Faster than a speeding bullet (Time Out of Joint)

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It’s October 8, 1994. The top song is Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”; Sheryl Crow and Luther Vandross also chart.  The top movie this weekend is The Specialist; Forrest Gump, Timecop (appropriately for this episode), and The Shawshank Redemption are lower in the top ten.
In the news, the head of the UN Security Council says that Iraq must withdraw its troops on the Kuwait border and cooperate with weapons inspectors. It will do so in a few days, but this is nonetheless a step on the road to the Iraq War.  On the 12th, NASA will lose contact with the Magellan spacecraft in Venus’ atmosphere; it is believed to have been destroyed by the 14th.
Last time on Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn declared the beginning of a new, lighter world. But that’s still quite a ways off in time, if not episode count–far enough that we won’t be reaching it this volume. But nonetheless it is now near enough that we can see it coming, feel the shape of it.
The problem, as we’ve discussed, is that superheroes are inherently conservative–not necessarily in the modern political sense of authoritarian neoliberalism, but in the sense of being naturally inclined to resist change and endorse the status quo. That is to say, while they may outwardly represent a power fantasy of renegade vigilantism, that power is ultimately turned inward, becoming a defense against any and all forces that might shake us out of our positions of relative comfort. It is perhaps not an accident that both the flagship DC superhero and the flagship Marvel superhero have a shield as their symbol.
So for all his talk about cleaning up Gotham, Batman essentially stands still. We’ve learned a lot about his character in the last couple of years, most notably in Mask of the Phantasm, but he hasn’t actually changed very much. We can see in Phantasm, and in some episodes that contain flashbacks to a younger Bruce Wayne, that he did change over time, but all of that change happened before “On Leather Wings.”
And while he stands still, the world zips past him. There is perhaps no image that so perfectly captures the problem of the superhero as Batman and Robin sitting in the frozen Batmobile while cars whizz past them at ridiculous speeds–and note that the threat here is exactly the same as in “Harlequinade,” that the collision between static Bat and fast-moving world could produce something akin to a nuclear detonation.
Which, in 1994, is still the prevailing image of the apocalypse. That is what Batman risks by continuing to protect the world in which he lives, the world which we have seen again and again through the eyes of villains, which is to say the people whom that world has failed. If he will not allow motion, someone will collide with the world and change it forever.
Interestingly, though, this image comes as the result of the actions of one of the few Batman villains who has never, at least within BTAS, been depicted as remotely sympathetic. The Clock King is a petty man with a petty grudge, and nothing else; his origin episode placed him firmly in the same camp as the Mad Hatter, villains whose claimed justifications for their actions betray their own selfishness and petulance. Clock King’s new scheme, stolen technology that alters the flow of time and allows him to act like a speedster–that is, someone who possesses superhuman speed, which in DC Comics has traditionally been depicted as one of the most versatile and powerful abilities possessed by various superheroes and villains–is similarly just another attempt to carry out his childish grudge.
Because speed powers are so powerful within the DCAU, Batman and Robin are helpless against Clock King until they find a way to temporarily acquire similar powers themselves, using the same time-altering technology as Clock King. It is during this sequence that Robin–who, recall, has been depicted as pushing to be treated less like a sidekick and more like a team member, which is exactly what Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn did to start the slowly mounting apocalypse back in “Harley and Ivy”–makes a reference to the device allowing them to move “faster than a speeding bullet.”
Because enough coyness: seen from above, the approaching apocalypse is the destruction of Krypton at the beginning of Superman: The Animated Series. Seen from below, the revolution is the shift to both a lighter art style and more playful tone that coincides with the beginning of that series and the retooling of the Batman cartoon, renamed The New Batman Adventures,  to match. The image of the Batmobile frozen while the world zips past it is thus matched by the image of Robin racing ahead, faster than a speeding bullet, toward a world in which the Bat is no longer the model on which superheroes are built.
But this is Batman’s show, so we might expect him to be the one introducing us to the new model of superhero. As, arguably, he is, when he chooses to deal with the bomb while leaving Robin with the task of chasing down Clock King. Time, remember, is out of joint; is it that surprising to see the future influence the past? So Batman forgoes vengeance and the night, instead racing in broad daylight across water with an already-exploding bomb, employing superspeed to ensure no one gets hurt.
Because there is an alternative model of the superhero that could be pursued. Strong Female Protagonist pointed toward it, and now it reaches back into the past to influence the present. It is a version of the protector fantasy that sheds its authoritarian inclinations to instead become, not a singular power protecting Us from Them, but rather everyone protecting everyone from anyone. Perhaps surprisingly, that model is not Superman, though Superman will eventually, in the final moments of the DCAU, give the model its clearest verbal expression.
No. While Robin is busy predicting the next world, Batman is already looking to the one which could have been after, one predicated on a hero of an entirely different kind. Who is, admittedly, faster than a speeding bullet.
Much, much faster.


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A clue, clowny (Harlequinade)

