Can’t get rid of us that easily (Little Big Head Man)

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It’s November 21, 1998. The top song is “Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill; 98 Degrees, Barenaked Ladies, and Faith Hill also chart. The Rugrats Movie and Enemy of the State open at numbers 1 and 2 in the box office, respectively.

Two days ago, the House Judiciary Committee initiated impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton; yesterday, the first component of the International Space Station launched; today, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time releases in Japan. It’ll be out in the U.S. the day after tomorrow, and ultimately accomplish the feat of being really quite good and massively overrated at the same time.

I’ve been absent for a while, in multiple senses. First, I took a lengthy and much-needed break from this series in the couple of months between writing the last entry and this one. Second, I-as-I-was-at-the-time-of-broadcast have not made an appearance in quite some time. There’s a simple reason for that: I wasn’t doing too well.

In late 1998, I am badly underweight and somewhat malnourished due to physical illness. I am also deeply depressed and failing at some critical courses that mean I will not be getting the special diploma issued to graduates of my elitist pressure-cooker high school, but merely the “higher” of the two diplomas issued in my county. I’m pretty messed up about that, and turning inward more than ever. I feel helpless and alone, and repulsed by the wrongness of my distorted, failing, grotesque body. (It’s still nearly twenty years until I figure out that’s gender dysphoria.)

We’ve talked about the grotesque before, and we have two clear examples in this episode, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk are both distorted human forms, Bizarro a troll-like twisting of Superman, while Mr. Mxyzptlk, with his tiny body and disproportionately large feet, hands, and head, is more like a classical homunculus. It is perhaps inevitable that they would be teamed, not because there is actually any commonality between them, but because we lump the grotesque together; all Other is treated as homogenously Other, while the relatively far more homogenous extended Self is treated as multifaceted and complex.

That said, the two do have something in common besides being Other, however: neither considers themselves an Other. This is for very different reasons, however. Mr. Mxyzptlk, for all his misbehavior, is a normative member of fifth-dimensional society. His life in his own realm is depicted as resembling that of a typical comics character–beautiful redheaded love interest, nice home without clear indicator of how he affords it, in a culture enough like ours to have recognizable trials. In other words, he is part of a culture that maintains a “normal”/Other distinction–the existence of courts alone demonstrates that–but thinks of himself as “normal” and humans as Other.

Bizarro, meanwhile, crudely imitates the typical superhero life, “patrolling” his stone model city and pretending to save its citizens (failing as often as not, not that he lets it stop him). He is not part of a society at all, but thinks he is successfully mimicking, and therefore part of, normative Metropolis society. Note that in his play, he rescues his “citizens” from a natural disaster, a rolling boulder, not a criminal–there is no indication that he recognizes that such a thing as an Other exists!

Until, that is, Mr. Mxyzptlk reveals it to him. It’s a horrifying moment, when you first realize that you’re different and other people hate you for it. It’s like drowning, shrinking, being swallowed into the earth, a moment of overwhelming shame that never entirely ends. Suddenly, you have to see yourself not as the subject of your life, the “I” who experiences and acts, but an object perceived and judged by others. It hurts, and it isn’t fair, and it unsurprisingly produces a great deal of anger.

What we have here is a clearly drawn bridge between the grotesque, the state of being both Self and Other, both person and body, and double consciousness, the state of being both subject and object. That liminal space between is one we know well at this point: abjection. Kristelva’s and duBois’ concepts, arrived at independently from being subject to sexism and racism, are facets of the same phenomenon. Which of course we knew: they’re both experiences of being marginalized, and so broadly similar in their psychological effects, though obviously the details differ.

I don’t remember watching this episode in the late 90s. Honestly, I don’t remember much of being late-90s me at all. But I remember the constant awareness of difference, the awareness that everyone who looked at me saw something broken, wrong, repulsive. Watching it now, I feel for Bizarro, and I hate the conclusion of this episode. I hate that it pairs him and Mxyzptlk, because it ultimately buys into the normal/Other binary and puts Superman on the normal side, Bizarro and Mxyzptlk on the Other side. They’re not alike at all; Mxyzptlk is malicious and cruel, and should be depowered and separated from the rest of us for that reason, not because he’s “strange”; Bizarro, meanwhile, only ever causes problems through misunderstanding. He needs teaching, not isolation!

But Superman isn’t like Bizarro. Superman is the normal/Other binary, its defender and enforcer, and in his stories, the purpose of the grotesque is to illustrate where that boundary lies and thereby reinforce it. No, he doesn’t actually laugh at Bizarro the way Mxyzptlk claimed; nonetheless, he buys into the same narrative that depicts Bizarro as something to be laughed at. And I can’t just let that go, because that narrative also says someone like me–physically and mentally chronically ill, gay, trans–is more like Bizarro than I am Superman. It says that we’re more like Mxyzptlk, a villain, than we are like Superman or the people he defends. It says, in short, that we’re the villains.

Is it any wonder that they’re our power fantasies?

