Crisis on N Earths: She-Ra S1E6: “System Failure”

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In some ways, the sixth episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power continues the pattern previously established in episodes four and five of introducing a princess who is initially unhelpful, but roused by She-Ra to become an ally against the Horde. And this is what happens in this episode, but with a major difference: up until this point, every episode has climaxed in a battle with Horde soldiers, and has a B-plot involving Catra and the other Horde characters. In this episode, however, no Horde characters or soldiers appear at all.

Instead, the A-plot follows Adora and Glimmer as they meet Entrapta, Adora gets infected by the virus afflicting Entrapta’s robots, and the trio has to fight the robots until they can defeat the virus. Meanwhile, the B-Plot follows Bow as he meets Entrapta’s servants, exhorts them to stand up for themselves against the robots, and leads them to save Adora, Glimmer, and Entrapta. We have, in short, what appears to be an episode without villains, since the virus hardly counts.

Or do we have villains?

The character of Entrapta has been somewhat controversial. She is quite popular, likely thanks to the combination of her unflappably positive attitude, eccentricity, and humorously odd priorities, placing her curiosity above the well-being of others. Disability advocates and some autistic people, however, have argued that her hyperfocus to the point of being a danger to herself and lack of empathy combine to form a negative stereotype of autistic people.

Fans of the character argue that, in the words of io9’s Beth Elderkin, “Entrapta is not a bad person.  She only cares about the pursuit of knowledge, to the point where the people  around her are only worth the data they provide.” But that’s just it: Entrapta does not care about others, except in terms of what they can do for her. Her attitude toward other people is entirely instrumental; if there is such a thing as a “bad person,” surely that would be its definition.

Consider again how this episode is structured. We naturally assumed, since it involves the main character of the show and takes up more story time, that Adora, Glimmer, and Entrapta’s scenes comprise the A-plot. But if we reverse the two plots, Bow is the one recruiting people to the Rebellion, people who are at first highly reluctant, but gradually convinced to embrace their own power and aid the Rebels, just as Perfuma and Mermista were in the prior episode. Bow is playing the role of Adora and friends in prior episodes; therefore, we can expect the other plot to follow the pattern of past episodes and place some other characters in the position of Catra and the Horde.

This other plot, of course, is the one that follows Entrapta–who, like Catra, is selfish and dismissive of the needs of others, but nonetheless sympathetic. Entrapta is responsible for this episode’s entire conflict, her recklessness creating an army of evil robots for the heroes to fight. And at the end, she’s learned nothing; instead, the ending of the episode has her scheming to do the same thing all over again.

Entrapta, in short, is the villain of this episode, albeit a villain whom the heroes accept as a friend. Her moral ambiguity, lack of empathy, hyperfocus, and scientific acumen all derive from the same source, the “mad scientist” archetype. That, too, is why she reads as a negative, ableist stereotype: because the “mad scientist” is rooted in just such a stereotype.

“Mad scientists,” generally speaking, come in two varieties. The more traditional type, epitomized by Victor Frankenstein, is arrogant, vengeful, and if not outright villainous, at least prone to creating villains and monsters. The second variety, most common in comic books and related media, combines elements of the “absentminded professor”–good-natured but distracted by their own creative genius and therefore forgetful–with the amorality of the “mad scientist”; their creations are usually “good,” but they are prone to obliviously and inadvertently harming others.

It is to this second group that Entrapta belongs, and it is here that the ableism enters her character. To create a character in a villainous role readable as a friend, the show uses the latter type of “mad scientist” but has her obliviousness extend to the point of seriously endangering others without caring. The result is that those relatively benign traits of the “absentminded professor,” itself rooted in a lesser form of ableism, become amplified and vilified.

Later in the series, Entrapta will actually straight-up join the Horde. This will be framed as the result of her accidental abandonment by the heroes; however, that abandonment is a direct result of her skewed priorities. We will examine that more in the episode in question; for now, we can leave it at this: Entrapta becomes a villain because she values information too much and human life–her own and others’–too little.

Or, rather, that is why she is villainous from the start.

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Fixed your (Critters)

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It’s still September 19, 1998, so nothing has changed in news or charts. In The New Batman Adventures, however, we have something new on a couple of fronts: a new episode, obviously, with a rare case of a more-or-less entirely new villain: Farmer Brown is original to the DCAU, and this is his only appearance.

Rather understandably so, as it turns out: the episode is basically an excuse for mediocre action sequences with giant animals and silly, not particularly funny gags. There are sight gags like a giant bull attacking a china shop or a stereotypical “farmer’s daughter” hefting giant sacks of feed or large men like they weigh nothing, dialogue gags like referring to said bull as “Ferdinand,” and (in the closest thing the episode has to a genuinely clever joke) even a joke courtesy of one of the DCAU’s unsung (pun intended) heroes, Shirley Jackson. The go-to composer for most of TNBA, she gave Brown a leitmotif of violin double-stops that sounds fiddle-like enough to fit his general American Gothic theme, but which actually comes from Camille Saint-Saens’ Dans Macabre. It is one of the composer’s most familiar works, rivaled only by his equally famous comedic chamber-music piece, The Carnival of the Animals.

Like most villain origin stories, there is at least a whiff of sympathetic villain here: we are told why Brown turns to crime, at least, and shown that he and his daughter do seem to have a bond. But his character as revealed in the recounting of his origin is a libertarian fantasy, a solitary genius and entrepreneur who developed an amazing new technology nipped in the bud by government regulators, so he sought vengeance using that same technology.

In this, he returns us to a familiar space for the DCAU: the equivalency of the grotesque and evil. His creations are monstrous because they are “unnatural,” familiar creatures distorted in size, in proportion, and by incorporating structures from other animals. But they are not the only “monsters” in this episode: Brown is as much a chimera as his toothy-mawed chickens, a hybrid of two stock characters almost never seen together, the “mad scientist” (who is almost always highly educated and from the upper class) and the “redneck farmer” (who is almost never either). Emmylou is likewise “distorted” by her superhuman strength, which is another product of her father’s work.

