Light makes him lose his powers (Absolute Power)

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It’s January 16, 1999, and the charts are largely unchanged from last time, with only the order different–Brandy is on top at the moment with “Have You Ever?” Varsity Blues opens at number one in theaters. And in the news, earlier this month the euro was launched, as was the Mars Polar Lander, the latter at least to end in failure–it will eventually crashland on Mars.

On TV, “Absolute Power,” a fairly forgettable Superman: The Animated Series episode notable mostly for being a couple of second-and-lasts–the second and last episode narrated in flashback, and the second and last appearance of Mala and Jax-Ur. The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to the famous line by John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Acton was an English baron and marquess who strongly opposed centralized authority, a fan of U.S.-style federalism who vocally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War on states’ rights grounds. Knowing that, it’s worth reading his most famous quote a little more closely: “Power tends to corrupt.” In other words, it doesn’t always corrupt, just often does, while “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The repeated word “absolute” is here being used in two subtly different sentences: “absolute power” of course refers to the maximum possible amount of power, power which cannot be resisted or denied, but “corrupts absolutely” is constructed in opposition to “tends to corrupt,” and therefore reads as guaranteed corruption, not maximal corruption.

This is an important distinction to make, because again, the speaker here is an aristocrat who opposed any power above his own but supported slavery, just like the bulk of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution–no wonder he was a fan! In other words, someone who believed his own power as an aristocrat did not corrupt him, but rather that any higher level of power was necessarily corrupting–power which could be used to interfere with his exercise of his power over those subject to it. He’s basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day right-libertarian.

This is important, because despite the title, the episode isn’t built around his quote, but actually a saying (usually attributed to Edmund Burke) which arguably opposes the Acton quote: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The opposition comes in when one realizes the implication that absolute power is not guaranteed to corrupt if “good men” do something, though arguably preventing the consolidation of absolute power in the first place could be the something done.

Either way, the probably-not-actually-Burke quote is the closer to true of the two, despite the emptiness of the category “good men”: we live in an amoral, and therefore immoral, universe, and have invented morality out of our own capacity for agency and judgment. If we wish it to exist in the world, rather than merely our imaginations, we must build and rebuild it constantly. And not just in the world, but in ourselves–to decide that one is, once and for all, good is to lose the capacity for self-correction, and thereby guarantee failure.

This episode is thus actually a crucial one to understanding Superman, because it shows that he is capable of error, and more importantly that he knows he is capable of error. He has, as many critics and commentators have noted over the years, a nigh-impossible balancing act to perform: on the one hand, given his great capacity to do what others cannot, him doing nothing gives evil a far greater chance to triumph than most; on the other, if he does too much to protect–which is to say, control–others, he becomes a tyrant. Mala and Jax-Ur choose to go much too much to the latter extreme, becoming dictators as a means of bringing “peace” and “order” to the divided planet they conquer, but initially Superman goes too far to the former, leaving their rule intact because he fears the consequences to the planet if he fights them.

Ultimately, however, he is Superman. He finds a way to stop them without it turning into a planet-busting kaiju fight, though they help by taking him out into space to throw him into a black hole. He finds a way to protect almost everyone, by fighting Mala and Jax-Ur in incredibly dangerous space until they slip up and die. He even saves their head of security/police, Alterus, over the protests of the rebel Cetea.

It’s an interesting choice, because although Alterus has a last-second change of heart to rescue Superman and Cetea from execution by black hole, he is still depicted as Mala and Jax-Ur’s second-in-command. He is doubtless responsible for executing many of the atrocities they are implied to have masterminded in their conquest of the planet, doubtless including actual executions. He’s also shown being sexually assaulted by Mala, which certainly makes him more sympathetic, but also provides a possible ulterior motive for turning against the regime.

What he is, in short, is a reminder that it isn’t actually necessary for “good men” to do anything to prevent the triumph of evil, which is good since people aren’t actions and therefore can’t be meaningfully assigned moral value. Apparent “bad men” can do it too, by taking good action.