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Retroactive Continuity: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Children are not tiny adults; in particular, children’s tastes are not necessarily the same as adult tastes. This is fairly obvious in the realm of flavor, which physically changes as a person matures: children tend to like sweet and dislike bitter flavors more than adults do, for example. But it’s equally true in the arts; for example, children tend to be more entertained by scatological humor than adults are.* The benign violation theory of humor makes sense of this phenomenon: references to taboo topics are funny because, as taboos, they violate norms, but as mere references they are not as risky as actually breaking the taboo. The more intense the violation–which is to say, the greater the taboo–the greater the laughter, but at the same time, the greater the violation, the greater the likelihood it will no longer be seen as benign, and hence stop being funny entirely. Adults are aware of much greater taboos than the merely scatalogical, which is largely just a chore, and so we find scatalogical humor unfunny because it’s boring; for prebuscent children, however, nudity and the scatalogical are the only taboos to which they have ready access, and therefore the greatest of taboos. At the same time, they are basically harmless, which is why they’re relatively minor taboos for adults; they are thus ideal joke topics for children.

The variance between children’s tastes and adults’ tastes can be navigated in a few ways. The four most common are appealing to adult tastes while maintaining accessibility for children; appealing to a mixture of adult’s and children’s tastes; appealing to children’s tastes in particular; and mistaking the differences between child and adult tastes for a lack of discernment by children, and just shoveling something out.** In practice, most works combine multiple approaches, but in general my writing focuses on works that take the first two. Captain Underpants is thus a little bit outside my usual wheelhouse, as it’s very emphatically and enthusiastically taking the third approach.

That said, it is still a superhero film, and we can still approach it in terms of the themes we have discussed regarding superheroes in the past. Notably, the Captain Underpants character created by the children in their comics has a classic traumatic origin, namely a parody of the Superman origin story, but the Captain Underpants persona they create within their teacher does not. His dual identity is imposed entirely externally, through hypnosis by the boys, as opposed to arising to cope with trauma. In this, it somewhat resembles the Hulk, in that the superhero persona is not consciously adopted by the character, but rather triggered unwillingly by events.

Nonetheless, the Hulk is still an expression of trauma, namely the trauma of the accident that created him, and an expression of Bruce Banner’s rage over his experience and loss. By contrast, Captain Underpants appears not to be an expression of anything Krupp feels–rather, he is an expression of precisely what Krupp doesn’t feel, joy and fun.

However, the boys’ post-hypnotic suggestion to Krupp is simply that he is Captain Underpants. A great deal of a subject’s response to hypnosis has to do with their own interpretation; for example, guided imagery of floating down a river could be relaxing for some, but provoke anxiety about drowning in others. That Krupp interprets the instruction to be Captain Underpants exactly as the boys do implies, first, that he’s read the comics he confiscated from the boys, and second that he has the capacity to imagine what Captain Underpants who do in the scenarios he encounters throughout the movie–and his imagination matches the boys’.

Early in the film, Professor Poopypants says that the capacity for humor appears to be a necessity for survival. Even he, despite his quest to rid the world of laughter, has things he finds funny. The only character entirely devoid of a sense of humor, and the first such person Poopypants has encountered–and who “doesn’t get” the Captain Underpants comics. Krupp does get them, however, at least enough that his subconscious can call forth a version of the character accurate enough to convince its creators. He does have the capacity for joy, humor, and imagination that the boys do, because without it, he couldn’t be Captain Underpants. He might try to be, under hypnosis, but he wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.

So what, then, has buried his joy so deeply that he can become the humorless, authoritarian jailer of children that is Principle Krupp? We don’t know. The movie never really hints at it; his life is solitary and sad, yes, but is that the cause of his joylessness or caused by it? Authoritarians usually come from authoritarian households, though sometimes they come from overcorrecting for an upbringing with too few, or too vague, boundaries. There may well be something in his past–some trauma, if you will–that robbed him of joy.

If so, then we have an unusual case: a superhero whose non-heroic identity is the one defined by trauma. Captain Underpants is, in the end, too silly to be the solution we’re seeking. Silly is a register in which superheroes work, and work well, but it’s not the only register; a hero who cannot handle any other is not a complete answer to our quest for a less toxic version of the hero. But the inversion is worth keeping an eye out for; perhaps it can help lead us to the answer we do seek.

*We are, of course, speaking here of tendencies. As a child, I liked bitter flavors more than most; as adults, my sister and mother like scatological humor more than most. And that’s before we even get into cultural variations, or variations across time within a culture.

**The attitude immortalized by Lindsay Ellis when she quipped, “Entertainment is the only area where parents say, ‘Who cares if it’s good? It’s just for my children.'”

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Young, gifted, and about to be squashed (Obsession)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s November 15, 1998. Lauryn Hill tops the charts with “Doo Wop (That Thing)”; Divine, 98 Degrees, Monica, and Deborah Cox also chart. At the box office, the top movie is The Waterboy; I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Meet Joe Black open at second and third, respectively. In the week since last episode, literally nothing has happened, or at least nothing I could find in my exhaustive research strategy of looking up “1998” on Wikipedia.

