Retroactive Continuity: Emara: Emirates Hero Ep. 1-2

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Commissioned post for Aleph Null. I don’t think it’s ever come up here, but I have a long-standing fascination with infinite sets, so I think that’s a seriously awesome name.

Everyone needs a hero.

There is much to criticize about superheroes: they protect the status quo and prevent revolution, and revolutionary change is sorely needed. There is much to criticize about the broader category of heroes: they stand on the border between us and them, and in so doing reinforce that that border exists.

But they are not an unmixed curse. There is much of value to be found in the figure of the hero. They often exemplify virtues we consider worth emulating–Batman’s determination, Superman’s kindness, Wonder Woman’s feminism. Or, to use more traditional heroes, Odysseus’ cunning, Beowulf’s courage, Hua Mulan’s sense of duty. And, frankly, sometimes we need to feel protected.

To be aware of one’s own difference, to recognize that in the eyes of the dominant culture, one is a part of them, not us, is to be aware of a constant need for vigilance. To feel safe is to let go of that vigilance, and hence to be unsafe–but to feel unsafe at all times is traumatizing. (This is, of course, just restating the concept of dual consciousness that we discussed with Ms. Marvel.) The fantasy of a hero is a way to, briefly, at second hand, get a glimpse of what it might be like to be an us, to be protected, to be safe.

But if all the heroes are for that other us, the one that defined you as a them, that instead reinforces that you don’t get a hero, don’t get to be us–that you are always and forever a them. And so we get things like Emara: Emirates Hero, which creator Fatma Al Muhairi says was driven by her desire for a heroic character she could “culturally identify with.” Her and her team of mostly young, Arab creators have, in pursuit of that goal, created something delightful.

Nothing about Emara, other than the nationality of the characters, is particularly novel. Visually, it references anime heavily, especially Cutie Honey–which it also references in the core concept of a transforming (apparent) robot girl–and the works of Hiroyuki Imaishi (Dead Leaves, Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill) and Takafumi Hori (Little Witch Academia, that one episode of Steven Universe, that one episode of Adventure Time). Story-wise, at least in the first two episodes, it’s pretty typical superhero fare: Moza is a teenage girl raised by a single mother and a dead dad, she fights bank robbers, a mysterious conspiracy is after her, and she has a rival superhero who is working for the mysterious conspiracy but has doubts.

But novelty isn’t the point–this is no different from Ms. Marvel‘s similarities to early Spider-Man, a way to shortcut through setup by presenting the familiar, so that the series can quickly move on to the rest of its story. The point is to bring superheroics to Emirati girls, to give them a hero of their own to remind that they can be an us, and to remind the rest of us that they are part of us.

Representation, in short, matters. Dhebian, Emara’s rival, is another example–the rockets in his feet are a fun answer to Emara’s gun arms, but they also contrast with his use of a wheelchair in his “civilian” identity, Sultan. He is a disabled man who needs a wheelchair to get around normally–but as Dhebian, his superpower is mobility. This is one of those cases where the protector fantasy and the power fantasy blend together–it is a wish for the power to be the protector. A wish for power, not to impose one’s will on others, but to help them.

How, though, is this different from Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin? I castigated them as trying to cement their status as provisionally “normal” by enacting violence to preserve the circles of normalcy. By attacking “criminals,” isn’t Emara doing the same thing? The “normal people”/criminals binary used to justify retributive violence against people who commit crimes is as much a lie as any other “normal people”/Other binary; there are no criminals, only people who commit crimes.

Emara is not actually different from Sawyer and Turpin in that respect; the inherently problematic elements of “law enforcement” and “superhero” as concepts remain intact. But that’s the thing–why should only some people get imperfect and problematic representation? Why can’t Emirati girls get their power/protector fantasy, when white American boys have so many?

It’s not just that everyone needs heroes. It’s that everyone needs to bea hero, from time to time, within their own head. We need to feel, even if just for a moment, knowing that it’s not true, like we have the power to protect what’s important to us and to change things for the better.

Heroes fight monsters. And yes, all too often, monsters are defined by difference, but frequently they also represent harm. If heroes help define the border between normalcy and deviancy, perhaps a proliferation of “deviant” heroes is exactly what we need, to push that border out so far that it encompasses everyone. Perhaps when everyone is normal, no one will be, and we will at last be free of that binary, while our heroes protect us from the genuinely harmful rather than the merely different.

Either way, heroes belong at the margins. Doesn’t it make sense, then, for them to come from among the marginalized?

Bit by bit, we inch closer to understanding how to salvage what’s good within the figure of the superhero. Diversity and representation of the underrepresented are a part of the answer–but then, they’re part of the answer to most things.


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My father murdered (Growing Pains)

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It’s February 28, 1998. The top song is Usher’s “Nice and Slow” again; Will Smith, Janet Jackson, Savage Garden, and LeAnn Rimes also chart. The top movie is still Titanic; the fantastic Dark Cityopens at number four.

In the news, the big story is the beginning Kosovo War, as the small Balkan polity rebels against the only-slightly-larger remnant of Yugoslavia, now known formally as Serbia and Montenegro, with the NATO treaty organization quickly intervening. Given that ethnic conflict in Serbia intervened in by major European powers is how World War I started, there is some tension among, say, academically inclined but inexperienced young people taking AP History at the time. Me and my classmates, for instance.

Speaking of me, I remember this being one of my favorite episodes, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it again. I’m apparently not alone: this is a well-loved episode. AV Club and Nerdist both reviewed it positively in their respective revisits to the series, and at time of writing it has an 8.6 fan rating on IMDB–“Heart of Ice,” by comparison, has only an 8.0 and “Baby-Doll” an incomprehensibly low 6.4. So clearly people who vote in IMDB fan rankings have no taste, but again, reviewers like it.

And it does have much to recommend it. It is emotionally affecting, highlights the Tim Drake Robin in a way nearly unique in the series, and is gorgeously animated under the direction of then-TMS animator Atsuko Tanaka (not to be confused with either the voice actress or late avant-garde artist of the same name), whose other work includes key animation on the Animaniacs and Batman Beyond movies, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and your name. Clayface flows and shifts in ways at once imaginative, grotesque, and oddly beautiful, and the camera work when he grabs Robin and holds him over the pit of generic bubbling green chemical is masterful, with a dynamism rarely seen in American animation of this period.

But–and you knew there had to be a but coming, didn’t you?–when it comes down to it, “Growing Pains” is entirely comprised of a fridging. Annie is depicted as a living, thinking, feeling person with agency of her own, but she is in peril from the moment she appears on screen to the moment she dies. (Which, itself, is a decidedly unsettling moment–given her depiction as Clayface’s “daughter,” the disturbingly sexual way she and Clayface gasp and arch at the moment their merger begins, and the fact that he essentially devours her, it is difficult to read as anything other than a depiction of incestuous vore.) Her agency is, in the end, employed only in self-sacrifice, to rescue Robin, and the focus of the episode is on his feelings about her: his desire to protect her, his curiosity about her, his potential romantic interest in her, and his quiet anger and sadness after she is gone.

In short, her sole purpose as a character is to be menaced and then die, as a vehicle for developing Robin’s character. She is a textbook woman in a refrigerator.

And, the question arises, “So what?” What, actually, is the problem with fridging?