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It’s May 23, 1994, a week after “Trial.” The top movie is Maverick, followed by The Crow and When a Man Loves a Woman. The top song is “I Swear” by All-4-One; Madonna, Ace of Base, and Prince (with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”) also chart.
In the news, yesterday Pope John Paul II issued a letter reiterating the Catholic Church’s policy on who can be priests, namely “No girls allowed.” That’s actually pretty much it–the next interesting thing to happen, at least according to my usual in-depth methodology for researching the news of the day for these essays (namely, checking the Wikipedia page for that year), isn’t until June.
But that’s okay, because we’ve got plenty to interest us here in “Harlequinade,” one of the true highlights of Batman: The Animated Series. This is the moment at which Harley Quinn finally becomes fully formed as a character: already we have seen that she is both funnier than the Joker (in “The Laughing Fish”) and a better avatar of chaos and change (in “Harley and Ivy”). Now we learn that, far from the the ditzy sidekick role she performs or the working-class background she implies with her accent, she was once a respected clinical psychiatrist, which is to say both an educated professional with profound knowledge of the workings of the mind and a fully trained medical doctor. She describes herself as someone who listened to other people’s problems until she met the Joker, the first person to truly listen to hers, and in that moment the transition begun in “Harley and Ivy” is complete, from depicting her dedication to the Joker as a gag to depicting it as a pathology.
It also gives us the one time the Joker has actually performed the primary function of the Trickster, the literary and folkloric figure who sows chaos and thereby triggers transformation and growth, though admittedly he does it offscreen (at least until the flashbacks in “Mad Love,” still years in the future). As we have repeatedly seen, for all that he claims the iconography of the trickster, for all that he is positioned narratively as the chaos to Batman’s order, he’s really just another petty crook who wants to be at the top of the structures of power, not tear them down. But when he played the joke of turning Harleen Quinzel into Harley Quinn, he created the woman who actually is everything he pretended to be.
Enter Harleyquinn.
In pantomime, a British form of theater popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that still endures (albeit somewhat modified) as a Christmas tradition, the entry of the character Harlequin indicated the shift from the more dramatic portion of the program to the more comedic ending section, the harlequinade. This closing act, in turn, derived ultimately from the Italian commedia dell’arte, a form of theater dating back to the Renaissance and characterized by comedy, the use of stock characters and plots, and improvisation.
In the harlequinade, the Harlequin served as the main character and hero, a magical trickster who used his pranks to free his lover Columbine from her miserly old father, Pantaloon. Pantaloon, in turn, would pursue Harlequin, “aided” by his bumbling sidekicks Clown and Pierrot. (In later years, Pierrot became more of a tragicomic romantic figure, Harlequin’s unlucky rival for the heart of Columbine.)
As a Trickster, Harlequin served as a liminal figure, wielding the magic of transformation and transition, most significantly in using the rod he carried, the “magical batte,” to transform the scene of action from the conclusion of the prior portion of the pantomime to the setting of the harlequinade. That same rod would frequently be used to whack the three villainous characters in the course of his pranks, hence its other name, the “slap-stick.”
“Harlequinade,” unsurprisingly, heavily references the traditional harlequinade. The arrival of Harley Quinn on the screen signals the transition from the relatively serious, even dark, cartoon that is the bulk of Batman: The Animated Series to an episode that manages to be quite light and funny even while the Joker is threatening to murder ten million people and Harley is again depicted as an abuse victim. (Without, it should be noted, ever depicting abuse itself as light or funny.) And of course Harley already had the name and costume of the Harlequin; with this episode she receives the magical batte as well (not to be mistaken for the magical Bat).
Harley is uncontainable in this episode, twice slipping casually out of the handcuffs Batman places on her. She, not Batman, defeats the Joker, and much of the episode consists of her tricking people. Mercurially, she swings constantly between being on Batman’s side and on Joker’s, because like any true Trickster she defies such simplistic binaries; Harley is for Harley, so she will betray Batman to the mobsters in an attempt to escape him, then distract the mobsters from Robin freeing Batman when she realizes her life is in danger (not to mention that she’s annoyed at the mob boss for hitting on her, calling back to her scene with Bullock in her first episode), then betray Batman and Robin to the Joker when she realizes they intend to hurt him, then turning on the Joker when he might kill her friends and pets, and finally throwing herself into his arms at the end when that is no longer an issue.
She even manages to save the day with slapstick, literally: she knocks the Joker silly with her magic batte so that he shoots down his own plane and gives Batman and Robin space to defuse the bomb. Neither hero nor villain, she stands straddling two worlds–Batman and Joker, order and chaos, horrific abuse and comedic slapstick, servile armcandy of a manchild who plays at upending the social order and beloved partner of a woman who pursues true revolution. She is a liminal figure, and thus intimately connected with both humor (which relies on juxtaposition, the placing together of things which do not otherwise connect) and magic (which relies on association, the connecting of things which do not otherwise go together), the dual realms of the Trickster.
But what spell is she casting? What is the transformation which the Harlequin brings?
To answer those questions, another question: the harlequinade has five characters, traditionally, but this episode’s principles number only four. Who is missing? Perhaps the two sidekicks are combined into one, Robin serving as both Clown and Pierrot to Batman’s Pantaloon. Alternatively, perhaps the episode is simply not mapping quite so neatly onto the harlequinade, the characters not meant to be taken as precise equivalents to the traditional roles–certainly Joker has much of the Clown about him, and his henchmen resemble Pierrot, while Robin really isn’t bumbling enough nor Batman old enough to quite work as Clown and Pantaloon, respectively.
An image of a Columbine flower.Or maybe a character is missing altogether, prominent in her absence. Perhaps Joker is not Columbine at all, but another bumbling clown. Perhaps the true Columbine, Harley Quinn’s true love, is still missing, and the harlequinade not yet ended. Maybe the transition to something lighter, more colorful, more playful is still in progress.
Something new entered the world with “Harley and Ivy,” something revolutionary: cooperation without hierarchy, the concept of team. The rigid structures of old cannot abide the new, and so we saw with “House and Garden” that Ivy needs this world to end. And now Harley has ushered in a shift in tone.
There are still quite a few episodes to go before it happens, but it is inevitable now: the revolution has begun. The time of apocalypse is at hand. The changing of the very essence of all things is nigh.
For the sake of her poisonous flower, Harley Quinn has cast the spell of the Harlequin, the spell that changes setting and tone. Soon now, a world will die.
From its ashes, the DCAU will be born.


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Can handle it (The Terrible Trio)

