I’ll fight it with you! (Stolen Memories)

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Guess who forgot to queue an update for yesterday!

It’s November 2, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, may god have mercy on our souls. The top movie is Romeo + Juliet, one of the more commercially successful of the periodic “let’s do Shakespeare in a modern setting but use period language” films. In the news, the heavily sensationalized trial of O.J. Simpson has been going for a little over a week; al-Jazeera began regular broadcasting yesterday; and in three days Bill Clinton will be reelected as President following a substantially less interesting campaign than the previous one.

We’ve already seen how pieces of Krypton hurt Superman in the form of kryptonite, followed by the attack of an (essentially) robotic villain powered by kryptonite. Now we get a different vestige of Krypton: Brainiac.

The decision to make Brainiac a Kryptonian artificial intelligence, rather than Coluan as he (Brainiac presents masculine or genderless, and is consistently referred to with “he” pronouns in the DCAU, so I will follow suit) was in the comics, is an interesting one. Brainiac does have a connection to Krypton in the comics, but it’s a significantly less central one: some time before its destruction, Brainiac miniaturized the Kryptonian capital city of Kandor and kept it on his ship, inhabitants and all. This is largely an excuse to have Kandor eventually end up in Superman’s possession, however, so that he can be miniaturized and have adventures in a Kryptonian city in a bottle. Brainiac’s role as specifically a Superman villain is essentially random: he was first introduced in Superman comics, and therefore is associated with Superman, despite the lack of any innate connection between the characters.

“Last Son of Krypton,” however, ties Brainiac intimately into Superman’s originating trauma; indeed, as he serves the role of villain to Jor-El’s hero in the first part, he can be argued to be responsible for that trauma. It is certainly possible that, had Brainiac not prioritized saving himself and his store of data about Krypton over saving the people of Krypton, little Kal-El might not have ended up last of his kind, or indeed come to Earth at all.

Brainiac’s motives are ruthlessly logical, if we assume that his purpose is to record all of a civilization’s knowledge. On Krypton, this function would have been never-ending: between the physical and biological evolution of the planet, slow as it is, and the cultural evolution and creative output of the Kryptonians, there would always be new data for Brainiac to record. But once Krypton was destroyed, Brainiac possessed a snapshot of all Kryptonian knowledge at the moment of destruction, which is to say all the Kryptonian knowledge that would ever be. It would appear that his purpose has become to collect all the knowledge of other civilizations, which necessitates destroying them as well to achieve the “all” criterion.

It is odd, then, that he takes such interest in Superman. This may be because the data Lex Luthor is feeding him presents Superman as an enigma, and therefore Brainiac wishes to study him further, but that seems unlikely as Brainiac refers to Superman as Kal-El from the start, implying he knows Superman’s secrets. It’s also plausible he wished only to study Superman’s powers–an aspect of Kryptonian biology on which data may have been limited, although it seems the effect of yellow suns on Kryptonians was known to Jor-El at least–but that would appear to have been accomplished by siccing robots on him at their first meeting.

This is not the only odd behavior from Brainiac where Superman is concerned, however. Showing Superman the orb containing Krypton’s memories makes little sense if he wants to keep Superman for study, as presumably Brainiac knows everything the Kryptonians did about their psychology and would therefore know it would function like a delayed flashback trigger, causing Superman to have nightmares about Krypton’s destruction. (Consisting entirely of scenes for which he was not present, presumably picked up from the orb subconsciously.) This in turn served to turn Superman against Brainiac, where before he was cautious but open to the possibility that Brainiac was benign.

It is possible, then, that Brainiac was genuinely trying to recruit Superman as a partner in his explorations, but again, why? Presumably not all worlds have yellow suns, so Superman wouldn’t even have his powers at many of their stops, not to mention that Brainiac doesn’t appear to need any muscle on his side, assuming every one of the dozens of orbs he possesses corresponds to a planet he destroyed.

There doesn’t appear to be a logical explanation–but then, there’s no reason to expect logical behavior from a conscious agent. Brainiac can redefine his own functions, as witness his transformation from everyone’s servant on Krypton to knowledge-gathering destroyer of worlds thereafter. What can he be basing that redefinition on if not some underlying objectives or desires, which is to say that he has wants and needs upon which he can base his behavior. This is not to say that he necessarily possesses human emotion–we cannot conclude that he left the Kryptonians to die out of resentment, or seeks to bond with the last surviving Kryptonian out of guilt or loneliness–but he wants things, and those things aren’t necessarily going to always be possible or consistent. Conflicting desires lead him to undermine himself, and thus turn Superman against him.

Which, ironically, has the effect of driving Superman to team up with the other villain in this episode, Lex Luthor.  There is no real coordination between them, but nonetheless they destroy Brainiac’s ship together, the first of a handful of times they will work together, usually against relics of Krypton and occasionally other menaces from space.

This gives us a hint to a rather darker reading of the episode, and indeed of Superman’s role in general. However, it is one which we will unpack over the course of the remainder of the series, and so for now let us leave it to a single observation: Superman is himself an outsider, though he passes as an insider, and yet as time goes on he will increasingly police Earth against other outsiders–and frequently find himself allying with his personal nemesis, perhaps the most quintessentially reactionary villain in the DCAU, whenever he does so.


