Think maybe you're becoming (Apokolips… Now!)

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It’s February 7 and 14, 1998. The top songs this week are Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” and Usher’s “Nice & Slow”–in that order on the 7th, and swapping places by the 14th. The top movie remains Titanic throughout.
In the news since last November, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11, two days after sales of the Toyota Prius, the first mass-production hybrid car, began. On January 12, nearly 20 European nations agree to ban human cloning for some reason, and on the 17th the right-wing tabloid site Drudge Report breaks the Lewinsky scandal, about which more in a later post. And on the day part one of this story aired, the Nagano Winter Olympics began.
In Superman: The Animated Series, we have something that feels very much like a season finale, even though it actually isn’t–that’s the next two episodes, which aired in May after another brief hiatus. Nonetheless, “Apokolips… Now!” feels more like a season-ending event than “Little Girl Lost”: the former wraps up plot threads from prior episodes in a way that leads naturally into a new story, while the latter is entirely about introducing a new plot thread–and not the one created by “Apokolips… Now!.”
That thread–the war between Darkseid and Superman–will end up continuing throughout the entire DCAU, and ultimately end it, ending universes being what Apokolipses are for. Its creation involves the closing out of past threads: the end of the “Intergang uses alien weapons” thread that appeared in a couple of prior STAS episodes, the (heavily implied) death of Intergang leader Bruno Mannheim, and the (outright shown) death of Dan Turpin.
This is a shocking event, and not just for the diegetic audience that witnesses Darkseid’s casual murder of Turpin as he flees in the face of a freed Superman, defiant humanity, and Orion-led New Genesis army. The DCAU has strongly implied deaths before, as with Mannheim in this episode, and it has depicted off-screen deaths and deaths of non-human creatures, but this is an outright killing of a human being on screen, in a children’s cartoon.
In that, Turpin’s death near the end of the second part reflects a similarly shocking (in the “I can’t believe they got away with showing that” sense) moment early in the first part: after she is injured in an Intergang attack, we see Maggie Sawyer in a hospital bed holding hands with her girlfriend; the episode admittedly never explicitly states their relationship, so a viewer could infer they are sisters given they both have Timm’s default Adult Young Woman face and body. However, allowing for stylistic differences between the two media, it is nonetheless clearly Toby Reynes, established as Sawyer’s partner in the comics a decade before this episode aired.
That the two moments–one an expression of love and support, the other heart-breaking and violent–are mirrors of one another is confirmed by Turpin’s funeral scene that ends the episode: specifically, a Jewish funeral. Confirming a cartoon character to not be Christian is only slightly less surprising than confirming them to be queer–remember, this is a medium that habitually depicts Christmas (under one name or another) as something celebrated on alien planets and in fantasy visions of the ancient past. Openly Jewish cartoon characters were not as unheard of as openly queer ones even in 1998, but it was still quite rare, and even rarer to see a Jewish ceremonial rite like a wedding or, in this case, funeral.
Here we see is the advantage of the outward turn STAS represents: the expansion of the space of the possible. To face the weird is to encounter the non-normative, which creates the possibility of accepting it. There is room here!
We dismissed Harley Quinn’s apocalypse as a failure, as creating the wrong new world, but here we see that it succeeded. She made a world where lesbians can just exist, just be, just love each other, without having to be monsters or supervillains. She even made room for her religion as well–remember, prior to this, she was the only major supporting character depicted as being Jewish, too. The revolution has farther to go, and injustices remain, but it succeeded in changing the injustice it started in response to. Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy won.