To answer that, we must ask a fraught question: what is the moral responsibility of an artist in the process of creating art? Two extreme positions should be dismissed quickly: the first is that the depiction of an act is morally equivalent to the commission of that act. But this is clearly absurd: if I write the sentence “I shot the sheriff,” is that morally equivalent to shooting a sheriff? What sheriff have I shot? Similarly, we can dismiss the related, less extreme position that depiction of an act is less serious than commission of the act, but still shares its morality–that, in other words, writing “I shot the sheriff” isn’t as bad (or good, depending on how one feels about cops) as actually shooting a sheriff, but it’s still bad (or good). But again, that’s absurd; who have I hurt or helped by writing that sentence, in isolation?

The other extreme is equally absurd under examination. This position holds that, since events depicted in art are imaginary, they have no moral value–that there is no such thing as an immoral depiction. Again, this is prima facie absurd; while the event is depicted, the depiction itself exists in the real world. Both artist and audience are real, and the art has an effect on the audience, affecting audiences being what art does. It is there that the moral responsibility lies: since the art affects the audience, it has the capacity to both harm and heal the audience, and thus there are moral considerations in its creation and dissemination.

But this is where things get sticky. An act has a different impact when it is depicted in fiction as opposed to experienced directly–that’s why people don’t flee in mass panic from slasher films–and one of the ways in which that impact can differ is if similar acts are depicted frequently across multiple works. They can have a cumulative effect beyond that of any one instance, and this cumulative effect can reinforce or even create cultural narratives that have profound impact on our lives.

There is a reason we discussed Revolutionary Girl Utena near the end of the previous volume, and it’s not just because I love writing about Revolutionary Girl Utena. It has things to say about stories, and apocalypses, and influences that will extend throughout this project, right up to the very last chapter of the last volume. (Yes, I already know what that chapter will be about, and no, it’s not the Justice League Unlimited finale.) In Annie, we see exactly what Utena was talking about in the figure of the princess: the depiction of girls as helpless innocents in perpetual peril, there to be rescued by brave heroic princes like Robin. (Who, though he looks much younger due to differences in art style, appears to actually be about the same age as Utena herself.) It also explores the consequences of repeating that story over and over again, until young women believe that that is what they’re supposed to be, and men believe that is what women are supposed to be.

Therein lies the answer to “so what?” Fridging matters because fridgings are commonplace. Yes, male characters die too, but they are far more likely than women to die as the culmination of an arc of their own, as opposed to solely to advance the development of others. Men, in short, die because it is the natural end to their story; women die because they’re disposable ways to wring emotion out of men. That’s what widespread fridging says; it reinforces to both men and women that women are less-than, that they exist to support men, that their needs and agency can be set aside for the development of men.

Again: yes, Annie sacrifices herself, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that her suffering is secondary to his, as the suffering of women is almost always treated as secondary to the suffering of men. The episode isn’t about Annie, culminating in her heroic sacrifice; it’s about getting Robin to the point where he sadly, quietly says the word “Murder.”

Cut to black, roll credits.


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby Episode 6

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There is something worse than demons.

Throughout Devilman Crybaby, I’ve talked about the demons as examples of the grotesque, of the distorted and violated human body as a representation of the violation of social norms. We have also seen that Akira’s compassion, his tears, are what give him control over the demon within him.

But with Koda, we see something else. We see, in his dream sequence, his demon equated to homosexual sex, threatening to emerge as he fucks his unnamed partner–but his sorrow over Junichi, the boy he loved who died violently at the hands of a demon (presumably at the same time Koda himself was possessed), preserves his humanity.

Ryo tells us that these feelings–caring, love, compassion–are nonexistent in demons, that they have emotions but no conscience, no capacity to care for others. But as we saw last episode, this is a lie: demons can have feelings for each other, even sacrifice themselves to help each other. The only person we see acting entirely without compassion is Ryo, who allows a stadium full of people to be slaughtered just so that he can get his message out to the world. This could be defended as a necessary sacrifice to prevent a greater threat, except for one key detail: Ryo shows no sign of caring at all. He is gleeful about the success of his plan, which demonstrates that whatever his motivation is, it is definitely not that he cares about demons’ potential victims.

That much is fairly obvious: the show has been increasingly framing Ryo in villainous terms throughout. More interesting is how this interacts with the idea of the grotesque as a violation of social norms, the equation of the demon with homosexual intercourse but the human with homoromantic love.

We live in a society based on norms–sets of rules that define the ranges of normal, acceptable behavior. Outside those norms lies people and behaviors which deviate from those norms, and which can hence be referred to as deviant. This relationship maps neatly onto the Us-Them or Self-Other divide: the norm is that which describes the idealized extended Self, the “best” version of the community within which an individual is socialized, while deviance is the defining trait of the Other. All forms of deviance, harmful and harmless, are thus projected onto the Other: for example, we assume the existence of “criminals” as a distinct type of person, that someone who commits one kind of deviant behavior (acting unlawfully) is automatically equivalent to someone who commits another kind (acting violently) and, further, that we normal people would never commit either kind of behavior. The same kind of blurring-together of the Other is at work in racists calling the cops on people of color engaging in perfectly innocuous behavior–one kind of deviance from the norm (of whiteness) is treated as equivalent to another deviation (criminality). Countless other examples abound.

Now look again at what Ryo has to say about demons: that they have no conscience, no non-violent emotions, no capacity for love or compassion. Yet we have already seen that is false, with Selene and her lover–and, for that matter, with Akira! He is not actually different from any of the other demons in any essential sense–like Koda and Miko, he is a human possessed by a demon, resulting in a fusion of both. Grotesquely, he straddles the boundary between Us and Them, normal and deviant. But it is the function of the grotesque to call into question that very boundary, to call attention to the fact that we created it ourselves, essentially arbitrarily.

Ryo’s contradicting belief, stridently stated, is that the people outside of the norm aren’t really people. They don’t feel like we do, don’t have compassion or love–they’re just monsters, according to Ryo, capable of nothing but violence. He points to their violence as proof that they are Other, and then the fact that they are Other to deny them any kind of humanity or any possibility of coexistence. Between Us and Them, he tells us, there can only be violent struggle; what’s more, They are everywhere, living among Us in secret, and must be rooted out by any means necessary, no matter the cost.

This is recognizably the call of the fascist. Substitute who you like for Them–Jews, communists, “illegal” immigrants–but it’s always the same. They are an existential threat to Us, subversive, violating our norms just by existing, and They must therefore be killed, or at least violently expelled. And if the cost of achieving that is the death of a great many of Us as well, so be it.

In this light, Akira saving Koda instead of killing him is his first step into revolutionary consciousness, into the awareness that he has more in common with the Other outside of the norms than he does with the people willing to use violence to maintain them. That the true struggle is not between human and demon, but between those who are able to coexist and those who refuse to try. Between those who straddle the boundaries and those insist on remaining inside. Between, in short, the grotesque and the normal.

Here’s hoping the grotesque win.


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Call it a… (Joker’s Millions)

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Beginning of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 4: Childhood’s End.

It’s February 21, 1998. The top song this week is Usher with “Nice & Slow”; Janet Jackson, Savage Garden, and Leanne Rimes also chart. The top movie is still Titanic, with The Wedding Singer, Good Will Hunting, and L.A. Confidential also in the top 10.

In the news, a China Airlines flight crashes into a residential neighborhood in Tayuan, China, killing over 200 people, on the 16th. In slightly less disastrous news, the Winter Olympics end tomorrow.

