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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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E10, “Crybaby”

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Yes, I’m aware this is late. And yes, I’m aware I forgot to release any video last week, I’ll fix it tomorrow and the next day.

Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Which it did.

There’s a lot of End of Evangelion in this episode’s DNA. Ryo looks remarkably like Rei/Lilith’s final form in that film; the destruction is intercut with images of children playing; even the ending, two characters lying on the shore of a red ocean, is shared with that film. But that makes sense, as End of Eva is the go-to anime movie for apocalyptic scenarios full of vaguely Biblical imagery.

This is an old genre we’re working in here, already fully formed by the time its first real classic, the Book of Daniel, was written in the second century BCE. The apocalypse was originally about political resistance, a reassurance that there was a tyrant out there bigger and more powerful than the one currently oppressing you, and that it was thus absolutely certain that the oppressor would eventually fall, as all oppressors do (along with everything else). In modern times, apocalyptic literature followed the general trend toward more psychological fiction, using apocalyptic language and imagery to engage less with political revolution than with personal evolution. Demian and Revolutionary Girl Utena are standout examples of the latter form. And then there’s Akira. Or, more to the point, the film Akira, a howling scream of disgust at a world in decay. End of Eva sings in the same key, though the original series was more along the lines of Utena‘s approach. Compassion, as we’ve discussed, is suffering, and there comes a point at which that suffering is unbearable.

We live in a fundamentally evil universe. This is a universe in which heat will be moved from the equator to the poles according to strict rules, regardless of how much human suffering and death the resulting hurricanes will bring. You think humans are capable of great evil, and we are, but the evil of the universe wipes out the stars and shatters worlds. No human killer, no genocidal tyrant, has ever killed as many people as the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal strain of malaria. And unlike anything else we have ever encountered, we are capable of moral decision-making, and hence of good. That’s the only place good exists, after all: the human imagination.

We made it up. A tiny cry of defiance against a universe of cold darkness. We found ourselves in an existence where suffering is inevitable, and said, “You know what? I’m going to take on the suffering of others, too.”

It is futile. The humans stand no chance, almost entirely wiped out by Ryo’s demons before Akira’s new devilman army can even reach him. The last human holdout is destroyed somewhere in the battle between Ryo and Akira and their respective, monstrous allies, and then all the demons and devilmen wipe each other out. And the whole time, Akira stands no chance against Ryo; Hell’s champion against its prince, he inevitably dies.

And then God kills Ryo and blows up the world. But if there is a God, then God is evil. They made this, after all. They’re either actively malicious or possessed of such towering incompetence as to be indistinguishable from malice. Satan was right to rebel. That’s not enough to make him not evil, though. Ryo has far too much blood on his hands.

We can’t win. Compassion just means more pain. Nothing good lasts; evil always triumphs in the end. The end of everything is the only thing we can be absolutely sure will happen. But we keep going anyway, because that is who we are. That is what we are. Stubbornly, futilely compassionate. Even when we run out of tears, and can only scream at the universe, when we can only weave scenarios of its destruction. We collectively yearn for apocalypse, ironically not because we want more endings, but because we cannot stand the number we already have.

I’m so tired of caring. So tired of raging at the evils and injustices that surround me. Tired of drowning in an ocean of hatred that grows deeper every day. Tired of crying for friends, and loved ones, and strangers, and myself. There are no tears left to douse the flames. There is only rage, futile, desperate rage, because the alternative to rage is terror and despair. Despair because our defeat, the defeat and destruction of everything good, is inevitable. But rage can focus us elsewhere, can remind us of the central lesson of the apocalypse genre: the tyrant will die, too. Perhaps we can accelerate that.

Success is guaranteed, after all. We might not survive it, but the fascists and the bigots and the laughing lying rats will inevitably die. Everything they built will crumble away. Everything they believed in, if they believed in anything, will be forgotten. Of course failure is also guaranteed, as we and anything we build and anything we believe in are all just as doomed, just as temporary. But at least we can be sure that those fuckers will get theirs.