But victory comes at a price, as Darkseid made sure to remind us. In gaining representation of lesbianism and Judaism as normative things “normal” characters can be, as opposed to only found in the monstrous, the bizarre, and the outcast, we have expanded the circles of normativity. Maggie Sawyer and Dan Turpin are, after all, both cops, the front-line troops of normativity in its war against difference. We see that here: masked and armored cops, faceless stormtroopers gunning down equally faceless parademons.
Yes, the parademons are agents of evil, trying to destroy the world and replace it with a hellish landscape of fire, but then of course they are: apocalypse is revolution viewed from above. Darkseid is just another conqueror, but that’s the point: like Mala and Jax-Ur, he is emblematic of the fact that the general American experience of fascism was, until recently, that it was something that started elsewhere. But the cops are indistinguishable just as the parademons are indistinguishable: they represent the erasure of human difference, human diversity, human life just as much as Darkseid’s forces do.
And herein lies the problem of the simplistic binary this episode presents of Apokolips and New Genesis: Apokolips is a world of slavery and bondage, yes, but New Genesis merely opposes their evil. That is a necessary condition for goodness to be sure, but it does not mean that New Genesis is good–the most visually obvious distinction between the two, after all, is that Apokoliptians are ugly and New Gods beautiful according to conventional (read: white) standards. In other words, New Genesis’ opposition to Apokolips is not good against evil, but normalcy–the maintenance of the status quo and the extant structures of power–against transgression and the grotesque.
New Genesis, in other words, is a planet of superheroes, and Apokolips a planet of supervillains: not good against evil, but cops against criminals. And the more things that get accepted as normal without challenging normativity itself, the greater the pool from which to draw cops, and the fewer to oppose them.
But, we might ask, isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want people of all backgrounds, all orientations and genders, all religions and ethnicities, to be considered normal?
And the answer is, no we don’t. No one is normal; what we want is to smash the very idea of normalcy. So long as deviance from an arbitrary norm is the standard by which we judge others, rather than harm, there will always be some people on the outside who aren’t hurting anyone, some people denied acceptance and treated as threats solely for failing to fit arbitrary standards, as opposed to actually demonstrably posing a threat of harm–and there will always be harmful, toxic people on the inside who remain accepted because they fit those same arbitrary standards. In other words, so long as we value normalcy, privilege and marginalization will continue to exist. We can stop subjecting Asians to unfair immigration standards and internment camps, but we’ll just be doing the same to Latin@s a generation later; if it isn’t Jews being marginalized, it’s Muslims; if it isn’t lesbians, it’s trans people; if it isn’t black people, it’s–well, we’ve never stopped marginalizing black people. Which is not to say that we’ve stopped marginalizing any of the other groups, either–but they’ve all taken strides toward normalization, and the result has been that some of them have taken to defending that normalization by attacking the “next group out,” so to speak. Hence, for example, conservative Jews and transphobic lesbians aligning themselves with the Christian right out of shared Islamophobia and transphobia, respectively.*
But there is time yet for more apocalypses, and we can still hope for a future where everyone accepts everyone else, where everything save nonconsensual harm is permitted. A world where everything is tolerated except intolerance; that is the new genesis we want, and it can only happen after apocalypse.
In the meantime, improvement is improvement. For now, as we close out this chapter of our search, we can simply enjoy Harley Quinn’s brave new world–destroying it, revolutionizing it, making it better, those are all things we can worry about tomorrow. For now, let us simply celebrate that this world has room for as much variety as it does–not just a hero who flies, but a black superhero who built himself skin of steel. Not just Space Moses, but an actual Jewish man. Not just the Man of Tomorrow who loves and protects mankind, but women loving each other.
We celebrate them all–but even as we do, we know we must go further.
.*Not to single out anyone in particular. I chose Jews and lesbians for this example simply because I’m a Jewish lesbian.
 