Emmylou is probably the more interesting of the two, because her generic Timm attractive-young-woman (blonde) design immediately recalls another recently introduced young woman who lives on a farm and has immense strength, Supergirl. Supergirl, however, is never framed as monstrous, her strength never framed as a joke; she is practically a pinup straight out of Timm’s Good Girl Art influences. Why the difference in treatment between the two characters?

The answer, simply, is that which underlies the concept of the grotesque, which we’ve also discussed before: abjection. The abject, the “unnatural,” is a violation of How Things Should Be, and therefore wrong, disturbing, frightening. Supergirl is not abject (or rather, since in a sexist society the female form is always treated as an abjection of a supposed masculine ideal, less abject), because she is natural; it is a “normal” and expected thing for a Kryptonian to have super strength in yellow sunlight. Her body is behaving as bodies like hers typically behave, which is to say that there are no reminders that it is a body, material, mundane, and malleable. By contrast, Emmylou is the product of “mad science,” an “unnatural” creation that was not conceived with the potential for super strength, but had it induced “artificially”–that being more or less the same argument the government regulators used against Brown’s creations.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bupkis. There is reason to be leery of creations like Brown’s, not because they’re “unnatural,” but because they were clearly produced without safety precautions or any care for the well-being of the animals involved. Hubris is a myth invented by the powerful as an excuse to punish the powerless for trying to rebel; the problem is playing with complex, living systems incautiously and without compassion, not that it’s fundamentally wrong to “play God.” Nature, after all, invented pain, hunger, and death; it is our opportunity, and hence our duty, to improve upon it.

Which, ultimately, is why Brown is entirely unsympathetic, to the point of being boring: nature is evil enough as it is, and doesn’t need his or anyone else’s help being even worse.

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Bad enough She-(Where There’s Smoke)

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It’s September 19, 1998. Not much has changed since yesterday.

In more ways than one, as Superman: The Animated Series decides to regress and introduce Volcana in pretty much exactly the same way Batman: The Animated Series did Poison Ivy years ago, as a straightforward and unironic femme fatale. Here her association is not with the vagina dentata that was so blatantly used in “Pretty Poison,” but rather with fire and heat, which of course are so common as metaphors for sexual desire that they cross into cliches.

But there is a key difference here, one that resonates well with Insexts vol. 2 (once again, the timing for my Insexts commissions always works out to be weirdly apropos): this episode was written by a woman, Hilary J. Bader to be precise. So while the story she is telling is the familiar tale of the woman who refuses to be a princess/victim and therefore becomes a witch/monster, the perspective she brings to it is far more sympathetic to that woman. The episode never loses sight of its real villains, the SHIELD-analogues of Project Firestorm. (They’re a clandestine government agency headed by a man with an eyepatch, whose main muscle is a man with a bowler hat and handlebar mustache. There’s no way that’s not a reference to Marvel’s SHIELD.)

For a moment, the episode even flirts with the idea of stepping outside of the normal limitations of the genre, as Superman appears to be fighting against the government, as he angrily tears apart a secret facility already in the process of being abandoned. Of course it would not be the first time a superhero fought the government without crossing into genuinely revolutionary territory, and that’s what proves to be happening here: Project Firestorm (its name another comics reference, to any of several fusion-themed DC superheroes by that name, none of whom ever appear in the DCAU proper) is a rogue operation. Superman isn’t really fighting against the government, he’s fighting against corruption, maintaining the implication that the system is fine, it’s just that some people abuse it.

But the mere presence of Volcana pushes back against that implication. She remains the woman who had power, and whom men therefore tried to make a monster–and who, when they succeeded, turned that very monstrosity against them. Set free from our culture and its patriarchy, she ceases to be a femme fatale as well. Even though her expression of sexuality is still there at the end, it is no longer framed as manipulative, but rather as playful banter of the sort Lois Lane and Clark Kent frequently exchange. She uses her fire, but flirtatiously, to make a little heart she blows into Superman’s cheek knowing he won’t be burned by it.

Except of course that she isn’t free. Her exile to a tropical island is framed as an alternative to prison, but in truth even an outdoor tropical prison is still prison, and solitary confinement at that. She has not attained freedom, which is to say the space in which to be her own best self unhindered by but participating in the culture around her; she has no culture. She has not been accepted but rather Othered completely, Othered so far that, as far as the culture is concerned, she no longer exists.

Meaning, in the end, we are back to the same old choice, which has always had three options, not two: princess, witch, or nonexistence. Utena even admitted that, by having Utena leave Ohtori rather than destroying it; from the perspective of Ohtori, she never existed. Only the destruction of Ohtori, by Anthy’s refusal to participate any longer and insistence on finding Utena, is enough to truly break the princess/witch, victim/monster, Madonna/whore binary.

So, despite ending on friendly terms with Superman and seemingly done with stealing, it should be no surprise that Volcana will return as a villain–eventually.

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Retroactive Continuity: Insexts Vol. 2

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I am, it seems, destined to reading Insexts volumes at oddly apropos times. I read the first volume, about monstrously feminine interiority that bursts outward into horrifying beauty, intense love, and righteous wrath, mere days before realizing I was a woman. Now I find myself having read the second volume within hours of being catcalled for the first time–treated, in other words, as an object that exists for the pleasure and entertainment of a strange man.

Insexts vol. 2 is, pretty explicitly, about the goddess/monster binary, which is of course the infamous Madonna/whore binary. It is about a cult of men who objectify women, literally, feeding them into a gaping maw in the form of a mirror so that they are transformed into works of art–static, passive, depicted by and for men as victims, monsters, or perfect goddesses upon pedestals, but never with any interiority of their own.

