Finally meeting cheerleaders (Little Girl Lost)

It’s May 2, 1998. The top song is Next with “Too Close”; Shania Twain, Montell Jordan, K-Ci & JoJo, and Madonna also chart. The top movie is He Got Game; City of Angels, Titanic, and Lost In Space are also in the top ten. According to my extensive research of the news for this period (skimming the Wikipedia page for “1998”), the only newsworthy event is the death of musician Hideto Matsumoto, a.k.a. hide.

As I said the last time we discussed Superman: The Animated Series, this episode, despite being ostensibly the end of the second season, “Little Girl Lost” functions more like a season premiere: after a few months without any STAS, we get the introduction of a new recurring character intertwined with a continuation of the Intergang/Apokolips story arc that ended its first phase with “Apokolips… NOW!”

Supergirl herself is the focus of this two-parter, however, much as Batgirl was introduced in a Batman: The Animated Series two-parter. Supergirl is peculiarly framed, however: she is introduced as a literal anti-fridging, both in the sense of a reveal that she is alive when all Kryptonians and Argosians (other than Superman and denizens of the Phantom Zone) are presumed dead, and in the sense that she has been frozen and must be thawed.

When next we see her, she is awash in warm sunlight, playfully zooming about the Kansas sky in a scene that at once calls back to and contrasts heavily with Superman’s first flight in “Last Son of Krypton.” Superman’s flight was depicted as a culmination of a series of increasingly prodigious leaps–a feat of strength, in other words. Supergirl, by contrast, is depicted as looping and curving through the air, playing with geese and water, while music swells–a display of innocent grace that resembles nothing so much as the buildup to a Disney princess about to sing her “I want” song.

And much like the princesses of the Disney Renaissance, Supergirl is a complicated cluster of competing creative impulses. She shares the same pinup Good Girl face and body as every young woman Bruce Timm designs, and this first flight of hers exemplifies that aesthetic: she is clearly being presented for the male gaze, barelegged, -armed, and midriffed as she arches her back and stretches out her limbs, but diegetically she is simply flying with no intent of appearing sexualized. She is an ingenue balanced carefully between sexuality and innocence, trying to appeal to and convey both at once. At the same time, she is immensely physically strong, on par with Superman himself, but subordinate to him, both in the sense that she is younger than him and in the sense that this is his show.

She is full of tensions: between appealing to the male gaze and avoiding the ire of censors, depicting a competent superhero with exciting adventures and preserving the fragile egos of male superhero fans, and most of all between her Madonna-like framing and her strength. After all, as Utena told us, “a girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.”

Supergirl definitely cannot become a princess–her people and her world are gone, after all. This episode, however, expands very slightly from the Madonna-whore binary Utena explores, merging it with the “triple goddess” archetype to give us three different women: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Other–that last combining elements of Crone and whore, while the other two both take on different aspects of the Madonna, one being the Virgin and the other, well, the Mother.

The Mother gets the least time, as Lois briefly occupies the role early in Part One, acting as a parental guide-and-setter-of-limits on Jimmy, a deliberate parallel to Superman’s strict limitation of Kara. Kara, meanwhile, is a Maiden trying to break out of that inherently infantilizing role: as long as she remains at the Kents’, she can only play with her powers, never genuinely explore the potential she possesses. But Superman sees only the danger to her, fencing her into a cage–a sun-dappled cage full of rolling hills and wide blue skies, but a cage nonetheless.

The only one who recognizes Kara’s strength is the Other, Granny Goodness, a withered old hag possessed of great power, a servant of the devil (or Darkseid, which is close enough) who corrupts the young and turns them into less Crone-like, more whore-like Others themselves, the Female Furies. Unlike Granny, they are sexualized (especially Lashina) while at the same time retaining elements of the grotesque–Lashina’s mask, Mad Harriet’s catlike features, Stompa’s size–that clearly mark them as women who cross boundaries.

But so too is Supergirl. She says it herself, when Amy expresses awe and a little horror at the idea of weapons from another planet: “Hey, I’m from another planet. It happens.” She is inherently Other; as I said above, she cannot ever be a princess, and therefore must become a witch–or else break out of the narrow, confining narrative trap in which we place women. That, then, is another tension within her: between Other and other, between being an outsider that doesn’t challenge the way we construct “inside” and “outside,” or one that does.

