Good bad (The Ultimate Thrill)

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Yesterday was last week’s NA09, this is this week’s.

It’s September 14, 1998. In the two months and change since the last episode of The New Batman Adventures, the permanent International Criminal Court was established. The U.S. will eventually sign the treaty, but then refuse to ratify it, because nationalism. The Second Congo War begins. Its eventual death toll of 5.4 million people will make it the deadliest war since World War II; it will go almost entirely unmentioned in the U.S., because nationalism and racism. And on September 4, Google is founded, because capitalism.

The top movie was briefly The Mask of Zorro, which would have been deliciously apropos, but alas, no episodes of TNBA aired around July 17-19. Saving Private Ryan had a solid run before being displaced by first Blade and then There’s Something About Mary, which is quite possible the most 90s sentence I’ve ever written. This weekend, the top movie was Rounders, which I’ve never heard of.

The top song was “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica through August, before being supplanted by Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which debuted at number one September 5. Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart.

Sometimes, working on a project like this, you start to wonder if you’ve gone too far out on a rhetorical limb. Is that metaphor getting overstrained? That reading too tenuous?

And then, sometimes, the work will just hand you a big steaming platter of text, an episode you don’t remember but that is nonetheless basically textual confirmation of what you were talking about.

That’s “The Ultimate Thrill.”

On one level, Roxy Rocket’s return is disappointing. The whole point of her character, back in Batman Adventures Annual #1, was to be the one villain that successfully reformed. But here she is, back to theft. It seems even creating a villain specifically to reform is not enough to escape the gravity of the classification. Once the narrative has othered you and defined you by crime–once you have been placed in the class “criminals”–there is no escape.

But her reason for returning to crime is so refreshingly different that it’s worth it: Roxy Rocket is a fear fetishist. She gets what is clearly, blatantly a sexual thrill from risking her life and safety; she is committing her crimes because the risk of being caught excites her. All while gripping a powerful, fast, phallic cartoon rocket between her legs. Except, that is, when she thinks she and Batman are about to die. Then she turns around, grips him between her legs, and cries out in pleasure.

This is all text. Nobody ever uses the word “sex,” but practically every sentence out of Roxy’s mouth is a sexual innuendo, and she specifically describes impending death as “the ultimate thrill” before, as already mentioned, dry-humping the Batman. And given that text, Batgirl flirtatiously claiming that Roxy won’t settle for any thrill less than Batman now that she’s experienced him is pretty clearly yet another pointer at their relationship, though it won’t be confirmed for a few years yet.

But Roxy isn’t entirely one-note, either. While practically everything she says is an innuendo, it’s also almost always a one-liner of the type one might expect from an action hero. In another context, she could easily be read as a heroic thief like Robin Hood or (arguably) Indiana Jones. But in Batman’s world there are no heroic thieves, only criminals and those who fight them, and Roxy lies in the former category.

And she quite probably knows it. Half her comments suggest that she believes herself to be just performing, a character in a movie–which, of course, she essentially is. As is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, Batman flits around the edges of the narrative, lurking in shadows, and freeing her to take the center, which she does. She steals basically every scene she’s in–charismatic, energetic, always moving, always teasing.

Frankly, she’s sexier by far than Poison Ivy’s seductions or Harley Quinn trying to get the Joker’s attention, in large part because she is complete in herself. She desires nothing except to do what she is doing, the pleasure of her own actions the only motivation she needs to take them. She is neither tortured nor haunted; nothing drives her; no trauma lurks in her past. She just thinks it’s hot, and that’s wonderful.

The only character to really compare her to is thus, perhaps oddly, the Joker. Not the Joker as we have come to know him after four seasons—a misogynistic sadist whose “chaos” is really just a flattened pyramid with himself on top—but as he appeared in “Christmas with the Joker,” the trickster who takes over the fringes of the narrative and forces Batman to the center, thereby emboiting him and his show. Roxy, to be clear, does not do that. She seeks the center, the position of gravity. She wants not to absorb the narrative but to live it—the thrilling life of the adventurer, the constant peril, the narrow escapes, all on the strength of her athleticism, wit, and a few choice gadgets. She wants, in short, to be Batman, main character of The New Batman Adventures.

Not, to be clear, Batgirl. They have quite a bit in common: both redheads, though Roxy’s hair is darker, both brave and agile, both seemingly free of trauma. And, of course, both with decidedly kinky attractions to Batman. But Roxy is no one’s sidekick–which is, ultimately, what dooms her. His name is in the title of the show; she may occupy the center for an episode, but she cannot overcome his main character status. The narrative must deform to lead to his victory, because that is the type of story this is; inevitably, his nerve outlasts hers in their final game of chicken.

