminal space is common in fantasy. Part of this is that so much of fantasy is built around quests and journeys, which by their nature consist mostly of trekking across liminal space. (Speaking of trekking: just about the only genre which spends more time in liminal space than fantasy is science fiction. There are few spaces more liminal than outer space, and cyberspace is one of them.) Mostly, though, fantasy spends a lot of time in liminal space because liminal space is where the magic lives. Magic thrives on the edges of knowledge, in places that are neither entirely one thing nor the other. Witches go abroad between sunset and moonrise, neither day nor fully night; ghosts haunt corridors, between one room and the next; dragons and goblins lurk in mountains and beneath the sea and in deep caverns, in-between places all.

That last is what concerns us today. One may encounter oneself in any liminal space–inside a mirror is yet another one–but it is most common in the chthonic realm, because if the self is a microcosm of the Earth, then the journey into the Earth is a macrocosm of the journey into the self. To descend underground is to enter the dark places within ourselves–and so, passing underground into the First Ones temple or datacenter (if those were even distinct things for the First Ones), Adora and Catra find more than the training and treasure they respectively seek. They also find out who they are–to themselves, and more importantly, to each other.

We have seen strong hints of a powerful bond between the two. At times it has felt more familial, and at others–especially in “Princess Prom” and “No Princess Left Behind”–more romantic. Regardless of its exact nature, we see in the flashbacks here that there relationship has always involved being each other’s rivals. Long before they became enemies, they were competitors, pushing each other to greater achievements as Horde trainees. This is, more or less, the role Shadow Weaver claimed she had in Adora’s life, but Shadow Weaver was lying: her goal was to control Adora, while Catra’s was to surpass her, and vice versa.

Ultimately, however, neither was able to overcome the other. Adora left, leaving Catra the space and motivation to attain the rank and role that they were both seeking, and yet Catra is still constantly looked at by Shadow Weaver (and, in Catra’s own fears, doubtless everyone else) as a poor substitute for Adora. Both, descending into the chthonic realms and their past, are forced to confront this, and to the one inescapable fact of their relationship: regardless of her reasons or her justifications, Adora abandoned Catra. Not just when she left the Horde; countless times throughout their childhood, every time she failed to stand up for Catra against Shadow Weaver the way she did against Octavia. Of course Adora was a child, frightened of her abuser, and had she tried to protect Catra in those moments, would only have been punished beside her; but all young Catra saw was Adora leaving her behind after the titular promise to stay together–over, and over, and over again. No wonder she hisses when young Adora tries to comfort her!

But Catra abandoned Adora, too. She chose to stay with the familiar instead of rebelling alongside Adora, stepping back into the fog in “The Sword, Part 2,” forward into the dark at the end of “Promise.” In both cases, she is disappearing from Adora’s life, but in the first it is with her eyes on Adora; now she has turned away entirely.

The thing about liminal space is that it’s not just something you cross. The movement from one place to another, one state of being to another, is a transformation; that’s why we find magic there so often, because magic is change. This is especially true of the chthonic journey, precisely because it is a journey into the self: we grapple with ourselves and emerge changed into the light–or descend deeper into the darkness. The interface tells Adora that to find Light Hope, she must let go, and it’s true: she must go even farther in, into the darkest places inside herself and the deepest depths, to complete her transformation. But she cannot do that while clinging on to her relationships and rivalries, while striving always to succeed and to win; she must lose, and fall, because the greatest light is the last one, and it is only alone in the dark that it can be found.

But Catra, too, lets go. Catra, too, lets herself fall into darkness of another kind. Perhaps that is where her path to light and hope lies.


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Hey, I’m one of the good guys (Judgment Day)

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Mea culpa AGAIN: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates AGAIN, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 31, 1998. Monica still tops the charts, with Barenaked Ladies and Dru Hill feat. Redman just below. The top movie is John Carpenter’s Vampires. In the news, Hurricane Mitch makes landfall in Central America, killing 11,000.

In Gotham, we have “Judgment Day,” which (as is lately so often the case) largely retreads ground already covered by past episodes, most notably “Lock-Up” and… well, really, just about any episode with Two-Face in it, so let’s go with “Two-Face.”

