Crisis on N Earths (N=8): Kids’ WB!, Freakazoid!

 

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This is where I come in.

I’ve said that before, but that’s because there’s more than one point where it’s true.  But for whatever reason, I didn’t watch Batman: The Animated Series on Fox, or if I did I don’t remember it; all of my memories of it are of reruns on Kids’ WB!, which became my go-to Saturday morning fare in high school, at least until sleeping in became more interesting than watching cartoons. (Which, as signifiers of American adolescence go, really ought to be up there with zits and making out in cars.)

But I was definitely watching Kids WB! before it inherited BTAS and STAS, most likely from very nearly its beginning, given the prominent place watching Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Earthworm Jim, and Freakazoid! (in approximately that order each week) occupies in my media memories.

Kids’ WB! was the children’s programming block of the WB, a network launched in January 1995 in an attempt to replicate the success of Fox. In many ways, the WB (along with Paramount’s similar effort,  UPN, which launched five days later) was a last stand of sorts against the ongoing sea change in American television. Local, independent TV stations were dying, their economic viability undermined by the rising popularity and availability of cable. Many independent stations tried to sustain themselves with first-run syndicated programs, some of which–like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Baywatch–rivaled  major network shows in popularity, but this merely served to homogenize their  content,  rendering them still less relevant.

In 1993, Warner Bros. and Chris-Craft Entertainment launched the Prime Time Action Network in an effort to replicate Fox’s success in becoming a new network. Like Fox, PTEN originally only aired a couple of hours of programming a couple of nights a week, sold as a block to local stations in much the same way that syndicated programming was. Where Fox attempted to make its mark with edgy, transgressive content (by 1980s standards, anyway) like Married… with Children, The Tracey Ullman Show, and 21 Jump Street,  PTEN went after the cult audience that had made shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files into hits, filling its block with science fiction and action programming like Babylon 5, Time Trax, and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

While PTEN was commercially successful, many of the stations which ran it were already Fox affiliates, making it difficult to expand into a full network lineup. Instead, Warner Bros. allowed PTEN to more or less peter out–it aired its  last programming in 1997–while building up the WB instead. Once the initial January launch proved  successful, the WB began expanding its programming, adding Kids’ WB! in September.

From my pubescent perspective, there was a clear transition in which the Disney Afternoon–Disney’s syndicated block which contained such shows as Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, Talespin, and Darkwing Duck went into a steep decline after Ducktales was dropped from the lineup in 1992, and became simply unwatchable when the last of its original shows, Talespin, was dropped in 1994, to the arrival of Kids’ WB! and the funnier, more transgressive, more entertaining shows it presented, like Animaniacs, its spinoff Pinky and the Brain, and most importantly for our purposes,  Freakazoid!

Freakazoid was, quite simply, nonsense. Ostensibly a superhero show about a boy who gained superpowers from the Internet, it was mostly a vehicle for absurd, Animaniacs-style adventures poking fun at pop culture or just generally being wacky. The third Amblin-Warner Bros. coproduction (the first two having been, as already discussed, Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs), Freakazoid! was the brainchild of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, two names which should be quite familiar by now; it is, in essence,  a sister series of sort to the DCAU. However, the original concept was more of a serious action series with comedic undertones–Timm later compared it to the original Spider-Man comics in that respect–but as development continued and it became clear that the series was going to be a comedy series with an aesthetic closer to Animaniacs than BTAS, Timm dropped out.

Nonetheless, his influence remained on the series’ visuals: several key character designs (particularly Freakazoid himself, who looks like a combination of later DCAU villains Livewire and the Creeper) show clear influence from Timm’s signature style, as do virtually all of the young women depicted in the show, presaging that style’s emergence as the defining look of the DCAU in Superman: The Animated Series. Further, its general color palette is clearly inherited from Animaniacs and passed on to STAS: far lighter than BTAS’ dark palette, but (with the exception of the hero’s costume) less saturated than the bold, primary colors that traditionally typify superhero comics.

After the end, this is where the DCAU will be born.


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Psycho-Pass Season 1 Episodes 13 and 14 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

This time with actual happening!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Psycho-Pass and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.

I’ll update this post with the log after the chat.

ETA:  Chatlog under the cut!

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Vlog Review: Dirty Pair Episode 4

So, week 1 of the new Tues-Thurs-Sat update schedule: not a huge success. I’ll get it next week, though!

Commissioned episode for Bennet Jackson. 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! We’ve dipped below the threshold for monthly bonus vlogs–just a few dollars could put it back over the top!

 

Slag it (Batgirl Returns)

I have decided to move from a Monday-Wednesday-Sunday update schedule to Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday, in the hopes that this will make it easier to, for example, not forget to post on Mondays that I’m off work. I have clearly gotten off to a swimmingly good start.

This may therefore not be a great time to mention it, but my Patreon has plummeted by about 1/3 over the last month. It could use some love! If you enjoy my work, please consider contributing or encouraging others to contribute. Thanks!

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It’s a fitting ending. Batman Returns provided much of the impetus for the creation of Batman: The Animated Series; now it provides the title–and Catwoman–for its final episode.