This is not, in itself, redemption. Alterus does not really have a redemption arc; he’s barely a character. “Redemption” is a fuzzy concept when you’ve rejected the concept that a person can be good or evil, anyway; it’s connected to forgiveness, but forgiveness lies entirely in the free choice of one’s victims. Mostly it’s the realization of one’s own prior evil actions, acceptance of one’s capacity to do such things, and choice to start doing better, which certainly could be what’s going on with Alterus, but on the other hand he could just be taking advantage of an opportunity to rid himself of his abuser and take over the planet himself in the process. He could, in other words, just be upset about power greater than his own, and not see anything wrong with his own power over others, or he could be genuinely recognizing that power must be broken.

In the end, his redemption or lack thereof isn’t important. What is important is that it demonstrates for us that someone can serve a tyrannical regime in its conquest of a divided planet, then turn against that regime’s leaders. Doing so isn’t redemption in itself, but it’s better than not doing it, and that’s a start.

But surely we won’t see this precise sequence of events with a character we know much better at the end of this season, right?


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If I have a bat problem (Rebirth)

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It’s January 10, 1999, about six weeks since “Little Big Head Man.” The bizarre duo of R. Kelly and Celine Dion top the charts, with “I’m Your Angel.” Deborah Cox, Brandy, and Britney Spears also chart, the last with her first big hit, “…Baby One More Time.” The top movie is A Civil Action, which managed the rare feat of jumping up 44 places between weekends. Also in the top ten are Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams, You’ve Got Mail, animated classic The Prince of Egypt and semi-classic A Bug’s Life, Shakespeare in Love, and cult horror favorite The Faculty.

And on TV, Batman dies the way he always had to: some punk with a gun. 20 years on from The New Batman Adventures, fighting to save what’s implied to be Veronica Vreeland’s teen daughter from a random gang of kidnappers, he suffers a heart attack and is nearly killed by one of the kidnappers. Desperate, he picks up a gun and threatens the man with it. Remember, he lives in a world of archetypes. For Batman, every night is The Night, and every gun is The Gun. Holding it, menacing someone with it, makes him The Punk and allows all the survivor’s guilt he feels about his parents, the guilt he made the Bat to keep at bay, to rush in at once. The Bat is dead, and with it, the Batman.

Bruce Wayne, however, is not free. He will never not be trapped in The Night, never not be that frightened, helpless eight-year-old boy, and now he is the murderer of his parents to boot. He shuts himself away from the world, cuts off his ties with others, retreats into solitude. The Punk, unleashed, flows into Gotham, and goes cyber.

Cue dead-television sky.

Terry McGinnis is an angry young man. We’re not given a clear reason for his anger–there’s some implication it’s his parents’ divorce, but it equally well could be the natural consequent of the dim world in which he lives. Certainly he seems to take his anger out primarily on manifestations of The Punk, starting the episode in a brawl with a member of the Jokerz street gang. This is not Bruce Wayne’s anger, however; that was cold, and he wore it like armor. Terry’s is hot, and it wears him.

At least until he steals the batsuit, anyway. He quickly finds it a way to channel his anger into righteous violence, which as uses for hot anger go is probably the most constructive one. He takes obvious joy in using the suit, a pleasure, almost playfulness, that we never saw in Bruce Wayne, though there were perhaps hints of it in Tim Drake. In all though, Terry is something new, neither the brooding darkness of Bruce Wayne nor the shining paragon that is Superman. He’s yet a third kind of hero: someone who never had power, only anger, and on receiving it, chooses to use it not for his own gain, but to fight against those who abuse power (and killed his dad, admittedly).

He is, in other words, a hero who is very nearly a villain, but not in the trite Dark Age of Comics sense of a “hero” who shoots lots of guns indiscriminately in service of some authority or ideal. Rather, he is a hero who is not entirely on the side of power, because this is cyberpunk and power–in the form of the unsubtly named Derek Powers–is suspect and corrupt.

And beside that, he has one key advantage over Bruce Wayne: he can take the suit off. Unlike Wayne, he has family who don’t know that he’s Batman, and genuine friends in his “civilian” persona. He has a life, and while that will create conflict down the line, it also creates opportunity: he can heal in a way Bruce Wayne never could. Ironically, the boy who now has the Bat doesn’t really need it. He is hurt and angry, but he has the support he’ll need to recover, in time.

