Retroactive Continuity: “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” (Adventures of Superman #40-41)

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

A koan, in Western usage, generally refers to an unanswerable riddle or meaningless statement, usually in a quasi-derisive reference to Buddhist thought. The actual koans of Zen Buddhism, however, are neither riddles nor meaningless. Perhaps the most famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (a very loose translation of a koan by the Japanese Zen master Ekaku Hakuin) is not a question without an answer; rather, it is a metaphorical invitation to explore the rejection of duality. Two hands clapping represents our dualistic division of the universe into binaries–meaningful/meaningless, light/dark, good/bad, male/female, West/East; a single hand clapping would then represent an attempt to think about the world as a monad, that those apparent opposites are in fact manifestations of a single unified whole.

Superman is a well-defined character with a strong personality. Too strong; he’s so nice, so endlessly perfect and flawless that he becomes boring. He’s just nice–what does that even mean? It’s so vague, he has no personality of his own, no character, he’s just an empty shell that exists to serve as a moral center for the DC universe.

The Joker, now there’s a compelling character. So iconic, so cool, laughing and thumbing his nose at authority. A prankster, a monster, a loser desperate for attention. The last role of a great actor, so powerful and difficult that it killed him. Always lying, always joking, he believes in nothing, does nothing, is nothing, a pathetic loser child trying to get Bat-daddy’s attention. Absurdly easy to write or play, just have him laugh and be cruel, no need for rhyme or reason or personality, such a boring, superficial character only a child could find interesting.

Superman is a hero. He always does what’s right. He attacks someone whose potential for harm has already been neutralized, and threatens twice to kill him; that’s how we know he’s a hero. Batman is a hero. He never breaks his code. He lets the Joker run around endangering countless lives; that’s how we know he’s the hero. Batman tricks and tests Superman; Superman destroys Batman’s property; that’s how we know they’re allies.

We know the Joker is a villain because he never actually hurts anyone. That’s the villain’s job, after all: to try to hurt people, and fail.

Superman isn’t greater than anyone, but he’s better than you. He’s one small man who does what seems right to him. Always, without exception, he does what seems right to him. Can you say that?

Batman can’t. He doesn’t trust how things seem; he lives in a mask, after all. He needs a code, and sometimes he does things that seem wrong, but he tells himself it’s right because he’s following the code, sticking to his principles. Everything must be questioned, tested, subjected to experiment, even if that means endangering thousands of people in Metropolis.

We know Batman and the Joker are opposites: good and evil; hero and villain; order and chaos; the man who never laughs and the man who never stops.

We know Superman and Batman are opposites: light and dark; day and night; hope and fear; the famous, unmasked hero who hides as a bumbling nobody and the masked urban legend who hides as a rich celebrity.

We know Superman and the Joker are opposites: caring and callous; kind and cruel; protector and killer; truth, justice, and the American way and tricks, crime, and cheating.

But if Batman and the Joker are both opposites of Superman, they must be the same. If Superman and Batman are both opposites of the Joker, they must be the same.  If the Joker and Superman are both opposites of Batman, they must be the same. Everyone is the opposite of everyone else, and everyone is the same.

Binaries don’t work. It’s more complicated than that, because everything is one.

“The sound of one hand clapping.”


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Imaginary Story: Lois and Clark, Pt 2

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Last time on The Near-Apocalypse of ’09: Superman got married twice in the same day, soap operas and superhero comics are basically the same thing, and Lois and Clark makes an excellent metaphor for the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberalism.

Superman exists in tension between two fundamentally contradictory ideals. This is true of all superheroes, and it’s a tension we’ve already explored: the near-apocalypse. We want change and we fear chaos, want to be both free and protected, unbounded and restrained, and superheroes embody that contradiction. This plays out very visibly in Lois and Clark, because the show is likewise caught between parallel, contradictory ideals, namely that it clearly wants both to be progressive and to be accepted as a family show, which is to say a show that parents and children watch together–and as fully subject to puritanism and reproductive futurism as that implies.

So, for example, we get Lois Lane, tough career woman, who in classic 90s Strong Independent Woman fashion proves how feminist she is by using gendered insults rooted in misogyny–telling people to “man up,” for example. The show clearly wants to be on her side–she gets higher billing than Superman in a Superman show!–but it cannot get away from traditional gender roles without earning the ire of parents’ groups worried about The Children. Thus (as its humor betrays) it cannot escape the idea that feminists are “trying to be men” or in some sense masculinized–the very first shot of Lois has her disguised as a man!