We’ve talked before about Superman and gaze theory, and particularly Superman weaponizing it against Lobo in the “The Main Man.” At the beginning of “Obsession,” however, we have Clark Kent and Jimmy Olson unapologetically employing that gaze while they gawk at models. The frame in this sequence centers the two men while models pass back and forth between them and the camera, their heads and limbs severed by the edge of the screen. Clark initially claims not to be looking at the models that way, but once the big-name model Darci comes out, he can’t take his eyes off her, as Jimmy points out.

Darci is, right from the start, objectified by everyone who sees her, but that objectification is not limited to her: the other models are likewise depicted as torsos upon which to hang swimwear. It’s no accident that, just as in “The Main Man,” this scene is almost immediately followed by robots getting their heads and limbs torn off, dismembered just as the camera dismembered the models. As far as the camera is concerned, they’re all just things, robots and women alike.

This is complicated, however, by Darci herself, a robot who spontaneously attained human emotion and free will. In contrast to the models, who are people reduced to things by the way they’re framed, Darci is framed as a thing ascended to personhood. The camera’s gaze is thereby equated to Toyman, who is the one trying to reduce Darci back into being a thing in his possession.

Specifically, he created her as a life-sized version of a doll very clearly based on Mattel’s Barbie, criticism of which had been much in the air around the time this episode would have been written–Aqua’s satirical song “Barbie Girl” peaked in the charts in September 1997, and in November the doll was redesigned to have less absurdly unrealistic proportions. In both cases, the doll is presented as an unrealistic model of human femininity–the redesign tacitly agrees with decades of criticism that Barbie is physically unrealistic, while the song uses Barbie as a frame to critique the idea of women as existing to fulfill male fantasies and desires.

Toyman, in other words, is being positioned in very much the same way that the Mad Hatter was in his origin episode, as someone who desires an entirely compliant woman because he cannot understand or cope with the idea that women are people with wants and needs of our own. He is, in short, an incel: a whiny manchild upset that real life isn’t all fun and games and immediate gratification, upset that others don’t cater to his every whim. Small wonder he builds a sex robot; men who hate women tend to love the idea, as it gives them a way to get their rocks off without having to care about another person, or for that matter acknowledge that a woman is another person and could be cared about.

Toyman views Darci’s escape, independence, and disdain for him as malfunctions, which recalls the bon mot that when men describe their exes as “crazy,” what they mean is “she had an emotion I didn’t want her to have.” He is convinced he can “fix” her, and indeed, having forgotten how the episode ends prior to rewatching it for this essay, her silence and stillness during the climax made me worried he had deleted her personality or “repaired” her emotions. Fortunately, that’s not the case: instead, she finds a loophole in her programmed inability to harm him, and takes down his helicopter, seemingly killing them both.

But this is where the episode’s uncertainty about her comes to a head. Throughout, the show has seemed unable to decide whether Darci is an out-of-control machine, a danger to the people around her, such as when she leaves Lana Lang to die in the fire Darci accidentally started; or if she’s a person trapped in a bad situation, as when she initially starts toward Lana, seemingly wanting to help her, before realizing she cannot make it past the burning chandelier. This ambiguity remains right through to the final scene, which reveals Darci survived and is leaving town with a very heavy case. This is good news, and yet the music seems to imply this is an ominous moment, leaving one to wonder what’s in the case–Toyman, perhaps?

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Darci is at least an attempted murderer, and she’s made very clear that it was deliberate, commenting on how much she wants to hurt Toyman even though her programming prevents it. She is either an out-of-control robot, or an attempted murderer, and in either case has escaped from Superman and her creator alike. (At least as far as this episode, and Superman: The Animated Series, is concerned. We’ll address her return when we get to Static Shock.) In the eyes of the show, that apparently isn’t a happy ending; in the eyes of the show, Darci is morally ambiguous.

But then, the eyes of the show started the episode by slicing women’s heads and limbs off. We can hardly be surprised it thinks Darci is less than she is.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S1E12-13

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

In the penultimate episode of the first season of She-Ra, Adora is confronted with a philosophical dilemma: Light Hope advises her that, in order to serve as the protector of Etheria, she needs to detach from the people she cares about and focus on her training. Light Hope warns that the present state of affairs, in which the Horde is able to run rampant over the world and severely destabilize its natural and magical balance, is a product of the previous She-Ra, Adora, neglecting her duties to the world because she focused on individuals, resulting in disaster, the fall of the First Ones, and the thousand-year gap in the She-Ra line that Adora is just now ending.

Adora, however, is initially unwilling to let go of her friends so easily, and the season finale seems to confirm that she is right to resist that idea: the other princesses are the key to victory in the final battle to protect Bright Moon, and those princesses only came because of their personal connections to Adora, Glimmer, and Bow. It seems curious, then, that Adora appears to be left alone to voice the apparently correct position against Light Hope.

However, there is a character who voices that position throughout the episode, with his position opposite Light Hope exemplified by the fact that he is (re)introduced in the same episode that (fully) introduces her: Swift Wind the horse.