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It’s September 11, 1995, three days before “A Bullet for Bullock,” so see that entry for charts and headlines.
This episode, rather notoriously, was named as the worst in the entire DCAU by no less a luminary than Bruce Timm himself. He is one of the key creative figures behind the DCAU, and thus of course I think he’s entirely wrong about this. I think this episode is great.
This isn’t a review, so I will not discuss why I think it’s great, though I imagine that will come through anyway. Instead, I will make some guesses as to why Timm thinks it’s so bad. First and most obvious, the animation is a bit weak in spots. There’s one shot in particular, an over-the-shoulder shot of Batman in a snowmobile speeding toward a cliff, that is very obviously a still image of Batman and the snowmobile overlaid on the left side of a background image that is scrolling to the right. It’s poorly composed, jarringly artificial, and merely the worst of a number of issues with the episode’s visuals throughout.
Then there are the villains. In a show which often dedicates itself to exploring its villains’ motivations and personalities, the titular Terrible Trio’s motives are pretty straightforward: they’re arrogant, entitled, and bored, so they start stealing for the thrill.  When one member’s girlfriend figures out their crimes, they intend to kill her to maintain the coverup, Batman stops and catches them, the end. No real depth to their characters, no dark traumas in their pasts that drive their current behavior, no significance to their animal costumes other than mocking references to the sources of their parents’ fortunes.
But the last two scenes of the episode demonstrate why this is nonetheless a story worth telling: once captured, Warren, the leader of the trio, first tries to bribe Batman, then brags that he can buy his way out of prison, but we cut directly from there to him being ushered into a filthy, roach-infested cell after his conviction and sentencing.
It’s a fantasy, in other worlds, of a world in which the criminal justice system isn’t a classist, racist, misogynistic mess, and a rich white man can therefore end up in the same cell, the same squalor, as a mugger or a mob henchman. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world, as witness the infamous case of Ethan Couch, the “affluenza teen.” In 2013, Couch, then 16 and already on a restricted license, got into his truck with seven friends, stole two cases of beer, got drunk, smoked some pot and popped some Valium, then plowed his truck at seventy miles an hour into a woman standing by her stalled car, all three people who had stopped to help her, her car, and the car of one of the helpers, which then spun out of control and hit another oncoming car.
Four people died, nine were injured, and Couch was charged with intoxication manslaughter. His lawyers hired a psychologist to claim that Couch suffered from “affluenza”–that his parents had used their wealth to shield him from the consequences of his actions so consistently that he had no capacity to recognize when he was taking risks or doing something dangerous. That, in other words, the children of the rich are so privileged as to become fundamentally incapable of moral decision-making or responsible behavior.
The claim, if true, would be one of the strongest arguments against capitalism ever made. If wealth were truly so harmful, how could we as a society permit it to continue to exist? Think of the children! But of course the point wasn’t to actually imply that Couch’s family’s wealth made him a threat to society, but rather to remind the judge and jury that his wealth existed and carried with it privileges that they would be expected to respect. And it worked: Couch got probation.
He then promptly fled to Mexico with his mother’s help, as you do. He was eventually hauled back, and for his crimes, his callous disregard for others, his deliberate effort to evade the consequences of his actions (thereby proving that he understood what consequences are)–for all that, he received two years in prison.
Which, as someone who regards the prison system as inherently unjust and rejects the retributive theory of justice wholesale, I acknowledge is an injustice against him. No one, even Ethan Couch, deserves to be in prison. But at the same time, if unfair punishments are being meted to everyone, but one person consistently gets less of the unfair punishment, then there is still systemic bias in that person’s favor. The injustice of Couch’s two years in prison pales against the injustice of the millions of people in prison for far more than two years on drug possession charges, the well-documented racial and class biases in both conviction rates and sentencing, the consistent failure to deal appropriately with rape and sexual assault, the wanton murder of (mostly poor) people of color, especially blacks and Native Americans, by police officers.  Couch is still the beneficiary of a system designed to protect people like him from, well, all the rest of us.
Warren’s crimes are relatively minor compared to Couch. Warren was older, true, an adult rather than a late teenager. But Warren didn’t kill anyone, either. He stole trinkets from the people wealthy enough to afford them, which treated properly (as a percentage of the victim’s wealth, as opposed to the flat values our system of “justice” uses to determine the severity of a theft) is barely even a crime at all, committed one act each of battery, assault, and attempted murder. Those last three are definitely serious crimes, true, but again, Couch killed four people while speeding when he knew he’d taken judgment-impairing, reaction-slowing intoxicants.
But because Warren exists in a fantasy realm where the criminal justice system can be relied upon to produce fair results, he ends up in a disgusting, tiny cell. Like Couch, it is not the treatment he deserves, but it is at least as bad as the undeserved treatment we would expect for any of Batman’s captures who were less wealthy, less white, or less male than Warren.
What the episode reveals, in the end, is the extent to which the protector fantasy of the superhero depends on the assumption that the criminal justice system will deal correctly with criminals once they are caught, just as much as it depends on the assumption that the criminal justice system is too incompetent, overwhelmed, or restrained to actually catch them. The power structures of our culture and the state which rests upon them, the fantasy implies, can be trusted to do their job; they just need more power and fewer restraints to accomplish it.
As disastrously wrong and frequently dishonest about the reasons behind them as he was, maybe Wertham’s conclusions are right. Maybe the superhero fantasy is dangerous.


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Put his house in order (House and Garden)

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It’s May 2, 1994, the day before “Sideshow,” so see that post for charts and headlines.
Today it’s the first episode of the second season of Batman: The Animated Series (in airing order, anyway), and a very strong beginning it is indeed. Poison Ivy is a complicated character, not so much in terms of her motivations or personality, as in the show’s relationship with and attitude towards her. Ivy is a power, intelligent woman rejected by patriarchal society, and conventionally beautiful to boot, so the show’s treatment of her varies from, at worst, a typical femme fatale (as in “Pretty Poison,”), to, at best, a feminist revolutionary on a quest to liberate her sisters from oppression (as in “Harley and Ivy”). Much like Batman (as either a character or a show), Ivy’s depiction is suspended between two extremes: Criminal or savior? Protector or bringer of justice? The familiar order of things, or the new and strange?
To put it in simplistic terms, is Ivy a diseased “bad girl” who needs to change and fulfill her socially approved role, or is she reacting with justifiable anger (leaving open the question of whether her methods and choice of victims is as justifiable) to a toxic culture that seeks to force her into a box in which she cannot fit? This episode’s answer is, basically, “Yes.”
On the one hand, at the surface level, this is an episode in which femme fatale Ivy plays at being a happy homemaker, but lurking beneath that happiness is treachery and entrapment. Her kisses make a man her slave, and then she steals his “seed.” She cannot have children of her own, so she uses her powers, her twisted science, and the stolen seed to create substitute children. The resultant things which emerge from her (once again incredibly yonic) plant incubators appear human at first, but rapidly develop into monsters.  And then, though she calls them her children, she treats these creatures as utterly disposable, using them to commit the very crimes that fund their creation, then discarding them when they’re no longer useful. And this twisted parody of a family, we are told, is everything she truly wants, the only time she has ever been happy.
She is, in short, every misogynistic stereotype of women compiled into a single character. She is the gold-digging seductress, the succubus, who uses her sexuality to entrap men, taking their wealth and draining their life-essence. She is Lilith, who is punished for wanting equality by losing the ability to have human children, birthing a race of monsters instead. She is a patient having an affair with her doctor, and somehow it’s the patient who’s being manipulative. She is the mother/lover, that staple of sitcoms and cartoons, the woman whose husband is her child, too. And she is the abusive harridan, who sits back in idleness (because all her labor creating life, caring for her children and husband, doesn’t count) while her children and husband slave for her.
And, in the end, what the episode tells us the bad girl, the would-be feminist revolutionary whose only on-screen romantic relationship she seems to have actually cared about was with another woman, really wants deep down is to be a housewife who loves a man and births sons. But because she stubbornly, wickedly insists on rejecting the status quo, she loses her chance at that and must depart silently in sorrow, even her grief narrated for her by a man.
This reading is nothing short of scathing. It presents us with an episode that is, frankly, garbage, an expression of total misogyny that despises its own central character and exists solely to break her down and crow self-righteously over her suffering.
There’s just one problem: this is actually a very good episode, and really does seem to be treating Poison Ivy sympathetically.
So let’s dig below the surface level. The episode invites us to, after all: the central mystery of the episode relies on everyone around Ivy accepting the surface image she presents, without digging deeper into her family. As soon as they do, asking a question as basic and easily answered as “What gender are Dr. Carlyle’s children?” everything falls apart for her.
So let’s start there. Carlyle’s children are girls, but have gender-ambiguous names, and Ivy is only able to make male plant-children from Carlyle’s DNA, so her version of the Carlyle kids are boys. This is, as stated above, the key discrepancy that unravels her entire plan, but note that it only happened because Carlyle was male. If Ivy had been able to marry a woman and raise daughters, she would never have been found out, and would have kept what we are told is everything she ever wanted.
There’s a similar ambiguity in the episode’s ending. The pages of Ivy’s photo album that she’s show crying over show a mix of pictures. About half are of her false family, but the other half depict either Harley Quinn and Ivy together, Harley alone, or (in one case) Ivy draped suggestively over the hood of the car she and Harley are shown sharing in another picture, at least suggesting the possibility that it’s a picture of Ivy taken by Harley. And we never actually hear Ivy confirm the truth of her statement that the false family was everything she ever wanted; instead we get someone else introducing the possibility she might be lying and then speculating that she wasn’t. Even Ivy’s tears, which fall on the photograph of her wedding with Carlyle, could equally be about the juxtaposition of a picture of Ivy getting married with the prominently displayed picture of Harley Quinn–again, the only other human being Poison Ivy has been shown actually caring about–immediately above it.
We thus have two major elements of the text pointing to at least the possibility that Ivy’s “everything she ever wanted” isn’t to marry a man and raise sons, but rather to marry a woman and raise daughters. Her desires for love and motherhood thus cease to be at odds with her desire to smash the patriarchy, and instead become a part of that desire. Ivy loves plants and she loves women, and she’s willing to lie, steal from, or kill as many men as it takes to protect the plants and women she loves, both in the abstract and individually.
Her fake little home is just that, a fake, a performance. Performativity is familiar territory for us by now, but here we’re looking at something a bit different from camp, though similarly motivated: performative femininity. Ivy, in this reading, is a lesbian who cares passionately about plants and the environment, and for that she has been shoved to the margins, declared sick and a criminal, subjected to imprisonment in a hellish place. The powers that be will only let her “free” if she demonstrates that she is exactly what they demand she be, what they demand all women should be: sexy, intelligent, desiring only to find a husband and care for him and her children, willing to abandon her own desires, her own political causes, her own intellectual pursuits, to instead dedicate her life to caring for a man and his children. To, in short, settle for a house and a garden.
Ivy responds the only way she can. To survive, she must pretend to be what they want her to be, at least long enough to escape. The world where she can be truly happy doesn’t exist, but she can’t work to create it if she’s being treated as a criminal to be punished and a disease to be cured. So she performs traditional femininity, as a cover to protect her true self.
Because if you look at the misogynistic stereotypes we discussed in regards to her characterization in this episode, there’s a clear thread running through all of them: they’re all rooted in the fear that the seeming “good girl” is a “bad girl” in disguise. And the truth is, they all are, because we’ve defined “good girl” in such a narrow and self-contradictory way that it is impossible to be and torture to attempt. Men have worked for centuries to make femininity a construct for pleasing and placating men; we can hardly complain when women perform it to placate us.
Ivy’s flight is no escape. Her sorrow is real, because she knows what it is to be marginalized and discarded, and now she is going to be pushed out of the world. Batman is right when he says she won’t be seen soon, because Poison Ivy is gone for good. There may be hints or glimpses of her now and again, but there is no place for her in Gotham unless there is first a revolution, an apocalypse, a transformation. She will not truly return, perhaps cannot truly return, until the world is destroyed and born anew.
So, 1997 or so.