And, unfortunately, we’ve got this episode. Not that it’s at all a bad episode! It’s just inconveniently timed for me, coming immediately after the very finale-esque “Apokolips… Now!” and thus serving as the opening for this book. Which I normally wouldn’t bring up, except that the episode does it too, forgoing the usual static title card to instead display the title on an oversized computer monitor in the back of the electronics store the Joker and Harley Quinn rob in the opening scene, ever so slightly stretching the edges of what an episode contain in ways we haven’t seen since early Batman Adventures comics, if not all the way back to “Christmas with the Joker.”

Fittingly for an episode that is essentially about the Joker having lost his groove, the opening is a reminder that there was a time when the Joker was the preeminent force of chaos in Batman’s little world, forcing it to contain something wider and weirder, before Harley showed up and proved she was better at that role in every way–funnier, cooler, more honest, and much, much queerer. But instead of recognizing that fact, he just doubles down, using his inherited millions not to free Harley, but to try to recreate his own past glory.
The result is a glorious parody of that key feature of capitalism, affluenza: the ability of the very wealthy to weasel out of consequences for their actions. He buys his way out of the courts, hiring a clear parody of infamous O.J. Simpson attorney Johnny Cochran to (presumably at a very high price) clear his name with obfuscatory arguments. He buys his way into high society of a sort–a penthouse apartment, attendance at the high-end club the suddenly-gone-straight Penguin suddenly has, and the like.

But where he errs is when he tries to buy a replacement Harley Quinn. That’s when it all comes crashing down for him. Typical capitalist, he assumes one artist is as good as another–one clown, one worker of magic, one force of chaos. Because that is what Harley is: an artist. Her medium is crime, but she is at heart a comedian–and unlike the Joker, she’s a good one.

When captured, her temporary replacement claims to have thought she was performing “an Equity gig”–a reference to the union to which most American actors belong. In other words, the Joker tried to replace Harley with another performer; earlier, in the sequence in which he vets candidates, he judges them solely on appearance and physique. He is essentially a TV or film producer casting a role on the assumption that what matters is looking the part, replacing someone who brought genuine talent and craft to the role with whoever “looks right.” He is, as capitalism does, treating the assembly line as the archetypal form of human labor, a machine in which human beings are just another cog. It is an approach that simply doesn’t work for artistic endeavors, but wealthy capitalists have no other way of understanding labor, and so they persist in taking that same approach–hence, for example, the endless proliferation of remakes and adaptations in film and television. Of course, adaptation and remaking have always been a key part of art: painters traditionally learned by copying the masters, composers re-orchestrate and do variations on one another’s themes, storytellers present their versions of traditional tales, and so on. But artistic repetition of this kind has two points: to understand what it was that made the original special, and to place the new artist’s own imprimatur on it, so that the “remake” is special in its own right. As far as the entertainment industry is concerned, however, the goal is to seek out the magic formula that turns money spent on a product into more money spent by consumers, which is to say that the remakes and adaptations we see in film in television are inevitably formulaic and therefore boring, as opposed to new art building off the old.

This episode works as an example of the difference, being an adaptation of a 1952 Detective Comics story written by David Vern. However, as Harley Quinn didn’t exist until Dini, Timm, and Sorkin invented her for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, everything related to her–which is almost everything that makes the episode interesting–is original to this episode. It is Harley who upstages the Joker, Harley whom he realizes he needs, and, ultimately, Harley that brings the Joker down. Despite her escape from prison being played for laughs, she is the one who ultimately gets to punish him, when she turns out to be the “policewoman” waiting for him in the car.

Here we have the inversion of Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin. As I discussed at the end of the previous volume, for all that they represent an Other allowed into the circles of normalcy, their role as cops makes them enforcers of that same normalcy, which is to say supporters of the very power structures that divide people into “normal” and Other. Harley is the opposite: she is playing the role of cop as a role, abusing a prisoner not as a cog in the brutal machine of criminal “justice,” but as an expression of her personal feelings over her abuse at the hands of the Joker. In doing so she proves she is once again the Harlequin, the one who laughs at structure, the one who waves her magic batte and brings chaos into the boring, oppressive, orderly, normal world. She twists and parodies them as  a Jewish lesbian criminal cop, engaging in a crime, and in the process acting exactly as cops normally do: by engaging in violence against someone who violated society’s norms.

In so doing, she reveals the hypocrisy and self-contradiction of a system that turns yesterday’s Other into today’s enforcer of violence against the Other–to be Jewish, to be lesbian, were both once criminal, both things which got you beaten by cops. The same contradiction Harley deliberately performs is the one Sawyer and Turpin embody, the essential contradiction of a society that judges on the basis of what’s “not normal” instead of what’s harmful.

Which is to say that Harley herself knows her apocalypse was inadequate. That isn’t a police baton she taps menacingly into her hand, much as it may look like one; that is her magic batte. It’s time for round two. It will take nearly a year, but it’s time for scared little Bruce Wayne, Age 8 to step aside and allow for the possibility of growth and change. It’s time for childhood to end, and the apocalypse of adolescence to begin.

It’s time for Batman to go to high school.


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Think maybe you're becoming (Apokolips… Now!)