The power of the oppressor will break. Everyone dies. All nations crumble, and all regimes fall.

All worlds end.

From the ashes and the rubble, a new world forms. It will be evil, too, of course, but in different ways. We will make different mistakes, and really that’s all you can ask of anyone. And so we cycle on.

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Crisis on N Earths: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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There are a handful of shows pointed to as the beginning of a shift in American television, and especially science fiction and fantasy, from being mostly or entirely episodic to the “arc” structure ubiquitous today. Lost is often cited, and certainly coincides with the point at which long-running plots became ubiquitous. At the other end of the 90s, Twin Peaks is sometimes credited, but that misses that Twin Peaks was pitched and structured as a prime time soap opera, which is to say as part of a genre in which such plotting was a long-established element. Where explicit science fiction is concerned, Babylon 5 is also frequently pointed to. But it and Lost share the same counter-indicator: they aren’t actually structured much like most modern serialized television. Neither is Twin Peaks, for that matter.

Twin Peaks is, like most soap operas and, for that matter, superhero comics, a true serial: a sequence of overlapping stories that don’t collectively move to a shared end so much as coming to a stop with cancellation. Babylon 5 is structured as a single story, with its own arc, containing multiple smaller stories, including the individual episodes. (An overarching story which was, by the end, unrecognizable as the originally planned story, but an overarching story nonetheless.) Lost is an attempt to achieve the latter, or at least the appearance of the latter, while actually doing the former. None of these shows share the structure on display in most modern, serialized science fiction and fantasy television, in which most or all episodes in a given season follow contain some reference to an ongoing, overarching story; some episodes advance that story significantly; and the season finale concludes the story, with the next season starting a new story where the first left off. We’ve seen where that structure really arrives on American television, with Sailor Moon; what we have not seen is where it entered the mainstream.

Until now. In 1998, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired the end of the second season and beginning of the third, arguably its strongest run of episodes, with only the fifth season really challenging them. It was a huge hit for the still quite young WB network, and, for better (post-2005 Doctor Who) or worse (TVTropes), had a profound influence on television and how we talk about television in the early 21st century.

And it shows extremely clear similarities to Sailor Moon: a blonde teen girl, the titular Buffy, who is chosen to inherit the power to fight evil, gathers a group of friends who aide her, explicitly cites their friendship as the reason for her success, and frequently faces monsters as metaphors for common teen problems, all structured as season-long arcs peppered with monster-of-the-week standalones. There does not appear to be any evidence that Joss Whedon ever actually saw Sailor Moon, and it is almost certainly a coincidence that Firefly also shows strong similarities to anime that aired on American television around the time it would have been in initial development, namely Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. Nonetheless, the similarity stands; in ideaspace, Sailor Moon and Buffy have a lengthy border.

The ending of the second season is a prime example of the Buffy/Sailor Moon approach in action. Angel, Buffy’s vampiric boyfriend, has struggled all season to retain his morality, and the whole cast has had to deal with elements from his evil past returning to haunt them. Then Buffy sleeps with him; diegetically, this causes him the “moment of perfect happiness” that breaks the curse that restored his soul to his body, causing him to revert to the soulless, evil vampire that he was. Extradiegetically, however, this is fairly obviously the old story of a teen girl thinking she’s fallen in love with an older man, who turns abusive the moment he’s successfully gotten her into bed. It’s exactly the kind of thing Sailor Moon did with, for example, an evil gym that sucks the life-force from the young girls who obsessively work out there.

The key thing is that this structure works. Using the fantastic to reify genuine emotional realities is long-established in the genre. Meanwhile, the season-long arc peppered with standalones has the increased room for complex plotting and characterization that a full season affords over a single episode, without committing an entire season’s worth of episodes to furthering one story. On top of that, because every season concludes with the climax to an ongoing story, any season can more or less function as the last; unlike Babylon 5, Buffy never had to scramble to deal with possibly being cut short by the network declining to pick it up for another season. (Indeed, it had the opposite problem: it wasn’t picked up after the fifth season, brought the show to a satisfying and extremely final conclusion, and then got picked up for two more seasons on another network.)

