Retroactive Continuity: Another Castle: Grimoire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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I had to save her (Chemistry)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…well, into something Other.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra S1E9-10

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

Commissioned essay for AskJeeves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Here before (Legends of the Dark Knight)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is yet another reason to replace him.


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Retroactive Continuity: Animosity vol. 2

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

Commissioned essay for Shane DeNota-Hoffman

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

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

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

All have their flaws, even cooperation.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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You have to trust (Old Wounds)

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It’s October 3, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; Aerosmith, Bare Naked Ladies, Jennifer Paige, and Edwin McCain round out this spectacularly 90s top 5. At the box office, Antz debuts at number one and What Dreams May Come at number two. Rush Hour and A Night at the Roxbury are at third and fourth, marking the first chart we’ve come across where I’ve actually seen all of the top four movies.

In the news, Europol is established and “pro-market social conservative” John Howard becomes Prime Minister of Australia, so the catastrophic rightward shift in the political winds that started in the late 70s/early 80s is still ongoing.

Speaking of catastrophic shifts, we have the episode The New Batman Adventures has been building to all season, the reveal of how Dick Grayson parted ways from Batman and became Nightwing. That, however, is not the catastrophic shift most highlighted by this episode, as the reason is more or less what one would expect: Batman being controlling, Dick rebelling, Batgirl caught in the middle between her lover at the time and lover to be.

The far more interesting catastrophic shift is that in Batman’s behavior. Since that change was introduced alongside with the changes in his relationship to Nightwing, occurring somewhere in the gap between the end of Batman: The Animated Series and the beginning of TNBA, it was natural to assume that it coincided with the breakdown of their relationship. But it didn’t; if anything, it precipitated that breakdown. The Batman we see in “Old Wounds” (colored, admittedly, by the narration of the very much not impartial Nightwing) is the same as throughout TNBA: cold, distant, manipulative, and calculating. Batman was, of course, capable of being all these things as part of his “I am the night” persona, but privately he displayed warmth, playfulness, and humor. And he still does in TNBA, in his relationships with his family–but “professionally,” so to speak, he is now all Dark Knight, never Caped Crusader.

So, we have to ask, what happened? And a clear answer shows itself almost immediately: Superman happened.

This is true on multiple levels. Extradiegetically, Superman is warm, playful, and funny in Superman: The Animated Series, so to differentiate the characters, Batman is made colder, more stern and serious. Diegetically, the emergence of Superman is part of a general shift into a world where both the characters and the threats they face are more fantastic, more powerful, and more alien. Batman’s world has changed from one where, once he kicks the gun out of an enemy’s hands, all he has to deal with are punches, to one where his enemies’ punches can potentially flatten skyscrapers–and with no guarantee that he’ll be able to tell who can do it, given that Clark Kent of all people is the physically strongest person in the world by several orders of magnitude. He is, in short, scared, and he deals with that fear by distancing others and becoming more hostile and work-focused.

But we are most interested in neither of those levels, but rather in readings that pass between and beyond them. Superman’s arrival wasn’t just Superman; it was apocalypse, revolution, and reinvention. Harley blew up Krypton, and Krypton was the world. The New Batman Adventures isn’t set in Bruce Wayne’s world, but in Harleen Quinzel’s, a place at once lighter and more dangerous, stranger and more open.

And that has Batman scared, because a world that is open is a world less controlled. Though in the past he was warmer and kinder, he was always in control of himself and often of his environment. He was, in most of the senses that matter, Alfred’s son, but he was also always Alfred’s boss. He was Dick’s father, but he chose that role because he saw something of himself in the angry, grieving little boy. He craves control because of that terrible moment when his life was entirely outside his control, and he exerts control by maintaining law and order (read: authoritarian control) in “his” city. He and he alone sorts the city into its four-caste hierarchy: the general populace, weak and helpless; the criminals who prey on them; the police who enact violence against the criminals; and the Bat who hangs over them all.

That his coldness and distance is a response to feeling out of control is demonstrated by his relationship with Batgirl. Theirs is a relationship of power exchange, of control, and with her he is still warm, even teasing. Likewise with Tim, still young enough to be unable to do much without Batman’s approval, and Alfred, to whom he can directly give orders. The only one he can’t control anymore is Dick, and Bruce doesn’t know how to love someone he can’t control.

Which is not to say he doesn’t still love Dick. Of course he does! But love isn’t just a feeling, it’s a process and a relationship, and Bruce is very bad at it with people he can’t control. His only familial relationships are with children he “rescued” and adopted and an employee; his romantic relationships are all with “bad” women that he tries to make “good,” most obviously Catgirl and Talia al-Ghul, but that’s also the role Batgirl takes when she plays the BDSM “brat” in their relationship. The last time he loved someone he couldn’t control, she abandoned him to become the Phantasm; the last time before that, they were gunned down in an alley. Batman is his own protector fantasy, and so his great nightmare is of caring for someone that won’t let Batman protect them.