None of this is actually resolved within the episode. Supergirl remains a point of enormous tension, never quite resolving one way or the other. She is too active, too resistant to Superman’s attempts to control her “for her own good,” to quite be a maiden, but too much the ingenue to be the Other. Yet she is too much of both those familiar archetypes to break free of archetypes altogether.

She is, in short, aptly named. In the episode, questioned on being Supergirl, she points at the logo on her chest and says “Super,” then simpers and says “girl.” She has so much potential to transcend the limitations placed on her, but ultimately is still trapped within limiting, sexist narratives of what a young woman can be and who she is for.

And yet she is able to remain. She strains against the narrative and it strains to contain her, but still it holds. A woman who is powerful and good, who defies the rules placed on her without being vilified, can exist within the confines of this world, without being reduced to a femme fatale like Poison Ivy was. The price, unfortunately, is that this world is strong enough to contain her without breaking: she is contained, and remains still mostly a Madonna-figure, without challenging that binary.

Somewhere, Harley is laughing.

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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby Episode 7

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoCommissioned post for Shane DeNota-Hoffman

Transitional episodes are hard to write about.

This is true in general, I find. They’re liminal by definition, suspended between one thing and another, slippery and hard to pin down. It’s even harder when you don’t actually know what’s coming next–when it’s clear what the transition is from, but not what the work is transitioning to. Different possible outcomes could lend themselves to very different readings, and so it is necessary to approach the episode with, essentially, all of them at once.

The big question left unresolved at the end of this episode is, of course, the nature of the giant demon-destroying ball of light that covers a significant chunk of the planet. The strong implication is that it is divine in origin, given the repeated references to Revelation and the cuts between the effects of the light and the preacher talking about the destruction of Sodom. But what does “divine” mean here?

The most straightforward, obvious answer is that the divine is the opposite of the demonic. The light is thus an indicator that a new player has entered the game, a force in opposition to the demons and, it seems, better able to deal with them than humans. But what is the opposite of the demonic?

For Ryo, who sees the demons as purely and entirely evil, it would follow that the opposite is something purely and entirely good, a traditional view of the divine in keeping with the episode’s heavy Christian references. So why, then, does he panic when the light appears? One possibility is simply that it’s one more way in which things are going out of control–he is already disturbed by humanity reacting even more violently than he predicted and thereby being more vulnerable to the demons, plus Akira has just walked out on him with the intent of gathering more devilmen. Now this light appears, and Ryo begins to realize that he has been playing with forces far beyond his understanding, forces that may have apocalyptic results.

Alternatively, Ryo has justified his own callous disregard for the lives lost and people killed in his war as a necessity. He lives in a gray and black world, in which the only way to fight evil is to be nearly (but in his mind at least, not quite) as bad as that evil. To learn that there is an opposite force to the demons, a literal light in the world, is shattering–not least because by comparison, he really doesn’t look much lighter than the demons at all. He is panicking, in short, out of fear that he will have to stand judgment for what he’s done.

But these possibilities are about Ryo’s view of what’s happening. We already know he’s wrong in one major respect: demons aren’t inherently evil. We’ve seen demons act out of love, and there are at least four devilmen known to the audience: Akira, Miko, Koda, and now Taro. If demons aren’t inherently evil, their opposite isn’t inherently good; the divine here could quite easily be a force of repression and conformity just as the demons are a force of transgression and indulgence. Given Christianity’s long history–especially from the perspective of a non-Christian culture that successfully resisted attempts to colonize and Christianize it–of supporting repression and enforcing conformity, that would be just as in keeping with the episode’s Biblical references.

That reading also contextualizes this episode’s reminder that Akira is living in a Christian household, a relative rarity in Japan. This same household’s three children are, from oldest to youngest, the Devilman, the survivor of brief possession by a slime demon that took advantage of her relative innocence and budding sexuality, and another devilman that just ate someone’s dog. Despite millennia of effort, you can’t actually moralize away transgressive desires.

The beginning of the episode lends credence to this reading. The rappers compare panicked humans starting riots, roving street gangs that attack anyone suspected of being a demon, and tanks rolling through the streets to the threat posed by the demons, and conclude there really isn’t that much difference. Humans are who we are, and the more tightly we draw the boundaries of normative life, the more transgressive desire there is to repress. But desire, in itself, is neutral. Transgression, in itself, is neutral–doing wrong is wrong by definition, not because it breaks some rule. Breaking the same rule in different circumstances might be right!

