From the law (Showdown)

I’m running a Kickstarter for a new book, Animated Discussions: Essays on Anime! It’s just over halfway there, but time is ticking away!

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It’s September 12, 1995, two days after “A Bullet for Bullock” and three before “The Lion and the Unicorn.”

Following up on Ra’s al Ghul’s lesser counterpart we get the man himself, but this time–as is generally the case with apocalypses–his latest near-apocalypse is located in a far-distant time, as this episode consists mostly of a flashback to the Old West, where Ra’s clashed with Jonah Hex, a bounty hunter with terrible scarring on one side of his face.

This is a curious episode. For starters, Hex is outright stated to have killed all of his previous bounties. On top of that, the barmaid helps him because Duvall hurt “one of [her] girls,” rather strongly implying that her saloon doubles as a brothel, as is often the case in Westerns. And Hex is hunting Duvall because of something he did to “a girl back east.” The implication is that this episode involves a madame helping a killer hunt a rapist, which is not exactly common territory for a children’s cartoon, even one that pushes the boundaries as much as Batman: The Animated Series.

On the other hand, it’s a fairly standard setup for a Western. Less standard is an acknowledgment of the imperialist nature of the U.S. westward expansion, though even there we get a whitewashing of history: Ra’s opposes it because it is destroying “wilderness,” leading me to wish someone on the staff had watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s pilot and decided to throw in a Native American character quoting it: “This ‘wilderness’ is my home!”

But it’s not like the American empire isn’t environmentally destructive, too–generally speaking, empires tend to provide no shortage of reasons to oppose them, after all. Of course Ra’s’ plan to reign destruction down on the railroads from above ends up destroying only one town, but that’s why he’s the walking incarnation of near-apocalypse; a protector always shows up to oppose him.

Hex is a curious protector, however. He’s established as a killer in his first scene, and openly states he doesn’t care about Ra’s’ plan to destroy the railroads, even though his pursuit of Duvall ends up destroying Ra’s’ airship and derailing the plan. He has more in common with Azrael, Batman’s temporary replacement after his back was broken by Bane in the comics, than Batman: a figure who takes the role of a protector, but whose willingness to kill and blasé attitude toward others belie that role.

In Giant Robo, we have seen a successful melding of the protector fantasy and the power fantasy, namely the golem and its pop cultural descendants. But here we see an unsuccessful attempt to do the same. The underlying reason is simple: the fantasy in the protector fantasy is that someone has both the power to protect the weak, downtrodden, and oppressed, and chooses to do so. A power fantasy in which we ourselves are that protector is thus quite doable–but that’s not what Jonah Hex is. The power which Jonah Hex possesses is the power of not caring, the power of walking away from society and its obligations. It is the power to kill the people we disagree with, to walk away from the systems we don’t like, and not worry about the consequences. It is great power with no responsibility.

And we’ve seen characters who represent that kind of power fantasy, the power of unlimited self-indulgence: the Mad Hatter, the Joker, Rupert Thorne. Like Azrael and so many other superheroes of the 90s, Hex isn’t so much a hero as he is a villain who fights villains. This positions him as an antihero, a broad term meaning any character who plays a heroic role while lacking key heroic traits. Hex and the antiheroes of the 90s, however, are one very specific type of antihero: they lack the heroic trait of being uncool.

After all, it is the job of a protector fantasy to care enough about others to protect them, and caring is the opposite of cool. Even when Hex spares Duvall’s life, he’s cool, which is to say outwardly uncaring: he insists he’s only doing it because it’s too much effort to carry Duvall’s corpse all the way to the east coast. Hex presents us with all the elements of a 90s antihero: in addition to being cool, he’s also badass (which is to say, given to casually performing acts of extreme violence, such as blowing up an airship), and gets the girl despite being grotesque in appearance (the madame/barmaid kisses him on his burn scar, which has already been depicted as horrifying everyone who sees it).

Not to put too fine a point on it, despite being created in the 70s, Hex is a perfect example of a 90s antihero, and the 90s antihero is a straightforward result of twin assumptions: that superheroes are power fantasies, and that the readers of comics are stereotypical nerds, which is to say entitled white men who got picked on as children, never got over it, and feel entitled to sex despite being unwilling to make any effort to be attractive.

Of course this doesn’t work as a protector fantasy! If your power fantasy is predicated on not protecting anyone, it’s never going to work as anything but a power fantasy. And what revolution would a bunch of angry, entitled white men bring about?

We have already seen the answer, courtesy of Miraculous Ladybug: a return to hierarchies of old, which they imagine themselves sitting on top of. In real life, there’s the alt-right, a movement with disturbing amounts of support in the nerd Mecca of Silicon Valley, which advocates for the elimination of democracy in favor of “running governments like corporations,” in what amounts to capitalist feudalism. Unsurprisingly, they tend to favor Trump or the Libertarians.

We need a better class of revolution, and for that we’re going to need a better class of power fantasy.


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