As I discussed with “Lock-Up” and it’s titular villain, there are two ways of looking at punishment in the context of justice. The first is as a kind of moral causality: people do bad things, so they deserve to have bad things happen to them, and the state acts to do just that. This corresponds broadly to the retributive theory of criminal justice, and as the name implies, is basically the state taking on the function of vengeance in place of individual citizens doing so. The second approach is that the role of punishment is to reduce crime: we don’t want people to do bad things, so when they do, the state punishes them both so that they won’t want to do it again, and so that others will think twice about doing bad things.

Setting aside any issues with the determination of “bad things,” whether a state is a legitimate entity with a right to punish citizens, and decisions of when, how, and whom to punish, each of these theories has a fundamental problem at its core. In the case of retribution, the problem is fairly obvious: all it does it is multiply suffering without doing anything to make things better. In the case of reducing crime, the problem is less immediately obvious but just as straightforward: it doesn’t work.

In psychological terms, the goal of reducing crime is an attempt at behavior modification, which sounds Orwellian but is actually just psychologist for “teaching.” And the educational applications of punishment are, to say the least, quite limited–which is why we generally minimize its use in schools! What a century of research into the topic shows is that punishment only works as an effective means of behavior modification under a strict set of criteria, namely: the goal is to stop an undesired behavior, not replace it with a desired behavior; the punishment is clearly associated with the undesired behavior by occurring extremely close to it in time, ideally as a direct, immediate, and automatic consequence; and the punishment is ceased immediately upon cessation of the undesired behavior.

The kind of behavior modification we’re talking about when it comes to criminal justice meets none of these criteria. Quite simply, punishing criminals serves no purpose except cruelty for the sake of cruelty. It is vengeance, nothing more, rooted in hatred and dehumanization. This is why, for example, prisoners are frequently denied access to educational opportunities, which are shown to reduce recidivism–criminals, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, are one of our most hated Others, and our society revels in brutalizing and enslaving them. (It is also not an accident that the prison population is disproportionately made up of the descendants of the last Other we brutalized and enslaved.)

All of this is why, in the “Lock-Up” essay, I identified the titular villain’s brutal retributive “justice” with the Bat, Batman’s drive for vengeance rooted in his fear and pain at the loss of his parents. Two-Face, meanwhile, is ostentatiously a figure all about duality, and part of that is the degree, as discussed in my essay on “Two-Face,” to which he is a mirror of Batman. It makes a kind of sense, then, for him to produce his own equivalent to the Bat, his own figure to externalize his rage at the crime and criminality which have hurt him so. Rather shrewdly, he takes the form of a figure one might expect to strike fear into criminals–a harsh, faceless judge who will stop at nothing to punish them, the vengeance of the system designed to brutalize and dehumanize those it has marked as Other.

Note, too, whom the Judge attacks: Penguin, Killer Croc, and Two-Face, all villains whose character designs use the grotesque to mark their Otherness. As always, our culture is less interested in right or wrong than in identifying and punishing deviance from arbitrary norms. Two-Face’s embrace of randomness is in part a recognition of that fact–he is openly arbitrary in mockery of a “justice” that is anything but fair.

But there is a major difference: Bruce Wayne was a victim of a crime that left him traumatized and his parents dead, and created the Bat to protect himself. The show has fairly consistently, however, portrayed Harvey Dent as the primary victim of Two-Face, which is to say he is his own first and greatest victim. As such, the Judge exists not to protect him, but to punish him; it is not a protector fantasy, nor even a power fantasy, but a revenge fantasy. On some level, he is sick of the suffering he has caused himself, angry at himself for that suffering, and wants to avenge himself against himself.

This is why the Judge is so much more lethal than Batman. The whole point of a protector fantasy is that we are dreaming of someone who will protect us no matter what–ultimately, superheroes must protect their villains because they must protect everyone. A vengeance fantasy has no such limitation; its job is to destroy the Other. In this it has far more in common with the more traditional figure of the Hero than superheroes do: a hero is someone you point at your enemies and hope they die tragically before they get home, because heroes make terrible neighbors, while a superhero is someone you hope sticks around in case you get mugged or fall out of a twentieth-story window.

This, in turn, is why the Judge is so popular: people love heroes, which is why almost every culture has at least one. At least, we love heroes when they’re pointed at our enemies; we’re not so fond of them once they start targeting us. And given enough time, sooner or later, they always do.

