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

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

Everyone needs a hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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My father murdered (Growing Pains)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cut to black, roll credits.


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby Episode 6

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There is something worse than demons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s hoping the grotesque win.


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Call it a… (Joker’s Millions)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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