At the end of the episode, she is cuffed, downcast, her rockets destroyed. She is in the center at last—but, for the only time in the episode, she is held still. Getting what she wanted means losing her defining trait–as it often is, the real thrill was in the chase.

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Retroactive Continuity: Goth Western

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Yes I know this is a week late; I’ll do two essays and two vlog posts this week to make up for last week.

Goth Western really isn’t all that gothic. The webcomic by bonyfish (a.k.a. Livali Wyle) has some light touches of the weird, what with its many-armed forgotten gods haunting the desert landscape of the Old West, but even those aren’t that strong. It’s also got a fascination with death, but purely as a stage in a process; Mag notwithstanding, there is no lurking darkness within the self waiting to reach up and consume us, no haunting echoes of past losses threatening to return. The most goth thing about the comic, really, is the color scheme: monochrome with touches of red for blood and flowers.

The first chapter implies otherwise. It opens with Jack in what looks like an unwinnable standoff, though of course an in medias res opening that implies the main character’s death but cuts away without showing it is essentially an announcement that the climax of the story will be showing us that character survive. But we flash back to the death of Evelyn, and at once we appear to be starting the story with the fridging of one half of a lesbian couple–hardly an auspicious beginning!

But what we have here is a case of narrative substitution. The death of Evelyn is a narrative collapse of sorts, as she is quite clearly alive in the opening. The narrative of the lone gunwoman haunted by the death of her lesbian lover–which would fit quite neatly into the traditions of both westerns and gothic literature–collapses the instant it begins, the opening of the story and beginning of the plot contradicting one another. The substitution occurs only a few pages later, when Jack sells her soul to Millustra in exchange for restoring Evelyn to life.

This is where the story appears to begin to take on elements of the gothic. It is a not unfamiliar tale: driven by love and grief, Jack puts herself at the mercy of a trickster god, described as the god of doomed lovers, to bring back the one she’s lost. We know how this will go: Jack will have to do terrible things in service of her dark master, and most likely lose the restored Evelyn as a result. Evelyn may not even be herself anymore; she might just be a shell, or she might be haunted by having come so close to death. In the end, this will all turn out to have been a terrible mistake, most likely involving the suffering and deaths of Jack and Evelyn.

And yet instead, the story is surprisingly brief. Jack is sent to kill one of Millustra’s enemies, a serial killer trying to get the god’s attention by killing those he has marked. There is little characterization of the villain, but he seems a thoroughly reprehensible sort, and though it takes some effort, Jack and Evelyn kill him and his henchmen before riding off together, still very much alive and in love, and in search of more adventure. They are not suffering, not dead; the ending is joyous and bright. There is very little that could be called gothic here.

What there is, is love. Queer love, specifically. Millustra is, as Jack asserts in the denouement, a god of love first and death second; not, as the beginning of the story implies, a trickster god who dooms lovers to death, but a protector god who defends those who find a love worth dying for. He demands violence, but not against those whom he watches over; he seeks violence against those who would threaten them, like the villain. This is the second and final substitution the narrative performs. In the end, it rejects the “deal with the devil” narrative and embraces love instead.

When narrative substitution occurs, there is inherently an implied criticism of the narrative that has been replaced. The idea of doomed love as something beautiful, even admirable, of art that celebrates the noble suffering and pain of tragic lovers, runs into serious issues when we apply it to stories of queer love. Heteronormative love cannot be othered–that’s what the “normative” part means!–and so depicting a doomed instance of it is not inherently harmful. Queer love, however, is consistently othered, and so showing it as doomed carries implications of negative judgment–implications made all the stronger by the fact that for much of the 20th century, queer love stories could generally only be published if they ended in tragedy, precisely in order to convey a negative judgment.

To put it in terms we have been discussing lately, a lesbian summoning a many-armed, fanged trickster god of death and love to resurrect her lover is an embrace of queer monstrosity. It is a declaration that, if we are to be treated as monsters anyway, we may as well take the chance to destroy our enemies. Millustra, to quote Jack’s already-referenced speech near the end, “looks after us misfits who find that love in strange places, who’ll defend it with everything we’ve got.” A serial killer hunting those who have been touched by Millustra, in other words, is hunting people who have experienced love outside of the boundaries of heteronormativity; our villain is a homophobe.