From the moment he speaks to Bow and Glimmer, he speaks of connection, and not just his personal connection to Adora. He also speaks of working to liberate his species from oppression–humorous because, with the exception of himself, horses are non-sapient animals, but hidden within that joke is a key point. Swift Wind’s position on connection isn’t the same one Adora starts with, that she can’t abandon her friends: he’s included solidarity as well, which is to say that he sees himself as part of an oppressed group and therefore seeks an end to all oppression, not just for his friends or those like him.

This is key, because it exposes the typical misunderstanding of “detachment” presented in shows like She-Ra and one of its major influences, Avatar: The Last Airbender. That show, too, presented a reincarnation of a legendary figure with the idea that, to access his power, he needed to “detach” in the sense of abandoning his friends; it, in turn, was fairly clearly referencing The Empire Strikes Back, and Luke’s decision to abandon his training and face Vader in order to save his friends. Like Luke, Aang’s decision to rescue his friends leads to disaster and nearly gets him killed; in She-Ra, by contrast, at least as of the second season it’s been presented as straightforwardly correct.

This makes sense, as the position of Light Hope/Guru Pathik/the Jedi is, obviously, wrong. Detaching from connection to others and denying emotion are terrible approaches to life, as we have seen all too clearly in recent years; this kind of more-rational-than-thou hyper-individualism is a hallmark of the Internet troll and the alt-right, which are increasingly the same thing. The problem, however, is not detachment as an approach to ethical behavior; the common thread between these fictional philosophies is that, unlike most real-world philosophies and religions that teach detachment, these fictional depictions combine it with individualism, thereby transforming detachment into isolation.

That individual isolation is, here, contrasted with cooperation and solidarity, not just in Swift Wind’s work to free horsekind, but in his final conversation with Adora, in which he bluntly states that her idea of detachment—that her presence is harmful to her friends and she should therefore keep away from them for their good—is “stupid.” Her friends, he points out, can decide for themselves whether they want her around, and by coming after her they’ve clearly indicated that they do.

Adria’s particular take on detachment, in which she is harmful or toxic, resonates strongly with the theme throughout the season in which she is framed as a survivor of and escapee from an abusive upbringing. Sufferers of complex trauma—the type generally caused by ongoing situations such as abusive environments, as opposed to the “simple” trauma caused by a discrete event such as a natural disaster—often develop serious self-worth issues. Adora’s entire upbringing has primed her to believe that she is only as valued as the last thing she did for another, and on top of that she’s just learned that Catra blames her for standing by while Shadow Weaver abused Catra. Adora frames her withdrawal as protecting her loved ones, but in truth her instinct to pull away is that of a hurt child hiding from a world she can’t handle.

And she can’t handle it alone, as “The Battle of Bright Moon” makes clear. Adora does what she always does, charging ahead as She-Ra and fighting by herself, and in the process loses her sword and nearly gets captured, while the Horde nearly destroys the Bright Moon Runestone. What saves her is the same thing that saved her in the First Ones ruin: her friends coming to get her.

Because what Adora really needs to let go of is not her friends. That is not what she’s been clinging to all season. What Adora needs to let go of is the idea that she’s on her own, that she always needs to be the best and can never ask for help. That’s hard for her to do, because her trauma and her ego are aligned, and the two together make a powerful force. But it’s what she needs, both to heal and to be a better She-Ra—and, bit by bit, she has been learning it.

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Is it ever the right thing? (Beware the Creeper)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s November 7, 1998. Monica continues to top the charts, with Barenaked Ladies, Dru Hill, and 98 Degrees also in the top five. The Waterboy and The Siege open at number one and two respectively, with a rerelease of The Wizard of Oz at number five. The Red Violin also opens–in only ten theaters, putting it off the bottom of the scale. In the news, artist Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman among others, died on November 3.

On TV, a tribute of sorts to another of Kane’s co-creations, as we return to the Joker’s beginnings. They have never really been depicted in BTAS, any more than Catgirl’s or the Penguin’s were–the early episodes more or less assumed familiarity with the Tim Burton movies, and tried to avoid retreading ground covered in those. Even here, what we get is a reenactment segment, a show-within-a-show-within-a-show, the middle of which is inexplicably being broadcast live despite consisting of nothing but a man with a microphone standing on a catwalk and talking.

But the double emboitment hints that the live broadcast isn’t so inexplicable after all: we are back in the realm of the Joker’s earliest appearances, inverted now so that it is his narrative that another threatens to overtake. Of course the broadcast is live, because all fiction is fiction; the broadcast is a part of the show, and therefore its placement in time is its placement in the show. And so of course the Joker can interrupt the broadcast, trying to force it back inside his narrative instead of the other way around.

Joker fails, because much as the double emboitment inverts his actions in “Christmas With the Joker,” Ryder’s transformation into the Creeper inverts the Joker. Instead of a criminal who uses a disfiguring injury as an excuse to pretend to be an avatar of chaos, Ryder is a law-abiding person whose similar injury actual does cause serious psychological changes that make him act like a cartoonish parody of a generically “crazy” person of exactly the sort Joker (and, more successfully, Harley Quinn) pretends to be. Where the Joker always has a plan and always seeks to place himself on top, the Creeper really does seem to act entirely on ever-shifting impulses, with no control over himself.