To get back to the core concern of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, after a very long digression into the grotesque and the figure of the Other (which is far from over): we cannot look to the Hero as a model to strip the authoritarianism from the Superhero. Heroes are, if anything, worse.


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Retroactive Continuity: Another Castle: Grimoire

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

The original Super Mario Bros., which of course is the referent in the title Another Castle, does not actually have an ending. At the end of every world, Toad informs you that the princess is in another castle, until you finish World 8 and find her–but even then, she just tells you to try a more challenging game, starting you over from the game’s beginning, but now the enemies are stronger or faster. Reach her again, and she does it again, over and over, until eventually the game runs out of more challenging versions of itself to throw at you–but even then, you’re not done. The game just returns to its original version and repeats the entire cycle over again.

The princess is unattainable. The only ways to end are to give up, to die, or to play a different game. The last option being the only one that leads to further choices, it’s clearly the way to go.

The concept of the princess is shifting now. Once, as Another Castle observes, princesses were passive entities traded as pawns in diplomatic games. The daughters of royalty–indeed, of nobility in general–were married off to unite families and generate heirs, and fairy tales reflect that old reality. The princess is a prize to be won, a symbol of the hero’s ascension into the rank of royalty, with little in the way of agency. Fantasy, in turn, reflects the fairy tales its writers grew up on, and so the video game princess is the unattainable prize dangled in front of the player, a promise of ascension never fulfilled to pull us along the game’s path.

But something has changed in recent years. “Princess” doesn’t always mean passive feminine object anymore. It never entirely did–Princess Leia largely rescues herself in Star Wars–but in animation and comics in particular, it’s starting to mean something else entirely. In Disney movies like Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph, and Frozen, and cartoons from a variety of sources, like Adventure Time,  My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic,  and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the position of princess is increasingly depicted as one of political authority and magical prowess. Indeed, in those last two, it has little to do with royalty at all, and instead means something akin to “archmage.”

Another Castle: Grimoire is in large part about that transition. Beldora is, at first, a fairly typical princess of the Disney Renaissance: she feels oppressed by castle etiquette and politics, bound by conventions and rules, and yearns for More(tm). When she is forced to surrender to the evil Lord Badlug to protect her kingdom from destruction, her path seems as clear to her as it is to us: get the magic sword, slay him, and rescue herself. It is classic 90s Grrl Power libfem: the problem is that women are second-class citizens, and the solution is empowerment, which is to say More(tm): princesses who slay monsters and rule their own kingdoms, more women as CEOs, more women as cops and soldiers.

But it isn’t that simple, and the comic, to its credit, reflects that. Trading one tyrant for another doesn’t do much for the people on the street, even if the new tyrant has way better hair. Beldora wants to be someone other than who she’s told to be, but it’s not enough for her alone to do that. She soon learns–courtesy of Robin, the destitute “true king” of Grimoire who desires to be nothing of the sort–that she must seek liberation for all, even peasants and monsters (who, cleverly, are interchangeable in Grimoire). To be genuinely free to choose for herself, she must create a world in which all are free to choose their lifepaths and leaders alike–so in the midst of a popular uprising led by Robin, she beheads Badlug.

And is hailed as king. It is the libfem happy ending; a woman, through individual empowerment, attaining the pinnacle of masculine authority. She has More(tm), and has proven that women can do anything men can do, namely take on roles that derive from and perpetuate patriarchal and kyriarchical structures of power.

So she abdicates in favor of forming a democracy, then announces her intention to bring democracy to the other kingdoms, too, starting with her homeland. She has grown to understand, as few heroes do, the difference between power and freedom, and realized that the latter is worth far more–but is unattainable for the individual. Our entire culture is a game, dangling the unattainable in front of us, to pull us onward on a path, and reaching the end isn’t the end, it just unlocks new enemies. Even if the princess rescues herself, she isn’t free of the game; she just starts from the beginning as Mario, and some other princess is captured in her place.

The only ways out are to die, to give up–or to play a different game. The princess doesn’t rescue herself. She wields Mario as a weapon and helps the Koopas revolt. She changes the game too much for it to ever be played again.

And that is, always, the end goal. The freedom to be who we want to be comes not from playing the game to victory. That just makes us who the game wants us to be. Instead we–together, all at once–have to break the game, so that everyone can play something else.