And he “had it all backwards from the start.” He wasn’t hunting monsters; he was creating them, drawing boundaries and setting definitions, practicing abjection via gunfire. That’s the point of the final substitution, the happy ending: the tragedy and doom were created by him and those like him, suffering imposed in judgment of difference. The real monsters are here on the inside, the part of Us that creates a Them, not the Them themselves; and when those monsters are defeated, there is no further need for an Us or a Them, for normality and deviance. There’s just freedom and love.

Huh. The real monsters are on the inside.

Maybe it’s a little bit gothic after all.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra: Princess of Power S1E1-5 and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S1E1-2

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Commissioned vlog for Suzyn Smith-Webb

One would expect, based solely on the titles, that 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power (hereafter She-Ra ’85) is more tightly focused on its singular titular character than the plurality of characters implied by 2018’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (hereafter She-Ra). This is very much not the case, however, at least where the two series’ respective multi-part introductory stories* are concerned; the degree to which She-Ra was not the main character of the first story of She-Ra ’85 is remarkable.

That main character is very clearly He-Man, which makes more sense when one realizes the circumstances under which this five-episode arc originally aired: as a theatrically released movie under the name The Secret of the Sword. More specifically, despite being produced as the first five episodes of She-Ra ’85, it was framed as a He-Man and She-Ra ’85 movie, because She-Ra ’85 was an as-yet little-known and unaired spinoff of He-Man.

She-Ra is thus framed from the start not as a character in her own right, but an extension and reflection of He-Man, who is the primary locus of agency in the movie. She is his long-lost sister, her sword a counterpart to his, her villain the mentor of his; his coming to Etheria in search of her is what kicks off the plot. Even her departure from the Horde and joining of the Rebellion–which should be her character arc here, the transformation from unwitting villain to hero–is easily accomplished once she is out of range of Shadow Weaver’s mind control. The rightness of the Rebellion, in other words, is framed as obvious to any good person, so once her nature as such is no longer being magically suppressed, she switches sides easily.

By contrast, She-Ra presents Adora as its main character from the start. Its first story is about her development entirely, her gradual (at least compared to She-Ra ’85, despite that spending more than twice the time on its first story) transformation from someone who sees Princesses as a monstrous enemy to someone who embraces becoming one in order to fight her own former comrades. To put it another way, The Secret of the Sword is the story of how She-Ra was discovered; “The Sword” is the story of how Adora left the cult that raised her. The former is passive, the latter active.

A key distinction, too, is how the two shows construct the titular character. She-Ra ’85 views her as She-Ra, who happens also to be Adora. She essentially asserts this herself, as she not only leaves the Horde but also turns down living with her birth parents; the one genuine choice she makes for herself is to be She-Ra, defender of Etheria, rather than Princess Adora of Eternia. Her agency lies not in making a moral choice, but in severing herself and her show from He-Man; necessary to establishing the spin-off, but also necessarily near the end of the movie, guaranteeing she remains in his shadow for most of it.

She-Ra instead centers Adora-as-Adora from the start. She is given far more personality and focus, and her life with the Horde far more detail; in particular, her best friend/love interest Catra and abusive foster-mother Shadow Weaver are fleshed out much more than in She-Ra ’85, where neither had much depth or relationship with Adora at all. Here they have both, especially Catra, a complex study in contrasts, not just between her prickliness and obvious deep caring and affection for Adora, but in her status as a rebellious loyalist, an iconoclast who nonetheless chooses to remain an agent of an authoritarian regime.

More to the point where Adora is concerned, she has no one to explain to her what She-Ra even is. She stumbles onto the Sword of Protection seemingly by accident, and initially transforms unintentionally. She-Ra is a role she assumes, not a discovery of her true self, with her transformation occurring independently of any revelations about her parentage or origin. (Which is not revealed in “The Sword,” or indeed the first season at all.) Ultimately, she does become She-Ra deliberately, but only after an internal struggle between her loyalty to and misconceptions about the Horde on the one hand, and her moral objection to the violence she witnesses firsthand in Thaymor. Adora doesn’t become She-Ra and therefore join the Rebellion; she chooses to rebel against the Horde, and therefore becomes She-Ra. To put it another way, becoming She-Ra doesn’t change who Adora is; she becomes She-Ra because of who she is.

Ultimately this difference lies in the very different environments in which the two series emerged. Partially that’s the already-addressed difference between a spinoff and a standalone series, but perhaps even moreso it’s a difference between cartoons of the mid-80s and cartoons of the late 2010s–and for once I’m not just referring to the difference between the dark age American animation was struggling through in 1985 and the golden age it’s experiencing now. Instead, I’m referring to what for lack of a better term we can call “lineage”–the works that most visibly influenced the work in question.