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Enemies from way back (Avatar)

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It’s May 9, 1994, a week before “Trial.” The top song is Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign”; R. Kelly, Prince, Madonna, and Enigma also chart. The top movie is With Honors, followed closely by Four Weddings and a Funeral and 3 Ninjas Kick Back. Lower down in the top ten are You So Crazy and Schindler’s List. In the news, the massive 7-year project to build the Chunnel was finally finished three days ago, allowing trains to cross under the English Channel in a mere 35 minutes; tomorrow, Nelson Mandela will be sworn in as South Africa’s first black president, and coincidentally an annular (i.e., ring-shaped) eclipse will be visible across North America, fascinating young me. Also it’s funny because “Mandela” sounds like “mandala,” and an annular eclipse is a pretty good symbol for the cosmos.
Batman is a haunted character. Fittingly for someone associated with vengeance, terror, and the night, he is, metaphorically speaking, pursued constantly by ghosts, most obviously the ghosts of his parents. Because what is a ghost but a piece of the past that lurks in the present, dwelling long past the point at which it should exist? Put that way, Batman has many more ghosts than just his parents. Harvey Dent haunts him as well, and so does Andrea Beaumont.
So it’s not that surprising that the figure robbing the Ancient Egypt museum exhibit–another variant on the past haunting the present–looks remarkably like the Phantasm at first. It is only when Batman tears off the mask that he sees a different echo of the past entirely: Ubu, Ra’s al-Ghul’s manservant and bodyguard. Of course moments later he encounters Ra’s al-Ghul, who had been haunting the Earth for half a millennium even before Batman watched him die. If any character qualifies as a ghost, he most certainly does.
Perhaps that’s why he is able to use outright magic, causing Batman’s rope to become a snake, real enough that when it bites Batman it gives him a dose of cobra venom. It’s the first time we’ve seen real magic–not Zatanna’s stagecraft, nor handwaved as technology or technique like Mad Hatter’s worry men, Poison Ivy’s powers, or the death touch from “Day of the Samurai”–in the series, and it won’t be the last time this episode. But if this episode is a ghost story, then magic fits right in.
As does Talia. Like Andrea Beaumont, she is a lost love from Batman’s past, though rather more recently; Ubu’s initial resemblance to the Phantasm is thus as much or more foreshadowing for her return as it is for Ra’s al-Ghul’s. And she plays the part well, as Batman’s feelings for her color his actions throughout the episode.
Notably, it is specifically Batman who has feelings for her. Even out of the costume, Conroy’s voice is lower and rougher when he talks to her than he usually is when playing Bruce Wayne, much closer to his Batman voice. She is a more appropriate partner for Batman than Wayne, after all. Wayne cannot date a criminal and a terrorist; he hates criminals, and further he exists to maintain a public persona that would be shattered by association with crime. Batman, on the other hand, is a criminal created to do the things that a public figure like Bruce Wayne can’t; Talia is an ideal match for him, especially as here and in her introductory episode she is presented as Batman’s equal in skill, intelligence, and courage.
And, of course, Talia is as much haunted by her father as Batman is. Her life is deeply shaped by her father: we see that she lives in his house, watched over by a massive painting of him, and at the slightest hint that he lives, she is ready to drop everything and cross the world. And, too, he has greatly shaped who she is and how she behaves, most notably in her very strange notions of how romance and relationships work, a direct copy of her father’s sexist meddling in finding her a “worthy” husband to be his heir when Talia already represents his perfect heir. Even when she believes he’s dead, her father still controls her life from beyond the grave.
Indeed, all three major players in this episode are haunted. Ra’s is himself a ghost, true, but he is no less haunted by the past, and specifically by his obsession with the ancient Pharaoh Thoth-Khapera and her secrets of life and death. Both his past failure to acquire her knowledge in 1898–he seems to have discovered a false entrance to her tomb and triggered a booby trap, or at least, that’s the likeliest explanation for why he needs a map to find her tomb in 1994–and the existence of a powerful immortal before him drive him, as he delves deep into the past and tries to pull it into the future.
All of which gives another reason why Ra’s al-Ghul’s episodes tend to be structured like old-fashioned adventure serials, with the globe-trotting, the stereotypical-bordering-on-racist musical and visual depictions of “exotic” locales, the swordfights and descents into volcanoes and ancient tombs. It’s deliberate, an echo of the past haunting the present, an old-fashioned “Saturday afternoon serial,” as Batman calls it. It’s one of two times Batman’s comments can be read as criticisms of the episode, the other being when he calls Ra’s out on not being able to see Talia as his heir–and both times he explicitly refers to the thing he’s commenting on as old or out of date.
The episode is quite aware of the danger in allowing itself to be haunted. That’s apparent not only in Batman’s two comments, but in the climax itself: Ra’s finds Thoth-Khapera, and she tries to suck out his soul, causing him to temporarily wither into the frailty of extreme old age. That’s the danger of ghosts, of course; spend too much time with them and they’ll try to possess you, hollow you out, steal your soul, make you dance like a puppet or wear you like a costume. It doesn’t matter much what they were like in life; if you let too much of the past into the present, you can find yourself trapped by it.
That’s a lesson for the series. As we will see in the letters columns of 1993’s Batman Adventures comics, Batman fans struggled with continuity “issues,” trying to make the comic fit in with DC’s other comics and failing. Thankfully, the people making the DCAU know better than to care; they can mine the past for inspiration and influence, but they know (and, given how much crossover there is between the makers of Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series, know demonstrably) that they don’t have to be beholden to it. They can give Robin Dick Grayson’s name and backstory but Tim Drake’s costume if they want! Less pedantically, they can give Mister Freeze a fantastic new backstory, motivation, and personality. They can use the past, learn from it, and then let it go, rather than be haunted by it.
Talia and Bruce could stand to learn that too. If they’re not careful, they could end up consumed by their ghosts, withered to a shriveled old shadow of who they once were, or hollowed out and possessed by some terrible thing.
Spoilers: They won’t be careful.