This is as subtle as the first volume, which is to say not at all, but again, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross” and a synonym for that is “grotesque.” Horror, and especially body horror, is so well-suited to morality tales because it is so rarely anything approaching subtle. And there is, in truth, nothing subtle about patriarchy; like the smell of garbage fifteen minutes into a visit to the dump, it turns invisible from familiarity, not because it is at all hard to notice to begin with.

The book’s epilogue is particularly trenchant here: it follows the first-person perspective of a voyeur as he pursues Mariah and the Lady onto a ship, and peeps into their cabin to watch them having sex. Previous sexual encounters between them always involved some degree of monstrosity, such as a passionate embrace while the Lady had the jaws and limbs of a preying mantis, but here we get nearly a full-page spread of the two lovers in fully human form, their bodies positioned so as to hide neither of them. But running down the side of the page are the panels in which they spot the voyeur and–still depicted from his first-person perspective–berate him for thinking they existed for his pleasure, then stab him in the eyes.

The whole comic, in other words, is about the male gaze in media. By transporting it into the belle epoque–the so-called “golden age” before World War I, which is of course also the era of robber barons, colonial genocides, and industrialization, but also the height of first-wave feminism–the comic reminds us that the male gaze is not only or even primarily a problem of popular media; it is endemic to art. For much of our history, women were actively erased from creative roles in the arts; they could only be models or muses, depicted but forbidden from depicting. History itself gazes with a male gaze, because almost all other stories were deliberately erased.

And, simply put, representation matters on both ends. First, because, as Phoebe laments at length, you cannot be what you cannot see: the deliberate erasure of trans women from history and the arts led her to question if she is alone, and ultimately even whether she existed at all. But the comic is more concerned with the other end: ultimately, a man can tell a story about women, but he cannot tell a story of women. Nor can a white person tell the stories of people of color. You must know a story before you can tell it, and so the stories that are never told can only be learned by living them.

As witness the cis women who write and draw Insexts trying to tell the story of a trans woman. What they end up telling is the version that gets told: Phoebe always knew she was a woman, and said so from early childhood, but at the same time she was originally “one of” the cult of men who objectify women into art, for which she has repented. To put it in terms endemic to cis accounts of transition, she “lived as a man” and “had male privilege” before she transitioned. Her transition is thus framed as an act of repentance; her happy ending is to magically become a cis woman, killed by a goddess-turned-monster and reborn into a conventionally female body crafted from stone by her mother. She is thus thematically connected to Pygmalion’s “perfect woman”; but because she is created by a mother seeking a daughter rather than a man seeking a perfect object, she is alive and vibrant, her own person.

It is not, so far as it goes, a bad story; but it is not the story of this or many other trans women. Ironically, the story of Lady and Mariah feels more like mine than Phoebe’s does. I, too, was repelled by and constrained within my body my entire life, feeling constantly on the verge of erupting into something horrific and grotesque. I, too, discovered that, once I let it out, it was both monstrous and divine, wonderful and powerful, full of rage and beauty and love.

And yet today I met a man, a stranger, who looked at me and saw an object for his enjoyment. He called out in appreciation, yes, but not appreciation of me–he does not know me and therefore cannot appreciate me. He didn’t even appreciate my body. The comic suggests that that is what men want from the women they objectify, but it’s not really true in the comic or in real life: the men here rob women of their bodies as well as their personalities, minds, and lives, transforming them into paint on canvas or stone. And the truth is, no catcaller expects the women he accosts to touch him.

Instead, as the comic notes, what patriarchy appreciates about women isn’t even their bodies. Bodies are real, and patriarchy doesn’t value the reality of women, only the simulation thereof: images and ideas unconnected to women themselves. What patriarchy appreciates about women is its power over us, and key to that power is the power to define us, as goddesses when we submit and conform and keep quite, and as monsters when we fight back.

This happens to all the women in the story, but especially to the unnamed Indonesian goddess that manifests for most of the volume as Medusa, and ultimately leads the other women in vengeance against the men who stole her from her home and imprisoned the others in art. Fighting back violently against the oppressors of women, she soon turns her gaze to Phoebe–and now it is the cis gaze rather than the male one, which looks at a trans woman and sees a man trying to hide in femininity. The goddess is, essentially, a TERF, convinced that trans women are really men and therefore to be attacked and driven from female spaces. Phoebe’s return as a cis woman places her in a position to be listened to by the TERF goddess, as she persuades her that she must be more than a monster–and so she must be, able to temper her rage and direct it at the targets that deserve it.

But to be more than a monster, a monster-plus, one must be partially a monster, and so we circle back to the comic’s epilogue. We are our bodies, but those bodies are ours; they are as dread and as powerful, as monstrous and divine, as grotesque and beautiful, as we are. We are more than monsters, more than goddesses, more than bodies, and yet we are all those things at once. We are people. We are not perfect.

We’re better than that.

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Like you, alone (Cult of the Cat)

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It’s September 18, 1998. Aerosmith tops the charts with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart. At the box office, buddy-cop comedy Rush Hour opens at number one; There’s Something About Mary, Saving Private Ryan, and Blade are lower in the top ten.

On The New Batman Adventures we have the final televised appearance of Catwoman in the DCAU, the rather lackluster “Cult of the Cat.”

Catwoman stories tend to fall into two broad groups. The first consists of episodes which depict her as one half of a complex BDSM-tinged psychodrama, a skilled manipulator whose genuine (and requited) affection for Batman is complicated by her criminal impulses, such as “The Cat and the Claw” or “You Scratch My Back.” The other group depicts her as just a cat-themed thief, physically skilled but prone to bizarre predicaments, such as “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Tyger, Tyger,” and, well, this.

If you’ve been following along, you can guess which depiction I prefer.

“Cult of the Cat” is very much an episode that exists. It is not, by any means, a bad episode. It is competently executed, but it has no particular ambition and no particular point to make. It takes no risks and attains no heights. It is about as comfortably middle-of-the-road as TNBA episodes get, which in itself serves as a clear signpost that it’s time to move on. When a Catwoman-centric episode about a secret cult of cat-worshippers who capture Batman with her help elicits no more response than “meh,” there is a good chance the show is running on fumes. There just isn’t that much to say about Batman or his supporting cast anymore–at least, not without extensively recontextualizing them.