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I had to save her (Chemistry)

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now:  NA09 posts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 24, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; they’re otherwise largely unchanged. Pleasantville opens at number one at the box office, which likewise isn’t otherwise moving very much. In the news, basically nothing is happening, at least according to the exhaustive research I’ve conducted (looking at the Wikipedia page for 1998).

The whole world is basically giving a resounding “meh,” which could well be the response to this episode. It’s not that the idea is a bad one–giving Bruce Wayne a chance at genuine happiness and love, then snatching it away, can be very effective, as demonstrated by Mask of the Phantasm. The problem here is lack of space: there just isn’t room to go through all the beats of this story and show Bruce’s emotional arc in a satisfying way. In the 2010s, TV has hit upon a number of strategies for this, most notably shifting more plot beats from overt text to implied offscreen events, making more room for characterization. This strategy, however, requires trusting the audience to fill in the blanks, and that may not be as possible for children’s entertainment. Modern cartoons have dealt with the issue by employing other strategies–most notably, finding ways to build characterization and execute plot beats simultaneously, and relying more heavily on music and musical numbers to expand the available bandwidth for conveying emotion.

These techniques aren’t really available for a Batman cartoon in 1998, so instead we lose the character beats that made Mask of the Phantasm so powerful. Batman takes longer to show up to the final fight with Poison Ivy than Robin and Batgirl do, so we can guess that he took a moment before putting on the batsuit they brought him. He may have just stood there and mourned Susan, or at least his relationship; he may have needed time to shift back into the Batman headspace; he may have despaired at ever escaping the suit. But that moment, which could have been very effective, is elided in favor of Robin melting a plant man.

There is, in fact, a lot of melting of plant people in this fight sequence. True, they were constructs created by Poison Ivy, but they could obviously pass a Turing Test–they demonstrably trick observers into believing they are human. As Susan notes, the pheromones got things started, but most of the work of getting Bruce Wayne to fall in love with her was “all me.” Michael and Susan both exhibit concern and fear, and Susan shows sadness and pride. They’re plant people, and yet superheroes and supervillain alike treat them with absolute disregard.

The result is that the moment where Susan looks out the window of the sinking yacht, crying as Batman leaves her to her death, falls badly flat. Batman tries and fails to save Poison Ivy from the same fate (in the sense that he is unable to pull her from the sinking wreck; obviously she survives and resurfaces in later shows, most notably Static Shock), because she is a person to him, but the woman he fell in love with no longer is. To him, she’s just a thing, and indeed no one in the episode ever suggests treating the plant monsters as anything but things, with Robin and Batgirl enthusiastically melting them with weed killer.

None of the characters care, and that makes it hard for us to care. The shot through the porthole of Susan crying is the show reflexively reaching for the sympathetic villain buttons, going through the motions, but we only got glimpses of the plant people’s internality, and so we really don’t have anything with which to sympathize. The show leans too heavily on that Us-Other divide to see the plants as anything but Others, and so like robots and aliens, there is no question of whether it is permissible for heroes to kill them.

But we’ve talked about this before. Increasingly, that’s the problem with Batman: these chapters are getting shorter and shorter, because we’ve talked about everything before. Batman says one thing in this episode that’s definitely true: that it’s time for him to stop being Batman and pass everything on. But even that is repetition for us–more and more over this volume, we’ve been talking about the necessity of the DCAU moving beyond Batman, because this is the volume where it happens, and so I’m laying the groundwork to explain the why before we get to the what.

But now the show knows it, too. The production staff already did, of course–by the time this episode was completed, they would have had to be well into the production of Batman Beyond. Animation lead times are enormous, after all. But I’m not talking about what the people making the show know; I’m talking about what the show knows–what truths it contains and can convey. It has finally admitted its own exhaustion, its own need to evolve into something…

…well, into something Other.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra S1E9-10

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Mea culpa: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates, which means I owe y’all THREE NA09 chapters and AT LEAST three videos. I’m trying to queue them all up now: there’ll be NA09 posts today, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

Commissioned essay for AskJeeves.