In turn, this would imply that the most natural alignment is of humans and demons against the divine, and of course that in turn would make the person trying to gather the devilmen a vitally important bridge between the two groups. Akira as the link once again centers his strongest trait, compassion, and positions it in opposition to an authoritarian divinity. And indeed, compassion does make a far better guide to moral behavior than any ruleset ever could.

But in the end, all of this is still in the air. There are still three episodes to go, and they could dramatically alter how any of this reads. For now, we must remain open to that possibility, and not become too rigidly attached to one interpretation/ruleset/narrative ourselves.

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Vlog Review: Ducktales S1E17-18

Hey all! I’m running a Kickstarter for My Little Po-Mo vol. 4, collecting all the as-yet-unbookified My Little Po-Mo entries, plus book exclusives! I’m doing a special time-exclusive challenge–if it goes over $525 between now and the end of Sunday, I’ll post a special bonus excerpt from a book-exclusive chapter!

Also apparently I somehow managed to get a small pileup of unposted bonus episodes? I don’t *think* I missed posting any, but here we are. Anyway, that’s why so many posts this week. I’ll try to be better about posting bonus episodes when they belong in the future.

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos up to 6 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles three MONTHS early, commission videos and essays, and more!

Vlog Review: Dirty Pair Episode 24

Hey all! I’m running a Kickstarter for My Little Po-Mo vol. 4, collecting all the as-yet-unbookified My Little Po-Mo entries, plus book exclusives! It’s started moving again, and could really use some love/signal boosting!

Commissioned episode for Bennett Jackson. Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos 3-8 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles three MONTHS early, commission videos and essays, and more!

In the meantime (Mean Seasons)

Hey all! I’m running a Kickstarter for My Little Po-Mo vol. 4, collecting all the as-yet-unbookified My Little Po-Mo entries, plus book exclusives! It’s stalled out a smidge under $300, and could really use some love/signal boosting!

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
It’s April 25, 1998. The top song is “Too Close,” by Next; Montell Jordan, Madonna, and Shania Twain also chart. The top movie is The Big Hit, a comedy about assassins; Titanic has been dethroned but still hangs onto the box office at number four.

Speaking of Titanic, it picked up Best Picture and 10 other Oscars on March 23. In other news since Sub-Zero, a massacre in Algeria kills 52, all but 20 of them babies, on March 26. On April 10, the Good Friday agreement between the UK and Ireland was signed, establishing that both countries agreed that Northern Ireland was part of the UK, but also binding both countries to honor a referendum to return it to Ireland if a majority of people in both Northern Ireland and Ireland voted for it. And on the 23rd, a letter to Reuters announces the dissolution of the Red Army Faction, a leftist guerrilla group active in Germany for several decades.

On TV we have “Mean Seasons,” an episode that plays very differently for a 37-year-old woman than it did for a 16-year-old “boy.” Back then, I just couldn’t sympathize with Page Monroe’s motivations, couldn’t connect with what it might mean to spend your life being told your youth and looks are all that you have to offer the world, and how it might feel to be losing them.

It’s a little different now, to say the least. Early in my transition, I found myself mourning for the young woman I never got to be, the fact that by I time I finish second puberty, I’ll be forty–hardly old by any means, but not really fitting within any reasonable definition of “young” either. This episode speaks to me now in ways it didn’t when I watched it new–in ways it couldn’t have when it and I were new.

All art is collaborative, after all. Animation is nothing but blobs of color and sound until a viewer’s brain assigns meaning to those colors and sounds, recognizing them as characters and dialogue. This is not to downplay the work done by artists at all, but simply to acknowledge the role of the viewer: artists build the structure on which the viewer hangs meaning. The viewer is guided by the structure in deciding what to hang, but they still ultimately provide the meanings to be hung–and at sixteen, I just didn’t have the right meanings to hang on this episode. I couldn’t empathize, and I didn’t sympathize.