I say “has the Bat,” but the Bat isn’t really something you have. It’s something you are, or are not–and Terry is not. The episode title is a misnomer: the Bat is dead and remains such. Instead we have something more interesting: a boy who isn’t substantially different between civilian and heroic personae, who seems to deliberately resist fragmenting his identity as so many superheroes do. This isn’t a rebirth of something we’ve seen before; this is, fittingly for an episode revolving around a destructive mutagen, an evolution. Rebirth implies on some level a return to where we’ve been, but that’s not where we’re going; we’re going Beyond.

And as for McGinnis, a Batperson who can take the suit off and be just a person? We’ve seen that before, in a previous partner of Bruce Wayne: Batgirl. Of course she was his partner in more ways than one, but then so will Terry be, albeit in a very different way.

We’ll be meeting her next episode.


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Retroactive Continuity: Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Sucked into the game. I’ve always hated that premise. I hated it in Tron and Captain N and the countless 80s cartoons that used it to for a one-off episode when I was a kid. I hated it in Reboot when I was a teen, and I hate it in the glut of isekai anime now. If I’d known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon–acknowledged by writer Kieron Gillen as one of Die‘s major inspirations–when it was on the air, I would doubtless have hated the premise there.

Fortunately, Die hates that premise, too.

And it deserves that hatred. (Of course I think so, why else would I hate it?) In college, I read an essay about games whose title and author I no longer remember, but a key point stuck with me. The essay discussed, in its introduction, a child trying to learn to play chess, but who kept losing because they refused to do anything to put the queen’s-side knight in danger. They had developed an emotional attachment to that piece, embued it personality as children sometimes do, and could not set that feeling aside to play the game. Part of what makes games games, the essay argued, is that they don’t really have stakes. Oh, we may wager something on the outcome of the game–money, pride, advancement in a tournament–but the individual actions and moves, the actual playing, has no stakes. Nobody is tortured when a pawn is captured, no fields razed when a football team loses ground. We do not care about the queen’s-side knight, or empathize with the pain our marker feels when devoured by snakes in its effort to climb to the top of the ladder.

But this begins to complexify in the latter half of the twentieth century, as various new genres–interactive books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, video games, roleplaying games–begin incorporating gamelike elements into fiction or using games as a storytelling medium. Now we do care about our gamepieces, because now they are characters, and become emotionally invested in characters–though never in quite the same way as real people. Much of what is interesting about games as storytelling media arises from this tension between ludic elements and narrative, the knowledge that an errant roll of a d20 could spell the difference between a dramatic rescue and a tragicomic fumble, that our own button-pressing skill is all that stands between the brave hero taking a stand against evil and annihilation.

Or you can just abandon all that and use a traditional medium for a story about a bunch of characters sucked into a game, which accomplishes nothing except giving you an excuse to have characters make pop culture references in a fantasy world.

Die takes a different approach. It recognizes that fantasy worlds and games alike are frequently rife with violence, death, and suffering, and that most people have lives to which they feel some degree of attachment, so being sucked into the fantasy world of a game is a fucking nightmare. And, too, that if the worlds evoked by narrative games are in any sense real–as the geek-default “suspension of disbelief”/secondary creation school of narrative engagement insists on treating them–players are monsters, and game creators even more so.

Being sucked into a game is a horror premise, and for once Die actually treats it as such, briefly exploring how having been sucked into a game as teens warped the lives of a quintet of fortysomethings, and perhaps more importantly how it didn’t–for all their trauma, most of them actually lead pretty normative lives of marriage, children, employment–before flinging them back into the game once more. Bad enough having to live your fantasies; how much worse having to live the fantasies of the immature, overwrought teen you once were?

It helps, too, that the story acknowledges one of my longheld critiques of D&D-style fantasy, namely that people are nowhere near frightened enough of bards and enchanters. A powerful necromancer may send a zombie horde to enslave the kingdom, but a powerful bard can make them happy to be enslaved–and that is essentially the main character’s power, to tell others what to feel. (Intriguingly, they are also to all appearances a het man in the real world and a het woman in the game world. When asked about this by other characters, we are privy to their thoughts that they feel more free as Lady Ash, but they change the subject before we can learn much. Mind control is an extremely common fantasy among trans women, almost to the point of being an ingroup stereotype, I’m just saying.)

