I could use some help here (A Little Piece of Home)

 

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It’s September 14, 1996. The top movie at the box office this weekend is Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Maximum Risk. The top song is “The Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio, about which the less said the better; also charting are Donna Lewis, LL Cool J, and Eric Clapton. In the news, yesterday famed rapper Tupac Shakur either died or moved into the apartment shared by Elvis Presley and Andy Kaufman; the same day, Alija Izetbegovic won the presidency in newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first election; on the 16th, Scotland Yard will intercept an acid bomb mailed to Icelandic singer Björk, sent by a man named Ricardo Lopez on the same day Tupac died and Izetbegovic won the election. Disappointingly, as far as I can tell no one has linked these events into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Superman, meanwhile, must deal with “A Little Piece of Home,” as The Animated Series introduces a key piece of Superman lore, kryptonite. Kryptonite is, literally, a piece of Superman’s home, a chunk of Krypton transformed by that planet’s destruction into a compound whose radiation is uniquely harmful to Superman. But the phrase “a piece of home” usually refers to a keepsake, memorabilia that serves as a reminder of where you came from. What hurts Superman, when he encounters kryptonite, is memory.

Superman has no direct, conscious memory of Krypton, only of images fed into his brain by the device his parents found in his pod.  Nonetheless, the destruction of Krypton functions for him as a traumatic experience, and not unreasonably so–it is not uncommon for trauma summoners to have amnesia around the traumatic experience, after all. The physical symptoms we see Superman experience when Lois unwittingly hands him kryptonite are consistent with the physical manifestation of extreme anxiety: weakness, dizzyness, heavy sweating, and (not depicted visibly, but likely intended given the number of people saying “you don’t look so good”) pallor.

True, these are also consistent with radiation poisoning, but there’s a major difference: radiation poisoning doesn’t go away when the radiation stops, and radiation poisoning severe enough to cause dizziness is inevitably fatal. Superman’s symptoms, on the other hand, vanish soon after the kryptonite is removed–in the absence of his trigger, his anxiety fades.

That is, after all, what kryptonite is: a toxic reminder of a traumatic past, a “little piece of home” that causes him to become overwhelmed and vulnerable.  It is a trigger, and handled as such: he encounters it once accidentally, thereby discovering that it is a trigger; once he is inadverdently exposed by Lois and tries to cover it up, with limited success, leading her to become concerned but not understand what the problem is; and twice he is deliberately, maliciously exposed by the villains.

It should go without saying that deliberately triggering someone is a vicious, cruel, and cowardly act. Sadly, it does not go without saying; deliberately exposing people to probable triggers is a common part of Internet harassment campaigns, both those targeted at individuals and broader sweeps (for example, coordinated posting of triggering content in Tumblr tags used by survivors). In this respect, the episode is astoundingly prescient: the minions of an uber-wealthy real estate tycoon expose Superman to his trigger, then laugh and deliberately kick him while he’s down. When Superman survives that, said tycoon–Luthor–then sends in a bot to try to trigger Superman for him. (This being a 90s cartoon, said bot is a larger-than-life-size mechanical Tyrannosaur, but still.)

Superman prevails, because of course he does, but only with help. For the first time in the series, he is portrayed as being significantly vulnerable, in need of Lois’ quick thinking and skill–and explicitly her physical skill, namely her ability to accurately throw small objects into bins, established earlier when she was throwing balled-up paper into the trash can.

Even Superman can be traumatized. Even Superman needs help dealing with his triggers. We could read that as hopelessness for the rest of us–that everyone has vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the callous, cruel, and powerful–but on the other hand, flip it around. A trauma survivor can be Superman. Indeed, Superman is Superman because he is a trauma survivor; without the same destruction of Krypton that created kryptonite, he would not live on Earth and therefore not have superpowers.

This is not, to be clear, the “inspirational disability” canard that, for example, a blind person gains super-hearing. That’s just feel-good nonsense for the able-bodied. This is something subtler and more complicated. After all, one doesn’t need trauma to be a classical hero–there’s no particular indication that Gilgamesh, Hercules, Gawain, or Wonder Woman were turned into heroes by trauma, although many of them had traumatic experiences as heroes. But it seems like one does need it to be a superhero (and yes, it was entirely intentional which of those lists I put Wonder Woman on; we’ll get into it when she shows up three series from now).