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It’s February 7 and 14, 1998. The top songs this week are Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” and Usher’s “Nice & Slow”–in that order on the 7th, and swapping places by the 14th. The top movie remains Titanic throughout.
In the news since last November, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11, two days after sales of the Toyota Prius, the first mass-production hybrid car, began. On January 12, nearly 20 European nations agree to ban human cloning for some reason, and on the 17th the right-wing tabloid site Drudge Report breaks the Lewinsky scandal, about which more in a later post. And on the day part one of this story aired, the Nagano Winter Olympics began.
In Superman: The Animated Series, we have something that feels very much like a season finale, even though it actually isn’t–that’s the next two episodes, which aired in May after another brief hiatus. Nonetheless, “Apokolips… Now!” feels more like a season-ending event than “Little Girl Lost”: the former wraps up plot threads from prior episodes in a way that leads naturally into a new story, while the latter is entirely about introducing a new plot thread–and not the one created by “Apokolips… Now!.”
That thread–the war between Darkseid and Superman–will end up continuing throughout the entire DCAU, and ultimately end it, ending universes being what Apokolipses are for. Its creation involves the closing out of past threads: the end of the “Intergang uses alien weapons” thread that appeared in a couple of prior STAS episodes, the (heavily implied) death of Intergang leader Bruno Mannheim, and the (outright shown) death of Dan Turpin.
This is a shocking event, and not just for the diegetic audience that witnesses Darkseid’s casual murder of Turpin as he flees in the face of a freed Superman, defiant humanity, and Orion-led New Genesis army. The DCAU has strongly implied deaths before, as with Mannheim in this episode, and it has depicted off-screen deaths and deaths of non-human creatures, but this is an outright killing of a human being on screen, in a children’s cartoon.
In that, Turpin’s death near the end of the second part reflects a similarly shocking (in the “I can’t believe they got away with showing that” sense) moment early in the first part: after she is injured in an Intergang attack, we see Maggie Sawyer in a hospital bed holding hands with her girlfriend; the episode admittedly never explicitly states their relationship, so a viewer could infer they are sisters given they both have Timm’s default Adult Young Woman face and body. However, allowing for stylistic differences between the two media, it is nonetheless clearly Toby Reynes, established as Sawyer’s partner in the comics a decade before this episode aired.
That the two moments–one an expression of love and support, the other heart-breaking and violent–are mirrors of one another is confirmed by Turpin’s funeral scene that ends the episode: specifically, a Jewish funeral. Confirming a cartoon character to not be Christian is only slightly less surprising than confirming them to be queer–remember, this is a medium that habitually depicts Christmas (under one name or another) as something celebrated on alien planets and in fantasy visions of the ancient past. Openly Jewish cartoon characters were not as unheard of as openly queer ones even in 1998, but it was still quite rare, and even rarer to see a Jewish ceremonial rite like a wedding or, in this case, funeral.
Here we see is the advantage of the outward turn STAS represents: the expansion of the space of the possible. To face the weird is to encounter the non-normative, which creates the possibility of accepting it. There is room here!
We dismissed Harley Quinn’s apocalypse as a failure, as creating the wrong new world, but here we see that it succeeded. She made a world where lesbians can just exist, just be, just love each other, without having to be monsters or supervillains. She even made room for her religion as well–remember, prior to this, she was the only major supporting character depicted as being Jewish, too. The revolution has farther to go, and injustices remain, but it succeeded in changing the injustice it started in response to. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy won.
But victory comes at a price, as Darkseid made sure to remind us. In gaining representation of lesbianism and Judaism as normative things “normal” characters can be, as opposed to only found in the monstrous, the bizarre, and the outcast, we have expanded the circles of normativity. Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin are, after all, both cops, the front-line troops of normativity in its war against difference. We see that here: masked and armored cops, faceless stormtroopers gunning down equally faceless parademons.
Yes, the parademons are agents of evil, trying to destroy the world and replace it with a hellish landscape of fire, but then of course they are: apocalypse is revolution viewed from above. Darkseid is just another conqueror, but that’s the point: like Mala and Jax-Ur, he is emblematic of the fact that the general American experience of fascism was, until recently, that it was something that started elsewhere. But the cops are indistinguishable just as the parademons are indistinguishable: they represent the erasure of human difference, human diversity, human life just as much as Darkseid’s forces do.
And herein lies the problem of the simplistic binary this episode presents of Apokolips and New Genesis: Apokolips is a world of slavery and bondage, yes, but New Genesis merely opposes their evil. That is a necessary condition for goodness to be sure, but it does not mean that New Genesis is good–the most visually obvious distinction between the two, after all, is that Apokoliptians are ugly and New Gods beautiful according to conventional (read: white) standards. In other words, New Genesis’ opposition to Apokolips is not good against evil, but normalcy–the maintenance of the status quo and the extant structures of power–against transgression and the grotesque.
New Genesis, in other words, is a planet of superheroes, and Apokolips a planet of supervillains: not good against evil, but cops against criminals. And the more things that get accepted as normal without challenging normativity itself, the greater the pool from which to draw cops, and the fewer to oppose them.
But, we might ask, isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want people of all backgrounds, all orientations and genders, all religions and ethnicities, to be considered normal?
And the answer is, no we don’t. No one is normal; what we want is to smash the very idea of normalcy. So long as deviance from an arbitrary norm is the standard by which we judge others, rather than harm, there will always be some people on the outside who aren’t hurting anyone, some people denied acceptance and treated as threats solely for failing to fit arbitrary standards, as opposed to actually demonstrably posing a threat of harm–and there will always be harmful, toxic people on the inside who remain accepted because they fit those same arbitrary standards. In other words, so long as we value normalcy, privilege and marginalization will continue to exist. We can stop subjecting Asians to unfair immigration standards and internment camps, but we’ll just be doing the same to Latin@s a generation later; if it isn’t Jews being marginalized, it’s Muslims; if it isn’t lesbians, it’s trans people; if it isn’t black people, it’s–well, we’ve never stopped marginalizing black people. Which is not to say that we’ve stopped marginalizing any of the other groups, either–but they’ve all taken strides toward normalization, and the result has been that some of them have taken to defending that normalization by attacking the “next group out,” so to speak. Hence, for example, conservative Jews and transphobic lesbians aligning themselves with the Christian right out of shared Islamophobia and transphobia, respectively.*
But there is time yet for more apocalypses, and we can still hope for a future where everyone accepts everyone else, where everything save nonconsensual harm is permitted. A world where everything is tolerated except intolerance; that is the new genesis we want, and it can only happen after apocalypse.
In the meantime, improvement is improvement. For now, as we close out this chapter of our search, we can simply enjoy Harley Quinn’s brave new world–destroying it, revolutionizing it, making it better, those are all things we can worry about tomorrow. For now, let us simply celebrate that this world has room for as much variety as it does–not just a hero who flies, but a black superhero who built himself skin of steel. Not just Space Moses, but an actual Jewish man. Not just the Man of Tomorrow who loves and protects mankind, but women loving each other.
We celebrate them all–but even as we do, we know we must go further.
.*Not to single out anyone in particular. I chose Jews and lesbians for this example simply because I’m a Jewish lesbian.
 
End of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 3: That Has Such People In It. Volume 4 is titled Childhood’s End.
 


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Imaginary Story: The Batman and Robin Adventures #25 and Annual #2

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On one level, The Batman And Robin Adventures Annual #2 and The Superman Adventures Annual #1 are a sort of crossover, telling two sides of a story involving magical amulets. But the amount of actual crossover is quite small, and tonally these are very different stories that function almost entirely independently of each other. The elements of each story that appear in the other are readable, if one hasn’t read the other, as simple Easter Eggs. “Oh, Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to Zatara when Superman met him.” “Oh, Zatara was involved in some kind of Superman adventure while Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to him.”
Instead of something like “World’s Finest,” which had both Superman and Batman working together against both Superman-style and Batman-style problems, this “crossover” maintains each of them alone, in their own space, dealing with their own styles, with only Zatara himself bridging the gap. Unlike “World’s Finest,” therefore, which has the overall effect of uniting the BTAS and STAS ideaspaces into the beginnings of the DCAU, this serves instead to highlight their differences, as illustrated by the two’s respective treatment of the shared character Zatara–and through him, of magic.
For Superman, Zatara was a wizard, a provider of magical artifacts that could be invoked by the power of words, that led to a chaotic realm of demons and time travel. But for Batman Zatara is much more mundane, a stage magician who operates by trickery. The villain of the Batman story has mind-control powers, but they are simply an advanced form of mundane persuasion, not spells of enchantment–and any apparent magic is actually a product of self-deception, whether accidental (the villain’s belief that the amulet grants his powers boosts his confidence sufficiently to allow him to employ them) or deliberate (the “meditation ritual” Zatara teaches Batman and Batman teaches Robin is fairly obviously the same kind of confidence booster, in this case to resist control).
Both take a playful approach to the ideas within, but ultimately the Superman comic is far more playful, extending that even to the structure of the comic itself (with, as we’ve discussed, mixed results). It jumps gleefully into concepts like demons, magic, and time travel, while the Batman comic tries to be more straightforwardly logical, to lay the groundwork to explain everything that happens in mundane terms. At the same time, it’s more aware of mundane darkness: Superman’s demon is just a generic evil, monstrous invader who destroys and disrupts and must be fought, while the Batman story takes pains to have its villain point out that he does not and will not use his powers for rape.
Compare the Batman annual to issue #25, the final issue of The Batman and Robin Adventures (though, just like TBA before it, TBRA will be followed by a functionally identical series under a new name). In this story, Batman is kidnapped by a flying saucer piloted by Ra’s al-Ghul, who claims he stole it from aliens who abducted him. Batman breaks free and is contacted by the Men in Black (generic, X-Files-esque ones rather than the ones from the Aircel/Malibu comic book that inspired the Men in Black movies–those characters were purchased by Marvel in 1994 and are thus unfortunately unlikely to show up in a Batman story), then takes on Ra’s again and stops him from using the saucer to destroy the polar ice caps.
This comic, which came out the month after the Annual, flirts rather more openly with what the Annual merely hinted at: that Batman’s world of dark alleys and gothic villains is embedded in something larger and weirder, a realm of aliens and speedsters and actual magic, psychic gorillas and Amazons and living radiation. Batman resists this, insisting right up until the end of the comic that the saucer is a craft built by Ra’s al-Ghul, not an alien vessel, but the fact that it can be controlled by holding a crystal and focusing one’s will makes clear that he is wrong: this is magic–space-themed magic, as aliens and spaceships in fiction usually are, but magic nonetheless.
He is in denial, but he cannot remain there forever. The future of the DCAU is not to delve deeper into dark streets, solving dark mysteries and exploring the corners of dark minds; it is striking out into the wild and the weird, outward rather than inward, expanding into new ideaspaces rather than lurking in the one. We’ve known this, of course, since the apocalypse and the art style shift–but here is confirmation.
The Batman of the Future is coming, and like Superman’s epithet, he is a Man of Tomorrow. His world may look superficially like Batman’s, but it lies within Superman’s–dark streets occupied by mutants and aliens and psychics. It is a world that the Bruce Wayne Batman cannot fight in and cannot fight against–but as we see here, he will break himself trying.