This is a familiar refrain: an innocent victim who, through no fault of his own, becomes a criminal, and whose thought processes we see throughout their origin episode. This is a sympathetic villain episode–or at least it would be, if the Creeper were remotely sympathetic. Instead, his endless chatter strips him of any possible pathos, while his relentless, aggressive pursuit of (culminating in actual assault upon) a thoroughly uninterested Harley Quinn belies any notion that he’s more sinned against than sinning. The episode makes sure we don’t miss this by giving Harley the most sexual agency she’s ever had, courtesy of a giant pie from which she emerges covered in pudding,* gives the Joker her cherry, and then invites him to “try some of [her] pie,” assuring him that he’ll “want seconds.” As innuendos go, it’s about as subtle as the vagina dentata plant in “Pretty Poison,” but where that episode depicted a woman with sexual agency as a menace, Harley is the most sympathetic character in “Beware the Creeper,” as the woman he’s creeping on.

That, in turn, brings us to the final scene, when Ryder is given a patch that will repress the symptoms that make him the Creeper. Once Batman is gone, Ryder appears to ponder a moment before smiling and peeling off the patch. The episode doesn’t make it explicit, but it seems fairly clear why he’s choosing to go back to being the Creeper: it’s an excuse to behave how he wants to. And since the Creeper spends most of the episode sexually harassing Harley Quinn, it’s pretty clear what that behavior is.

Whatever Ryder may have been at the episode’s beginning, by episode’s end he is not an innocent victim. He chooses to become the Creeper for the same reason Joker chooses to do what he does: he wants to be “free” to assert his power over others. For the Joker, that mostly means taking things and killing people; he shows little in the way of sexual interest in anyone. Creeper, by contrast, likes to, well, creep on women. He’s a predator, deliberately choosing to become more of a predator.

In his work on free will and morality in a deterministic universe, Daniel Dennett discusses the story of Odysseus tying himself to his ship’s mast so he can hear the Sirens without being drawn to them. For Dennet, this story is a metaphor for how moral decision-making works. We know that what we feel is right is often not what we want, and that in the moment of decision, the latter often predominates. The rewards of such behavior, however, look smaller the more distant they are, and thus much of morality consists of trying to construct future traps for ourselves that will force us to choose what seems right now. However, we can–and often do–choose to do the opposite, engineering circumstances in which the thing we want appears right, or at least not wrong.

This is what Ryder does in the final scene: he unties himself, frees himself from the constraints of his own morality. This is not, to be clear, a revolutionary act. Harley destroyed Krypton to free herself from the constraints of others’ morality. Ryder’s goal, by contrast, is to not feel bad about forcing his will onto others. Harley sought liberation; Ryder seeks power.

A thing inverted is still that thing, just at a different angle. The Creeper is just the Joker after all.

*Her oft-repeated pet name for the Joker.

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Crisis on N Earths: Henchgirl

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

I work for a Bond villain.

I joke, but the contract I work on (doing something entirely benign for a government agency) is owned by the civilian branch of a military contractor and weapons manufacturer that, among other things, has been involved in hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal arms deals in the developing world.

You don’t really have an option, where I live: this is a company town, and the company is the United States government, with all the imperial baggage that goes with it. Thing is, you don’t really have an option elsewhere, either: if you are employed by a corporation, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are working for either a supervillain or a supervillain wannabe.

That’s what capitalism does. We all know the slogan, “There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism.” But that’s true from the other side, too: there is no ethical employment under late capitalism. If you work, your work enriches the oppressor class, one way or another.

That’s where Henchgirl comes in: it strips away the pretense, introducing us from the start to Mary Posa, a flunky in an Adam West Batman-style butterfly-themed villain gang, down to every member’s name being a pun. (Mariposa is Spanish for “butterfly.”) She’s underpaid, overworked, expected to be on call at all times, and has no health insurance–just like employees of real-life supervillains.

But it isn’t just economic evil that surrounds her. Underneath its cute art and silly plots, Henchgirl is about many forms of isolation, suffering, and neglect. Mary’s parents, we learn, are famous, top-tier superheroes, and her sister en route to being the same, while Mary is barely acknowledged as existing. The “evil serum” with which first Coco Oon and later Mary are dosed seems to function mostly by stripping the victim of compassion, making them variously sadistic or oblivious to the harm they do to others, but that’s true of Mary’s employer Monsieur Butterfly from the start. Mary seems to be the only one in her criminal/corporate world with a conscience; once it’s taken from her, she wreaks a path of destruction worthy of any supervillain, and even once she tries to be “good,” it’s through murder.

This is why we have the protector fantasy: life is full of people who don’t care about us, and institutions which, not being people, are incapable of caring at all. Our culture actively discourages caring about others, and more specifically Others; “success” is framed, from religion to politics to economics, as being the sole survivor of a ruthless competition for power and influence. Small wonder that so many of us crave the idea of a fantastical figure who would attain power or be gifted with it, and use it to care for us rather than stomping all over us.