Where, in terms of character development, episodes 7 and 8 focused on Adora dealing with the abuse she was subjected to by Shadow Weaver and the socialization she was denied, episodes 9 and 10 have a partial focus on Catra beginning to deal with her own abuse in her own way. Underneath this, of course, is the subtext that the end of Adora and Catra’s relationship is treated as just that–the end of a relationship in a bad breakup. That much was clear in “Princess Prom,” but “No Princess Left Behind” brings this practically into text when Catra gives Adora back her sword and says “This is not because I like you.”

Of course, by definition a denial is not textual confirmation, but in this case it comes very close because Catra has been consistently portrayed as a tsundere, a character archetype common in anime, manga, and video games. Typically, a tsundere has a prickly, tough, or hostile outer layer to their personality, but also show themselves capable of softness, vulnerability, and affection under rare circumstances, especially toward their love interest. The stereotypical tsundere action is to do something kind for their love interest while insisting that it’s “not because I like you or anything.”

That said, Catra has more depth to her than the archetypal tsundere. The archetype has that hard outer layer, but their core “true self” is kind and sweet; Catra’s isn’t. Catra is capable of more vulnerability and kindness than her outer persona reveals, and that definitely includes strong feelings–implied to be romantic–regarding Adora, but there are other feelings in there that she doesn’t show. Underneath her snark is genuine rage and pain; underneath her cool detachment is a fear of being perceived as weak.

Like Adora before her, Catra has a scene with Shadow Weaver in which the latter claims her abusive parenting was an effort to make her surrogate daughters strong, but Catra responds differently. Where Adora recognized that Shadow Weaver was lying, Catra accepts the claim as true, and demonstrates that strength (or at least, what Shadow Weaver seems to regard as strength, namely the capacity to hurt others) by saying that it worked, and she therefore no longer needs Shadow Weaver. Adora rejects her abuser, and escapes; Catra decides to overcome and destroy her abuser, and will remain trapped even after she essentially succeeds in later episodes.

Meanwhile, Adora’s team falls apart and Catra’s comes together, because the former abandons Entrapta and the latter embraces her. Of course the rebels think Entrapta died trying to rescue Emily, but they’d abandoned her repeatedly before that: they repeatedly treat her with disdain, dismissing her interests, ignoring her attempts to explain herself, and getting frustrated rather than making sure she understands the situation and helping her stay on task. Catra is, of course, acting in self-interest, but nonetheless she treats Entrapta better than they ever did, listening to her ideas and treating her with surprising patience and sensitivity–but then, “Princess Prom” already demonstrated that she is capable of both when she stands to gain something by it.

This is made easier, of course, by the fact that (as I discussed in regards to “System Failure”) Entrapta is essentially already a villainous character. Her interests and inclinations are more in line with the Horde–technology, power, little concern for any negative consequences to others–and so it is easier for the Horde to recognize and appreciate her talents. At the same time, had the rebels validated her a little more and recognized the potential positive applications of what she was doing, and not constantly left her behind throughout the mission in “No Princess Left Behind,” Catra’s lovebombing in “The Beacon” might not have been as effective.

Again, though, Catra is a tsundere. She may be manipulating Scorpia and Entrapta, but that impersonal distance she maintains is a facade. She isn’t faking that she’s impressed with Entrapta and wants her friendship, and she lets them both in on plans that she needs to keep secret from her superiors, demonstrating that she trusts them. What we have in the last few episodes of the season, in other words, is the formation of a rival team to the Adora/Glimmer/Bow trio, held together by the same bonds of trust and affection, but on the opposite side.

And as we saw back in “The Sword,” this is at least partially a magical girl series–which means those bonds are a force of unrivaled power. Catra may not realize it, but she has already put herself on an equal footing with Adora–and in the next episode, that rivalry will come to a head.


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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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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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Wasn’t just that you got old (Knight Time)

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It’s October 10, 1998. Monica still tops the charts, while Antz still reigns at the box office. In the news, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is indicted for human rights violations; he will be arrested within a week. No U.S. official ever faces the slightest repercussions for backing the coup that put him in power or for providing financial and technical support for “Operation Condor,” in which a Chile- and US-led multinational covert action to assassinate prominent Latin American leftists resulted in the deaths of sixty thousand people.

Speaking of covert action and distasteful segues, Superman: The Animated Series returns after a mini-hiatus… with essentially an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, given that it takes place at night and is set almost entirely in Gotham. It is essentially a “what if?” episode, the question in this case being “What if Superman filled in for Batman for a case?” This question has, of course, been asked and answered in comics numerous times, but this is its sole DCAU outing.