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To scare the bad guys, really (The Trial)

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It’s May 16, 1994. The top song is “I Swear” by All-4-One, with “The Sign” by Ace of Base coming in at number two. The top movie is The Crow; other well-remembered films in this week’s top ten include Four Weddings and a Funeral and Schindler’s List. In the news, last week Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa, which seems long overdue; ice hockey was made the official winter sport of Canada, which seems like something which must have happened long before 1994; and in a few days Pope John Paul II will reiterate that only men can be Catholic priests, which seems badly behind the times.
On Batman: The Animated Series, we have “The Trial,” a fan-favorite episode in which most of the series’ recurring villains team up to put Batman on trial for being responsible for their existence. Which, of course, he is; if Batman were not a popular character, and his comic were not successful, none of these villains would have been created or endured long enough to show up in the cartoon, which likely would not have existed either. But equally, they are responsible for creating him: how much of Batman’s popularity, after all, is due to the character himself, and how much to the entertaining and flamboyant villains he battles? They are inseparable.
Even within a diegetic context, this interdependence holds. From Batman’s perspective, his villains are (as we’ve seen before) merely avatars of the entity Crime, which preexisted both them and him. Crime killed his parents and thereby created him, and insofar as the assembled villains are aspects of Crime, they share in this responsibility. Meanwhile, the villains’ argument is made for them in this episode by none other than DA Janet van Dorn, which makes it all the more ironic that she must defend Batman from their charges.
Quite simply, and again as we’ve discussed before, Batman breaks the law continually, flagrantly, and very publicly. He does nothing to address the underlying causes of crime, while repeatedly demonstrating to those who might be considering turning to crime as a solution for their problems that it can be gotten away with.
But the frequency with which I’ve said “as we’ve discussed before” is telling. There’s nothing revelatory in the declaration that Batman creates his villains as they create him. That’s an idea as old as story. Without Grendel, the story of Beowulf becomes “a tough guy visited, bragged a lot, then left.” Without Beowulf, it’s “a monster killed a bunch of people the reader doesn’t care about.” Put them together, however, and you not only get the story of their particular conflict, but a series of consequences that produce additional conflicts as the story continues.
What’s interesting in this episode is not that idea, then, but rather that it marries it to another concept, the absurd, unfair, unwinnable trial. The go-to example there is of course Kafka, but the prominence of the Mad Hatter as both the person who breaks the other villains out of Arkham and the first witness suggests we should look to Lewis Carroll instead, and the trial of Alice. Ultimately it doesn’t matter as the two aren’t much different; one is played for horror and the other for comedy, but they’re still quite similar scenes regardless.
At the root of both is the idea of the trial as empty ritual, a performance that apes some notion of justice without actually calling it forth. That’s definitely what’s happening in this episode, between the Joker as judge, the parties claiming injury as jury, and someone who agrees with the charges as defense attorney. Tetch’s time on the stand is telling: confronted with the fact–which we saw clearly in his origin episode–that Batman has nothing to do with his abduction and probable rape of Alice, he claims he “had” to do it, that Batman was trying to take her away from him. Then he declares that he’d sooner kill her than respect her rejection of him.
The Hatter, in other words, is driven not by necessity but by rage and a desire for vengeance. So too are his other villains, as we see throughout. They are blaming Batman for their own pain, acting out their desires for violence on him, and the trial is nothing more than a mockery, a ritual that places a thin and ridiculous veneer of civilization over a barbaric bloodlust.
But then, that’s what trials are for, when you get down to it.
The “real” trial at the beginning, after all, is a farce as well: much is elided within the statement that Poison Ivy can be sent to Arkham, but not jail, due to having been captured by Batman, but what seems most probable is that she cannot go before a criminal court because it would necessitate an opportunity for her to confront her accuser, Batman, and hence learn his identity. However, the state is using a workaround to place her in custody anyway, namely a hearing to determine that she is mentally ill in a way that presents “a danger to herself or others,” which in many states is sufficient to sentence her to mandatory confinement in a mental institution.
This exposes the farcical nature of the trial on two fronts. First, it is revealed to be purely a matter of ritual; we know Poison Ivy is guilty, Poison Ivy knows she’s guilty, the judge knows she’s guilty, but she cannot go to trial because proper procedures–the ritual forms–were not followed. At the same time, it’s a farce because the ritual does not accomplish its purpose of protecting people whose guilt cannot be proven within the rules: since “everyone knows” she’s guilty, it’s a simple matter to exploit the complexities of law created to govern other situations in order to find a way to incarcerate her anyway. One wonders how many people in Arkham likewise fell into the category of people whom “everyone knows” are guilty but who couldn’t be proved as such in a court of law. After all, it’s not like something “everyone knows” has ever turned out to be wrong, right?
Then, in the trial arranged by the Arkham inmates, we see exposed the emotion behind the ritual. It’s all just vengeance. Punishing people who have harmed others doesn’t undo that harm, it just compounds it, widening the circles of the harmed. Punishment doesn’t work as rehabilitation–quite the opposite, given the frequency with which people jailed for minor offenses commit more serious offenses after release. And there’s no evidence that it works as a deterrent, given our ridiculously large prison populations. The only thing it accomplishes is to satisfy that desire to meet pain with pain, to hurt when we have been hurt, and to see suffering visited upon those who create suffering.
And yet what option have we besides channeling that into some ritual or another? Certainly this episode has only one alternative to suggest, which is that we sit back and let someone put on a cape and carry out society’s vengeance with their fists. That’s no less barbaric, and not an acceptable solution otherwise.
So we end the episode on Batman and Van Dorn’s shared wish that the “need” for Batman someday end. They mean, most likely, that villains and criminals will stop taking action that invites vengeance upon them–but isn’t that just like Tetch on the witness stand, claiming that Batman made him kidnap Alice? Nobody makes us carry out vengeance; it is always our choice. And perhaps, if we stopped wasting our time on it, we could instead address the underlying causes of that for which we seek vengeance.
Unfortunately, that’s not an area in which superheroes are permitted to tread.