He simply does not know how to handle Dick slipping out of his control, and reacts poorly, which drives Dick further away. The choice not to tell Dick about Batgirl’s secret identity is a bad one, but it’s understandable in this context: it’s a point of leverage, a way of trying to bring Dick back under control by telling him that he’s replaceable, and to undermine his independence by knowing something crucial about his life that he doesn’t.

The hardest thing to do, when you’ve been hurt, is to allow yourself to be hurt again. To drop the barriers and let go control, to trust another person, depend on them, permit them the power to hurt you as you were hurt before. This is the pain that causes Batman to go down this darker path, one that will keep him isolated and dark, driving away everyone he cares about, right through to his bitter old age in Batman Beyond. He is wrong, and getting wronger, but through this episode we understand why, and can feel for him.

“Old Wounds,” from a synopsis alone, sounds like an origin story for Nightwing. Which of course it is–but he’s the hero of the story, and as is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, the hero is not the emotional center. As a result, this isn’t just an origin story, or even primarily an origin story. It’s something else, something that BTAS in particular always excelled at.

“Old Wounds” is a sympathetic villain story.


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Crisis on N Earths: Animosity vol. 1

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks as always for backing, Shane!

And now a third take on animals attacking humans.

We’ve seen violent animals as the grotesque, a worrying violation of the social order that unsettles and disturbs us. We’ve seen violent animals as throwaway victims of human control, depicted as less grotesque because “only” their behavior, rather than their bodies, has been violated. Now we have animals as an oppressed underclass.

This is not the first time animals have been depicted as such. War with the Newts, by Karel Capek of R.U.R. fame, depicted the titular species of intelligent amphibians as victims of human colonization and exploitation, who then turned against and conquered the colonizers, only to repeat the cycle. Similarly, the animals in Animosity vol. 1, by Insexts writer Margeurite Bennett, are suddenly granted not only intelligence, but human intelligence and understanding–and more to the point, the animals we see (all of them American) seem to share a basically Western outlook. The result is, inevitably, violence, as humans and animals alike seek to draw lines against the Other.

Against this backdrop, the comic centers the close relationship of the bloodhound Sandor and the young human girl Jesse, whom he is determined to get across the country to her older brother in San Francisco, after (it is heavily implied) either killing her parents or persuading her that they’re dead in revenge for his abuse at the hands of her father. Jesse is a kind and giving child, and Sandor is fierce in his love for her, which (much like the relationship at the heart of Insexts) helps carry a comic that could otherwise be a bit didactic.

Which is a good thing, because the lessons here need badly to be learned. As is often the case with oppressed classes, animals outnumber humans massively, and once they attain consciousness of who they are and how they’ve been treated, humans have no chance of stopping them. Happily, the comic isn’t that focused on said treatment–this isn’t Grant Morrison writing yet another “animal rights” screed–but rather on how the survivors feel about it, and what they do with that anger. The comic is, in other words, less interested in the rather silly question “What if animals are people?” and much more interested in “What if animals became people?”

As Sandor describes and the negotiations in New York confirm, the animals mostly don’t actually care much about what happened beforethe Wake; what matters is that in the moment of acquiring consciousness, they became an oppressed class, and at the same moment realized their power and acted to end that oppression.

But, again, the consciousness they attained was a basically Western one rooted in the us-them divide. Animals became the new Other to humans, and humans the Other to animals. When Sandor acts to protect Jesse in the chaotic massacre the New York negotiations degenerate into, Oscar doesn’t see a member of his family protecting his daughter from a dangerous killer; he sees an animal killing a human, and reacts violently, treating Sandor as a threat rather than a protector.

Meanwhile, by defining themselves as an in-group, animals immediately begin othering each other. The mutinous members of the Animilitary justify themselves by demanding meat instead of substitutes, but the one who declares this is a koala, an entirely herbivorous species. Their rebellion is against Mimico, who is insufficiently revolutionary in their eyes, a difference which marks her as Other and therefore as an enemy in their eyes. It’s a pattern I’ve seen played out again and again in leftist and queer spaces, gatekeeping turned to Othering of those who don’t make the cut, turned to infighting that leaves all involved more vulnerable and less able to resist the real oppressor. The result is sadly predictable: the animals fight each other, and the humans fight them, and a scant few escape with Jesse and Sandor.

The arc closes out with a look at Jesse’s brother’s experience, which goes the other way: instead of degenerating into a chaotic free-for-all, the animal takeover in San Francisco was orderly and thorough, with humans like Adam who are “vouched for” by an animal–in his case, by a seal whose life he saved on the day of the Wake–essentially tagged and kept as prisoners. This is the War With the Newts outcome, the straightforward reversal of fortune, with the oppressor becoming the oppressed and vice versa.

Of course, those are always the arguments made against revolution: that it will lead to chaos worse than the current order, or that it will result in mere inversion and a new underclass. By using animals as a stand-in for all oppressed classes and marginalized identities, and realistically depicting the resulting problem that carnivores must choose between murder and starvation, the comic acknowledges that there is no perfect solution. Someone will always oppress someone else.

The question–the big one, the only political question really worth asking in the long run–is whether that oppression can be minimized and made temporary.


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