Gender roles are not the only place this tension exists. Sex in particular is subject to it: on the one hand, the show is built around the title characters’ relationship as it progresses from coworkers to friends to romance. On the other, The Children cannot be permitted to see unmarried heroic characters who have (or even might be suspected to have) sex, or who knows what kinds of premarital hankies-panky* might ensue. So we get characters like Cat Grant, who spends the first season being slut-shamed and then vanishes from the show entirely, while Jimmy Olson changes girlfriends on an almost weekly basis, which is deemed perfectly acceptable. More precisely, while there are jokes about Jimmy’s dating habits, they paint him as failing in ability (to keep a girlfriend), where Cat is depicted as failing morally (and correspondingly shallow and materialistic). This tension about sex is most notable, appropriately enough, in sexual tension. Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain have immense chemistry together, and where the dialogue occasionally struggles to convey that these are two people fighting their romantic feelings for one another, the performances consistently and convincingly portray two people who would very much like to have sex with each other.

Nonetheless, the show periodically reminds viewers that Lois definitely does not and has not ever fucked, with both her fiancés (Luthor and Clark) noting in their respective (failed) wedding episodes that Lois wants to “wait until marriage” so that “it will be special.” Very familiar phrases when I was a teenager watching this show and subjected to mid-90s Virginia politicians’ ideas of Sex Ed; one half-expects Lois to bus out the old “when you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with every person they had sex with” canard.

This puritanical attitude is balanced, however, by the show’s clear awareness that its stars are sexy people good at acting like they want to have sex with each other. Only a few episodes in, characters are already being subjected to inhibition-removing chemicals that cause them to pursue each other, Luthor’s schemes soon become as much or more about getting Lois to love him as killing Supeman, and once Lois and Clark actually do get married, they are very strongly implied to be fucking like bunnies. (Once they get the literal curse preventing it out of the way.)

But the strongest tension is one we’ve already discussed with Batman: Superman is a protector fantasy and therefore cannot promote meaningful change. When H.G. Wells arrives in his time machine (which is a thing that happens more than once in the course of the series) with stories of a future utopia built on the ideals of Superman and Lois Lane, no indication is given of how this happens. There is, reportedly, no crime, but what exactly this means, how crime is defined in utopia, is given no answer. We are simply assured that if we trust in the protector, utopia will eventually occur–but how can it, when the protector insists on doing nothing beyond catching criminals (as defined by our decidedly non-utopian system of law) and handing them over to the equally non-utopian criminal justice system?

Which is precisely what Superman insists on doing, as explicitly stated in “Faster Than a Speeding Vixen.” A new superhero appears in town (who for some reason is named Vixen, despite being a white American woman with speed powers) and begins attacking and killing criminals (and, secretly, select businessmen). Superman specifically states that she should capture the criminals unharmed and hand them over for the police and courts to deal with. Eventually she turns out to be a robot and he kills her by reflecting her attack, because moral dilemmas and alternate approaches cannot be permitted in a family show, apparently.

Or utopia, for that matter, as apparently the only dissenter in the perfect future is a man named Tempus, who is essentially the American version of Doctor Who‘s Master that the (roughly contemporary) TV Movie failed so badly to present: he is a scenery-chewing, pompous, smarmy, self-aware, selfish, amoral, fourth wall-breaking cartoon supervillain and easily the best thing to come out of Lois and Clark. In one two-parter (his final appearance), he manages to presage both the 2007 Doctor Who finale and  the 2016 election by hacking the phone system to mind-control the population into electing him President pretty much entirely out of spite, gunning down a homeless man in the street, and transforming the US into a fascist state. Alternate-universe Superman, HG Wells, and Lois valiantly battle him, the real Superman having been imprisoned in a dimension of bad CGI, and save America, restoring the status quo.

But what is the alternative? No matter what political position Superman espouses, he is Superman. It’s right there in the name: he is a superior, singular individual, physically, mentally, and (the show would have us believe) morally. This is essentially what Tempus programmed the American electorate to think of him, and his rise to power was the birth of an authoritarian state–not because he is evil (though he gloriously, campily is), but because the idea that superior and inferior people exist is in itself authoritarian. There is no way Superman can fix our problems and bring about utopia; whether he kills or not, hands people over to the police or throws them into the Realm of Bad CGI, chooses his targets based on law or a moral code or whim, acts as a vigilante or joins a government organization, the story is still one of a superior man imposing his will upon the world.