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Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures Annual #1

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Sorry this is late! Between the long weekend and being sick yesterday, I just lost track of what day it was.
When I was first planning The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, I knew that unlike past projects, I would be writing entries on topics outside the core works themselves, in this case the individual episodes of the DCAU. I wanted to give them fun titles that tied into the general superheroes theme, and eventually hit on three categories (though I considered others): Retroactive Continuity for discussion of works that significantly pre- or post-date the last episode discussed, which of course is the phrase from which we get the portmanteau “retcon” for an event in a later episode of a serial (such as a comic book issue) that significantly alters or replaces  events in earlier episodes; Crisis on N Earths for discussion of works or events outside of DC comics but close to the air date of the last episode discussed, from the recurring DC title construction for comics that deal with alternate realities, and especially the famous event miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths; and Imaginary Story for discussion of works that involve the characters in the DCAU, but which are nonetheless not part of the DCAU.
I took that title from the tendency, in Golden Age comics, to have “imaginary stories”: issues of a comic which are, unlike most issues of superhero comics, not to be taken as part of an ongoing serial, but rather which present “what-if” scenarios or events with such resounding consequences that they would alter future episodes too much to sustain the serial. Imaginary stories tended to feature the most bizarre ideas of the era, and are responsible for much of the recurring phenomenon of Golden Age covers in which ostensible heroes perform actions which, out of context, appear unconscionable, hilarious, or both.
Of course, we’ve discussed an imaginary story before, in a sense, way back at the beginning of this volume: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” positions itself as one. But, as both we and Moore noted, all stories are imaginary stories; imaginary is a vital component of what it is to be a story. Even a story about events that occurred is still imaginary, in the sense that the events themselves do not recur when the story is retold. They are simply imagined, evoked by the construction of symbols that, together, signify (one storyteller/reader pair’s conception of) the events in question.
So part of the joke in calling things like the DCAU’s comic spinoffs “imaginary stories” is thus that this whole project, being written by someone with at least a basic understanding of how stories actually work, rejects the notion of “canon” on which they’re built: stories depict not worlds but ideas, and ideaspace has neither borders nor laws. Superman Adventures Annual #1 is exactly as fictional as a given episode of the show, which is exactly as fictional as fanfiction, which is exactly as fictional as money or the United States of America, the acquisition of the former and intellectual property laws of the latter being the primary determinants of what comprises “canon.”
That said, while ideaspace is amorphous and ever-moving, one can nonetheless draw distances between ideas. (Those distances will of course change, but one can draw them for a single moment from a particular perspective. One simply cannot, and shouldn’t try to, fix them at those distances for all people and all times.) It is, thus, reasonable to declare that Superman Adventures Annual #1 is in quite a distant realm indeed from our discussion of the DCAU.
For all that it visually resembles the character designs of the show, the tone and structure of the comic is wildly different. It is fitting that its cover uses a design–radially arranged scenes with exclamation point-laden declarations enthusing about the content within–that is commonly associated with Golden Age pastiche (a grid-like variant being used, for example, for the cover of the second part of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”) because it feels far closer to that aesthetic than to the kid-friendly but very 90s-inflected Superman: The Animated Series.
The most visible aesthetic difference is a certain structural tightness that STAS episodes, and Superman Adventures comics, tend to have. Events in those stories follow clearly on one another, either logically following from previously depicted events, setting up future events, or both. Even an in medias res opening, flash-forward, or otherwise initially surprising scene is ultimately made part of a coherent structure that is clear and easy to follow. In other words, the DCAU aesthetic tends to not be structurally challenging because it is simply constructed.
By contrast, SAA #1 sprawls. Time travel, interdimensional travel, and magic intersect, leading to characters experiencing the same scene at different points in the story, passing useful objects or information forward or backward in time or across dimensional barriers; other characters move from realm to realm or change form according to expressed, but arbitrary, rules; the story is a chaotic, shifting dreamscape, with Doctor Fate, champion of order, lurking inscrutably about its edges and acting according to rules only he knows. The story is, ultimately, no more structurally challenging than the DCAU, but for a very different reason: because it wants its reader to stop trying to pin down a logical sequence of events obeying strict rules and just enjoy the ride.
It is the nature of chaos that any finite region thereof can be perceived as orderly. Consider this sequence, which I just pulled off the website random.org (which uses atmospheric noise to create truly random numbers as opposed to the pseudo-random numbers produced by computers): 58,75,61. This is as random, as chaotic, as a sequence of numbers can be–but because it is finite, we can come up with rules that govern it. Looking it up in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, it actually occurs in two known, “mathematically interesting,” sequences. Hitting random.org again, we get 37, which isn’t the next number in either of those sequences–but we could easily enough create one where it is.
So it is with ideaspace. The whole is chaotic, but any part–an individual story, for example–appears orderly, as if it is proceeding according to defined rules like cause and effect or narratological imperative. But these rules do not define the space, they merely describe it, emerging from our study of it. What is actually happening is magic; our words, our perceptions, just shape our ability to understand it. This is what makes Golden Age comics so much fun; where Silver Age comics tended to take place in an absurdist realm of science-flavored nonsense, all giant apes and alien menaces, Golden Age comics can be more overtly magical and surreal.
Ultimately, SAA #1 combines both, the science nonsense of paradox-ridden time travel and the surreal magic of demon-ridden astral planes. It is overstuffed with ideas, none of which land–but it stretches the boundaries of the DCAU in ways that we won’t see again for quite a while. And when we do, they’ll be perceived as a threat, an invading other rather than a new space to explore.
Ah well. Hail Icthultu!