Young me isn’t entirely to blame (except in the sense that young me is always entirely to blame, because young me was a genuinely terrible person), as despite its sympathetic villain, this really isn’t structured as a sympathetic villain episode. In this sense it’s fitting as a follow-up to Sub-Zero, as that wintry movie aped the structure of a sympathetic villain episode but lacked pathos, while Calendar Girl brings us spring, summer, fall, and a genuine stab at pathos, but lacks the structure to bring it home. Specifically, it is not a tragedy: though Calendar Girl’s fate is tragic, she is not treated as the episode’s protagonist, and we do not witness her downfall or see her make the chain of choices that led her to villainy. (Admittedly, in most other sympathetic villain episodes we see that path only in flashback, but we do see it.)

As a sympathetic villain, the natural comparison for Calendar Girl is Baby Doll. Both are seeking revenge for the loss of a career in which they were successful on the basis of youth and appearance, but never taken seriously, and ultimately discarded easily. Both kidnap people with whom they once worked. And both are ultimately undone by the distraction of an image of themselves–Baby Doll in a funhouse mirror that shows her as the adult woman she was never treated as, and Calendar Girl in the burning projection of an image of the younger self she is desperately trying to recover.

But Baby Doll was given space to talk about how she felt–not just her anger but the happiness before it, the loss that underlies it. With Calendar Girl, we see only her current anger, and while that is palpable, it is up to the viewer to decide how to read that anger–whether to dismiss it is as overblown, like I did at sixteen, or to see it as a response to the profound injustice of an industry, and a world, that values women primarily as objects to be looked at.

At the end, when Page Monroe is revealed to have the standard Timm pinup face, Batgirl pronounces her beautiful, but Batman intones that she cannot see that anymore, that she sees “only the flaws.” This is implied to be the tragedy for which we should feel for her, but it was also Batman who called Monroe a “girl,” only to be reminded by Batgirl that the picture he was looking at was of a then-thirty-year-old woman. It is Batgirl who recognizes Monroe as she is, not Batman; she is beautiful, and the reason she sees “only the flaws” is because that’s all the fashion industry and Hollywood see. It is not some personal failing of Monroe that led her down this path, but the pressures of society and the beauty industry, the impossible standards she was forced to try to maintain.

In other words, Batman makes the same mistake as he did when he called her a girl: he underestimates her. He sees someone whose vision is distorted, because the alternative is to see what she is looking at: not her face, but the standards against she is to be judged, and the people who chose to impose those standards. In that light, the GWB network event takes on new importance; while the visual and musical references to Star Trek suggest we are looking at UPN, a network which essentially built itself off and around Trek spinoffs, the lineup of shows focused on sexy, hip young people and aimed at teenagers is a direct stab at the WB, which in 1998 largely specialized in such content, such as Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer–and which also aired The New Batman Adventures as part of both its Saturday morning and primetime lineups.

Batman and The New Batman Adventures, in other words, are both complicit. They are a part of the cruel propagation of unrealistic standards of beauty, the obsession with youth, and the associated discarding of older women–where “older” can mean as young as thirty! Their complicity is visible in the moment Calendar Girl’s mask is pulled off: she’s just another Timm face, symmetrical, doe-eyed, and unlined. She appears no older than Batgirl or the young models posing in the fashion show at the episode’s beginning, and significantly younger than the woman in the audience who wants to buy the dresses they’ve modeled. Beauty, in other words, is once again being equated to youth, and the flaw that is all Calendar Girl can see is that she’s forty years old.

The seasons are mean indeed. They just refuse to stop passing. But meaner still is the season GWB was announcing–and it is those seasons, more than the passage of time, that are ultimately responsible for the tragedy of Page Monroe.

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Vlog Review: Seven Deadly Sins S1E10

This is not the second bonus vlog for this month, I posted that earlier. This is last week’s vlog, which I accidentally didn’t queue. Sorry!

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

He’ll come back (Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero)

Hey all! I’m running a Kickstarter for My Little Po-Mo vol. 4, collecting all the as-yet-unbookified My Little Po-Mo entries, plus book exclusives! It’s currently just shy of 30% complete, and only $60 from the next Achievement!

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo
It’s March 17, 1998. In the three weeks since “Growing Pains,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” had a brief stint topping the charts before being knocked down by Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Titanic is the top movie, as it has seemingly always been and seemingly will always be–as of March 1, it has become the first film to gross over a billion dollars.

In the news, NASA probes found liquid water under the ice crust of Europa, and enough water on the moon to potentially sustain a colony, on March 2 and 5 respectively. On Earth, news is rather slower–a general election in Denmark is about it.