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You trust me with all this (A Bullet for Bullock)

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It’s September 14, 1995, the fourth in a five-day run of daily Batman: The Animated Series episodes to close out the second season. That run began with “The Terrible Trio,” so see that episode for charts and headlines.

This episode slots in quite well in production order, however; we move from acknowledging some ugly elements to the worldview underlying superheroes to an episode that equates Batman to one of the most repulsive characters in the series, Detective Bullock, who we see here as a miserable, selfish jerk who provokes hatred in essentially everyone who knows him.
And, as he observes in the episode, he and Batman are essentially alike. Both are prickly, untrusting, prone to the occasional wisecrack at others’ expense. Both habitually commit crimes in the pursuit of criminals. Both have a long list of people who hate them, both are quite happy to employ violence in their work, and both walk right up to the line of being killers before pulling themselves back.
But Bullock is depicted, as always, as being a thoroughly repulsive individual. He lives in utter squalor, enraging his landlord (and rather telegraphing who the “amateur” trying to kill him will turn out to be), whom he verbally abuses. He manages to wheedle Summer Gleeson into giving him information, with her only requirement that he wait an hour for her to finish her work, but then he turns around and ransacks her office looking for the information. When she finds out, she is of course furious, and he loses her as a source. He can’t turn to the police for help because he’s afraid an Internal Affairs investigation will turn up all the times he’s “bent the rules” (this episode having been written well before it was common public knowledge that cops can and habitually do literally get away with murder). And he calls the one person actually trying to help him, Batman, names.
He is, quite simply, awful. But then, Batman drops a man off a building and catches him just before he hits the ground as a way of intimidating him into giving information, which as we’ve noted before is torture. Is he really any less repulsive?
(By absolute coincidence, but precisely the kind of coincidence of which psychochronography is born, I happened to watch the then-latest episode of Supergirl, “Falling,” the same day I started work on this chapter. It has a scene in which Supergirl, having turned temporarily evil, demonstrates it by dropping someone off a building and catching them just before they hit the ground as a way of intimidating them.)
In college, one of my professors–Amelia Rutledge–was an expert on, among other things, the tradition of heroic literature. She liked to describe a hero as someone you wanted to go to war on your behalf, but would never want as a neighbor; a force of destruction you pointed in the general direction of the enemy and hoped that they died of tragic nobility somewhere between saving you and returning home. This is the problem of the protector: they must be dangerous to be effective. The protector fantasy is a fantasy of violence; it is the fantasy that someone will hurt the people who hurt us.
Is that the only form the protector fantasy can take? Well, no. The example of Supergirl demonstrates that there is an alternative. We see a glimmer of it when Bullock tries to thank Batman for helping him catch Vinny the Shark, a tiny moment in which Bullock is less than completely repulsive. It denies the three-tiered model of humanity, that there are good people like Batman, in-between people, and criminals, because even someone as awful as Bullock can have a moment in which they show gratitude toward others. We see it in every sympathetic villain episode, and every time Batman puts his villains back into Arkham, knowing they’ll escape again.
We’ve been focused a lot on Batman as a figure of rage, revenge, destruction. But in that simple “thank you,” we get a reminder of the other thing Batman represents: hope. Hope that there aren’t bad people, just bad choices. Hope that redemption is possible.
The dark side of the protector fantasy is the violence of the protector. But it has a light side, too: it implies that there is something worth protecting. But if Batman is the same as Bullock, is he the one who should be doing the protecting? Is he helping or hurting the people he protects? Is he, in short, doing any good?
It’s time for Batman to stand trial.


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Do you think he was born this way? (Sideshow)