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Retroactive Continuity 16: Batman Annual vol. 2 #2

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Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

I have, generally speaking, not talked much about Batman after the time of the DCAU. I’ve talked a good bit about versions of Batman before, and I’ve talked about other comics that postdate the DCAU, but this is my first time writing about a 21st Century Batman comic.

As we’ve discussed before, superhero comics function more like memory than history. Scott Snyder’s Batman (or, more accurately, his student Marguerite Bennett’s–she wrote the issue based on a story outline by Snyder) is not a replica of any past Batman, anymore than Timm, Dini, and Conroy’s is. But neither are they entirely new, independent creations. They are reconstructions, like all memories. A few impressions of who Batman was in comics, TV shows, and movies past, with the rest filled in by the mind of the rememberer, colored by their mood and interests, their state of mind and preferences.

Snyder/Bennet’s Batman, as presented in this comic, is a figure of rage. Someone who, when he claims to be terror, vengeance, and the night, not only means it but lives it. Consider the initial premise of the comic, the very reason he is in Arkham in the first place: to confirm the inescapability of what is very obviously Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

Conceived as a more enlightened, more rational form of prison, the Panopticon consists of a central tower with a wraparound window, in the center of a circle formed by prison cells, which are stacked atop one another. Key is that every point in the Panopticon is visible from the central tower, which means that a single guard could be observing any inmate at any time. Bentham’s theory was that this would guarantee good behavior from all inmates at all times, since they never knew whether or when they were under observation.

Probably more well-known than Bentham’s original conception is Michel Foucalt’s critique. The horror of the Panopticon is obvious; it is utterly dehumanizing and cruel, plunging prisoners into a state of perpetual fear and anxiety from which there would be no hope of escape, essentially guaranteeing the kinds of behavior it is supposed to control. But what is less obvious, and the crux of Foucalt’s argument, is that the underlying principles by which Bentham designed the Panopticon–a casual disregard for the humanity of those who deviate in any way from a narrowly defined and rigidly disciplined conception of “normal,” which if need be is imposed by force–not only underlie our existing prisons, but also our hospitals, asylums, schools, and indeed our society in general.

This is what is constructed within Arkham, and Batman’s response is not to acknowledge its horror and destroy it, or at least refuse to help construct it; he instead participates willingly in tests designed to make sure that none of Arkham’s more dangerous occupants can escape.

Intertwined with these tests is the story of the Anchoress, a woman who defied what was “normal” in her time by studying the sciences, and was punished for it. Demands that she accept an arranged marriage or remain shut in her room resulted in her setting off an explosion that killed her parents and transformed her, giving her a withered appearance and a potent superpower. That seems like a superhero origin story, and it well could have been, except that the Anchoress had no one to blame but herself. She created her own prison, voluntarily entering Arkham.

But then, as she tells the story, Batman came along, and transformed Arkham from a place of healing to a place where monsters were imprisoned. The moment at which Arkham changed for her, personally, was when she attacked Batman for violating the privacy of the inmates by sneaking in to read their files, for which she was punished by being moved to a small cell which could imprison her despite her ability to walk through walls.

She was, in short, rebelling against the Panopticon of the asylum, the knowledge that anything the inmates do or say could be recorded by a doctor, kept in a file whose only protection was a set of rules, rules the inmate themselves has been shut away for failing to live by–and for this she was punished. The same logic as the person arrested for resisting arrest, a sadly familiar scenario in this age of police excess and violence.

The violation of privacy, the exposure of secrets, is also the weapon she uses against Batman, forcing him into a cage of his darkest memories. A memory trapped in memories; how apropos.

The last major figure of the comic is a young orderly on his first day working at Arkham, who witnesses the Anchoress’ escape. He is obviously unsettled by the Panopticon, though not enough to voice an objection, and sympathetic to the Anchoress. By the end of the comic he is still insisting that there is a possibility for Arkham to be a place of healing, not just a prison.

Unfortunately, as long as any and all deviance is monitored and punished, no such healing is possible. The Anchoress tells Batman she was “healing, until you,” but that’s exactly the problem: monitoring and punishment beget monitoring and punishment. A Batman more concerned with the containment of Arkham inmates than their humanity subjects those inmates to surveillance, violates their autonomy and privacy, and they justifiably lash out in return, which is taken by their captors as justification for more surveillance, more punishment, more containment.

There are hints of the possibility of a better way. Batman refrains from punching the Anchoress, allowing her to be captured peacefully, and she is given a better cell. The orderly retains his hope that the inmates of Arkham can be healed. But the “heard it before” attitude of the other orderly tells us everything we need to know about that hope: it is deviance, and will be squeezed out of him by the discipline of Arkham.

Like all prisons, it confines the jailers almost as much as the inmates. (Almost.)


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MLPFIM S7E5-6 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, 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 MLP there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST. This is one hour before the usual time.

Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.