For She-Ra ’85, the obvious influence is He-Man, but that doesn’t tell us much. If we push back a little further, however, to the question of what works influenced He-Man, we can see two apparent choices, both dating to the 1970s. Visually, it has much in common with Star Trek: The Animated Series, in the sense of being quite detailed, imaginative, and static. (Not to mention sharing a studio, Filmation.) Settings are visually complex and generally alien, with bright, bold colors reminiscent of comic books; non-human characters are similarly imaginative and frequently grotesque, such as the new aliens introduced in ST:TAS or, in She-Ra ’85, butterfly-wing-eared owl-creature Cowl or the bug-eyed goblin-thing Mantenna; human characters, by contrast, are limited to a couple of narrowly defined base designs onto which costumes are added, to facilitate easier creation of dolls based on them (or, as with She-Ra ’85, to reflect that they are based on dolls); the animation of those figures is awkward and stiff. Narrative elements, meanwhile, bear a strong kinship to the lineage of action cartoons exemplified by Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends: the characters are depicted as essentially superheroes, with names reflective of their abilities or visual design, and their heroic identity is the focus, with little attention to characterizing or humanizing the individual taking on the heroic role.

The two strongest influences on She-Ra, by contrast, are not from the 70s or 80s–She-Ra ’85 contributes a premise and some superficial details, but it is (thankfully–we’re still talking about a Filmation cartoon from the 80s here!) not all that strong an influence on the way the show presents its story. Instead, it seems to draw most heavily on cartoons from around 2005-2015. The most obvious comparison storywise is to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like that show, it presents us with a main character who is themselves first and their destined heroic role second, even initially resisting that role; it starts with their discovery by a couple of close allies who receive significant character development of their own–Glimmer and Bow even have similar personalities to Katara and Sokka!–and it also includes a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of a conflicted antagonist character, without forgiving their actions or losing sight of the evil of the villains as a whole; later it depicts the “good guys” as severely flawed as well, ATLA through the corruption and authoritarianism of the Earth Kingdom, She-Ra through the disastrous raid on Horde HQ and consequent dissolution of the Princess League and defection of Entrapta.

Visually, She-Ra shares in common with She-Ra ’85 that the backgrounds are exotic and highly detailed, but little else. Its color palette leans toward less intense colors, and character designs of humans are highly stylized and varied, often placed in contrasting pairs–tall, slender Angella and her stocky daughter Glimmer, or lean, lithe Catra and the simply massive Scorpia. Non-human characters largely depart only slightly from the human, essentially looking like humans in costumes–there is nothing here as alien as eyes on extendable stalks or owls that fly using their rainbow ears, just human-with-antlers, human-with-fur, lizard-ish-human. Even Scorpia and Catra, who as a scorpion-woman and catgirl are more “monstrous” than most, are still depicted as more attractive than grotesque, as emphasized in “Princess Prom.” Perhaps most importantly, character animation is far more fluid than in She-Ra ’85: characters flow through motions, stretching and squashing, exaggerated facial expressions and postures emphasizing their emotions and actions. At the same time, when characters aren’t doing anything, they are less mobile than in She-Ra ’85–there’s a lot more blinking in the older show.

These are again features common to shows of the last 15 years, but with a somewhat different origin: the combination of detailed, naturalistic backgrounds and heavily stylized characters, fluidly animated movement and complete absence of “unnecessary” movement, are hallmarks of Japanese animation. The “anime boom” on American television in the late 90s and early 2000s led to a host of imitators, followed closely by a generation of creators for whom 90s anime are as much a part of their youthful influences as the American cartoons of the same period, and She-Ra follows closely in that tradition.

All of this, in turn, is why the greater focus on Adora in the newer series: in 1985 She-Ra was a reflection of He-Man, who was essentially coded as a superhero, with a superpowered alternate form, secret identity, sidekick, and small group of close companions who know both hero and secret identity. In 2018, however, she’s a magical girl. Her transformation is not a bridge across two halves of a fractured identity, but rather an accelerated maturation, from young teen to adult hero who is nonetheless entirely the same person. There is no neurotic need to maintain separation between the identities, no questioning of who is “the real person”; She-Ra is a tool Adora uses to kick ass.

*Neither is, strictly speaking, a pilot: both were produced after their respective series were already greenlit. Nor does She-Ra technically have a premiere: all episodes of the first season “aired” on Netflix simultaneously.

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Crisis on N Earths: US Embassy Bombings, Osama bin Laden

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It’s August 7, 1998, and two American embassies in Africa–one in Tanzania, the other in Kenya–were just bombed nigh-simultaneously by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The shadowy figure fingered as being behind the attack had an origin story straight out of a superhero comic: scion of a wealthy family, he founded an organization which, probably with American funding and support, aided the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion of a country near his own.