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Yes, I know, this was supposed to be up Monday. I forgot, because Monday was a holiday and therefore my brain registered it as Sunday II: The Return, more or less. I’ll put up the next video tomorrow, and move the Morwen’s Log recap to Friday.
It’s May 3, 1994, nearly five months after the release of Mask of the Phantasm, and a day after the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series‘ second season to air, “House and Garden,” so we’ll wait until that episode for headlines and charts.
With the new season comes a new opening sequence, and it is very different from the first. Where that sequence served as a sort of introductory short to the nature of Batman and the show, this is a more typical opening, focused on conveying the flavor of the series rather than telling a story of its own. It opens with the show’s rebranded title, The Adventures of Batman and Robin, accompanied by a more grandiose version of the same theme as the first season’s opening. It continues as promised with a series of images depicting Batman and Robin’s adventures, mostly taken from past episodes, and accompanied by a less mysterious, more adventure-focused on the theme.
As becomes clear once the episode opens, however, the retool hinted at by the opening is not yet upon us. This is still the same show we saw last season; even outside of Gotham, on a bright day out in the woods, it retains much of the brooding color palette with which we’ve become familiar.
The story, too, is in a familiar register, while hitting enough fresh notes to be interesting. We follow Killer Croc as he escapes from the train conveying him to a distant prison–notably, he is not being taken to Arkham, because he has been ruled “sane” and therefore is being placed into the normal prison system.  What follows is one of the best action sequences in the series so far, as Batman struggles to deal with the unfamiliar (and quite beautiful) natural terrain while Croc struggles to shake off a sedative. The two are thus both having to fight circumstances more than with each other, though Croc does take advantage of a number of opportunities to, as Batman-as-Croc put it in “Almost Got ‘Im,” throw a rock at Batman.
Ultimately both characters fall, Batman into a ravine from which he barely manages to pull himself, and Croc into a river, from which he’s rescued by a group of “circus freaks” who are making a peaceful life for themselves in isolation, and invite Croc to join them. Recall that Croc’s first episode established that, like them, he was once put on display in a circus, but escaped and turned to crime. Here he is given a chance to join a peaceful community of people like him, and clearly tempted by the offer. He visibly struggles with the choice of whether to remain with them or try to rob them, and picks the former.
But the choice doesn’t last. Once Batman arrives, his determination to keep secret his life of crime and to get revenge drives Croc to try to kill him, alienating the other “freaks.” The result is, perhaps, better than the norm for Batman, which tends to near-universally place the characters who fall outside the norms of appearance in the evil camp, but it still seems to suggest that there is something innately wrong about Croc. Of course there is; he is a supervillain, and as such his character is inherently more interesting engaging in crime than living peacefully on a farm somewhere. No matter what else happens, he must return to criminality, just as any attempt by Catwoman, Harley Quinn, or Two-Face to “go straight” must end in disaster.
But this means that, within the realm of the superheroic, some people are innately criminal. Which of course goes to the protector fantasy; to imagine the possibility of a perfect protector, someone who both possesses the power to keep us from harm and can be trusted with that power, is to imagine the possibility of the protector’s opposite, someone who possesses power and can be relied upon to always abuse it. The protector fantasy naturally divides the world into three kinds of people: the protectors, who wield power for our defense, the protected, who have no power, and the ones from whom we need to be protected, who must be contained and punished lest they use their power against us.
Which is to say, it divides the world into a hierarchy of good people who should be in charge, middle people who are to let the good people run things, and bad people who should be punished. It’s every authoritarian scheme ever devised, with the only variation being how “good” and “bad” are defined: if we define them by martial prowess and ancestry, you get monarchism; by wealth, capitalism; by ethnic markers, racism. They’re still all the same thing, which you can call meritocracy, bigotry, or elitism, all three being ultimately the same thing as well: the idea that some people are just betterthan others, and the best should be in charge while the worst suffer.
So yes, the indulgence of the protector fantasy is fun, and Batman: The Animated Series is a very good show. But we must approach it–and the superhero in general–with caution, because bubbling under the surface are some very ugly ways of thinking. Croc denies his humanity quite vehemently; we must be careful not to do the same.


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Something happened to you, didn't it? (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm)

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It’s December 17, 1993, exactly three months since the first season of Batman: The Animated Series ended. The top song is Janet Jackson with “Again”; Ace of Base, Mariah Carey, Meat Loaf, and Salt-N-Pepa also chart. The top movie is The Pelican Brief, with Mrs. Doubtfire, Wayne’s World 2, Beethoven’s 2nd, and Sister Act 2 rounding out the top five. Not making it onto the charts is the only theatrically released DCAU movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though it does make it up to 11th place next weekend and will cling stubbornly onto the bottom half of the top twenty for most of January.
The movie opens much as episodes of the series do, with a dark skyline set against ominously red skies, harbingers of apocalypse, accompanied by an absolutely stunning score–this film represents some of BTAS composer Shirley Walker’s best work. But this is no tale of apocalypse deferred; rather, it is a story about decay, the loss of a bright past promise.
The film weaves together a present crisis–mobsters are being murdered by a shadowy figure eyewitnesses mistook for Batman–with flashbacks to a period in Batman’s life we haven’t seen before, at the very beginning of his crimefighting career. We are past his training with Zatara and Yoru, but before he put on his mask, the last moment of choice before he gave himself over to the Bat.
Batman is, as we have discussed several times, a trauma survivor. His identity is fractured by the horror of seeing his parents murdered in front of him, the guilt he feels for being unable to stop their killer, for being alive when they are dead. Bruce Wayne and the Bat are both masks worn by the frightened child underneath, but what we see in this film is a moment when both are still half-formed, still visibly full of raw pain and determination. Andrea Beaumont is able to see this pain in Bruce, and is fascinated by it, most likely because she has lost a parent as well.
In the course of the love affair that follows, we see Bruce in a ski mask trying to fight crime and nearly getting killed because criminals don’t fear him. The Bat has driven him to become the protector he never had, but at this stage it is still half-formed, nameless and vague, and hence it is the Bruce-mask that must fight, with limited success both times we see him do it. He is vengeance, but he is not yet the night.
We also see Bruce and Andrea attend the Gotham World’s Fair, a glittering promise of a shining future full of wonders, a deliberate contrast to the modern day, when the Joker is living in the dark, squalid, creepy ruins of that same World’s Fair. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but the point is made: the future ain’t what it used to be. Bruce Wayne makes several references to “the plan” in flashback, first as his intent to fight crime, and later his new plan to spend his life with Andrea. There was a plan for the world, too. If, as seems likely, the flashbacks are about ten years prior to the present-day segments–long enough that Alfred has gone gray, but the people who were young in the flashbacks are still relatively young in the present–then that places them in the early 1980s, when the future of the world was known: fiery apocalyptic conflagration, the final triumph of good (read: the capitalist West) over evil (read: the Soviet Union), and then somehow this would lead into an era of prosperity and peace that looked exactly like Leave It to Beaver.
But instead of conflagration there was decay. The Soviet Union collapsed. A few years later, so did the U.S. economy. Suddenly a future of rocket ships and friendly robot servants and self-cleaning houses seemed absurd; in their place the expectation was for the decay to continue forever, a steady rotting away of the order of things, a descent into chaos and despair.
So it is that the Joker lives in the ruins of the future, a bitter joke lingering in the wreckage. But he’s not the primary antagonist here: that’s the Phantasm, the assassin killing mobsters. The name carries associations with both ghosts and illusions, death and deception. Of course on one level it’s a straightforward description of what she does, using a strange fog to appear and disappear, confuse her victims, and then kill them.
But, oddly, the Phantasm is never named as such in the film. And the title, note, is “Mask of the Phantasm.” Curious given that, over the course of the flashbacks, Wayne discovers the Bat Cave on a date with Andrea, then when she leaves him (because her father is being hunted by the mobsters who, in the present day, she returns to kill) he quite dramatically dons the Batman costume for the first time, the implication being that the discovery of the cave inspired him, and the loss of Andrea motivated him, to adopt the Bat as his totem. The Mask, and potentially the Phantasm as well, the illusion that haunts, is readable as being the Bat as much as it is Andrea. Or, perhaps more accurately, Andrea can be read as an instance of the true Phantasm, that which truly haunts Bruce Wayne.
This, after all, is the nature of trauma. It can be created by a singular event or a lengthy ordeal, but once the trauma exists, it takes on a cyclical nature. The victim re-experiences their trauma again and again throughout their lives, pulled back into it by the very coping mechanisms that let them survive it, as those coping mechanisms are triggered by stimuli associated with the original trauma. Bruce Wayne revisits his trauma every time his origin story is told, reliving the pain and fear and grief and rage of his parents’ death, the helplessness and guilt, the creation of the Bat and its unleashing upon Crime. The pain of that loss, the risk of experiencing it again, led him to shut himself off for years as he trained–and then when he is on the cusp of turning his pain outward onto the world, Andrea appears. He lets himself love again, after begging for his parents’ permission to be happy in a scene that should have won Kevin Conroy every award there is. He lets her in, and the consequence is that once again someone he loves is torn out of his life without warning or explanation. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and he becomes the Bat. And then she comes back, only to be again “killed,” again torn away from him by his nemesis, Crime. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and the Bat stands brooding on a rooftop, until the Bat-Signal calls him into action.
And it’s not just him. A singular event can be a trauma, but a trauma can be stretched over a long period of time, too. There is such a thing as mass trauma; a natural disaster, a war, these can inflict trauma on large numbers of people. Perhaps trauma can even occur at a cultural scale, in a sense.
What, then, of a decades-long threat of imminent, violent, fiery destruction? Could we not expect a culture which endured that to come out traumatized on the other side? Would we not expect the culture that survived that to stop seeing the shining future of the World’s Fair, to have its vision of the future become the blighted urban decay of cyberpunk instead? The 90s have a reputation for “grimdark,” for entertainment that is obsessed with being loud, angry, violent, grim, dour, despairing, from comics to music to film.
But maybe that’s just the cultural equivalent of putting on a mask to punch crime in the face.