Which in turn calls attention to the other major difference between Superman and a classical hero: classical heroes make terrible neighbors. You want them out in the field adventuring, protecting your home, maybe occasionally coming back to bestow a boon upon the people before venturing back out. As neighbors, they inevitably get drunk and go on a killing spree, or are ambushed by blood-feud rivals, or bound by a geas to burn the neighborhood down unless obscure and complex conditions are met, or something equally disastrous for the community.

But Superman is a great neighbor. Clark Kent is the kind of guy you give your spare key to so your cats get fed while you’re on vacation.

These two traits–trauma and neighborliness–may not be unrelated. We’ll keep this line of inquiry open for now.


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Tomorrow’s liveblog chat thingy (poll)

So, there are a lot of events going on tomorrow, plus we have a choice about what to watch, so I wanted to present a quick poll to see what people want to do. There are a few options:

  • Postpone another week
  • Watch 2 episodes of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
  • Watch 1 episode of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Main and 1 episode of MLP Season 7
  • Watch 2 episodes of MLP Season 7

(Note: The first two episodes of Season 7 are a two-parter.)

Please comment with your preference (or if you don’t have one, please comment with whether you’ll be there tomorrow).

You need a new hobby (Fun and Games)

 

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It’s September 7, 1996, the day after “Last Son of Krypton.” Headlines and charts are unchanged since yesterday.

Toyman is an odd duck amongst Superman villains. The bulk of the villains we’ll see this season–Metallo, Brainiac, Darkseid, Parasite–have superpowers that allow them either to go toe-to-toe with Superman, or exploit specific weaknesses. Other villains, like Lex Luthor and the Preserver, have access to resources which enable them to threaten or contain Superman. But Toyman, despite his fantastic stockpile of toys, is never any kind of threat at all–at no point in this episode does Superman appear to be putting forth any real effort. Even the two toys which momentarily inconvenience him–the superball and the “Dopey-Doh”–require only seconds to destroy, with his only concern regarding the latter keeping Lois safe. Toyman’s lack of threat is particularly noticeable because Superman is still clearly inexperienced here, as demonstrated by how long he takes fighting the giant ducky, without noticing that it’s just a distraction to keep him busy while Toyman abducts Manheim.

With his tragic backstory, vague references to possible mental illness, and quest for revenge against a “legitimate businessman”/mobster, Toyman comes across very much as a Batman villain, rather than a Superman villain. Indeed, in a sense he is a Batman villain: his behavior bears remarkable resemblance to the villain of “Beware the Gray Ghost,” Ted Dymer, a petty, vengeful manchild who used toys as weapons. At the same time his general creepiness (thanks to a wonderfully understated-yet-menacing performance by Bud Cort), not to mention dressing Lois up like a doll, recall the Mad Hatter. And his small stature and child-like demeanor recall Baby-Doll.

Yet, as we saw with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (which predates this episode by almost exactly a decade), Toyman is a classic Superman villain, prominent enough to be in the pantheon that Superman faces in the course of the comic. And, notably, though he shares the name Winslow Schott with one of the three characters to use the name Toyman in the comics, this incarnation of the Toyman doesn’t particularly resemble any of them in appearance or backstory. This Toyman’s father, also named Winslow Schott, shares with the comics Schott the backstory of a toymaker wronged by another villain, but the Toyman in the episode is the abandoned son of the toymaker, not the original toymaker, who died in prison.

What we have here, in short, is a riff on the same concept as Toyman’s appearance in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”: a darker, more serious take on what might drive a person to use toys to commit attacks, a silly villain reimagined as creepy and murderous. Add in that Lois pities him after hearing his backstory, and the intent behind the character becomes clear: he is a reimagining of Toyman in much the same way that “Heart of Ice” reimagined Mr. Freeze, an attempt to do for one of the silliest Superman villains what that episode did for Batman’s villain. After all, “Heart of Ice” was a masterpiece that helped put Batman: The Animated Series on the map; it makes sense to try again.