Mary is the Other everywhere she goes. In her family she’s the weak one; in the Butterfly gang she’s the timid one; in her shared apartment she’s the criminal one. There is always someone around judging her as less-than, trying to convince her she is wrong and powerless, starting with her parents, thanks to whom Mary believes she doesn’t have a power, despite demonstrating superstrength throughout the comic. Similarly, she repeatedly demonstrates significant courage, befriending Marionette and subverting the orphanage heist right under Monsieur Butterfly’s nose, and really isn’t doing anything more evil than her judgmental roommate, whose employer created the compound on which the evil serum is based.

Mary’s trip through time hammers this point home. When child-Mary starts using her foreknowledge to pretend to be psychic, she is suddenly a favored child, a star, issuing warnings and advice about the future–only to return to find it essentially unchanged. If we define power as the ability to effect change, the new-timeline Mary really wasn’t any more powerful than original-timeline Mary, which is to say original-timeline Mary wasn’t any less powerful. She always had power, it was just her entire world conspired to convince her she didn’t.

But then we timeskip, and learn a woman with the power to extrude carrots from her wrists accidentally ushered in the overthrow of humanity, and Mary is the leader of the freedom fighters. There’s no such thing as a powerless person, only people denied opportunities to recognize and express their power.

That’s why they Other us and oppress us. If we monsters and henchgirls ever woke up and realized what we can do, we’d bring the world to its knees.

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You were (New Kids on the Block)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s still Halloween 1998, just half an hour since “Judgment Day.” Not a lot has changed.

That’s generally what we expect: that time will flow continuously from moment to moment, that short time spans translate to little change and longer time spans to more. Of course in part that depends on how we define “short,” “long,” “little,” and “much,” but generally speaking it’s usually true that large changes take longer.

There are exceptions, of course. An explosion, for instance, can create a great deal of change in a very short amount of time. But it’s difficult to think of exceptions that aren’t in some sense catastrophic–more controlled, safer changes tend to take a lot longer. Indeed, one might even argue that as a definition of destruction: a very large amount of change in a comparatively brief period of time. (But then, I’ve equated apocalypse and revolution, so of course I’d define destruction that way.)

Then there are things that don’t seem to change, even given a span of time. “Timeless,” we call them, by which we mean that they change slowly or subtly enough that we haven’t noticed. Superman is often described as such, a timeless, iconic figure. But of course, he changes all the time: he was rather more concerned with social justice and corrupt officials in the early days, and it is only later he became more a defender of the status quo. To say nothing of the time he died and came back with mullets and guns!

Within the DCAU, timelessness belongs more to Batman. BTAS was full of anachronisms, and it started with an already fully active Batman. Robin, too, showed up well before his origin story. There was a fluidity to time in that show, such that it clearly wasn’t set in any particular period, but was instead a pastiche of many eras of Batman. Gradually, though, time crept in. Allusions to his backstory abounded, and it was finally spelled out in Rise of the Phantasm; then in TNBA, BTAS itself is explicitly established as being the past, rooting TNBA in the present.

Which brings us to “New Kids on the Block,” which even more firmly affixes Superman in the present of the late 90s: when he was a teen, his parents watched The Dukes of Hazzard. Superman’s an adult in the present of the show, seemingly ten or twenty years older than he is in this episode; that means the “present day” of the show is, at the absolute earliest, 1989 (ten years after Dukes of Hazzard began), and at the absolute latest, 2005 (20 years after Dukes of Hazzard ended). And we can safely discard 1989, or the early 90s in general–Daily Planet reporters have Internet access at work, as we’ve seen a few times. The show is dateable to a discrete 10-year span, fixed firmly in time in a way BTAS never was.

Which is probably why, twenty years later, people don’t talk about it anywhere near as much. For all this episode positions Superman as the iconic ur-hero from which future heroes derive, Batman has always held that position for the DCAU; Batman: The Animated Series its most-beloved show. It is “timeless,” meaning here that we haven’t yet changed enough to render it obviously of a past era; by contrast, STAS is very late-90s.

Which in its own way, makes it attractive. When times are bad, it can be tempting to retreat into the past, even when the past is retreating into its own past, as is happening in “New Kids on the Block.” The entirety of this episode takes place in the not-now–either the far future of the Legion of Superheroes, or the recent-ish past of Clark Kent’s youth. But that future is curiously of the past, too, decidedly zeerust–a term coined by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd to mean the peculiarly dated quality of old depictions of the future–with its extensive space travel and Superior Future Men, very much Golden Age science fiction in its fusion of fin de siecle eugenics and Cold War space race. Modern depictions of the future tend much more to concerns from later in the twentieth century, all-powerful AIs and environmental disasters and a more earthbound humanity. As the saying goes, if you were born after 1965, you were promised cyberpunk dystopia, not flying cars, and that’s exactly what you’re getting.