End of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 Volume 3: That Has Such People In It. Volume 4 is titled Childhood’s End.
 


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Imaginary Story: The Batman and Robin Adventures #25 and Annual #2

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On one level, The Batman And Robin Adventures Annual #2 and The Superman Adventures Annual #1 are a sort of crossover, telling two sides of a story involving magical amulets. But the amount of actual crossover is quite small, and tonally these are very different stories that function almost entirely independently of each other. The elements of each story that appear in the other are readable, if one hasn’t read the other, as simple Easter Eggs. “Oh, Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to Zatara when Superman met him.” “Oh, Zatara was involved in some kind of Superman adventure while Bruce Wayne was apprenticed to him.”
Instead of something like “World’s Finest,” which had both Superman and Batman working together against both Superman-style and Batman-style problems, this “crossover” maintains each of them alone, in their own space, dealing with their own styles, with only Zatara himself bridging the gap. Unlike “World’s Finest,” therefore, which has the overall effect of uniting the BTAS and STAS ideaspaces into the beginnings of the DCAU, this serves instead to highlight their differences, as illustrated by the two’s respective treatment of the shared character Zatara–and through him, of magic.
For Superman, Zatara was a wizard, a provider of magical artifacts that could be invoked by the power of words, that led to a chaotic realm of demons and time travel. But for Batman Zatara is much more mundane, a stage magician who operates by trickery. The villain of the Batman story has mind-control powers, but they are simply an advanced form of mundane persuasion, not spells of enchantment–and any apparent magic is actually a product of self-deception, whether accidental (the villain’s belief that the amulet grants his powers boosts his confidence sufficiently to allow him to employ them) or deliberate (the “meditation ritual” Zatara teaches Batman and Batman teaches Robin is fairly obviously the same kind of confidence booster, in this case to resist control).
Both take a playful approach to the ideas within, but ultimately the Superman comic is far more playful, extending that even to the structure of the comic itself (with, as we’ve discussed, mixed results). It jumps gleefully into concepts like demons, magic, and time travel, while the Batman comic tries to be more straightforwardly logical, to lay the groundwork to explain everything that happens in mundane terms. At the same time, it’s more aware of mundane darkness: Superman’s demon is just a generic evil, monstrous invader who destroys and disrupts and must be fought, while the Batman story takes pains to have its villain point out that he does not and will not use his powers for rape.
Compare the Batman annual to issue #25, the final issue of The Batman and Robin Adventures (though, just like TBA before it, TBRA will be followed by a functionally identical series under a new name). In this story, Batman is kidnapped by a flying saucer piloted by Ra’s al-Ghul, who claims he stole it from aliens who abducted him. Batman breaks free and is contacted by the Men in Black (generic, X-Files-esque ones rather than the ones from the Aircel/Malibu comic book that inspired the Men in Black movies–those characters were purchased by Marvel in 1994 and are thus unfortunately unlikely to show up in a Batman story), then takes on Ra’s again and stops him from using the saucer to destroy the polar ice caps.
This comic, which came out the month after the Annual, flirts rather more openly with what the Annual merely hinted at: that Batman’s world of dark alleys and gothic villains is embedded in something larger and weirder, a realm of aliens and speedsters and actual magic, psychic gorillas and Amazons and living radiation. Batman resists this, insisting right up until the end of the comic that the saucer is a craft built by Ra’s al-Ghul, not an alien vessel, but the fact that it can be controlled by holding a crystal and focusing one’s will makes clear that he is wrong: this is magic–space-themed magic, as aliens and spaceships in fiction usually are, but magic nonetheless.
He is in denial, but he cannot remain there forever. The future of the DCAU is not to delve deeper into dark streets, solving dark mysteries and exploring the corners of dark minds; it is striking out into the wild and the weird, outward rather than inward, expanding into new ideaspaces rather than lurking in the one. We’ve known this, of course, since the apocalypse and the art style shift–but here is confirmation.
The Batman of the Future is coming, and like Superman’s epithet, he is a Man of Tomorrow. His world may look superficially like Batman’s, but it lies within Superman’s–dark streets occupied by mutants and aliens and psychics. It is a world that the Bruce Wayne Batman cannot fight in and cannot fight against–but as we see here, he will break himself trying.


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Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures Annual #1