That unfortunately sets the stage well for Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero, a meandering slog of a movie that is a massive letdown after both the general quality of Mr. Freeze episodes of the show, and the stellar prior Batman: The Animated Series movie, Mask of the Phantasm.

The problem is fairly simple, albeit one that will crop up repeatedly as we continue our journey: this movie is a throwback. It looks and feels like a too-long episode of BTAS, with a Dick Grayson Robin dating a Barbara Gordon that neither he nor Batman knows is Batgirl, a dark, noir-ish palette, and a Batman who lingers on the fringes and in the shadows of his own show.

None of these are bad traits in themselves–BTAS was and remains an excellent series! The problem is the baggage that comes with them. This is a sympathetic villain episode, as befits Mr. Freeze, star of the first such. It follows the now-familiar formula, presenting us with a tragic protagonist whose life is disrupted in ways outside his control, and who in desperation or fury turns to supervillainy as all other paths close to him. Victor Fries appears content to stay in his little Arctic family of himself, his wife, still literally fridged, silent and unmoving on her pedestal, his adopted Native son, and his pet polar bears (who are easily the movie’s best characters).

But, of course, a military submarine destroys that life, and of course he returns to supervillainy to try to save Nora. We’ve been down this road before, many times. But where “Heart of Ice” overflowed with genuine pathos, Subzero misses those registers, precisely because we’ve been here before. A sympathetic villain story is, by its nature, a character piece; it lives or dies by its success at depicting a tragic arc, as in “Heart of Ice” or “Baby-Doll.” But there is no arc in Subzero, only a plot. We already know what Fries is like when Nora is endangered, the lengths he will go to in order to save or protect her, and his willingness to live peacefully when she is safe. We are not watching his character change, nor is our understanding of his character changing, the two processes which we elide into the term “character development.” We are simply seeing him walk through the steps of familiar responses to familiar circumstances.

This is one of the problems with attempting to evoke nostalgia, especially for something as recent as six years previously: not everything that once worked is necessarily completely repeatable. Surprise, suspense, and novelty are not the end-all-be-all of fiction, as a spoiler-obsessed pop culture seems to sometimes believe. That said, the emotional impact of a particular character arc can still wear out with repetition, as one becomes first familiar with, and then jaded to, it.

Oddly, the movie was not intended to evoke nostalgia; it was originally planned for a June 1997 release, a few months before the beginning of The New Batman Adventures. It was intended, in other words, as a farewell to BTAS before moving on: one last look at the old world from before Harley blew up Krypton, and then a couple of months later the first reveal of what Batman and Gotham look like in the new world. But due to the box-office and critical failure of Batman & Robin, which also heavily featured Batgirl and Mr. Freeze, this movie was pushed back nine months, and thus feels like a throwback.

But then, much in it might have felt like a throwback anyway: while it lacks a “whore” figure to match Batman & Robin‘s Poison Ivy, it still has the problem of Nora Fries as a fridged Madonna, a woman presented as ideal because she does not speak or act or think, because she exists in perpetual victimhood as an object of worship.

Batgirl’s presentation is little better. She gets to throw a few punches and attempt escape a couple of times, but she basically spends the movie as a damsel in distress. Gordon is once again creepily obsessed with her love life, as he was in “Shadow of the Bat,” the literal patriarchy encouraging Dick Grayson to pursue and claim her. Later, after Freeze snatches her away, Gordon tries and fails to find her; he is, after all, the fairy-tale king in this scenario, with Batman and Robin as the princes rushing out to the tower to save her.

Utena told us all about that scenario.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Harley broke the world to end–this treatment of women as either succubi or goddesses, as princesses held captive in their towers and offered by their fathers to worthy suitors, or else as wicked witches. And because Subzero was flung forward by the equally apocalyptic (at least for that particular sequence of live-action Batman movies) Batman & Robin, it ends up not a mediocre end to an ongoing series, but an actively irksome throwback to things we thought dead and gone.

This is the problem with nostalgia. It gives us works rooted in the past, and as a result very often carrying with them all the noxious and toxic reasons we left that past behind. Nostalgic works are fragments of a world before we changed it, of things as they were, and as a result, more often than not, they are poison.

But that’s familiar, isn’t it? A piece of a pre-apocalyptic world, flung forward by apocalypse, turned toxic by its journey. We’ve seen things like that before–we know what to call them.

Nostalgia is pop culture’s kryptonite.

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