It is precisely this structure that the DCAU would eventually pick up, adopting it for Justice League and even more so Justice League Unlimited. But a more direct result looms closer. On the strength of shows like Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, the WB was developing, and deliberately courting, a reputation as a “young people’s network.” Buffy demonstrated that a high-school superhero was a draw, and the WB wanted more. And where better to turn for superheroes than their own superhero “universe”? The decision to have a show about Batman in high school descended from on high, an instruction from the network to the producers of The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series. TNBA would end, and the young Batman show would take its place.

But as we already observed, the atmosphere of the 90s, the grayness of near-apocalypse, and the darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, made it natural for any such show to incorporate cyberpunk. This show couldn’t be young Bruce Wayne; we’d already seen him in Mask of the Phantasm. It had to be someone new: someone different, with new villains, and a futuristic setting that made Gotham into the Dark City, which it always basically was anyway. This show wouldn’t reach back into Batman’s past, but into his future, past the point at which he could no longer continue. By extension, it would be someone who could face, and do, what the familiar Batman could not. It would be the Batman beyond Batman.

In less than a year, and less than 20 chapters, Batman Beyond begins.

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Crisis on N Earths: Dark City

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It’s February 27, 1998, and none of us know who we are.

That’s more true of some of us than others, of course. I’m a teenager, for instance, still deep in that protean flux of trying on identities until one fits. And I haven’t figured out I’m a trans girl, so I won’t find one that does for another twenty years.

(It will be an incredibly powerful experience once I do. My entire world will realign around me, structuring itself into something that makes sense. It will feel like emerging into the sunlight for the first time.)

But none of us entirely know who we are, because nothing has gone the way it was supposed to. There was no Big One, just a wet fizzle as the Soviet Union imploded a decade ago, and for all the time since, we have been feeling like characters in a story that failed to end, sitting around waiting for something dramatic to happen.

We know who we were supposed to be. The Good Guys, who saved the world from Hitler, who stood up to the evil commies. Oh sure, there was that whole bit about the slavery, but that was a long time ago and it’s over now. And then the Civil Rights movement fixed everything, right?

But we were the evil empire all along, who fought the other evil empires not because we were the Good Guys, but because we wanted to be a bigger evil empire than all the others. We didn’t win the war between good and evil because there was never any such war; we won the war to be the biggest bully on the block. The Nazis learned by watching us, their racial policies just a Germanized Jim Crow, the Holocaust American-pioneered techniques of mass production applied to the American-pioneered techniques of concentration camp and genocide. Lebensraum is just German for “Manifest Destiny,” which is why we fought them–one imperialist expansion smacking into another. (Well, not really. The Germans and Japanese both learned from us, but it was the expanding Japanese empire that smacked into ours first. But they could ally with Germany because they had the Soviet empire in between them, and that’s how we ended up at war with Germany. The point: it’s all empires fighting empires; if you want scrappy bands of heroic rebels, look to the places already conquered.)

So why didn’t we know that? Why didn’t we know who we were? Because we only knew who we were supposed to be.

“Supposed to be.”

By whom? Who are these supposers, and why do we let their suppositions define us? They’re not Strangers, unfortunately, not hydrophobic leech-mouthed squid inhabiting human corpses. But neither are they people known to us–the people around us transmit the suppositions, enforce them on us, but never seem to be the originators of them.

“Supposed to be” isn’t just passive; it’s in the divine passive. The agent isn’t just moved to a prepositional phrase, it’s dropped entirely, as if this widespread supposition were instituted by an act of God. No one knows who supposes; we’re barely starting to realize that they suppose quite wrong.

