It’s September 21, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena and Donna Lewis’s earwormy “I Love You Always Forever” is still at No. 2. Throw in Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” at 4 and you can understand why I refused to listen to popular music in high school. At the box office, revenge comedy The First Wives Club opens at number one.
In the news, yesterday Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős died; one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, he collaborated with scientists and scholars in a dizzying array of fields, but is probably best known as the namesake of the Erdős number, the academic-papers equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. On the 24th, U.S. President Bill Clinton will sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; as of February 2017, it has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, and is still missing approval from eight nations before it can go into effect (including the U.S.)
In S:TAS, we have the first DCAU appearance of Parasite, a rather uninspiringly named villain with energy-draining powers. This episode serves as an excellent example of the primary difference between Batman: The Animated Series and S:TAS, and indeed between the DCAU incarnations of Batman and Superman: Batman lurks in the shadows, and is often a peripheral figure in his own show, while Superman stands out in the light, and is usually the central figure of his show.
Thus Rudy Jones, who seems tailor-made as a “sympathetic villain” of the type B:TAS did so well: a down-on his luck janitor who agrees to help a criminal rob STAR Labs in exchange for help paying off his gambling debts. Unfortunately, the toxic waste he was helping the criminal steal spills while they’re escaping from Superman, transforming Jones into the Parasite, a hulking purple monster that needs to feed on the life force of others to survive.
Parasite could be a tragic figure, forced to hurt people to live, wracked with guilt, but that would require the episode to focus on his internality. Instead, he shows no sign of anything other than pleasure in his newfound power, and the episode’s primary focus is on Superman’s efforts to escape imprisonment and stop him.
The episode’s sympathies thus lie entirely with Superman, whom Parasite chains up in the STAR Labs basement so that he can periodically drain Superman’s energy, keeping him helpless while Parasite steals his powers of flight and superstrength to commit robberies. Superman thus spends much of the episode helpless and immobile, a victim in need of rescue, which comes in the form of Jimmy Olson.
Ironically, Superman’s first few episodes depict him as being far more vulnerable than Batman. Part of that is simply that we are seeing Superman at the beginning of his career, while Batman was already well-established by the time of “On Leather Wings.” But part of it is that Batman is human, and can be killed by a gunshot or a knifewound, and therefore there is a degree of dramatic tension even if his opponents almost never land a blow: we in the audience know that Batman won’t be seriously harmed, but Batman doesn’t, and we can empathize with him. Superman, on the other hand, is virtually invulnerable, and so the early episodes have emphasized the ways in which he is vulnerable, to teach him–and thereby us–that his opponents are dangerous.
Between his vulnerability and focus, Superman comes across very quickly as a more sympathetic, human figure than Batman did initially. Even in their respective secret identities, Clark Kent feels more natural and authentic than the very performative Bruce Wayne, who by comparison is almost Byronic in his confluence of tragedy and privilege. It is almost unthinkable for Bruce Wayne or Batman to be saved from peril by one of Bruce Wayne’s friends; who would that even be? Harvey Dent, perhaps, but only very early on, before he became Two-Face; Alfred is more family than friend; everyone else is linked to Batman rather than Wayne. By contrast, Lois yanked Clark Kent out of the path of fire of Toyman’s toy airplanes two episodes ago–an event important enough to be immortalized in the opening credits of every episode of the series–and then saved Superman from the kryptonite last episode. This episode, Jimmy Olson helped loose Superman from his chains.
The correct answer to “who’s the mask, the superhero or the secret identity?” is that the question is built on false assumptions. Both and neither are the “real” person, because that’s how fragmentation of identity works. But it’s understandable why people think Bruce Wayne is a mask worn by Batman, while Superman is a mask worn by Clark Kent. Wayne has Alfred and no one else, and seems to do nothing but go to charity galas and product demos, while Batman has Alfred, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl, Catwoman, Leslie Thompkins, and more. Superman is alone at this stage, but Clark has the Kents, Lana, Lois, and Jimmy, and a career. The truth behind the error is that Clark Kent has a life outside of being Superman; without Batman, Bruce Wayne is nothing.
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