Which is where the dilemma of the superhero, the dilemma of the show, and the dilemma of liberalism stand revealed as one. Superheroes are trapped because, as (presumably) “the good guys” they must oppose authoritarianism, yet by their very nature as heroes are themselves authoritarian. The show is trapped between its desire to be progressive (and, in particular, feminist), and the regressive reproductive futurism that arises from its status as a family show.

This is liberalism. Liberalism wants to be the good guys, to be on the side of freedom and equality and a better tomorrow, but shies away from revolution. It wants to be polite and friendly and liked by everyone, which in practice means objecting to Nazis getting punched. It is built on self-contradiction, the creation of slave-holders who wanted freedom, genocidal colonists who wanted independence, and rich white men who talked about equality while not allowing women, black people, or the poor to vote. It insists that the system of government these rich white men built is somehow capable of freedom and equality for all (because they said so, which means it must be true), if we could just catch the villains and put the right people in charge. No need for, say, reparations for the descendants of victims of genocide and slavery; after all, we’ve been doing nothing whatsoever about the ensuing inequality and injustice for generations, so obviously it has to have fixed itself by now in our most perfect of all possible governments, right?

This is the trap, the inescapable tension at the heart of Superman. Where Batman is a conservative hero, motivated by the desire to punish the guilty and maintain the structures of power, Superman is a liberal hero, motivated by the wish for people to be nice to one another. He’ll oppose the KKK, but carefully ignore the fact that our prisons are just slavery in a new guise. He’ll try to foil Lex Luthor’s schemes, but won’t take him in unless he breaks the laws written by the politicians Luthor owns–and even then, Luthor is a rich white man, unlikely to have too bad a time of it in the criminal justice system.

We can’t gradually slide into utopia thanks to one good man getting rid of the bad men. Utopia can only happen in the wake of apocalypse; unfortunately, it’s far from the most likely outcome. And therein lies our own tension: are things bad enough for us to be willing to risk the possibility of worse?

*The even more glorious plural of the glorious phrase “premarital hanky-panky,” both coined by cartoonist David Willis, about whom more in a very, very long time.

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Imaginary Story: The Wedding Album, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

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It is October 6, 1996. This week, Superman: The Wedding Albumcomes out, although its cover bears a December 1996 date.

The long-delayed marriage of Lois Lane and Clark Kent is presented in a rather odd little volume. The idea, it seems, was to present it as the work of a comic-book supergroup, with the cover announcing it to be the work of many “Superman artists and writers, past and present.” In practice, the result is a disjointed book that shifts tone and art style every few pages, more like a series of vignettes joined only by the fact that they occur in the same couple of days. It has very little in the way of overarching narrative, just a series of “and then… and then…” (“And then Mxyzptlk shows up, and then he turns into a “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” reference, and then he leaves, and then they get married, and then Batman is Superman’s landlord.”)

But that’s more or less what the title promises: an album, a set of photographs which need share in common only that they be in the same book. A wedding album isn’t a narrative, except in the sense that all experience is narrative because it occurs in a temporal sequence. Most of the time, however, there is just a photo, and then another photo, and then another photo. The photos may be arranged in the order they were taken, or they may not. Some may be candid and others may be posed. Items other than photos may be inserted, such as a copy of the marriage certificate.

Ultimately, any photo album is an exercise in nostalgia. The point of it isn’t to narrate, but to point at narratives, to remind the reader of past events and people. A wedding album in particular is also about celebrating the event; it is meant for members of the family to leaf through and, ideally, relive a moment of love and joy. The point of The Wedding Album isn’t to tell the story of Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s wedding day, but rather to remind readers of “old friends” (i.e., significant supporting cast) and take joy in the love of Superman, Lois Lane, and their families and friends.

All of which adds up to being better than dozens of issues of “let’s kill ‘im,” but still can’t really rise above empty fluff, and not particularly well-executed empty fluff at that.