But Toyman’s schtick carries baggage that Freeze’s does not. As we saw with Dymer in “Gray Ghost,” the obsessive toy collector trapped in his childhood–and trying to trap everyone else there, too, as Toyman does when he dresses Lois like a doll–is uncomfortably close to the obsessive comics collector trying to cement the “universe” of which he’s a fan into a singular form based on his own nostalgia.

Recall, this Superman looks and acts notably different from the mulleted 90s Superman that appeared in The Batman Adventures. His art style is different, his Metropolis far less anachronistic than Gotham, more a squeaky-clean 90s image of the near future than a hodgepodge of time periods. The obsessive collector, the one who seeks ownership and control of a world locked down into the form he remembers, the one who seeks to enumerate all the world’s knowledge and thereby devour it; these are Superman’s enemies.

This is not the birth of the DCAU we expected. This is the anti-DCAU, just as “Whatever Happened” was the anti-Crisis: the denial of single vision and Tolkien’s sleep, the denial that there is any such thing as a “universe” here. Instead, there is something much, much bigger: an ideaspace, filled with stories and potential stories, extending outward and actively denying attempts to fence it in. The playground has no borders.

Let’s play.


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Vlog Review: Gravity Falls S2E4

No liveblog chat thingy today because I am away and suspect other people may be as well. Instead, have the post that was supposed to go up Thursday that I 100% just plain forgot.

Reminder that Patreon backers can see these videos up to 3 weeks early AND Near-Apocalypse articles three MONTHS early, commission videos and essays, and more!

Sorry this is late, I had no access to a computer for most of yesterday.

Retroactive Continuity 15: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

 

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It’s September 1986, sort of. That’s what the issues are dated, anyway, though they actually came out months prior: Superman #423 and Action Comics #583.

Some backstory is perhaps needed. Over the course of the 1970s and 80s, the nature of the comics market shifted. Once sold in generalized newsstands alongside other magazines, comics increasingly began to be sold in specialty comic shops. Since the general public shopped at newsstands while only comics fans shopped at comic shops, the target audience of comics likewise shifted from the general public to a smaller, more dedicated pool of comic fans.

This, in turn, meant a growing focus on continuity. Fans could generally be relied upon to remember past events, meaning that writers could more freely incorporate references to those events without worrying about the reader losing the thread, but unfortunately fans could generally be relied upon to remember past events, meaning writers were increasingly shackled to decades of dead, shambolic stories. The workaround of choice for this at DC Comics was to proliferate alternate universes where events occurred differently, so that an inconvenient past story could be declared to have occurred in an alternate universe. (There was precedent for this–Earth-One and Earth-Two had already been well-established as the Silver Age and Golden Age versions of continuity respectively, along with a handful of other universes.)

However, this was deemed unwieldy, and so Crisis On Infinite Earths was created, a massive crossover event (at a time when such things were virtually unheard of) that would wipe out all alternate universes and reboot continuity, which could then proceed in a single universe without any contradictions or confusion. (This, of course, did not work.  Nor did it work when they rebooted the continuity again in Zero Hour, and again in Infinite Crisis, and again in Flashpoint, and again in Rebirth, and that’s not even taking into account the absurd number of attempts to make the Legion of Superheroes fit into all of this.)

This in turn meant that the two ongoing Superman titles, his eponymous book and Action Comics, would restart from the beginning. But this left the challenge of what to do with the final issues of the two books prior to the reboot, and editor Julius Schwartz decided to treat them as if they were the real final issues, tapping Alan Moore to write the final, two-part Superman story.

The result is, in typical Alan Moore style, an entertaining superhero yarn on the surface that, just underneath, viciously attacks the assumptions and goals of Crisis itself. The story famously opens with a declaration that it is an “Imaginary Story,” a conceit from decades prior in which stories that would make no sense as part of an ongoing, serialized narrative could be told without disrupting future continuity. This declaration is, of course, entirely unnecessary from a continuity perspective, as there was no future continuity: the brief, remember, was to write the final Superman story.

And final it seems to be, at first glance. One by one, every element of the Superman mythos is stripped away.  With the death of Bizarro, so too dies the ridiculous, campy fun that is the heart of comics; thus, when the Prankster and Toyman attack next, they are deadly serious, torturing Pete Ross to death in order to learn Superman’s secret identity, and then violently attacking Clark Kent on live television, “killing” him by revealing to the world that he is Superman.