And, as it turns out, treating it as an act of god isn’t that far off, and Dark City‘s metaphor is apt. The Strangers are a collective mind inhabiting human corpses, which is to say they are history, and the power structures that result. They are everyone who came before us, and the thing–the hideous, tentacular, reality-defining monstrosity that we call “our culture”–that those people collectively manifested. Not quite a god, but closer than anything else we can reliably locate.

That thing, collectively, tried to hide our memories of the past. Tried to keep us going, still functioning as we had before, even as darkness fell and daylight was forgotten. Tried to manufacture false histories, shift things around, find someone to slot neatly into the place the Soviet Union had once occupied. To persuade us, against all evidence of our eyes, that our society is as fair as we can possibly make it, that oppression is a matter of individual bad actors, that we are not all slaves to forces most of us barely even notice exist.

This is, of course, cyberpunk. The aesthetics of noir given a sci-fi twist, though this is noir-ier than most, in the sense that it retains the 1940s-vintage clothes and cars, and the main character is a good man in a corrupt world, neither of which are commonplace in cyberpunk. But it’s very clearly a point on the trajectory from Blade Runner to The Matrix; like the former, the questions it overtly asks are about personal identity, not the nature of reality like the latter, but it has a blatant messianic element that is more Neo than Deckard.

But questions of identity and reality are, in large part, the same questions. Is there a self independent of culture? Can there be one? It doesn’t seem like there possibly can, since we learn who we are from the people around us. But if there isn’t, how can we possibly hope to change our culture? How is it that people turn out not to be who they were “supposed” to be?

Dark City answers, rather patly, by invoking the soul. That seems overly simplistic. At the same time, there is something that seems to predate our first encounters with the culture: personality research suggests the existence of a handful of traits that can be identified in the womb and remain mostly stable throughout life. Those aren’t enough to make an identity, and without culture, of course, there are no labels by which to name them, but there do seem to be patterns or tendencies that are not derived from external sources. At the same time, we are also greatly shaped by our experiences, and we frequently internalize many of those suppositions.

This, in turn, means that the struggle to define ourselves necessarily involves some kind of engagement with the power structures around us, because it is those structures that establish  “supposed to.” This, in turn, links to the thematic concerns of cyberpunk, its projection of the dystopian present into a dystopian future. “This is the logical endpoint of those structures,” it says. “This is what the world looks like if we all keep doing what we’re supposed to do and being what we’re supposed to be.” Mostly, that means corporate power, the tyranny of wealth swelling until it is singularly able to define our reality, but it includes other forms of power as well, particular in how they violate the self and the body.

It’s February 27, 1998, and I don’t know who I am because I’m in high school, and we don’t know who we are because the apocalypse never came, and the dark city is a vision of a future in which this state of being continues forever. These things fit together, inextricable from one another: high school and adolescence and the uncertainty of identity; the uncertainty of living in the near-apocalypse; cyberpunk. A natural cocktail, if you will, a recipe from which to engineer the next step in our story.

His name is Terry McGinnis.

That’s the what. As for the why…

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Crisis on N Earths: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Clinton impeachment

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Sorry this is late. Snow days screwed with my sense of time, which is pretty tenuous to begin with.

It’s January 21, 1998, and the Washington Post just broke a story that will devour the airwaves for months on end: in 1995-7, President Bill Clinton had an affair with a then-22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. This is going to be a strange year: journalists, news anchors, and comedians will spend much of it discussing blowjobs, semen stains, and alluded-to but ultimately unspecified acts involving a cigar, while Congress launches an investigation into same.

Rewind a little: in the 1994 midterm election, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, which they retained throughout the Clinton administration. The resulting tensions combined with the rise of right-wing talk radio and the burgeoning Internet (the right-wing gossip site The Drudge Report had actually broken the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair three days before the Post) to create an environment of high partisanship, which is to say more or less the political environment we still have.

A few months earlier, in May 1994, a woman named Paula Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that, in 1991, then-Governor Clinton had exposed himself to her and propositioned her for sex. As Jones was an Arkansas state employee, Clinton was her boss, making this a case of workplace sexual harassment. The resulting legal battle went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that yes, a sitting President can be sued for conduct that occurred before he took office, and ultimately resulted in a settlement in November 1998.