Which of course is exactly what happens–but other than the occasional mention, that recontextualization more or less necessarily leaves Catwoman out. Diegetically, there’s no reason she couldn’t have appeared in Justice League or Justice League Unlimited; unfortunately, due to the infamous Bat Embargo (about which more when we reach the shows impacted by it), JL(U) had to be extremely judicious about its use of the Batman supporting cast, and Catwoman never made it in.

So we have here, possibly unintentionally, her sendoff, and viewed that way the episode actually becomes mildly interesting. After all, though I pegged it as a bizarre-predicament Catwoman episode, there are hints of the other Catwoman as well. She and Batman both spend some time in bondage, and he gets slashed up quite a bit–enough to destroy clothing, but never break his skin, which is likely due to network censorship but nonetheless only makes the violence seem that much less serious, and therefore kinkier. She tricks and manipulates him to keep the cult from suspecting her intent to rob them, then rescues him so that he can cover her escape–and she ultimately does, with piles of jewels. She wins–and then she leaves for Paris, never to return.

Especially coming right after “The Ultimate Thrill,” this episode stands out as a rare happy ending for a Batman villain. Recall that, as most villains are created to be villains, they are most interesting as villains. Generally, then, the two end-states they can achieve are to reform, which makes them less interesting as characters, or to remain villains, which is depressing and implies that criminality is a character trait rather than an action.

Here, Selina Kyle does neither. She remains proudly free forever, in Paris enjoying her ill-gotten loot. Like Roxy, she is a thrill-seeker; she will steal again. But she’s beaten Batman and gotten away with it. He has been repeatedly stated and shown to be the ultimate crimefighter; if he can’t contain her, no one can. She’s going to keep getting away with it, offscreen somewhere with Isis.

And that’s glorious. From the start, before the Harlequinade, before Poison Ivy rejected her femme fatale role, there was Catwoman, topping Batman, their dance injecting a decidedly feminine sexual energy to the series that pushed back against its early boys’ club tendencies. When Harley shattered that world, she left cracks and openings through which others could slip. One such was Supergirl, but she is a constrained and contained sexuality, a Good Girl pinup presented for the male gaze to consume. Catwoman eludes that gaze, however. Even as she moves sinuously across the screen, she does not allow herself to be dismembered; she owns the camera when she’s on it, commands the gaze, and will happily interrupt it with a whip or slash if it lingers too long.

Or she’ll just pick the gazer’s pocket and slip away.

Where Supergirl is a Good Girl pinup slipped in through a crack, Catwoman is an adult woman slipping out through the same. The two reflect their associated heroes: one sunny, conventional, innocent; the other shadowy, deviant, jaded. Supergirl pushes back against the show’s constraints with varying success, but Catwoman escapes them entirely. No one else really achieves this. Harley comes closest, but even she ends her story within the confines of the show. She is still Harley, and can only ever be Harley. (Perhaps that is the price she paid for her magic. Perhaps it was worth it. We cannot know.)

But Catwoman isn’t even Catwoman in the end. She’s not even Selina Kyle! Her altered hair style and color in the final scene suggest that she shed that identity as she left the show. She has, Utena-like, left the world and its rules about who and what she can be, to ascend to someone and something else. But that necessarily means she is gone from this world, fading to an empty costume and a photo in a file. That’s the price she pays for this magic. She seems pretty clearly to feel it’s worth it–but for us, it remains a loss.

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Good bad (The Ultimate Thrill)

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Yesterday was last week’s NA09, this is this week’s.

It’s September 14, 1998. In the two months and change since the last episode of The New Batman Adventures, the permanent International Criminal Court was established. The U.S. will eventually sign the treaty, but then refuse to ratify it, because nationalism. The Second Congo War begins. Its eventual death toll of 5.4 million people will make it the deadliest war since World War II; it will go almost entirely unmentioned in the U.S., because nationalism and racism. And on September 4, Google is founded, because capitalism.

The top movie was briefly The Mask of Zorro, which would have been deliciously apropos, but alas, no episodes of TNBA aired around July 17-19. Saving Private Ryan had a solid run before being displaced by first Blade and then There’s Something About Mary, which is quite possible the most 90s sentence I’ve ever written. This weekend, the top movie was Rounders, which I’ve never heard of.

The top song was “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica through August, before being supplanted by Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which debuted at number one September 5. Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart.

Sometimes, working on a project like this, you start to wonder if you’ve gone too far out on a rhetorical limb. Is that metaphor getting overstrained? That reading too tenuous?

And then, sometimes, the work will just hand you a big steaming platter of text, an episode you don’t remember but that is nonetheless basically textual confirmation of what you were talking about.

That’s “The Ultimate Thrill.”

On one level, Roxy Rocket’s return is disappointing. The whole point of her character, back in Batman Adventures Annual #1, was to be the one villain that successfully reformed. But here she is, back to theft. It seems even creating a villain specifically to reform is not enough to escape the gravity of the classification. Once the narrative has othered you and defined you by crime–once you have been placed in the class “criminals”–there is no escape.

But her reason for returning to crime is so refreshingly different that it’s worth it: Roxy Rocket is a fear fetishist. She gets what is clearly, blatantly a sexual thrill from risking her life and safety; she is committing her crimes because the risk of being caught excites her. All while gripping a powerful, fast, phallic cartoon rocket between her legs. Except, that is, when she thinks she and Batman are about to die. Then she turns around, grips him between her legs, and cries out in pleasure.

This is all text. Nobody ever uses the word “sex,” but practically every sentence out of Roxy’s mouth is a sexual innuendo, and she specifically describes impending death as “the ultimate thrill” before, as already mentioned, dry-humping the Batman. And given that text, Batgirl flirtatiously claiming that Roxy won’t settle for any thrill less than Batman now that she’s experienced him is pretty clearly yet another pointer at their relationship, though it won’t be confirmed for a few years yet.

