Vlog Reviews: She-Ra S1E3-5, Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, and Ducktales S2E3-4

Oops, I didn’t release a video last week. AND I’m due to release a bonus episode. So… have three vlogs at once!

Commissioned by Aleph Null:

Commissioned by Bennett Jackson:

And a bonus vlog!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

Fixed your (Critters)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Bad enough She-(Where There’s Smoke)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Retroactive Continuity: Insexts Vol. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re better than that.


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Vlog Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Ducktales S2E1-2

Commissioned vlog by Nick Barovic…

..and a bonus episode! As long as my Patreon stays above $150/mo, I’ll post two of these every month!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

Like you, alone (Cult of the Cat)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Current status of the Patreon:

Vlog Review: Heart Catch Pretty Cure 23-4 and Star vs. Evil S2E21-22

Regular episode of a new series (commissioned by Bennett Jackson)…

..and a bonus episode! As long as my Patreon stays above $150/mo, I’ll post two of these every month!

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early! 

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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