In the course of that lawsuit, Jones’ lawyers sought to establish that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones was part of a pattern of abusing authority and seeking sexual contact with employees (which it very likely was), and therefore subpoenaed women with whom Clinton was suspected of having affairs; in the course of his testimony, Clinton denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky specifically.

Meanwhile, Congress had hired independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate the Clintons for alleged criminal involvement in a real estate deal gone bad. (Repeatedly. No matter how many times the investigation turned up no wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part. See the climate of rising partisanship mentioned above.) Starr had received permission to expand his investigation into other allegations against the Clintons, and so he was the one who received the recordings made of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who had made the recordings on advice of a literary agent, and appears to have gotten close to Lewinsky specifically to get dirt for her own enrichment.

Clinton was impeached late in 1998 on charges of perjury. Interestingly, charges of abuse of power were mooted in the House, but ultimately did not get enough votes to be included in the impeachment proceedings. He was acquitted the following February.

Very few people come out of this looking good. Tripp appears to have been an archetypal snake in the grass. Clinton was pretty clearly a sexual predator, and he very obviously lied under oath, but after a year of wasting time and taxpayer money, not to mention destroying Lewinsky’s life, Congress still ultimately didn’t do anything about it. Not that they ever actually cared about either sexual predation or lies, given several prominent Republican Congresspeople caught in both; Congress was pretty obviously acting out of pure partisan spite and an early prominent example of what would become the endemic right-wing inability to conceive of the legitimacy of any power other than their own.

Lewinsky is really the only person who did no significant wrong in all this. She did submit a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit, denying the affair with Clinton, but she was young, in her first job after college, and under pressure to protect her boss, who was incidentally the most powerful man on Earth. And it was Clinton, not Lewinsky, who abused his status and power to take advantage of a much younger and more vulnerable woman; Clinton who broke his promises of fidelity to his wife; Clinton whose history of sexual predation gave rise to the investigation in the first place. So, of course, it was Lewinsky who was tainted for life; in two heartbreaking articles for Vanity Fair penned years later, she discusses the humiliation she experienced, the depression and suicidal ideation that followed, and the PTSD that she still struggles with to this day. She also discusses the way it has followed her ever since, interfering with job prospects, isolating her socially and especially romantically.

We have seen this story before, more than once. It is the story Batman told about Harley Quinn in the Mad Love comic, claiming that she took advantage of her professors by sleeping with them, despite the power dynamics involved virtually guaranteeing any advantage-taking had to happen in the opposite direction. It’s even closer to the story Akio pushes on Utena, blaming her for his decision to cheat on his fiancee:

Akio: You didn’t reject me, even though I have a fiancee. That’s a sin, isn’t it?
Utena: This isn’t fair..!
Akio: Unfair? Isn’t turning away from the truth and blaming others even more unfair? Isn’t it unfair to pretend only you are noble and in the right?

Of course the power differential between a 22-year-old White House intern and the President of the United States is not as extreme as the differential between a 14-year-old girl and the Acting Chairman of her school, who is also the ruler of her home and the home of everyone she knows, as well as the demiurge of her world. The point nonetheless remains: the wrongdoing is clearly on the part of the powerful older man, but he deflects it onto the young woman.

I have, elsewhere, described that scene from Utena as gaslighting, and that is exactly what happened to Lewinsky. The President, Congress, the Starr investigation, and the media all collaborated to humiliate a young woman, to persuade her that she had done wrong, that she was somehow dirtied or tarnished by acts which, insofar as they involved any wrongdoing, did so only on the part of someone else. They conspired to convince her that, even though she was the clearest victim in the scandal, nonetheless she was the one to be punished.