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman: Crybaby Ep 5: "Beautiful Silene"

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.
Well, that ended abruptly.
Part of the challenge of writing these entries on Devilman: Crybaby–and other episode-by-episode commissions, like Giant Robo–is that unlike most of my entries, where I’ve seen the whole series before I write about a single episode, for these commissions I haven’t seen anything but what I’ve been commissioned to watch. So I have no idea what’s going to happen past the current episode, and thus sometimes get things wrong: for example, last entry I concluded Miko and Kukun were killed at the end of the episode, but after viewing this episode it appears that Miko was possessed by a demon and Kukun has vanished (presumably killed).
That outcome makes a lot of sense, given Miko’s (nick-)name. I’m not sure how it’s written, so it may be unrelated (Japanese being prone to homophones), but at least in transliteration it appears to be the same as miko, Japanese for “priestess” or “shrine maiden.” That is, Miko is a secondary figure who channels or represents a divine (or diabolic, in this case) entity, presumably whatever demon has possessed her.
This ties in to the abrupt ending I mentioned in the first sentence of this essay–not the ending of the episode, which was much like any other, but the ending of Silene, a character who previous episodes had positioned as a fairly major antagonist. (Though my money’s still on Ryo as the ultimate primary antagonist.)
Instead, she is dead by episode’s end, and quite unsatisfyingly: she has Akira on the ropes, but then he passes out, apparently about to be killed. And then he wakes up, and Silene has died on her feet from injuries earlier in the fight, without any further input from him. His failure just becomes a success without any real explanation–unless we take his question to Ryo, of whether a demon can experience love, as pointing toward such an explanation.
Earlier in the fight, Silene lay defeated and dying, but her sidekick sacrificed his life, apparently out of love of Silene, to give her a second chance at killing Akira, knowing that they will both die soon after. He tears his own head off, and then Silene possesses his dying body much as the demons possess human bodies, merging with him into a single demon, and it is that which shortly thereafter dies on its feet. Silene even cries when she realizes what he’s done and why, suggesting she has feelings for the other demon too–yet Ryo tells Akira that demons are incapable of love, being creatures of pure appetite.
In their fusion, we see a parody of sorts of the demon-human fusion that is Devilman. Here, the fused opposites are male and female,* rather than human and demon, but it is still a gestalt entity that is more powerful than either. However, it differs dramatically from Akira–or, rather, from the Amon/Akira gestalt that Akira has become.
That he is no longer straightforwardly Akira is clear in scenes earlier in the episode, which show him lusting intensely after Miki, to the point of seeming about to attack her. He does not, however, nor does he attack anyone while walking drooling through the red light district later; he has acquired the demonic appetite for sex and violence, an appetite which draws little distinction between the two, but he seems to have it (barely) under control. He is, in other words, a true gestalt, comprised of the totality of both members: he is fully Amon and fully Akira, and the resulting entity thus expresses the desires and tendencies of both, in this case Amon’s demonic appetite and Akira’s human capacity for restraint.
By contrast, the Silene fusion is just that–Silene. Her personality, her being, is dominant; her head and torso replace her companion’s head, and so too does her behavior entirely replace his. She is possessinghim, seizing control, and that is not an act of love but of violence. This is why they cannot survive for long enough to fight Akira, because their very existence as a gestalt entity is violence against a member of that entity, and the whole suffers.
Demons are incapable of love, not because they cannot become attached to one another or even because they’re not capable of sacrifice for one another; demons are incapable of love because they’re incapable of seeing past their own wants. They lack the key quality that enables Akira and Amon to function as one: Akira’s compassion, the quality from which the series derives its subtitle. His ability to feel pain for another means that he recognizes the pain of others; their relationship is stable because they can mediate and negotiate both their wants and preferences, where Silene must dominate the one she possesses and impose her own will. The result is not love, but abuse; not a synergistic fusion, but a self-destructive monstrosity.
Of course, we must tread carefully. Compassion is necessary for genuine love, but love is not necessary for compassion, nor should we confuse empathy and compassion–the former is a capacity, the latter a choice. People who lack empathy can nonetheless choose to be compassionate when they recognize the pain of others, even if that pain is harder for them to recognize; someone who has empathy but chooses not to be compassionate recognizes the pain more easily, but ignores or even revels in it. That, not a lack of empathy, is what leads to abuse and mistreatment, rendering love impossible.
The episode, unfortunately, doesn’t make this distinction. Indeed, by eliding the distinction and positioning empathy/compassion as a defining human trait, it blunders straight into the ableist implication that people who lack empathy aren’t people–which just ends up excusing a lack of compassion toward them. Likewise, by positioning love as a uniquely human trait in contrast to demonic hunger, it implies that people who do not love are not people, again serving only to encourage that lack of compassion. We must tread carefully in this territory; it is in the nature of the grotesque to serve as the boundary of the human, but if we leave people outside that boundary, abjectify them through ableism or a form of acephobia (or for any other reason), we demonize and marginalize our fellow people, exactly the ones we should be showing compassion toward.
Which, of course, is Ryo in a nutshell.
*Which, like human and demon, or practically any other binary you care to name, are not actually opposites. That’s why they can fuse to begin with–true opposites cannot coexist.


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Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #16-24