And yet despite all of that, there are still people who think they want to go to a fantasy world. Enough of them to keep isekai the latest obnoxiously big thing in anime, anyway. And in Die, we see them too: ultimately, the characters split between those who wish to escape the nightmare world of fantasy and those who, whether out of a sense of duty or because they’ve bought into the power fantasy aspect, want to stay longer.

Fools.


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Of the Future (Recapitulation)

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The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

-William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

What the famous opening line of Gibson’s cyberpunk classic describes is not a Metropolis-blue sky, though that is the color of a dead channel today. Nor is it the apocalypse-red sky of Gotham with which our first opening began, at the very beginning of near-apocalypse. No, Gibson’s sky is a dead television in 1984, and that means the mottled, ever-shifting grays of static.

(No, not him. He’s later.)

Static has retained a curious power as a signifier, despite its relatively brief presence in actual life. It is an acutely analogue phenomenon, near-vanished in a digital world, and equally unknown to our pre-electronic great grandparents. Even in 1999, it was increasingly uncommon.

But nonetheless, it remains in our collective visual memory. In Neuromancer, of course, it refers to a dense layer of gray clouds, and so here in our new opening it does as well: we open with a burst of static, and then pan up over gray ocean to gray looming city and gray industrial kanji-flecked towers looming over that, with, yes, patches of gray sky visible between a few buildings.

Static is so many things. It denotes something lost, a gap, a place where the message is missing, a flickering discontinuity. A sky of static offers no hope and betides no apocalypse; it speaks nothing. But too, it is noise, speaking too much for anything to be made out but a sibilant hiss. Inundated with information, we retain nothing; that is the future, and how can we respond but with apathy?

But the apathy predates the static. The first frame of this opening is not the gray sky of the city; it is a brief flash of an image seen more fully later, a lurid spiral centered on a hand holding an eye, quickly vanishing into the static. This is not a difficult image to interpret, especially associated with the static of a dead television: it is at once lurid and hypnotic, a vision given to us by an unseen hand. It is television itself, entertainment masquerading as information, propagandized news that sells itself as entertainment, all in the service of power, corruption, and greed. The word “Apathy” itself flickers past soon after, followed by images of our main characters, mired as they are in apathy at the start of this story: elderly Bruce Wayne, and young Terry McGinnis, standing in a graveyard, the quick flickering between them suggesting that they are standing together in that graveyard, and yet they are not both on the screen at once.

But all of this is buried in the first second, nigh-subliminal, and fittingly is soon after buried in the liminal image of the sea. It is only after we see the city and its dead-television sky that we get a fuller view of the hand, eye, and spiral, animated now to make it clear that the hand is giving the eye to us–and then, flickering long enough to read and associate with that image, the word “Apathy” once more.

The image flickers again: people in futuristic armor with futuristic guns, again in lurid colors, and a young woman screaming, all in shades of gray. She is not pure light, it seems, a victim but not no innocent, while the armored people are blood and darkness against a backdrop of fire, unquestionably an image of menace and evil. This, we are told, is “Greed.” That, after all, is what comes after apathy: if we no longer care, then what else is there but to selfishly pursue our own desires?

The images accelerate. Briefly, we see police cars, and then the word “Corruption.” Enough said; we know where the greed of the powerful leads. Wayne, alone once more; his word is “Power,” followed immediately by that image of Terry in the graveyard and “Hope.” The progression continues: greed and corruption intensify power and encourage the continued apathy of the powerful, while placing their hope in another, a heroic figure perhaps, gives the powerless a reason to continue to be apathetic, abetting the cycle anew.

But then something cuts through all that. There is another direction hope can go: not hope that we will be rescued, but hope that we can find a way out ourselves, an encouragement to action rather than apathy. A swarm of bats flies past to reveal a figure standing atop a roof, at once familiar and new, while a distorted but familiar melody shrieks out over what was until now a driving but directionless bassline: the notes are different lengths and the key has changed, but the progression of intervals remains, so that with only a little effort we can recognize that we are hearing a version of the Elfman-Walker Batman theme.

Briefly, we see what he sees, a thick, hunched figure with a gun, a silhouette much like the ones we saw in the Batman: The Animated Series opening. Hazy images of the city flicker past, forming a name we know: Batman, of course, and then in a white flash a new word appears over it: Beyond.