But Roxy isn’t entirely one-note, either. While practically everything she says is an innuendo, it’s also almost always a one-liner of the type one might expect from an action hero. In another context, she could easily be read as a heroic thief like Robin Hood or (arguably) Indiana Jones. But in Batman’s world there are no heroic thieves, only criminals and those who fight them, and Roxy lies in the former category.

And she quite probably knows it. Half her comments suggest that she believes herself to be just performing, a character in a movie–which, of course, she essentially is. As is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, Batman flits around the edges of the narrative, lurking in shadows, and freeing her to take the center, which she does. She steals basically every scene she’s in–charismatic, energetic, always moving, always teasing.

Frankly, she’s sexier by far than Poison Ivy’s seductions or Harley Quinn trying to get the Joker’s attention, in large part because she is complete in herself. She desires nothing except to do what she is doing, the pleasure of her own actions the only motivation she needs to take them. She is neither tortured nor haunted; nothing drives her; no trauma lurks in her past. She just thinks it’s hot, and that’s wonderful.

The only character to really compare her to is thus, perhaps oddly, the Joker. Not the Joker as we have come to know him after four seasons—a misogynistic sadist whose “chaos” is really just a flattened pyramid with himself on top—but as he appeared in “Christmas with the Joker,” the trickster who takes over the fringes of the narrative and forces Batman to the center, thereby emboiting him and his show. Roxy, to be clear, does not do that. She seeks the center, the position of gravity. She wants not to absorb the narrative but to live it—the thrilling life of the adventurer, the constant peril, the narrow escapes, all on the strength of her athleticism, wit, and a few choice gadgets. She wants, in short, to be Batman, main character of The New Batman Adventures.

Not, to be clear, Batgirl. They have quite a bit in common: both redheads, though Roxy’s hair is darker, both brave and agile, both seemingly free of trauma. And, of course, both with decidedly kinky attractions to Batman. But Roxy is no one’s sidekick–which is, ultimately, what dooms her. His name is in the title of the show; she may occupy the center for an episode, but she cannot overcome his main character status. The narrative must deform to lead to his victory, because that is the type of story this is; inevitably, his nerve outlasts hers in their final game of chicken.

At the end of the episode, she is cuffed, downcast, her rockets destroyed. She is in the center at last—but, for the only time in the episode, she is held still. Getting what she wanted means losing her defining trait–as it often is, the real thrill was in the chase.

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Retroactive Continuity: Goth Western

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Yes I know this is a week late; I’ll do two essays and two vlog posts this week to make up for last week.

Goth Western really isn’t all that gothic. The webcomic by bonyfish (a.k.a. Livali Wyle) has some light touches of the weird, what with its many-armed forgotten gods haunting the desert landscape of the Old West, but even those aren’t that strong. It’s also got a fascination with death, but purely as a stage in a process; Mag notwithstanding, there is no lurking darkness within the self waiting to reach up and consume us, no haunting echoes of past losses threatening to return. The most goth thing about the comic, really, is the color scheme: monochrome with touches of red for blood and flowers.

The first chapter implies otherwise. It opens with Jack in what looks like an unwinnable standoff, though of course an in medias res opening that implies the main character’s death but cuts away without showing it is essentially an announcement that the climax of the story will be showing us that character survive. But we flash back to the death of Evelyn, and at once we appear to be starting the story with the fridging of one half of a lesbian couple–hardly an auspicious beginning!

But what we have here is a case of narrative substitution. The death of Evelyn is a narrative collapse of sorts, as she is quite clearly alive in the opening. The narrative of the lone gunwoman haunted by the death of her lesbian lover–which would fit quite neatly into the traditions of both westerns and gothic literature–collapses the instant it begins, the opening of the story and beginning of the plot contradicting one another. The substitution occurs only a few pages later, when Jack sells her soul to Millustra in exchange for restoring Evelyn to life.

This is where the story appears to begin to take on elements of the gothic. It is a not unfamiliar tale: driven by love and grief, Jack puts herself at the mercy of a trickster god, described as the god of doomed lovers, to bring back the one she’s lost. We know how this will go: Jack will have to do terrible things in service of her dark master, and most likely lose the restored Evelyn as a result. Evelyn may not even be herself anymore; she might just be a shell, or she might be haunted by having come so close to death. In the end, this will all turn out to have been a terrible mistake, most likely involving the suffering and deaths of Jack and Evelyn.

And yet instead, the story is surprisingly brief. Jack is sent to kill one of Millustra’s enemies, a serial killer trying to get the god’s attention by killing those he has marked. There is little characterization of the villain, but he seems a thoroughly reprehensible sort, and though it takes some effort, Jack and Evelyn kill him and his henchmen before riding off together, still very much alive and in love, and in search of more adventure. They are not suffering, not dead; the ending is joyous and bright. There is very little that could be called gothic here.

What there is, is love. Queer love, specifically. Millustra is, as Jack asserts in the denouement, a god of love first and death second; not, as the beginning of the story implies, a trickster god who dooms lovers to death, but a protector god who defends those who find a love worth dying for. He demands violence, but not against those whom he watches over; he seeks violence against those who would threaten them, like the villain. This is the second and final substitution the narrative performs. In the end, it rejects the “deal with the devil” narrative and embraces love instead.

When narrative substitution occurs, there is inherently an implied criticism of the narrative that has been replaced. The idea of doomed love as something beautiful, even admirable, of art that celebrates the noble suffering and pain of tragic lovers, runs into serious issues when we apply it to stories of queer love. Heteronormative love cannot be othered–that’s what the “normative” part means!–and so depicting a doomed instance of it is not inherently harmful. Queer love, however, is consistently othered, and so showing it as doomed carries implications of negative judgment–implications made all the stronger by the fact that for much of the 20th century, queer love stories could generally only be published if they ended in tragedy, precisely in order to convey a negative judgment.