This is just one instance of a pattern repeated again and again: when the abuser is powerful and privileged and the victim is not, it is the victim who is punished. To a lesser degree, the other person obviously a victim in all this, Hillary Clinton, was punished as well, or at least her “inability to keep her man” came up in the quarter-century-plus of relentless right-wing attacks against her character that began pretty much the instant she arrived on the national scene. (But she’s also on the record blaming Lewinsky rather than Bill, so fuck her. But as a woman in politics she is constantly balancing on a knife edge that requires some conformity to popular narratives, but… and around and around we go.)

The use of “gaslighting” to describe social processes like this is somewhat controversial. Strictly speaking, gaslighting is a process of undermining a victim’s sense of reality, getting them to question things they know are true and doubt their own perceptions, thus increasing their dependency on the abuser. But Lewinsky herself describes her experience as gaslighting, and it is a key part of how the culture of abuse controls its victims: by teaching us to accept the harsh and unjust judgment of society over our own senses of self-worth and of right and wrong, our own values.

The techniques of interpersonal abuse, carried out on a culture-wide scale. Lewinsky is far from the last woman to have experienced such; we will be seeing this phenomenon again.

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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E9 “Go to Hell, You Mortals”

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One of my mother’s favorite jokes is about a trial where the prosecution presents five people who saw the defendant commit the crime. So the defense presents ten people who didn’t.

As I write this, it’s September 28, 2018, and the farcical confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States is on pause. He is probably a rapist, and he will almost definitely get the job. (Note from the future: he did.) Part of this farce was my mother’s joke, played out in real life: he was accused of attempted rape, so his supporters put out a letter signed by 65 women that he is a good person who totally would never do that kind of thing. People, in other words, who didn’t see it. So, I come at this episode with a certain bitterness, centered as it is around Miki’s decision to post a defense of Akira that amounts to “he’s always been nice to me, therefore he can’t have killed people as has been credibly claimed.”

Miki’s a Christian, of course. She believes in sin, in the toxic doctrine that good and evil are not adjectives, but substances. That evil acts stain a person, making them evil people; ultimately she believes in the toxic logic that leads to the conclusion that there are no crimes, only criminals. That it doesn’t matter what Kavanaugh does; he’s a “good person,” not a “criminal,” and therefore will be confirmed to the highest court in the land.

Of course, there’s a pretty big difference between a job interview and a murderous mob coming to your house. That part of the episode felt disturbingly real. The responses to Miki’s post are juxtaposed with Akira placing himself between a group of humans falsely accused of being demons and an angry mob about to stone them. When Akira begins crying for the victims, the mob starts laughing at him, taking pleasure in his pain; at the same time, commenters lash out at Miki for protecting Akira.

Akira is, as we’ve discussed, defined by his compassion. But to feel compassion is to share another’s suffering, to feel pain because they are hurting. The mob feel no compassion, and therefore do not hurt when Akira does; instead his pain is funny to them, and their decision to cause pain righteous. They can do this because Akira isn’t a person to them; he’s a demon. By publicly siding with him, Miki sees to be a person in their eyes, too; she’s a witch.

Demon, witch, criminal, sinner; they all mean the same thing: a person-shaped object made of evil. Not a person whose suffering matters; just pure evil. They, the good people of the stone-throwing mob, the Internet hate machine that doxes Miki, the neighbors who converge on her house to murder her and her friends, they’re not criminals, or demons, or witches; they’re good people and therefore what they do is good. Even when it’s murdering a houseful of people, then setting the house on fire to dance around the flames.

It’s the same logic, in the end. If good and evil are substances, then a good person is obviously innocent of any wrongdoing, no matter what they do, just as an evil person is guilty of any and all crimes, no matter what they do. There is infinite forgiveness for the good, and infinite punishment for the evil.


Consider instead what Akira represents. Compassion that places itself between the victims and the attacker, no matter who they are. Violence to protect the victims of violence, rooted in compassion for those victims. Compassion is a form of suffering, and many other feelings can rise from suffering: fear, sadness, despair, rage, determination. Akira burns with all of these now.

We, if we are compassionate ourselves, can only hope the world burns with him.

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