By the late 90s, that’s already becoming pretty clear. The DCAU’s own vision of the future is going to be much closer to cyberpunk than Golden Age, and the Legion of Superheroes won’t have much place in it. But even as that past is in the process of being rejected, it reaches into the past to try to position itself. Brainiac’s attempt to erase Superman before he comes to be becomes, in turn, an assertion that Superman is the ur-hero, the template on which the Legion based itself, and therefore indelible from history. His world, not Batman’s, is the future they represent, a future equal parts Krypton and Metropolis, the shining city of the future become star-spanning empire.

And that may well be what that future is rooted in. But it’s not the future the DCAU will embrace. We will not get a Superman Beyond, the stories of a young Superman in the Legion’s future–at least, not within the DCAU. Here, Batman is the core, the trunk from which the various lines of narrative branch, and it is therefore the kind of future that comes from him that we will soon see. The kind that comes from the 90s, when the Near-Apocalypse turns Post-Near-Apocalypse.

The kind in which we now live.

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Crisis on N Earths: She-Ra S1E11: “Promise”

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

Let’s talk about how She-Ra uses liminality. Much of its story, after all, takes place in liminal spaces, from the forest where Adora first found the Sword of Protection to the windowsill in which, two episodes ago, the new Princess Alliance was formed and determined to rescue Bow and Glimmer.

This reliance on liminal space is common in fantasy. Part of this is that so much of fantasy is built around quests and journeys, which by their nature consist mostly of trekking across liminal space. (Speaking of trekking: just about the only genre which spends more time in liminal space than fantasy is science fiction. There are few spaces more liminal than outer space, and cyberspace is one of them.) Mostly, though, fantasy spends a lot of time in liminal space because liminal space is where the magic lives. Magic thrives on the edges of knowledge, in places that are neither entirely one thing nor the other. Witches go abroad between sunset and moonrise, neither day nor fully night; ghosts haunt corridors, between one room and the next; dragons and goblins lurk in mountains and beneath the sea and in deep caverns, in-between places all.

That last is what concerns us today. One may encounter oneself in any liminal space–inside a mirror is yet another one–but it is most common in the chthonic realm, because if the self is a microcosm of the Earth, then the journey into the Earth is a macrocosm of the journey into the self. To descend underground is to enter the dark places within ourselves–and so, passing underground into the First Ones temple or datacenter (if those were even distinct things for the First Ones), Adora and Catra find more than the training and treasure they respectively seek. They also find out who they are–to themselves, and more importantly, to each other.

We have seen strong hints of a powerful bond between the two. At times it has felt more familial, and at others–especially in “Princess Prom” and “No Princess Left Behind”–more romantic. Regardless of its exact nature, we see in the flashbacks here that there relationship has always involved being each other’s rivals. Long before they became enemies, they were competitors, pushing each other to greater achievements as Horde trainees. This is, more or less, the role Shadow Weaver claimed she had in Adora’s life, but Shadow Weaver was lying: her goal was to control Adora, while Catra’s was to surpass her, and vice versa.

Ultimately, however, neither was able to overcome the other. Adora left, leaving Catra the space and motivation to attain the rank and role that they were both seeking, and yet Catra is still constantly looked at by Shadow Weaver (and, in Catra’s own fears, doubtless everyone else) as a poor substitute for Adora. Both, descending into the chthonic realms and their past, are forced to confront this, and to the one inescapable fact of their relationship: regardless of her reasons or her justifications, Adora abandoned Catra. Not just when she left the Horde; countless times throughout their childhood, every time she failed to stand up for Catra against Shadow Weaver the way she did against Octavia. Of course Adora was a child, frightened of her abuser, and had she tried to protect Catra in those moments, would only have been punished beside her; but all young Catra saw was Adora leaving her behind after the titular promise to stay together–over, and over, and over again. No wonder she hisses when young Adora tries to comfort her!

But Catra abandoned Adora, too. She chose to stay with the familiar instead of rebelling alongside Adora, stepping back into the fog in “The Sword, Part 2,” forward into the dark at the end of “Promise.” In both cases, she is disappearing from Adora’s life, but in the first it is with her eyes on Adora; now she has turned away entirely.

The thing about liminal space is that it’s not just something you cross. The movement from one place to another, one state of being to another, is a transformation; that’s why we find magic there so often, because magic is change. This is especially true of the chthonic journey, precisely because it is a journey into the self: we grapple with ourselves and emerge changed into the light–or descend deeper into the darkness. The interface tells Adora that to find Light Hope, she must let go, and it’s true: she must go even farther in, into the darkest places inside herself and the deepest depths, to complete her transformation. But she cannot do that while clinging on to her relationships and rivalries, while striving always to succeed and to win; she must lose, and fall, because the greatest light is the last one, and it is only alone in the dark that it can be found.

But Catra, too, lets go. Catra, too, lets herself fall into darkness of another kind. Perhaps that is where her path to light and hope lies.