To put it in terms we have been discussing lately, a lesbian summoning a many-armed, fanged trickster god of death and love to resurrect her lover is an embrace of queer monstrosity. It is a declaration that, if we are to be treated as monsters anyway, we may as well take the chance to destroy our enemies. Millustra, to quote Jack’s already-referenced speech near the end, “looks after us misfits who find that love in strange places, who’ll defend it with everything we’ve got.” A serial killer hunting those who have been touched by Millustra, in other words, is hunting people who have experienced love outside of the boundaries of heteronormativity; our villain is a homophobe.

And he “had it all backwards from the start.” He wasn’t hunting monsters; he was creating them, drawing boundaries and setting definitions, practicing abjection via gunfire. That’s the point of the final substitution, the happy ending: the tragedy and doom were created by him and those like him, suffering imposed in judgment of difference. The real monsters are here on the inside, the part of Us that creates a Them, not the Them themselves; and when those monsters are defeated, there is no further need for an Us or a Them, for normality and deviance. There’s just freedom and love.

Huh. The real monsters are on the inside.

Maybe it’s a little bit gothic after all.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra: Princess of Power S1E1-5 and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S1E1-2

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Commissioned vlog for Suzyn Smith-Webb

One would expect, based solely on the titles, that 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power (hereafter She-Ra ’85) is more tightly focused on its singular titular character than the plurality of characters implied by 2018’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (hereafter She-Ra). This is very much not the case, however, at least where the two series’ respective multi-part introductory stories* are concerned; the degree to which She-Ra was not the main character of the first story of She-Ra ’85 is remarkable.

That main character is very clearly He-Man, which makes more sense when one realizes the circumstances under which this five-episode arc originally aired: as a theatrically released movie under the name The Secret of the Sword. More specifically, despite being produced as the first five episodes of She-Ra ’85, it was framed as a He-Man and She-Ra ’85 movie, because She-Ra ’85 was an as-yet little-known and unaired spinoff of He-Man.

She-Ra is thus framed from the start not as a character in her own right, but an extension and reflection of He-Man, who is the primary locus of agency in the movie. She is his long-lost sister, her sword a counterpart to his, her villain the mentor of his; his coming to Etheria in search of her is what kicks off the plot. Even her departure from the Horde and joining of the Rebellion–which should be her character arc here, the transformation from unwitting villain to hero–is easily accomplished once she is out of range of Shadow Weaver’s mind control. The rightness of the Rebellion, in other words, is framed as obvious to any good person, so once her nature as such is no longer being magically suppressed, she switches sides easily.

By contrast, She-Ra presents Adora as its main character from the start. Its first story is about her development entirely, her gradual (at least compared to She-Ra ’85, despite that spending more than twice the time on its first story) transformation from someone who sees Princesses as a monstrous enemy to someone who embraces becoming one in order to fight her own former comrades. To put it another way, The Secret of the Sword is the story of how She-Ra was discovered; “The Sword” is the story of how Adora left the cult that raised her. The former is passive, the latter active.

A key distinction, too, is how the two shows construct the titular character. She-Ra ’85 views her as She-Ra, who happens also to be Adora. She essentially asserts this herself, as she not only leaves the Horde but also turns down living with her birth parents; the one genuine choice she makes for herself is to be She-Ra, defender of Etheria, rather than Princess Adora of Eternia. Her agency lies not in making a moral choice, but in severing herself and her show from He-Man; necessary to establishing the spin-off, but also necessarily near the end of the movie, guaranteeing she remains in his shadow for most of it.

She-Ra instead centers Adora-as-Adora from the start. She is given far more personality and focus, and her life with the Horde far more detail; in particular, her best friend/love interest Catra and abusive foster-mother Shadow Weaver are fleshed out much more than in She-Ra ’85, where neither had much depth or relationship with Adora at all. Here they have both, especially Catra, a complex study in contrasts, not just between her prickliness and obvious deep caring and affection for Adora, but in her status as a rebellious loyalist, an iconoclast who nonetheless chooses to remain an agent of an authoritarian regime.

More to the point where Adora is concerned, she has no one to explain to her what She-Ra even is. She stumbles onto the Sword of Protection seemingly by accident, and initially transforms unintentionally. She-Ra is a role she assumes, not a discovery of her true self, with her transformation occurring independently of any revelations about her parentage or origin. (Which is not revealed in “The Sword,” or indeed the first season at all.) Ultimately, she does become She-Ra deliberately, but only after an internal struggle between her loyalty to and misconceptions about the Horde on the one hand, and her moral objection to the violence she witnesses firsthand in Thaymor. Adora doesn’t become She-Ra and therefore join the Rebellion; she chooses to rebel against the Horde, and therefore becomes She-Ra. To put it another way, becoming She-Ra doesn’t change who Adora is; she becomes She-Ra because of who she is.

Ultimately this difference lies in the very different environments in which the two series emerged. Partially that’s the already-addressed difference between a spinoff and a standalone series, but perhaps even moreso it’s a difference between cartoons of the mid-80s and cartoons of the late 2010s–and for once I’m not just referring to the difference between the dark age American animation was struggling through in 1985 and the golden age it’s experiencing now. Instead, I’m referring to what for lack of a better term we can call “lineage”–the works that most visibly influenced the work in question.

For She-Ra ’85, the obvious influence is He-Man, but that doesn’t tell us much. If we push back a little further, however, to the question of what works influenced He-Man, we can see two apparent choices, both dating to the 1970s. Visually, it has much in common with Star Trek: The Animated Series, in the sense of being quite detailed, imaginative, and static. (Not to mention sharing a studio, Filmation.) Settings are visually complex and generally alien, with bright, bold colors reminiscent of comic books; non-human characters are similarly imaginative and frequently grotesque, such as the new aliens introduced in ST:TAS or, in She-Ra ’85, butterfly-wing-eared owl-creature Cowl or the bug-eyed goblin-thing Mantenna; human characters, by contrast, are limited to a couple of narrowly defined base designs onto which costumes are added, to facilitate easier creation of dolls based on them (or, as with She-Ra ’85, to reflect that they are based on dolls); the animation of those figures is awkward and stiff. Narrative elements, meanwhile, bear a strong kinship to the lineage of action cartoons exemplified by Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends: the characters are depicted as essentially superheroes, with names reflective of their abilities or visual design, and their heroic identity is the focus, with little attention to characterizing or humanizing the individual taking on the heroic role.