Coming as close on the heels of “Old Wounds” as it does, it highlights why the production staff may have felt a need to differentiate Superman and Batman, as they really do resemble one another almost exactly. This is a biproduct of Timm’s approach to character design, of course, which is even more visible with female characters–Roxy Rocket at the episode’s beginning is, other than costume, essentially indistinguishable from Batgirl or Harley Quinn or any of a number of others–but the issue still stands: the two most prominent characters in the budding DCAU look basically identical.

At the same time, this episode demonstrates why that differentiation isn’t that important, because in behavior Superman and Batman–and, for that matter, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne–are quite distinct. Robin says that he knows something is wrong with the message from Wayne because he smiles in it–but in BTAS, Wayne smiled frequently, sometimes as part of his unassuming gadabout persona, and sometimes genuinely, particularly in scenes alone with Alfred or Robin. It is only in The New Batman Adventures that his capacity for mirth and joy seem to have entirely evaporated–and thanks to “Old Wounds,” we know that it isn’t as a consequence of Dick Grayson leaving on bad terms to become Nightwing.

This episode highlights the difference between Superman and Batman: the audience has no trouble telling the difference, in part because we were told the premise from the start, but also because of how different they are. Even with Kevin Conroy, Batman’s usual voice actor, playing Supes-as-Bats, the character is notably distinct. In dialogue he struggles to maintain his demeanor, occasionally even breaking into a smile–which Bruce Wayne might have done in BTAS, but Batman did only privately and rarely. In combat, he is much less prone to dodging, lurking in the shadows, and surprise attacks, relying instead on his nigh-invulnerability and immense strength to carry the battle.

Both differences derive from the core distinction in demeanor between Batman and Superman. Batman is a conscious construct designed to project fear and give the impression of invincibility while helping the vulnerable human inside the suit stay alive; he is not just the audience’s protector fantasy, but eight-year-old Bruce Wayne’s as well. Superman, by contrast, is a protector fantasy for others only, as Clark Kent really doesn’t need protection; instead of fear, he projects an air of unassailable confidence–not smugness, but the justified belief that nothing his opponent can do will actually hurt him. These are very different positionalities, and we see in this episode that even given identical character designs and the same voice actor, we can still differentiate them.

Wayne and Kent, too, have contrasting personalities. Wayne, the playboy billionaire, is confident, friendly, and possibly a little dim; Kent the farm boy is earnest and smart, but shy and unassuming. They are, in short, the rich, popular kid and the fish out of water, easily distinguishable as discrete archetypes despite their similarity in character design.

So why the change to Wayne and Batman? Why make him so dour, serious, and solitary, if not to contrast him to Kent and Superman? The answer, simply put, is that the goal is not to differentiate Batman from Superman; it’s to differentiate Batman from Batman.

Terry McGinnis isn’t rich, but he is a middle-class Gothamite, closer in background to Wayne than farm-boy Kent. He’s not dumb by any means, but he’s not the academic or athletic star we’re given to believe Clark was. He is friendly and reasonably popular, but also driven and serious, traits we know Wayne possesses as well.

His similarity to a younger Wayne, diegetically speaking, is why he is chosen as Batman’s successor; the direction of causation is the other way around extradiegetically, but the two facts are still connected. The old Batman needs to be distinguished from the new, not just in experience and appearance, both of which go almost without saying, but in personality. And, too, “crotchety old man whose secret heart of gold is slowly revealed by his relationship with a caring younger person” is a common story arc for a reason: it works, it’s emotionally affecting, and it’s based on a different kind of relationship than media usually depict.

Meanwhile, it’s the 90s. The comics industry is imploding, and one of its desperate attempts to retain relevance is to cater to the angry white boy market by “darkening” characters and lines, which is to say by focusing on characters who are at best assholes, and often nigh-indistinguishable from the villains they fight in terms of destructive impact on the people around them. Batman is relatively tame by comparison, but nonetheless comics of the time played up his “outsider” status and angst.