It’s November 12, 1994. The top song is, of course, “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. The top movie is Interview with the Vampire. In the news, last week’s midterm  elections demonstrated just how effective Clinton’s plan to secure Democratic control of the U.S. by turning the Democrats into Republicans Lite was, as Republicans seized both houses of Congress for the first time in  40 years;  tomorrow, the Chunnel opens full public service and Sweden votes to join the European Union.

Amusingly, in his only appearance in the episode, Bruce Wayne mentions that he is engaged in a merger that is important to the European Common Market, a frequently used alternative name to the European Economic Community–an entity which had been absorbed by the European Union a year before this episode aired. But that’s fitting for the swansong of Batman: The Animated Series; Batman is  clearly being marked as part of a past that has already ended, while the future belongs to Batgirl, Catwoman, and, to a vastly lesser degree, Dick Grayson.

It’s fitting, too, that Batman is barely in the final episode of his series; with very few exceptions, Batman: The Animated Series has never really been about him.  He has remained in the shadows, observing, occasionally swooping in to save the day, but in most episodes the bulk of characterization has fallen on some other character, most obviously in the “sympathetic villain” episodes. He is fixed permanently as an eight-year-old boy wearing an adult suit called Bruce Wayne, wearing a mask called Batman; he cannot change, cannot grow, cannot experience an arc, and therefore makes for a poor main character,  but he has always been an excellent magnet around whom more interesting characters accumulate.

Instead, we get the far more dynamic figure of Batgirl, reintroduced in this episode through Barbara Gordon’s absolutely delightful power fantasy, in which she swoops in, saves an injured, almost cowering Batman from the trio of Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face,  and then very nearly claims a kiss as her reward before being interrupted by Dick Grayson. It’s a perfect inversion of the power fantasy superheroes supposedly represent, an adolescent boy saving a cowering damsel in distress from grotesque villains and earning her affection as his reward.

We have been quite critical of the notion that superheroes function as power fantasies in general, but it’s difficult to read Batgirl’s role in this episode as anything else. She’s not  tortured by any past trauma, not driven by any neurotic compulsion; she just wants to dress up in a costume and kick some ass. She is, in that sense, more of a kindred spirit to Catwoman than to Batman or Robin: both women use their alternate identities as a release of frustration, a way to express their power and desire to make the world a better place outside of the confines placed on them by their respective social roles.

But we’ve been down that road before. Perhaps, rather than saying Batgirl and Catwoman are  kindred spirits, it would be better to say that both have kindred  spirits in our departed mascots of impending apocalypse, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and leave it at that.

Regardless, Batgirl is clearly a power fantasy here, which perhaps explains why Catwoman’s attempt at recruiting her seems to be working right up until the moment that Catwoman insults Commissioner Gordon. Clearly she is to some degree sympathetic to the desire to upend the world, as witness that opening fantasy with its upending of the traditional damsel in distress phenomenon. It’s difficult to blame her–once again, Barbara Gordon is the daughter of a man who thinks it’s appropriate to try to pick his daughter’s romantic partners.

Which gives us yet another (quasi-)villainous parallel to Batgirl: Talia al-Ghul. Indeed, the degree to which Ra’s al-Ghul and Commissioner Gordon form mirror images of one another–older men, one who wishes to make himself  Batman’s father figure and the other adopted by Batman as a father figure, one who seeks to make the world a better place by overthrowing its power structures and the other by using them, one a pure power fantasy and the other a protector–makes it quite regrettable that we’ve never really had an episode in which they both play a prominent role. The next generation seems to have inherited these parallels, but to a degree seem to have swapped their positionalities: two young women, both attracted to Batman, yet it’s Talia who wants to either retire in peace or continue her father’s work, and Batgirl who wants to break out of the role chosen by her father and fight as a vigilante.

Batgirl is not content to simply protect things as they are. She wants to change them. She is someone who can take her costume on and off without changing who she is, a unified identity rather than broken fragments of child and protector, Bat and Man. She fights–and defeats, so thoroughly that he is never seen again–one of the recurring corporate villains against whom Batman so frequently struggled without ever entirely defeating. Batman could never truly overcome Roland Daggett, because both ultimately drew their power from the same source, the vast resources, entitlement, and immunity to consequences that come with great wealth; Batgirl’s power comes from a different source entirely, and hence she can stop him.

Well, except for the part where she and Catwoman comes within moments of being killed before Robin swoops in to save the day. The positive reading of this episode twists and turns back on itself; superheroes as a power fantasy are, we have observed before, primarily the domain of very small children. Batgirl–emphasis on the infantilizing term girl–is in over her head and has to be rescued by a man who condescends to her with almost every line. She’s depicted as a child engaged in childish pursuits, which is why in Batman Beyond she’ll grow up to do a real job–but Batman and Robin (who will become Nightwing in his next appearance) get to be manly adult men to who have to be taken seriously when they do the same things.