The two strongest influences on She-Ra, by contrast, are not from the 70s or 80s–She-Ra ’85 contributes a premise and some superficial details, but it is (thankfully–we’re still talking about a Filmation cartoon from the 80s here!) not all that strong an influence on the way the show presents its story. Instead, it seems to draw most heavily on cartoons from around 2005-2015. The most obvious comparison storywise is to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like that show, it presents us with a main character who is themselves first and their destined heroic role second, even initially resisting that role; it starts with their discovery by a couple of close allies who receive significant character development of their own–Glimmer and Bow even have similar personalities to Katara and Sokka!–and it also includes a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of a conflicted antagonist character, without forgiving their actions or losing sight of the evil of the villains as a whole; later it depicts the “good guys” as severely flawed as well, ATLA through the corruption and authoritarianism of the Earth Kingdom, She-Ra through the disastrous raid on Horde HQ and consequent dissolution of the Princess League and defection of Entrapta.

Visually, She-Ra shares in common with She-Ra ’85 that the backgrounds are exotic and highly detailed, but little else. Its color palette leans toward less intense colors, and character designs of humans are highly stylized and varied, often placed in contrasting pairs–tall, slender Angella and her stocky daughter Glimmer, or lean, lithe Catra and the simply massive Scorpia. Non-human characters largely depart only slightly from the human, essentially looking like humans in costumes–there is nothing here as alien as eyes on extendable stalks or owls that fly using their rainbow ears, just human-with-antlers, human-with-fur, lizard-ish-human. Even Scorpia and Catra, who as a scorpion-woman and catgirl are more “monstrous” than most, are still depicted as more attractive than grotesque, as emphasized in “Princess Prom.” Perhaps most importantly, character animation is far more fluid than in She-Ra ’85: characters flow through motions, stretching and squashing, exaggerated facial expressions and postures emphasizing their emotions and actions. At the same time, when characters aren’t doing anything, they are less mobile than in She-Ra ’85–there’s a lot more blinking in the older show.

These are again features common to shows of the last 15 years, but with a somewhat different origin: the combination of detailed, naturalistic backgrounds and heavily stylized characters, fluidly animated movement and complete absence of “unnecessary” movement, are hallmarks of Japanese animation. The “anime boom” on American television in the late 90s and early 2000s led to a host of imitators, followed closely by a generation of creators for whom 90s anime are as much a part of their youthful influences as the American cartoons of the same period, and She-Ra follows closely in that tradition.

All of this, in turn, is why the greater focus on Adora in the newer series: in 1985 She-Ra was a reflection of He-Man, who was essentially coded as a superhero, with a superpowered alternate form, secret identity, sidekick, and small group of close companions who know both hero and secret identity. In 2018, however, she’s a magical girl. Her transformation is not a bridge across two halves of a fractured identity, but rather an accelerated maturation, from young teen to adult hero who is nonetheless entirely the same person. There is no neurotic need to maintain separation between the identities, no questioning of who is “the real person”; She-Ra is a tool Adora uses to kick ass.

*Neither is, strictly speaking, a pilot: both were produced after their respective series were already greenlit. Nor does She-Ra technically have a premiere: all episodes of the first season “aired” on Netflix simultaneously.

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Crisis on N Earths: US Embassy Bombings, Osama bin Laden

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It’s August 7, 1998, and two American embassies in Africa–one in Tanzania, the other in Kenya–were just bombed nigh-simultaneously by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The shadowy figure fingered as being behind the attack had an origin story straight out of a superhero comic: scion of a wealthy family, he founded an organization which, probably with American funding and support, aided the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion of a country near his own.

The resistance movement was the Mujahideen, the organization was al-Qaeda, and we are of course talking about Osama bin Laden. Today is the day most of America first hears his name.

Whether or not the US provided funding or other assistance to al-Qaeda in its early days fighting the Soviet Union is controversial, but it is generally agreed that if it happened, this was a major error that came back to bite the people who made it. I’m not so sure.

To be clear, two hundred people died. Nobody, except maybe the people who carried them out and their ideological fellow travelers, thinks these attacks were a good thing.

But American culture, for nearly half a century, had been built around the Cold War. It was the go-to argument for the oppressor class: can’t pay living wages or fund social programs because that’s socialism and we don’t want to be like those godless commies, you know? Can’t roll back the dominance of arbitrary Christian mores standing in the way of women’s and queer liberation; that’s secularism, the kind of thing those godless commies would do. Even the Civil Rights Movement was treated as a potential communist plot!

We have, multiple times, looked at the way the sudden, anticlimactic end of the Cold War impacted the national psyche. For a solid decade, the US was a nation flailing, a massively oversized military-industrial complex suddenly without an enemy to (never actually) fight, a police and surveillance state without infiltrators and agents of foreign powers to ferret out.

Some relics remained intact. To this day, conservatives will still argue against any proposed or extant social program by pointing to the Soviet Union, but instead of implying that we will become like the Soviets at their most brutally oppressive, now the implication is that we will become like the Soviet Union in the sense of collapsing. And much of the rhetoric is unchanged; the only difference now is that we are exhorted to report suspicious activity from our neighbors because they might be terrorists, as opposed to because they might be communists. (And before that, Nazis. And before that, communists. And before that, anarchists. And before that…)

And that there is the key. These bombings are not the moment at which terrorists became the new communists, but they are the prequel. They are the moment at which the new villain became known.