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Hey, I’m one of the good guys (Judgment Day)

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Mea culpa AGAIN: I somehow managed to miss two weeks of updates AGAIN, 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 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and multi-video posts Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s October 31, 1998. Monica still tops the charts, with Barenaked Ladies and Dru Hill feat. Redman just below. The top movie is John Carpenter’s Vampires. In the news, Hurricane Mitch makes landfall in Central America, killing 11,000.

In Gotham, we have “Judgment Day,” which (as is lately so often the case) largely retreads ground already covered by past episodes, most notably “Lock-Up” and… well, really, just about any episode with Two-Face in it, so let’s go with “Two-Face.”

As I discussed with “Lock-Up” and it’s titular villain, there are two ways of looking at punishment in the context of justice. The first is as a kind of moral causality: people do bad things, so they deserve to have bad things happen to them, and the state acts to do just that. This corresponds broadly to the retributive theory of criminal justice, and as the name implies, is basically the state taking on the function of vengeance in place of individual citizens doing so. The second approach is that the role of punishment is to reduce crime: we don’t want people to do bad things, so when they do, the state punishes them both so that they won’t want to do it again, and so that others will think twice about doing bad things.

Setting aside any issues with the determination of “bad things,” whether a state is a legitimate entity with a right to punish citizens, and decisions of when, how, and whom to punish, each of these theories has a fundamental problem at its core. In the case of retribution, the problem is fairly obvious: all it does it is multiply suffering without doing anything to make things better. In the case of reducing crime, the problem is less immediately obvious but just as straightforward: it doesn’t work.

In psychological terms, the goal of reducing crime is an attempt at behavior modification, which sounds Orwellian but is actually just psychologist for “teaching.” And the educational applications of punishment are, to say the least, quite limited–which is why we generally minimize its use in schools! What a century of research into the topic shows is that punishment only works as an effective means of behavior modification under a strict set of criteria, namely: the goal is to stop an undesired behavior, not replace it with a desired behavior; the punishment is clearly associated with the undesired behavior by occurring extremely close to it in time, ideally as a direct, immediate, and automatic consequence; and the punishment is ceased immediately upon cessation of the undesired behavior.

The kind of behavior modification we’re talking about when it comes to criminal justice meets none of these criteria. Quite simply, punishing criminals serves no purpose except cruelty for the sake of cruelty. It is vengeance, nothing more, rooted in hatred and dehumanization. This is why, for example, prisoners are frequently denied access to educational opportunities, which are shown to reduce recidivism–criminals, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, are one of our most hated Others, and our society revels in brutalizing and enslaving them. (It is also not an accident that the prison population is disproportionately made up of the descendants of the last Other we brutalized and enslaved.)

All of this is why, in the “Lock-Up” essay, I identified the titular villain’s brutal retributive “justice” with the Bat, Batman’s drive for vengeance rooted in his fear and pain at the loss of his parents. Two-Face, meanwhile, is ostentatiously a figure all about duality, and part of that is the degree, as discussed in my essay on “Two-Face,” to which he is a mirror of Batman. It makes a kind of sense, then, for him to produce his own equivalent to the Bat, his own figure to externalize his rage at the crime and criminality which have hurt him so. Rather shrewdly, he takes the form of a figure one might expect to strike fear into criminals–a harsh, faceless judge who will stop at nothing to punish them, the vengeance of the system designed to brutalize and dehumanize those it has marked as Other.

Note, too, whom the Judge attacks: Penguin, Killer Croc, and Two-Face, all villains whose character designs use the grotesque to mark their Otherness. As always, our culture is less interested in right or wrong than in identifying and punishing deviance from arbitrary norms. Two-Face’s embrace of randomness is in part a recognition of that fact–he is openly arbitrary in mockery of a “justice” that is anything but fair.

But there is a major difference: Bruce Wayne was a victim of a crime that left him traumatized and his parents dead, and created the Bat to protect himself. The show has fairly consistently, however, portrayed Harvey Dent as the primary victim of Two-Face, which is to say he is his own first and greatest victim. As such, the Judge exists not to protect him, but to punish him; it is not a protector fantasy, nor even a power fantasy, but a revenge fantasy. On some level, he is sick of the suffering he has caused himself, angry at himself for that suffering, and wants to avenge himself against himself.

This is why the Judge is so much more lethal than Batman. The whole point of a protector fantasy is that we are dreaming of someone who will protect us no matter what–ultimately, superheroes must protect their villains because they must protect everyone. A vengeance fantasy has no such limitation; its job is to destroy the Other. In this it has far more in common with the more traditional figure of the Hero than superheroes do: a hero is someone you point at your enemies and hope they die tragically before they get home, because heroes make terrible neighbors, while a superhero is someone you hope sticks around in case you get mugged or fall out of a twentieth-story window.

This, in turn, is why the Judge is so popular: people love heroes, which is why almost every culture has at least one. At least, we love heroes when they’re pointed at our enemies; we’re not so fond of them once they start targeting us. And given enough time, sooner or later, they always do.

To get back to the core concern of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, after a very long digression into the grotesque and the figure of the Other (which is far from over): we cannot look to the Hero as a model to strip the authoritarianism from the Superhero. Heroes are, if anything, worse.

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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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