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With one exception, the issues of Batman and Robin Adventures that roughly coincide with the second season of Superman: The Animated Series hew fairly closely to a rather apt–and apparently entirely unintended–theme, namely the positioning of women as a marginalized Other and society in general’s tendency to center the desires of individual men (and especially white men) and privilege them over the needs, safety, and desires of women.
As I write this, the toxic ideology of “incels” is being debated in the mainstream press. Incels are a spinoff of the general MRA/PUA/MGTOW nexus of Reddit misogynists (whom I shall hereafter refer to as the patriarchy-industrial complex), with their particular form of sexist bullshit the claim that they are entitled to sex with (conventionally attractive) women, such that not getting laid is a form of oppression that justifies violent response. Disturbingly, the pundit response is not just the typical middle-right pundits pretending to a position of studied “objectivity” as an excuse to lend their platform to far-right extremists. Plenty of that has happened, with Ross Douthat in particular spewing a vile piece that exists in a state of quantum superposition between endorsing the incel concept of “redistributing” access to sex “equally” and satirizing leftist arguments for the redistribution of property by posing similar arguments for the “redistribution” of women. (Which satire fails, of course, because any decent person–a category which clearly does not include Douthat or incels–reading would immediately twig on to the obvious counter that women are people, not property.)
No, the worrisome part is articles like Jio Tolentino’s piece for the New Yorker, which criticize the worst behavior of incels but allow bits of their thinking to seep in as “givens”–like the idea that the “sexual marketplace” is a literal market in which people have a “sexual value” that determines their success. That’s a horrifically toxic approach to relationships, because it is inherently transactional. It describes sex purely in terms of a hierarchy, of “haves” and “have-nots.” Instead of two people who find each other interesting, sex becomes about who has enough status to “afford” the object of their desire, with the desires of the “purchased” party largely irrelevant to the equation (since it’s assumed that they will want the “high-value” person).
It is, in other words, exactly the kind of patriarchal, hierarchical view that this run of B&RA critiques, without ever conceding its points or lending it unwarranted sympathy. This run of issues gets a bit Feminism 101 at times, but considering this is a late-90s all-ages comic book, even reaching the level of 101 is impressive–and gets more impressive when one realizes that this steady development of the theme plays out across all these issues despite being apparently entirely unintended.
All these issues, that is, except for Issue 20, “Through the Long Night,” a silly little story about Batman catching a bunch of gun-runners and gang members (plus one drunk driver) with zero characterization, where the only real stakes are whether Bullock will win the nightly Gotham PD pool on how many people Batman will catch for them. It’s a pointless and rather uninteresting issue, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth discussing. It’s just sort of there.
But if we ignore it, we get that unintentional thematic arc, which begins with Issue 16, “It Takes a Cat,” presumably a reference to the saying “it takes a thief to catch a thief.” In this story, Catwoman resumes her criminal activity, but Selena Kyle insists she’s innocent, and investigates to learn who’s stolen her alter ego. It turns out to be a man named Thomas Blake, essentially a wealthy fanboy who is trying to get Selena’s attention because he has a crush on her. He puts her in serious danger of returning to prison, forcing her to go on the run from the law, because he has built up a mental scenario of how she “should” respond to his behavior and he wants those responses. He claims to love her, but treats her like a thing: specifically, like a video game, where giving the “correct” inputs will result in “winning” and receiving what he wants.
Of course when it comes to people treating women as objects, the quintessential example within the Batman oeuvre is the Mad Hatter, the focus of Issue 17, “But a Dream.” Mad Hatter sneaks one of his control devices into Alice’s wedding dress, which causes her to first express pity for him, then run away from the altar and seek him out so they can be married by a mind-controlled priest. In this he is, at least, more honest than Blake, in that he literally uses a machine to manipulate Alice, but in the end he is tricked into and trapped in a fantasy scenario in which Alice’s pity is transmuted by his determination into love, and they run away together. In the end, Hatter is trapped in his fantasy; like the miserable losers who populate the patriarchy-industrial complex, he is unable to get past his instrumental view of women and relationships or insistence on centering his own and only his own feelings, and so remains cut off from reality and any possibility of meaningful connection.
“Joker’s Last Laugh” focuses on a different kind of mistreatment and marginalization of women, as it follows Harley in yet another round of her abusive relationship with the Joker. In this case, as she often does, Harley signifies internalized misogyny: she accepts the Joker’s abuse and takes upon herself the responsibility to make him feel better, while performatively hiding from him the fact that she is vastly more competent than he is. In this case, she dedicates herself to trying to make him laugh, and ultimately succeeds only when he doesn’t realize the situation–the Batmobile getting a parking ticket while Batman and Robin were capturing Joker and Harley–is one she deliberately manufactured. In other words, she uses a performance to protect his ego from the realization of her own competence, skill, and agency.
In direct contrast to Harley, who is a “good bad girl” in that she performs femininity in ways that protect masculine ego (“good”) while violating the law and helping criminals (“bad”), Issue 19, “Duty of the Huntress,” introduces the titular character as a “bad good girl” in that she performs a superheroic role in ways that are unacceptable to Batman. It’s a little difficult to see why–she is depicted using a crossbow loaded with what appear to be tranquilizer darts, which doesn’t seem inherently more violent than the patent Batman technique of dangling people off ledges and threatening to drop them, which he does in this issue (along with countless other stories).
But even accepting that she is being “bad,” what we have is a woman who refuses to play her role, and is punished for it. Her father is killed in a mob hit after a lifetime of “shielding” (read: lying to) his daughter to keep her out of “the business.” His dying wish is that she ensure his enemies cannot profit from his empire by using his records to expose all the crimes he was involved in, but she is so horrified by those crimes–which include forcing immigrants into literal slavery–that she instead begins destroying each enterprise personally.
After Batman forces her to stop and hands over all the information she was using to the police, she is left bereft at her father’s grave. Her final words are haunting: “I only knew you as kind and loving… not… …evil. Somehow you were both. Now you’ve given me a new duty, Poppa. Somehow… …someday… I have to make up for who you were.” It’s more complicated than some men being monsters; monstrosity is a human capacity, and all possess it to some degree. Someone can be loving at home and monstrous at work, or a good friend but an abusive husband, or any other such combination.
But Bertinelli’s choice to “shield” his adult daughter, to lie to her about his work and thereby strip her of agency, is of a parcel with his criminal activity. He simply does not care about the feelings of others; he only cares about what he himself wants. The slaves he forces to work are stripped violently of agency because he wants the product of their labor; his daughter is stripped of agency because he wants her to not become involved in his work. This is not to say that lying to your children about what you do for a living is remotely comparable to slavery; instead, it’s pointing out that the capacity to do the latter implies the capacity for the former, because the former is a vastlylesser form of the latter. We shouldn’t be surprised that monstrous people can seem ordinary or even nice in controlled circumstances–they wouldn’t be able to get away with being monstrous otherwise!
This theme of the nature of monstrosity is touched on again in Issue 23, “Crocodile Tears.” Killer Croc develops an infatuation with Summer Gleeson after she gives a news report humanizing him. The implication–or, rather, the implied justification Croc gives himself–is that his violent behavior is a reaction to being treated as less-than, being regarded as a monster and an animal instead of a human. However, he reveals himself to be the same kind of monster as all the others we’ve discussed when he smacks Summer’s boyfriend out of the way to talk to Summer. She accuses Croc of hurting her boyfriend, and Croc replies, “He ain’t hurt. He’s just warned. I ain’t here to hurt anybody.”
It doesn’t matter to Croc how the boyfriend feels about being struck, or how Summer responds. In Croc’s world, his feelings and intentions are the arbiters of everything. No one else’s viewpoint matters; his pain justifies his behavior, but his victims’ isn’t real unless it’s intentional on his part. So of course he ignores Summer’s protests and insists on doing “favors” for her that she hasn’t asked for, with an expectation of a reward she hasn’t agreed to. In the end, when she calls him an animal, a monster, it is the simple truth. He is absolutely still human–all monsters are, because monstrosity is a human capacity–but his behavior is monstrous, and so at her words he simply stops and gives up, his justifications stripped away.
Issue 22, “Fifty Fifty,” is a Two-Face story, because of course Issue two-two of the second BTAS-based comic series would be about Two-Face. There’s little in it that touches on the theme, but it is notable that the way the villain tries to force Two-Face to work for him is by threatening Grace. When his henchmen break into her apartment, the one who announces he intends to check the bedroom follows up with a “Heh heh” that speaks volumes–if he finds her, he intends harassment at minimum, and more likely sexual assault.
As is all too often the case in our fiction, the only woman in the story is a target, menaced with kidnapping and assault to motivate a male character. This is one source of the entitlement that drives the behavior of the monstrous men in the other issues we’ve discussed–that fictional women’s feelings and needs are generally subordinated to the feelings and narratives of fictional men. This is the “Women In Refrigerators” problem, that women are treated as objects without agency or internality, their only role in a story to serve as plot devices for the motivation or manipulation of male characters.
Issue 21, “Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?” seems to be consciously pushing against this by inverting the formula. The Riddler, seeking vengeance against Batman, captures Commissioner Gordon and will kill him if he can’t solve an “impossible” riddle by midnight. With Batman and Robin unavailable, Batgirl pursues the case instead–in essence, a significant man in her life is imperiled to motivate her to act. She is the driving force and protagonist of the story, and is granted full internality in the form of an internal monologue as she tries to focus on solving the problem without giving in to her fears of what might happen if she fails.
Nice as this is to say, something is slightly off about it. The fact that Batman and Robin need to be taken off the table, that it’s a rare and special event to have Batgirl headline the book–these are reminders that a female character with agency, with her own internality and positionality, is still a rarity, still outside the norm.
And the norm has great power, as we see in Issue 24, “Touch of Death.” Fittingly for the end of an arc about the marginalization of women, the story is told from the perspective of Poison Ivy as she meets a South American boy who secretes a deadly poison through his skin and bonds with him, then tries to rescue him from the American government, who of course wish to weaponize him. (And Ivy, once they have her.) Ivy’s immunity to poison results in a touching sequence in which the boy–who has clearly not been touched in a long time, perhaps ever–simply holds her hand for an entire day, and even more touchingly, Ivy lets him.
She seems to sense a kindred spirit in him, and that’s not that surprising: she and he are both Others, monsters in the other sense of the word, the sense of being “grotesque,” which is to say outside the norm–just like the Batgirl issue. “Normal” has a terrifying power in our culture; to be within the range of “normal” is to be accepted, to be considered worthy of respect and consideration, to live in a society built around your needs. The experience of being outside the norm is, of course, much more varied–“normal” is a very small sphere inside an infinite space of human diversity, but depending on where in that space you stand, to be outside the norm is to be treated with disgust, or contempt, to be ignored or assumed a criminal or a pervert.
This is not, of course, to say that everything outside the norm is good or right or even acceptable; some monsters deserve the label. Rather, it is to say that the normal/not normal distinction itself is monstrous, but it’s not an individual monstrosity but a social one. The fact that we make such a distinction renders our culture monstrous; the fact that we declare some bodies or harmless behaviors to be monstrous indicts our entire civilization. Ivy and the boy are treated as laboratory specimens so that their unique abilities can be extracted and exploited precisely because those abilities are unique, because they are different–and it is telling that their bodies are precisely the kinds of bodies we most frequently Other, most frequently treat as monstrous perversions of the “normal” body (which is to say, the white cis male body): a woman and a person of color.
To be Other is to be poisonous to “normal” society, because either, like Killer Croc, you fulfill what is expected of you and harm “normal” people, or you defy expectations and expose the lie on which society is built. That is what Ivy brought to the new world Harley created to make room for them: poison.
Although, if the beast that is “normality” takes too long to die, there’s always the traditional method of dealing with monsters, pitchforks and fire. Although in fiction, more common still is the hero–and that is another clue to what we’re looking for, at the still-distant endpoint of this long journey through ideaspace: what the hero we’re looking for needs to do.
We need them to kill the beast.