He’s a great fit. The best villains, we’re always told, are mirrors of the heroes. And if the American military-industrial-police complex, which is to say the American right, is the self-declared hero, then in bin Laden we have a perfectly cast villain. Most obviously, like the American right, he is extremely devoted to a far-right regressive religion which he believes should be the basis for government, which is to say forcibly imposed on all. He also comes from money, just like the American right. Most of all, however, he is motivated by a powerful hostility to the Other, a belief that violence is the appropriate response to any difference.

Hero and villain, in other words, believe precisely the same things, with the only difference being where and in what culture they happen to have been born. But of course, when your motivating belief is the hatred of the Other, that’s all it takes to be bitter enemies.

The common refrain in the late 90s and early 2000s, regarding right-wing Muslim terrorism, was “they hate us for our freedoms.” And that’s not untrue, insofar as diversity is a product of freedom: when people are free to be openly different, their differences are naturally more visible. Of course rather more significant a factor is that we have been conquering, manipulating, and oil-drilling the Middle East for generations; those of “them” who hate “us” by and large have fairly good reason to do so. But the common thread between all the world’s right wings, whether of empires or their colonies current and former, is that us/them division in the first place. “They” hate “us” for the same reason “we” hate “them”: because once you’ve divided the world into an us and a them, a Self and an Other, a normal and a deviant, hating and fearing the Other becomes natural, and killing them feels like self-defense.

Most terrorism in the United States is carried out by American-born conservative white men. That is simply a fact, and as true in 1998 as it is now. And for them as well, it is not untrue that they hate us for our freedoms, for our difference. Right-wing terrorism is motivated by the same hatred and fear and desire to kill the invading outsider–because, to those who draw those little circles of normalcy, everything deviant is an outsider.

And so the great transference can begin. Where once communists were the terrible Other, whose agents infiltrated the state and must be expunged, now it is terrorists. Where once being anything other than a conservative Christian white allocishet man made you suspect as a commie, now it makes you, if not a terrorist, at least suspect of aiding and abetting them. (Hence the nonsense about Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking across the border among undocumented immigrants from Latin America: to the rightwing mind, Middle Eastern people, terrorists, and Latin@ people are all Other, and therefore more or less interchangeably equivalent.)

We are, at least partially, free to be who we are. And they hate us for that freedom.

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Crisis on N Earths: Cowboy Bebop

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Okay, let’s jam. 3, 2, 1…

It’s like this. Cowboy Bebop is one of the most critically acclaimed anime series of all time. In the US in particular it was a massive hit, in many ways the peak of the wave of anime imported to American television that began with Pokemon. It’s where the wave crashed over us, a mountain of foam, gorgeous, sublime even.

But still just foam. (So many people are mad at me right now.)

The thing about Cowboy Bebop is that it’s all style. The characters are incredibly cool, but they’re also completely stock archetypes out of Westerns and film noir. They get backstories, which is what anime usually substitutes for character development, but those backstories are basically pure cliche.

(Except Ed and Ein. Ed and Ein are strikingly original and criminally underused. They also get even less development than the central trio, despite being vastly more interesting. The Adventures of Ed and Ein when?)

It’s visually stunning in its execution of familiar scenes out of space opera, wushu, and, again, Westerns. The music is spectacular, including a serious contender for the greatest opening theme of all time, and note that I didn’t limit that to anime or even television. It is very clearly the product of a group of artists absolutely at the top of their game and having a tremendously good time. That alone is enough to make it deserving of most of the praise it’s received.

But that doesn’t change that it doesn’t actually have anything to say. (So mad.)

Anyway, if we’re gonna talk about it, and we’re talking about the DCAU, we gotta talk “Pierre le Fou.” See, Sunrise worked on a number of early Batman: The Animated Series episodes. (“Pretty Poison” for one. So there’s another femme fatale they’ve animated; the difference is that Faye is what Ivy performs. “I Am the Night” and “The Man Who Killed Batman,” also.) “Pierre le Fou” is their homage to that work, and it shows.

A horror story about an “insane,” murderous clown with the mind of a child, a backstory of torment and abuse at the hands of institutional power, and a character design that seems largely based on a cross between the Penguin and the Mad Hatter. Also the climactic fight sequence takes place in an abandoned amusement park at night.

It’s pretty BTAS, is what I’m saying.

It’s not really a sympathetic villain story, though, despite the backstory. Cowboy Bebop mostly doesn’t do sympathetic. Tragic, maybe, but that’s hardly the same thing.

It’s a great episode. Besides all the BTAS, there’s a healthy does of Akira in there (look at how the flashback to Pierrot’s “training” is lit!), the villain is terrifying, and the fight scenes are brutal. This is solid horror, on top of everything else, and horror in a very different vein than “Toys in the Attic”–deadly serious and gothic, much like the Bat, as opposed to light and Weird. (Which I want to say is like Superman, but… eh. Not as neatly as I’d like.)

But there really isn’t much to chew on here. It’s meat-flavored, but it’s got no meat. It takes pieces from many places, puts them together into something that works, and that’s great… but that’s all it is. The whole is precisely equal to the sum of its parts. Everything’s on its sleeve, everything’s pure shiny surface–and like Pierrot himself, despite a bulky appearance, what’s in there is mostly just guns.

No wonder American anime fans latched onto it so hard. Calling this Dragon Ball Z for people who think they’re too smart for Dragon Ball Z is deeply, intensely, staggeringly unfair, as well as highly inaccurate. The Matrix of anime? Nah, that’s Serial Experiments Lain.

I dunno. There’s not really a good analogy. Point is it’s gorgeous and spectacularly well done and hollow, and I’m literally the only person who thinks that last part, and anyone reading this who’s actually watched Cowboy Bebop hates me now.

I think it’s time we blow this scene.

(This was originally written as a stream of consciousness and posted to Patreon with no editing. I have very lightly proofread this version–punctuation, spacing, and adding the countdown at the beginning are the only changes.)

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