The resistance movement was the Mujahideen, the organization was al-Qaeda, and we are of course talking about Osama bin Laden. Today is the day most of America first hears his name.

Whether or not the US provided funding or other assistance to al-Qaeda in its early days fighting the Soviet Union is controversial, but it is generally agreed that if it happened, this was a major error that came back to bite the people who made it. I’m not so sure.

To be clear, two hundred people died. Nobody, except maybe the people who carried them out and their ideological fellow travelers, thinks these attacks were a good thing.

But American culture, for nearly half a century, had been built around the Cold War. It was the go-to argument for the oppressor class: can’t pay living wages or fund social programs because that’s socialism and we don’t want to be like those godless commies, you know? Can’t roll back the dominance of arbitrary Christian mores standing in the way of women’s and queer liberation; that’s secularism, the kind of thing those godless commies would do. Even the Civil Rights Movement was treated as a potential communist plot!

We have, multiple times, looked at the way the sudden, anticlimactic end of the Cold War impacted the national psyche. For a solid decade, the US was a nation flailing, a massively oversized military-industrial complex suddenly without an enemy to (never actually) fight, a police and surveillance state without infiltrators and agents of foreign powers to ferret out.

Some relics remained intact. To this day, conservatives will still argue against any proposed or extant social program by pointing to the Soviet Union, but instead of implying that we will become like the Soviets at their most brutally oppressive, now the implication is that we will become like the Soviet Union in the sense of collapsing. And much of the rhetoric is unchanged; the only difference now is that we are exhorted to report suspicious activity from our neighbors because they might be terrorists, as opposed to because they might be communists. (And before that, Nazis. And before that, communists. And before that, anarchists. And before that…)

And that there is the key. These bombings are not the moment at which terrorists became the new communists, but they are the prequel. They are the moment at which the new villain became known.

He’s a great fit. The best villains, we’re always told, are mirrors of the heroes. And if the American military-industrial-police complex, which is to say the American right, is the self-declared hero, then in bin Laden we have a perfectly cast villain. Most obviously, like the American right, he is extremely devoted to a far-right regressive religion which he believes should be the basis for government, which is to say forcibly imposed on all. He also comes from money, just like the American right. Most of all, however, he is motivated by a powerful hostility to the Other, a belief that violence is the appropriate response to any difference.

Hero and villain, in other words, believe precisely the same things, with the only difference being where and in what culture they happen to have been born. But of course, when your motivating belief is the hatred of the Other, that’s all it takes to be bitter enemies.

The common refrain in the late 90s and early 2000s, regarding right-wing Muslim terrorism, was “they hate us for our freedoms.” And that’s not untrue, insofar as diversity is a product of freedom: when people are free to be openly different, their differences are naturally more visible. Of course rather more significant a factor is that we have been conquering, manipulating, and oil-drilling the Middle East for generations; those of “them” who hate “us” by and large have fairly good reason to do so. But the common thread between all the world’s right wings, whether of empires or their colonies current and former, is that us/them division in the first place. “They” hate “us” for the same reason “we” hate “them”: because once you’ve divided the world into an us and a them, a Self and an Other, a normal and a deviant, hating and fearing the Other becomes natural, and killing them feels like self-defense.

Most terrorism in the United States is carried out by American-born conservative white men. That is simply a fact, and as true in 1998 as it is now. And for them as well, it is not untrue that they hate us for our freedoms, for our difference. Right-wing terrorism is motivated by the same hatred and fear and desire to kill the invading outsider–because, to those who draw those little circles of normalcy, everything deviant is an outsider.

And so the great transference can begin. Where once communists were the terrible Other, whose agents infiltrated the state and must be expunged, now it is terrorists. Where once being anything other than a conservative Christian white allocishet man made you suspect as a commie, now it makes you, if not a terrorist, at least suspect of aiding and abetting them. (Hence the nonsense about Middle Eastern terrorists sneaking across the border among undocumented immigrants from Latin America: to the rightwing mind, Middle Eastern people, terrorists, and Latin@ people are all Other, and therefore more or less interchangeably equivalent.)

We are, at least partially, free to be who we are. And they hate us for that freedom.

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Vlog Review: Heart Catch Pretty Cure 7 & 15 and Star vs. Evil S2E20

Regular episode of a new series…

..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! 

Vlog Review: CatGhost 5-8


Extremely late regular episode… plus an extremely late bonus episode! As long as the Patreon remains above $150/mo, I’ll post two extra vlogs 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!