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Crisis on N Earths: Revolutionary Girl Utena

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It’s December 24, 1997. Christmas Eve. Of course, we’re in Japan, so that doesn’t mean much–Christmas is an excuse to decorate, go on dates, and eat chocolate and KFC. The country is only one percent Christian, after all, but they love the exotic ceremonies and customs of the worshipers of these strange gods from faraway lands.
Tonight, something far more momentous is happening than some lady having a kid in whatever a manger is: the finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena airs.
Auteur theory is largely nonsense, but nonetheless Utena is widely regarded as the brainchild of director Kunihiko Ikuhara, and comparing Utena to other projects of his, it does seem like his creative voice was the dominant, or at least his persistent concerns and themes. But to an extent it’s the other way around: the themes of Utena became the defining themes of Ikuhara’s work, both what is expected from him and what he keeps coming back to.
A 39-episode half-hour anime series ostensibly within the shoujogenre (that is, works aimed at girls in roughly the same age range we refer to in book publishing as Young Adult), Utena is an exploration of themes of identity, especially gender; queer sexuality; abuse; and the way we use stories and narrative to construct our world. Utena is a teen girl who decided when she was very young that she would be a prince when she grew up, and still dresses and acts “princely”: she is highly athletic, very popular with the girls, wears a blinged-out variant of a boys’ uniform to school, and is especially quick to rescue those she perceives as being in need. At the same time, however, she is very insistent that she is a girl, and perhaps a little too insistent that she is het, given her relationship with Anthy.
Anthy is a character I’ve written about at great length, particularly in Animated Discussions. I won’t rehash that here; suffice to say, she is Utena’s primary love interest, but oscillates throughout the story between damsel in distress, sidekick, and villain. In reality she is none of those things and all of them, because Utena is also about breaking free of the constraints created by the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and our world. What makes Utena a revolutionary girl is that she revolutionizes the world around her–the bulk of the series is her unwittingly passing test after test to become The One Who Brings the World Revolution–because she is not only determined to be a protector fantasy for everyone around her, but to protect them from abuse of all kinds. She protects people, not structures of power–indeed, the first we see her protecting someone is defending her friend Wakaba in the first episode, from a man who has greater social power, claims the “right” to do what he did, and callously dismisses Wakaba’s pain.
Utena doesn’t care about rights. She understands, at least on an instinctual level, that any society governed according to a list of rights is really an oligarchy governed by the people who decided what those rights are. That person, in the case of Utena, is Akio, the main villain of the series. Akio is also referred to as “End of the World,” but notably, while the English phrase is sometimes used, the series mostly uses a Japanese phrase which would be more accurately translated as “the ends of the Earth.” The bilingual pun, given all the discussion of apocalypse and world revolution in the series, is clearly intentional, but nonetheless the primary meaning of Akio’s title is the edge of reality, the limitation of what can exist.
The show ties these meanings together in the infamous, oft-recurring “egg speech” (which was lifted almost verbatim from Hermann Hesse’s Demian): “The world is our egg. If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without being born.” The apocalyse, the World Revolution, is necessary so that we can take form as our true selves, unrestrained by the limits imposed by the powerful.
But, intriguingly, Utena at least initially appears to fail. Akio’s strength is social power above all else: he wields his high status and charm with great skill to manipulate and control others. It is that power which he uses to defeat Utena: he persuades Anthy that Utena will fail, and in so doing persuades Anthy to ensure that Utena fails. Utena is forced to admit that she cannot be the prince, that she is “just a girl,” and cannot save Anthy or change the world into a place where she and Anthy can be together and be free.
And then she stands back up, shoves Akio out of her way, reaches out her hand to help Anthy, and ultimately Anthy breaks free of Akio’s power and walks forever out of his world.
What the show refers to as the prince is, in its fairy tale-inflected framing, another instance of the protector fantasy. This is made explicit in the episode “The Rose Crest”: “The girls of the world were all princesses! All because we were always protected by the Rose Prince.” Dios, the Rose Prince, is depicted as the hero of a fictionalized past in which he protected all girls from all hardship and pain, enabling them to be princesses–which is to say, pampered but constrained, safe but helpless.
Dios, after all, is Akio–End of the World and the Rose Prince are revealed to be one and the same. Akio compares himself to Lucifer, which is to say that he is fallen from having once been both great and good, but Akio is a manipulator and a liar. He never was a hero; the Rose Prince was always a fantasy, always Akio. Or, more accurately, they’re the same thing. As Utena tearfully confesses to Anthy: “The truth is, my protecting you was just for my own ego… I was the one who cheated you! I was the one who used you! I was the one who betrayed you!”  Akio is a thoroughly terrible, utterly despicable human being and Utena is in many ways highly admirable, yet in the role of the hero they are both ultimately toxic, becaus the role is toxic.
The only difference between a fence and a cage is whether you’re content to stay inside it. The perfect protector, as we have seen again and again, is also the enforcer of the status quo. The hero must prevent the egg from being broken, and therefore must prevent us from being our authentic selves; the Rose Prince is also End of the World.
Yet… Anthy leaves Ohtori on her own, yes, but only after being offered a hand by Utena and choosing to take it. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy leaves Ohtori (literally, in the movie). Acting as the hero in the sense of a savior, all Utena can do is make Anthy more of a princess, building a fence around her that is also a cage. In the final battle, when she and Akio compete to take the Power to Bring the World Revolution, neither gets it, even though Akio wins the battle. But by offering help, by inspiring and performing as an example, Utena is able to give that power to Anthy.
It is not enough to merely perform the “good parts” of the role of the hero, because by its very nature, the role of the protector is the role of the jailer. But as Utena shows us, there is a use for heroes, and there is a way forward for our own project, a way to break the superhero away from its tendency to fascism.
The model of our new kind of superhero, unsurprisingly, will not be Superman. He’s the model of the old kind, after all. Steel is a lot closer–and the end of this season will reveal to us another that’s closer still.
“For the revolution of the world!”


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