For a moment, just a moment, we had a glimpse of a new (or, perhaps, very old) kind of hero. But Batman: The Animated Series has room for only one kind of hero–indeed, only one hero, one who lurks in the shadows and on the sidelines. If we want a hero who can stand in full daylight, at the center of things, BTAS has to be broken open. Destruction, rebirth, a new art style and a new network.

And then it’ll have to be done again, and again, and again. A major shock to the system will be needed before we can truly get beyond Batman and break free of the limits restraining our conception of the superhero and the world–if we can get there at all.


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The whole place is going to go (Deep Freeze)

Never fails. I get a Monday off work, I forget to post NA09. Sorry!

This may therefore not be a great time to mention it, but my Patreon has plummeted by about 1/3 over the last month. It could use some love! If you enjoy my work, please consider contributing or encouraging others to contribute. Thanks!

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It’s November 26, 1994. The top song is still Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”; indeed, the charts are almost unchanged since last week’s “Lock-Up,” with the only difference in the top five being that Sheryl Crow has dropped out, replaced by a second Boyz II Men song. The top three movies are likewise the same movies as last week, just in a different order: The Santa Clause, Star Trek: Generations, Interview with the Vampire. The Lion King, Stargate, Pulp Fiction, and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street are also in the top ten. 

In the news, in two days’ time Norway rejects membership in the European Union and cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is beaten to death in prison. Two days after that, Situationist Internationale founder Guy Debord commits suicide, leaving behind an autobiographical film about the social problems of Paris in the 90s in lieu of a suicide note.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

Leave it to Robert Frost, that towering mediocrity of American poetry, to render the apocalypse twee. Nonetheless, quoting his “Fire and Ice” is nigh irresistible here, if only for the fact that “Robert Frost” sounds like the civilian identity of an ice-themed supervillain. This episode’s villain, on the other hand, is a study in rendering the twee apocalyptic: a thinly veiled caricature of Walt Disney plots to plunge the Earth into an ice age which only his newly constructed “theme park”–actually a model city built on fascist principles–will survive.

We know that this scheme is doomed to failure, because the world he seeks to destroy, the world of Batman: The Animated Series, was already destroyed in “Harlequinade,” by magic clown rather than fire and/or ice. But even in destruction, there are elements of BTAS which deserve preservation, most notably its masterful construction of complex, sympathetic villains. Who better, then, to return in the show’s final hours than its sympathetic villain par excellence, Mr. Freeze? And given that his first appearance, in which he was contrasted with the thoroughly unsympathetic villainy of the corporate tycoon, worked so well, why not give him another such villain here? Given that, it makes sense to model that villain on Disney, who (according to a clearly impossible, yet persistent, urban legend) was cryogenically frozen upon his death, to be restored to life in some future age.

The ensuing portrait of Walker makes for an interesting contrast with Ra’s al-Ghul, our patron saint of near-apocalypse. al-Ghul pursues radical change, seeking to topple the world’s power structures, and preserves himself indefinitely to ensure his ability to pursue that goal, his followers a relatively diverse bunch united by devotion to his ideology. Walker, on the other hand, wishes to freeze the world in ice, ending the changes he perceives as a form of decay and locking in its primary power structures–rich old white men uber alles–by reducing the world to a single space small enough for him to personally control, and seeks to preserve himself indefinitely in order to maintain that control forever.

In short, Ra’s is a revolutionary; Walker is a fascist. Both are bent on apocalypse, but Ra’s seeks to destroy the past to usher in his vision of the future; Walker seeks to destroy the future to usher in his vision of the past. And it is here that the value of the superhero becomes clear: for all that they prevent meaningful change for the better, the defenders of the status quo are also a powerful bulwark against those seeking to change the world for the worse. As Batman says, he may be a protector of order, but he will fight to the death to prevent the order that Walker represents.

In the end, however, it is Freeze who makes that sacrifice, forcing Batman to retreat to save Robin, while he remains with his wife, still frozen as a consequence of her fridging in his first appearance. Indeed, much as Walker sought to reduce the entire world to a space familiar to him, a space in which white people work for a “visionary” CEO who controls every aspect of their lives, Freeze ends up in a space containing only himself, his wife, longing and regret. There they will remain, until something happens to melt them out.

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Icy hatred,  callous indifference to the suffering of others, is perhaps the worst form of hatred. It is the kind of hatred which allows the upper echelons of a large corporation to toss workers into the street to shave a few points off production costs, or to build an oil pipeline across sacred lands, or to turn a blind eye while a city is poisoned by their own water. It is the hatred which creates violent conflict in distant lands and then turns away the refugees. The hatred which decides that making a product safe is more expensive than the wrongful death lawsuits, so let’s ship the deathtraps. It is the hatred of the bully, the Internet troll, the corporate climber, the “I’m not racist, but.”

Frost is, of course, wrong. It is not a world-ending hatred, but a world-preserving one.  It is a hatred that perpetuates the status quo, that lets the structures of power remain indefinitely where they are. But Frost was writing long before the 80s taught us what form the second apocalypse would have to take: fire, explosions, and a rain of radioactive debris.

At last, we’re very nearly there.


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