For Wayne’s arc in Batman Beyond to work, he must become a bitter, lonely old man by its dark future. How better to get him there than by having him transform into the then-current comic book version of the character, and thereby drive away everyone he cares about one by one? The path will be complicated by the interpolation of Justice League, but nonetheless, we are on the road to his status at the beginning of Beyond: an isolated recluse in a city evolved from anachronistic noir pastiche to cyberpunk–if those can even be said to be different things.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-ra and the Princesses of Power S1E7-8

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In past entries on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, I’ve largely focused on the other princesses, in large part because that’s what the episodes focused on. In “In the Shadows of Mystacor” and “Princess Prom,” however, the focus of the show returns to its main character, Adora. Specifically, these two episodes address the fact that she and Catra grew up being abused by their adoptive mother Shadow Weaver, and examine the impact that abuse has had on them.

The focus of “Shadows of Mystacor” is Adora’s (and, to a lesser extent, Catra’s) fear of Shadow Weaver. In this, she is contrasted very effectively against both Angella and Castaspella. The former doesn’t actually appear in the episode, but she is evoked by Glimmer’s response to Adora describing how, in addition to providing for basic physical needs, Shadow Weaver taught her tactics and combat: “Right, Mom stuff.” Like Shadow Weaver, Angella is stern, demanding, and prepares her daughter for a life of violence and leadership–but she worries about her daughter’s well-being, and her responses to rule-breaking are typically parental, such as punishing her daughter with grounding. Castaspella, meanwhile, is not a parental figure for Glimmer, but she is quite passive-aggressive (which is a form of manipulation), and habitually ignores Glimmer’s words and preferences.

Angella expects a great deal of her daughter and is trying to prepare her; Castespella is self-centered and unpleasant. Neither, however, is abusive, and thereby contrast just how much worse Shadow Weaver is. For example, Glimmer clearly doesn’t want to spend time with Castaspella, because she finds it uncomfortable–but we’ve seen that when Shadow Weaver lashes out angrily in Catra’s presence, Catra recoils in outright fear. In “Shadows of Mystacor” we see why, as Shadow Weaver’s proxies work to frighten Adora so she has difficulty sleeping, then show themselves only when no one else is around, so that the others think Adora is imagining things. This simultaneously isolates her and makes her doubt her own perceptions, two standard abuser tactics, designed to make her more dependent and therefore more controllable.

This is, perhaps, the most crucial, defining feature of the abuser, regardless of the type of relationship within which the abuse is occurring: the desire for nonconsensual control, the imposition of the abuser’s will on their victim. What’s clever here is its contrast with non-abusive ways in which someone who feels a need for control can express that need. In the case of Angella, her desire for safety for her daughter leads to her to try to control her daughter’s behavior through punishments, which is fairly typical–and necessary–for parenting a child. Castaspella’s desire control seems to be more about her own easily wounded feelings, and a lot less healthy, but she also isn’t very good at exerting that control, and merely self-centered rather than actually malicious. Shadow Weaver, by contrast, when she finally realizes that she cannot control Adora, attempts to kill her, just as she will later in the series with Catra. Her “children” have no value to her as people in themselves, only as objects that she can use.

“Princess Prom” shows us the consequences of Adora and Catra’s upbringing. First, Adora is badly stunted in her social development, which is not at all uncommon for sufferers of complex PTSD, which in turn is common in survivors of child abuse. Admittedly, I don’t care for parties either, especially not this kind of party, but Adora actually seems to enjoy the concept, but is intimidated by it. Her decision to treat the party as a military campaign is telling: it terrifies her, because it is a social situation with a large number of arbitrary rules in which she has no power, a recreation of her time in the Horde, and so she deals with it by reverting to the behavior and relying on the skills that were rewarded in her time in the Horde.

Catra has been damaged in a subtly different way than Adora, however: where Adora fled, Catra has decided to seek the same kind of control herself, to move up in the Horde so that she can become biggest bully on the block. She doesn’t want to be free of Shadow Weaver, but rather to replace her, and in essence become her. The fight on the rooftop epitomizes that: literally, Adora might be referring to getting out of their precarious position dangling off the side of a tower when she says “I can get us out of this,” but Catra’s reply of “Oh, Adora, I don’t want you to!” is about much more than that.

Already here it is clear that Catra felt hurt and abandoned when Adora left, and now she intends to make sure no one can ever hurt or abandon her again. We will see more of this when the show finally does an episode focused on her.


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