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Retroactive Continuity 8: Strong Female Protagonist

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The key to Strong Female Protagonist vol. 1–the first collection of the webcomic of the same name, published in 2015–appears near the end of Chapter 4, in the flashback to main character Allison’s childhood. At fourteen, she discovers that her budding superpowers are a strange phenomenon affecting many children her age, all over the world, and is brought to a government camp to learn more about her abilities. There, a boy named Hector invites her to join the superhero team he’s organizing, but she refuses on the grounds that there is no manual for being a superhero.
He counters that there is, and hands her a stack of comic books, at the top of which is clearly All-Star Superman #1–its distinctive Frank Quitely cover is unmistakable. The serene, happy, unflappable Superman of the All-Star Superman covers is based on an experience Grant Morrison recounts in his book Supergods. Assuming any of it actually happened (it is difficult to read anything Morrison has to say about himself or comics without the distinct impression that he is never not trying to sell you something), Morrison was at a convention where he met a Superman cosplayer who had this serene, peaceful, sanguine attitude, which struck Morrison as exactly the way a man who cannot be hurt would behave.
Pretty much all of Strong Female Protagonist is a demonstration of just how wrong Morrison is.  Allison–who, like Superman, is nigh-invincible, with her first and only injury occurring at the hands of a being with powers like herself halfway through the book, and even then it’s barely more than a scratch–is in near-constant pain throughout the book, which picks up with her 20th birthday midway through her freshman year of college, about a year after she quit being a superhero. Physically, she is fine, but she has to cope with everything from a friend taking advantage of Allison’s powers to anti-“biodynamic” bigotry to sick and injured friends and loved ones. Most of all, however, she struggles with the knowledge that her powers of super-strength and invulnerability, while handy for dealing with giant robots or supervillains, are useless for dealing with the world’s real problems: poverty, ignorance, environmental issues, war, bigotry.
In this, Strong Female Protagonist bears a notable resemblance to the 1999-2005 comic series Rising Stars, which is similarly about a mysterious meteorological event that granted superpowers to people in utero when their mothers were exposed, and which similarly has powerful heroes struggling with the inadequacy of their powers to solve real problems. Rising Stars will be covered in more depth later in this project, so for now let’s just say that its characters eventually do find a way to truly help, permanently transforming the Earth.
Strong Female Protagonist strongly suggests that that approach is impossible. First, the supervillain Menace (shortly before abandoning supervillainy; he’s Allison’s friend Patrick now, with his former identity known apparently only to the two of them) revealed to Allison that someone killed all the biodynamic individuals whose powers might have really changed the world for the better–people able to generate unlimited energy or talk to diseases are mentioned. Second, Allison rejects her friend Feral’s choice to use her regeneration power to become an endless organ donor, saving dozens of lives a day at the price of unending agony. As Allison points out, the lives she saves will be the wealthy, the powerful, and the insured, while the poor continue to die.
This is, ultimately, a rejection of the protector fantasy. Throughout the book we see its flaws, starting with Professor Cohen, Allison’s teacher who hates her because his husband was a bystander killed in a fight between Allison and a giant robot. When Allison complains about unfair treatment, he’s fired, because the school administration is afraid of what might happen if Allison feels mistreated. People alternately are afraid of her, hate her, treat her with kid gloves, or simply attack her. Even when Allison outright murders someone–a hate-group member who burned Feral and Feral’s medical team, killing the doctors and nurses–and threatens to murder the entire hate-group on national television, she faces no consequences, because she’s a superhero.
Everything is tied together by Allison’s rejection of All-Star Superman as the instruction manual for being a superhero. She accepts that people need protection sometimes, but she rejects the need for protectors. She has a great speech in Chapter 3 in which she argues that Feral’s mistake is in taking everything on herself; that only if everyone agrees to protect everyone else can the world truly be changed for the better.
“I’m nineteen years old, I’m invincible, I’m stronger than any human being who has ever lived, and I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
Allison’s words when she reveals her identity on live TV and quits superheroing resonate throughout the book. None of us really know what we’re doing, so we dream of protectors who do. In so doing, however, aren’t we really dreaming of abandoning our responsibility to one another?
Shortly after we see the flashback in which Allison received a copy of All-Star Superman, we learn she is returning home because her father has cancer. In an argument shortly after, her sister Jennifer angrily declares that Allison can do anything, to which Allison responds, “I can’t save Dad.” But in All-Star Superman, Superman actually does cure cancer patients–specifically, he sends in swarms of miniaturized Kryptonians to destroy the cancer cells of all the patients in a children’s hospital, with the possible implication that they will be doing this all over the world.
But Allison isn’t a Supergod. She’s not a transcendent, perfect being, who can shoulder all the burdens of humanity and leave us nothing to do. She’s a person, flawed and complicated, who loves fighting but hates that it can’t really solve anything, who craves friendship and connection, who goes to classes and student protests, and happens to be able to punch very, very hard. We still, ultimately, have to take care of ourselves.
More importantly, we still have to take care of each other.


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