But beyond what? What lies between the sharp, noir contrasts of Gotham and the neo-noir cyberpunk grays and neon of New Gotham? It will be quite a few episodes before the show gives us an answer, but it is one we have been anticipating since the beginning of this project: the near-apocalypse of ’09 happened. We never find out the details of this event, but we know what it is–a near-apocalypse. And we know what its aftermath, its consequent is: a dingy world of smog and darkness, corporate greed and biological horrors, a world where all the problems of the present have continued and metastasized into the pustulant growth that is this world of power and greed, apathy and corruption.

More images flicker past, a sequence bookended by images denoting Terry’s enemies: an ace of spades pierced by a bullet for the Royal Flush Gang, a feminine silhouette in swirling blues for Inque. In between, two images: the “blind justice” statue in a jumbled sea of words, looming menacingly closer, followed by “Courage,” and Terry’s classmates dancing energetically against a background of writhing, flickering figures, followed by a brief focus on his girlfriend Dana and the word “Honor.” Dana, from whom Terry consistently keeps the truth throughout the series, to whom he constantly lies–that is who receives “Honor”? A choice as bitterly ironic as assigning “Courage” to the symbol of the justice system, institutional violence wielded by the powerful from a position of safety to keep themselves safe. This is cyberpunk: our heroes and their allies are light gray in a dark gray world, at best. Look at what comes next: images of violence in the street, but now it’s Batman doing it at Bruce’s instruction, and so it gets the word “Justice.” Precious little of that here; just superheroics.

Because, outside the show, we know what near-apocalypse is. Apocalypse is just revolution seen from above; near-apocalypse is failed or aborted revolution. It’s a vision of justice that consists solely of protecting the status quo from those who would upset it, whether for their own gain or in an effort to accomplish something better. It is the same old stagnation and decay, because we fear toppling the structures might be worse. It’s what superheroes do, and thus that is what this future is Beyond: it is beyond the choice not to take the risk and try for something better. It is beyond the decision to stay safe, to indulge our protector fantasies.

It is a world of political corruption, corporate greed, public apathy, and environmental decay. It is, in short, the world we chose.

The pilot opens in 2019.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E1-2

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It’s April 26, 2019. I don’t always bother with a date for these Retroactive Continuity posts, but this time it matters, because today is Lesbian Visibility Day, and Netflix just happens to suddenly drop several episodes of She-Ra–a show the central relationships of which are all, to put it in sober, clinical terms, gay as fuck.

And actually, that would be completely believable as a coincidence, if not for three facts: first, this is much faster than new seasons of Netflix shows typically drop, barely six months since Season 1. Second, the episode count is much lower, a mere seven to Season 1’s thirteen. And third, this doesn’t feel like a complete season, but more like half of one.

Fully unpacking that statement is easier now that Season 3 has dropped–four months after Season 2, meaning that the two together came out 10 months after Season 1, a much more reasonable time span between Netflix seasons. In addition, Season 3 is six episodes, meaning the two seasons combined have the same episode count as Season 1. And finally, Season 2 has a premiere, but then just sort of… stops, not ending with any kind of final spectacle but simply a cliffhanger on an otherwise cute-but-inconsequential episode. Season 3, by contrast, doesn’t so much have a premiere as just start, but it ends in a massive spectacle.

In other words, despite statements to the contrary from showrunner Noelle Stevenson, it seems very likely that Seasons 2 and 3 were planned and written as a single season that was later divided in two–and finishing in time to release on Lesbian Visibility Day seems as likely an explanation as any. Of course, Netflix also seems to be moving toward more frequent releases with smaller episode counts, so it’s plausible the split was made for that reason–but even so, the release’s timing is probably not coincidental.

In  “The Frozen Forest,” the focus is on cleaning up after the finale, in a  couple of senses. Most literally, the magic forest that protects Bright  Moon was severely damaged by Entrapta’s hacking of the Black Garnet  Runestone and the Horde army led by Catra, so the titular Princesses of  Power (plus Bow) are holding off Horde robots while seeking a way to  restore the forest. At the same time, individual characters deal with  the repercussions of the events of and around the finale, most notably  Adora training alone to better control the powers of She-Ra while the  Princesses deal with interpersonal conflicts in their still-new team.  Most overtly, this involves Glimmer adapting to a leadership role and  dealing with Frosta, who behaves (as Glimmer eventually acknowledges)  much like Glimmer did in the first season. However, the team as a whole  also show issues coordinating, stepping on each other’s attacks and  sniping at one another verbally.