Speaking of (generally) well-executed empty fluff, it’s October 6, 1996, and after more than three years of build-up, the wedding episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (known by only its subtitle outside the US) is finally here: “We Swear to God, This Time We’re Not Kidding.” The title refers to the number of times the title characters broke up, got back together, pretended to be married, tried and failed to get married, and so on over the course of the series, including a gloriously ridiculous five-episode arc in which they appear to marry, but at the last second Lois is swapped out for a clone created by Lex Luthor, and then Lois gets amnesia and thinks she’s the main character of a novel she started writing while mad at Clark, and then the clone gives her life to help Superman defeat Luthor and get Lois back, and then one of the doctors who are supposed to be helping Lois recover her memories brainwashes her to assassinate Perry White, and then after she and Superman foil that plot the other doctor manipulates her into thinking she’s in love with him, and then her memories are accidentally restored by an unrelated mad-science scheme by one of that doctor’s other patients.

Even the wedding episode itself teases the possibility that it might not happen. In the course of the cold open, Lois bumps her head and then pretends to have amnesia again, then floats the possibility that their relationship is cursed, and then Clark quips that at least the (never before seen) Wedding Destroyer hasn’t escaped and vowed revenge. The Wedding Destroyer then escapes and vows revenge. (In the following episode, it turns out Lois and Clark’s relationship is cursed and they have to time travel to a Robin Hood pastiche and the Old West to undo the curse before they can consummate their marriage. Herein lies the entire essence of the show.) In the end, it is only through the intervention of what is heavily implied to be both an actual guardian angel and a stand-in for the show creators, as well as possibly the Archangel Michael himself, that they actually manage to get married.

The story is, in short, silly, but that’s in keeping with the rest of the show. It is light, goofy, and frequently quite funny, full of disarmingly mediocre performances and charmingly bad special effects. And, as you may notice from my description of the one five-episode arc, its metastructure is precisely that “and then… and then…” I noted above in regards to The Wedding Album. That said, the really surprising thing about Lois and Clark is that it has a metastructure at all–in the mid-90s, most American television was still highly episodic: individual episodes might occasionally call back to past episodes, but arcs longer than the occasional two-parter were extremely rare. This was starting to shift by the late 90s, but most television still consisted of individual, largely self-contained episodes. Occasionally there might be shifts in the status quo, such as cast or setting changes, characters getting married or divorced, and so on, but these were not arcs per se–there would be an episode in which the status quo changed, and thereafter it would be treated as the new status quo.

The primary exception to this was, of course, soap operas, both day- and prime-time. Soap operas were notable both for their serialization and the relative complexity of their episodes; where most hour-long dramas would have an A plot and sometimes a B plot, soap operas would typically have at least three plots, given roughly equal weight. In addition, where most shows generally resolved plots in the episodes that introduced them, in soap operas plots were usually staggered, so that a new plot might be introduced while another is ongoing and yet another is drawing to an end–a very deliberate structure designed to simultaneously give new viewers a good jumping-on point and encourage established viewers to keep watching, without sacrificing a sense of resolution. And Lois and Clark does frequently draw plot elements from soap operas, including amnesia-inducing head-bumps, elaborate revenge schemes, dark secrets, fake and disrupted weddings, doppelgangers, and dual identities.

But Lois and Clark isn’t structured like a soap opera, as frequently as it draws on that aesthetic. Instead, each episode is its own self-contained story, sometimes with a (usually also self-contained) B-plot. However, frequently, a twist will occur in that story’s denouement, just when everything seemed to be over, that then prompts a “To Be Continued…” and forms the basis of the next episode’s story. This is not how soap operas do it–but it is, frequently, how comic books work. A given storyline might take up a single issue or several, but very often it will end with a setup for the next storyline, this being how comics solve the problem any indefinite-length serialized work has of providing resolution while also encouraging readers/viewers to return for the next issue/episode.

In other words, Lois and Clark is fusing the soap opera and the comic book, both in terms of story elements and at the structural level. Indeed, look at the list of soap-operatic elements it plays with: amnesia, elaborate schemes for revenge, doppelgangers, dual identities and dark secrets (with the secret often being the dual identity)–other than the fake and disrupted weddings, these are all staples of superhero comics as well! (And even those showed up from time to time in the Golden Age.) What the show reveals is that there is very little difference between a superhero comic and a soap opera, and honestly that shouldn’t surprise us: both are melodramas structured as open-ended serials that can run indefinitely. The only real difference is that soap operas are (at least on the surface) usually about sex, while comic books are (at least on the surface) usually about violence.

Also, Lois and Clark makes an excellent metaphor for the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberalism.

To Be Continued…

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