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Sorry this is late! Between the long weekend and being sick yesterday, I just lost track of what day it was.
When I was first planning The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, I knew that unlike past projects, I would be writing entries on topics outside the core works themselves, in this case the individual episodes of the DCAU. I wanted to give them fun titles that tied into the general superheroes theme, and eventually hit on three categories (though I considered others): Retroactive Continuity for discussion of works that significantly pre- or post-date the last episode discussed, which of course is the phrase from which we get the portmanteau “retcon” for an event in a later episode of a serial (such as a comic book issue) that significantly alters or replaces  events in earlier episodes; Crisis on N Earths for discussion of works or events outside of DC comics but close to the air date of the last episode discussed, from the recurring DC title construction for comics that deal with alternate realities, and especially the famous event miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths; and Imaginary Story for discussion of works that involve the characters in the DCAU, but which are nonetheless not part of the DCAU.
I took that title from the tendency, in Golden Age comics, to have “imaginary stories”: issues of a comic which are, unlike most issues of superhero comics, not to be taken as part of an ongoing serial, but rather which present “what-if” scenarios or events with such resounding consequences that they would alter future episodes too much to sustain the serial. Imaginary stories tended to feature the most bizarre ideas of the era, and are responsible for much of the recurring phenomenon of Golden Age covers in which ostensible heroes perform actions which, out of context, appear unconscionable, hilarious, or both.
Of course, we’ve discussed an imaginary story before, in a sense, way back at the beginning of this volume: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” positions itself as one. But, as both we and Moore noted, all stories are imaginary stories; imaginary is a vital component of what it is to be a story. Even a story about events that occurred is still imaginary, in the sense that the events themselves do not recur when the story is retold. They are simply imagined, evoked by the construction of symbols that, together, signify (one storyteller/reader pair’s conception of) the events in question.
So part of the joke in calling things like the DCAU’s comic spinoffs “imaginary stories” is thus that this whole project, being written by someone with at least a basic understanding of how stories actually work, rejects the notion of “canon” on which they’re built: stories depict not worlds but ideas, and ideaspace has neither borders nor laws. Superman Adventures Annual #1 is exactly as fictional as a given episode of the show, which is exactly as fictional as fanfiction, which is exactly as fictional as money or the United States of America, the acquisition of the former and intellectual property laws of the latter being the primary determinants of what comprises “canon.”
That said, while ideaspace is amorphous and ever-moving, one can nonetheless draw distances between ideas. (Those distances will of course change, but one can draw them for a single moment from a particular perspective. One simply cannot, and shouldn’t try to, fix them at those distances for all people and all times.) It is, thus, reasonable to declare that Superman Adventures Annual #1 is in quite a distant realm indeed from our discussion of the DCAU.
For all that it visually resembles the character designs of the show, the tone and structure of the comic is wildly different. It is fitting that its cover uses a design–radially arranged scenes with exclamation point-laden declarations enthusing about the content within–that is commonly associated with Golden Age pastiche (a grid-like variant being used, for example, for the cover of the second part of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”) because it feels far closer to that aesthetic than to the kid-friendly but very 90s-inflected Superman: The Animated Series.
The most visible aesthetic difference is a certain structural tightness that STAS episodes, and Superman Adventures comics, tend to have. Events in those stories follow clearly on one another, either logically following from previously depicted events, setting up future events, or both. Even an in medias res opening, flash-forward, or otherwise initially surprising scene is ultimately made part of a coherent structure that is clear and easy to follow. In other words, the DCAU aesthetic tends to not be structurally challenging because it is simply constructed.
By contrast, SAA #1 sprawls. Time travel, interdimensional travel, and magic intersect, leading to characters experiencing the same scene at different points in the story, passing useful objects or information forward or backward in time or across dimensional barriers; other characters move from realm to realm or change form according to expressed, but arbitrary, rules; the story is a chaotic, shifting dreamscape, with Doctor Fate, champion of order, lurking inscrutably about its edges and acting according to rules only he knows. The story is, ultimately, no more structurally challenging than the DCAU, but for a very different reason: because it wants its reader to stop trying to pin down a logical sequence of events obeying strict rules and just enjoy the ride.
It is the nature of chaos that any finite region thereof can be perceived as orderly. Consider this sequence, which I just pulled off the website random.org (which uses atmospheric noise to create truly random numbers as opposed to the pseudo-random numbers produced by computers): 58,75,61. This is as random, as chaotic, as a sequence of numbers can be–but because it is finite, we can come up with rules that govern it. Looking it up in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, it actually occurs in two known, “mathematically interesting,” sequences. Hitting random.org again, we get 37, which isn’t the next number in either of those sequences–but we could easily enough create one where it is.
So it is with ideaspace. The whole is chaotic, but any part–an individual story, for example–appears orderly, as if it is proceeding according to defined rules like cause and effect or narratological imperative. But these rules do not define the space, they merely describe it, emerging from our study of it. What is actually happening is magic; our words, our perceptions, just shape our ability to understand it. This is what makes Golden Age comics so much fun; where Silver Age comics tended to take place in an absurdist realm of science-flavored nonsense, all giant apes and alien menaces, Golden Age comics can be more overtly magical and surreal.
Ultimately, SAA #1 combines both, the science nonsense of paradox-ridden time travel and the surreal magic of demon-ridden astral planes. It is overstuffed with ideas, none of which land–but it stretches the boundaries of the DCAU in ways that we won’t see again for quite a while. And when we do, they’ll be perceived as a threat, an invading other rather than a new space to explore.
Ah well. Hail Icthultu!


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