After first joy, and then Clark Kent, the Daily Planet is next to go, attacked by an army of Metallo duplicates. Superman evacuates his (non-superhero) friends and loved ones to the Arctic in response and settles in for siege–not just the Daily Planet, but Superman’s adopted home planet is lost as well, as he is forced to bunker down away from the world.

In the ensuing battle, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, the Kryptonite Man, Krypto, Lana Lang, and Jimmy Olson all die before Superman realizes his parade of villains is missing one figure, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the comedic, transdimensional trickster imp. But with fun and joy stripped away, what can such a character be except a horrifying monster, as he explains that he has grown bored of mischief and decided to be evil, using his powers to create all the pain and suffering of the two-parter.

So Superman kills him, then deliberately exposes himself to gold kryptonite (which permanently removes his powers) before going out into the snow to die. Or so Lois Lane tells the world–mischievously, the comic reveals in its last pages that Superman gave up his powers and faked his death, becoming an ordinary man working in an auto shop, married to Lois, with a young child who (possibly unnoticed by his parents) possesses superpowers. The comic closes with the former Superman, now known as Jordan Elliott, winking to the audience as he teasingly agrees with Lois that “happily ever after” sounds good to him.

It is difficult to deny the finality of “happily ever after,” but that wink points to something else. The baby–which is quite happy throughout the story–demonstrates superpowers; Superman and Lois’ story may be ending, but a story continues. Further, the comic has equated ending with pain, suffering, and evil, happiness being what went before: Bizarro’s people “screamed with happiness” before he killed them all, and when he dies, “everything, him go d-dark”; the Prankster and Toyman abandoned their silliness and became deadly serious; and the whole story, we learn at the end, was kicked off by Mr. Mxyzpltk abandoning mischief in favor of evil, ceasing to be a “funny little man.” That wink’s mischief thus represents a restoration of what was, denying this story’s finality.

The story’s very title denies finality. Superman has many epithets: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?” is neutral in regards to finality, while the “last” in “Whatever Happened to the Last Son of Krypton?” puts it firmly on the side of ending. But “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” declares that there is a tomorrow, and Superman is the man of it;  how, then, can he have a last story?

So this isn’t the end; this is pushing back against the end. The end is darkness and cruelty, and it comes with abandoning whimsy. The end is wrapping up loose ends neatly. The end is taking superheroes and their stories seriously, because if we do so, we have to accept the silly villains turning into killers, and eventually a Superman who kills as well. At that point we have a choice: pretend that a story about an all-powerful killer answerable to no one is a story about a hero, or just not have superheroes anymore–at least not, until a new generation can be playful with them again. Superman chooses the latter, and walks into the gold kryptonite chamber.

Which brings us back to declaring this an “imaginary story,” despite that it relies on characters established over decades of continuity to work. Superman even uses the same kind of paranoid reading that a fan trying to guess the direction of a particular storyline would employ: Mr. Mxyzpltk is the only major Superman villain who hasn’t appeared as the story draws to a close, therefore he must be the hidden mastermind behind all of it. But that is exactly the kind of reasoning that leads to something like Crisis on Infinite Earths, which for all that the crossover itself is a sublime bit of convoluted comic-book nonsense, nonetheless represents a closing down of narrative possibilities and insistence on a single vision going forward. (That this proved impossible is, here, irrelevant; the attempt itself is bad enough.)

For all that they were, generally speaking, just ridiculous attempts to justify attention-grabbing, bizarre comics, the “Imaginary Stories” of old had the right idea. Fiction allows an infinitude of possibilities; ideaspace has no borders, but too often we allow that very fact to paralyze and terrify us, remaining huddled in familiar zones near where we started, afraid to venture out into the wilds of What If. We build fences around ourselves called Continuity and Suspension of Disbelief, while far beyond Imaginary Stories frolic, calling to us, if only we were willing to tear down our fences and seek them out.

If only we could recognize that In Here is just as ridiculous as Out There. Sure, those are just Imaginary Stories. But, as Moore’s famous opening spiel for this comic concludes (to the nearly as famous ire of incoming Superman writer-artist John Byrne), “Aren’t they all?”


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