Once  they put these issues aside and fight cooperatively, however, the  rainbow glow they shared at the climax of “The Battle of Bright Moon”  returns and restores the forest to life. As in the finale, this is a manifestation of that cartoon classic, the “power of friendship.” But much of what these two episodes are doing is exploring exactly what that means, and perhaps just as importantly, what it doesn’t. In “The Frozen Forest,” the initial conflict, followed by cooperation, of the largely egalitarian rebels is contrasted with the hierarchy and enforced unity of the Horde. Even though Catra, Scorpia, and Entrapta are developing into a parallel trio to the “Best Friends Squad” of Adora, Glimmer, and Bow, they remain at odds, each too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice the others. Even Scorpia is oblivious to Catra’s indifference and hostility, while Entrapta is too wrapped up in her work to really acknowledge others, and Catra is, well, indifferent and hostile. What holds the Horde together is obedience to hierarchy and discipline that keeps everyone working to the same goals, which is not friendship at all.

By contrast, the two examples of the power of friendship we get in these episodes–the aforementioned rainbow glow and the “sacred bond” of She-Ra and Swift Wind–are both examples of people initially at loggerheads (Glimmer and Frosta, She-Ra and Swift Wind) recognizing both the common traits that make empathizing and connecting with one another possible, and the differences that make it worthwhile. They see each other, including where they are different, and choose to embrace that difference rather than being annoyed by it or seeking to stamp it out.

That last–dealing with being annoyed by others–is a recurring theme throughout the episodes. Already mentioned are Glimmer’s frustration with Frosta’s overeagerness and tendency to act without thinking, and Adora’s frustration with Swift Wind seemingly not taking their mission seriously. But there are also two other instances of characters having to deal with a nuisance, and how they play out is telling. First, in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is exasperated by Entrapta and Scorpia as usual, most notably when they treat the fight between the ELS bots and the Princesses as a game or show; second, when Glitter and Bow capture Catra in “The Ties That Bind,” Catra spends their entire journey needling Glitter and trying to get her to exhaust her powers.

Neither of these conflicts is resolved by characters talking it out and coming to an understanding, which is how both the Glimmer/Frosta and Adora/Swift Wind conflicts play out. Instead, Catra remains exasperated with Scorpia and Entrapta while they remain oblivious to her exasperation, while Glimmer and Catra ultimately fight, inconclusively (though Glimmer does demonstrate she is not as easily manipulated as Catra thinks). Notably, it is the conflicts in which Catra is involved that do not end well, because, as Adora and Light Hope discuss early in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is “mean”: she doesn’t accept the foibles of others, their difference, as anything other than levers by which they can be manipulated, and therefore she cannot connect with anyone, and no conflict with her can ever truly be resolved.

The final bit of “cleanup” from the finale is the loose end that the Rebellion don’t know Entrapta has defected to the Horde. By the end of “The Ties That Bind,” Bow and Glimmer learn the truth, and the episode closes with them about to reveal that Entrapta has “fallen,” as it were. Unlike them, we saw the circumstances of Entrapta’s fall, and understand that, ultimately, it was because she felt (rightly or wrongly) that there were things she needed to do that were worth the risk of destabilizing the planet. In this, she serves as foreshadowing for the other “fallen” woman in “The Ties That Bind,” Mara, who (as we are reminded) cared about “the wrong things” in Light Hope’s view and attacked Etheria. Like Entrapta, as we will learn, she did what seemed right to her, and seriously damaged the planet–and understanding what she did and why will drive much of the rest of this and the next season.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Current status of the Patreon:

Vlog Multipost: My Hero Academia S1E7-8, She-Ra S1E12-13, Ducktales S2E8-9

Posting three videos twice a week until I get back to one month behind the Patreon (where I should be).

Commissioned video for Benny Blue:

Commissioned video for Aleph Null:

Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos up to a month early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles three MONTHS early!