Interlude: Talking to Myself

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When art speaks to us, it speaks in our own voice.

When I was first gearing up to start this project, I happened to mention it to Phil Sandifer. I had already come up with the approach of Near-Apocalypse and grappling with the authoritarianism inherent in the concept of the superhero, but Phil added the missing piece of the puzzle: a copy of his PhD thesis, on what I’ve taken to calling heroic trauma.

I latched powerfully onto that concept. Something in it spoke deeply to me, and I began playing with ideas taken from that thesis. They became a core element of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, as well as turning up in my panels and, eventually, Animated Discussions, where an extended discussion of trauma formed the second of the book’s three parts.

Meanwhile, throughout Near-Apocalypse, I’ve commented on how infrequently I show up in the narrative. My own direct involvement has appeared in only a handful of places–off the top of my head, I can think of two, the Adam West Batman movie and one of the Batman and Robin Adventures entries, though I suspect there are others I’m forgetting.

But the thing about exploring an ideaspace is that you are, inevitably, exploring yourself. That’s where ideas exist, after all: inside us. And unless you’re psychic (which you’re not), the only ideas you can explore are the ones in your head. Not, to be clear, necessarily ones that started in your head–we have this whole thing called “language” that exists to put ideas in other people’s heads–but in your head is where you meet them.

I get why Phil’s ideas about trauma and superheroes hit me so powerfully now.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Lego Batman Movie. Batman is isolated, I said. He cuts himself off from the world as protection from the pain and trauma he risks by connecting to people–but in so doing, he just puts himself in more pain.

I have acid reflux disease, and I get chest pains whenever I let myself get too hungry. If I eat something small, like a handful of dry cereal, they go away. That’s not supposed to work–it certainly doesn’t work when I get other kinds of reflux attacks, from eating too much or eating the wrong thing or sleeping at a bad angle.

Because they’re not reflux attacks, they’re panic attacks, I recently realized. See, in my teens I had a rare disorder called achalasia. I’ll spare you the details, but the short version is that I had serious limits on what I could eat, and frequently I was physically incapable of eating at all. I ended up malnourished, severely underweight, and the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I eventually had to be hospitalized and fed intravenously for several days because I couldn’t even swallow water anymore.

The achalasia was surgically corrected when I was nineteen–my acid reflux is actually a side effect of that surgery. But the panic attacks? I was terrified, hungry, and sick in that hospital, and in the years leading up to it. I struggled to keep food down, which made eating in public intensely humiliating–and guess what you have to do every goddamn day in high school?

(I am a fat dude who is triggered by being hungry. Literally triggered, panic attacks and all. Take your shots, people who find the concept of triggers amusing.)

I tell that story because it’s something I only figured out recently, but I was diagnosed with PTSD long ago. Mostly, it’s because I was abused and neglected as a child. A lot of other traumatic shit happened, too. A family member I was close to abandoned us when I was very young, my dad died when I was just hitting my teens, we lived in poverty for a big chunk of my childhood, I was a hostage once, I’ve witnessed a murder, the list goes on. (And if I seem to be making light of all this, that’s because I am. I have to, or else this essay and the all the others I need to write this month would never get done.)

But the big one is the abuse and neglect. Because of it, I’ve cut myself off from people my whole life. Always holding back, always keeping a distance, never trusting. I even justified to myself that I was doing it for their protection–so that they wouldn’t be exposed to whatever it was inside me that made people want to hurt me when I was a child. Everything I wrote about Lego Batman was a message to myself.

Everything I’ve written in the last two years about superheroes and trauma is a message to myself. It’s only now that I’m beginning to listen.


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Retroactive Continuity: Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing my Patreon, Shane!

We have talked a great deal of late about the secret identity as a metaphor for trauma, and in particular for the fragmentation of identity engendered by trauma. We’ve also looked at a couple of potential challenges to that model, most importantly Wonder Woman (and Wonder Woman).

Ms. Marvel poses another, distinct challenge to the heroic trauma model, namely that Kamala Khan’s origin doesn’t seem to be particularly traumatic: it’s depicted as being more like a superhero-themed mystical experience than the violence and chaos of seeing one’s parents murdered or becoming a refugee from a destroyed world. Instead, the comic deploys Kamala’s emerging dual identities as a metaphor for double consciousness.

Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.

We can see this play out over the course of Ms. Marvel vol. 1. Kamala wishes to be seen as beautiful, but expresses this in terms of wanting blonde hair or looking like her more popular, white classmate Zoe. She wants, as many teens do, to fit in, but the ways in which she doesn’t fit in are racialized: her religion, appearance, and family are all targets both of Zoe’s passive-aggressive racism and Kamala’s own self-criticism. As a young teen, she is in the process of carving out her own identity as young teens do, seeking it in community and culture, but that process is disrupted by the racism all around her. The people she wishes to be like–Zoe and Captain Marvel both–are pretty blonde white women, because a part of what she has learned about herself is that her own appearance and ethnicity are considered less-than.

The reason her superheroic origin is not depicted as traumatic is because her identity is already fragmented. Kamala has an inner Zoe, constantly judging her for being “too Muslim,” “too Pakistani,” “too different.” She considers herself ugly compared to Zoe, yet as she herself notes, donning Pakistani clothing gives her “+5 bling.” When she is within a cultural context where she isn’t othered, she’s beautiful. The problem isn’t her; it’s Zoe and everything Zoe represents–and the internal voice of Zoe that Kamala has had to adopt to protect herself from the Zoes of the world.

And then Kamala gets the power to change her shape and appearance.

At first she has little control over the power, and manifests as a duplicate of Captain Marvel. This makes total sense in terms of the protector fantasy: double consciousness is a survival tactic, after all. Kamala’s internalized racism is her default protector, and so her protector identity is initially an expression of the very white European beauty ideals she negatively judges herself against.

But from the start, Kamala’s consciousness of herself as herself, as opposed to her consciousness of herself as seen by racists and Islamophobes, is pushing back. Her vision when she receives her powers is of an angelic Captain Marvel, yes, but it’s an angelic Captain Marvel reciting Urdu poetry. Kamala soon finds that trying to be Captain Marvel feels wrong, and instead becomes the new Ms. Marvel, making her own costume and sticking to her own face, her own hair. What kind of a protector could she be, if she othered herself, perpetuated one of the greatest evils of our culture against herself? (And it is our culture–she has as good a claim to it as anyone.)

For Kamala, then, becoming Ms. Marvel isn’t a fragmentation of identity. The fragmentation is already there. Ms. Marvel is a path to healing, to finding a way of protecting herself and others while embracing all of who she is.

And who she is, as it turns out, is an immensely likable and entertaining character.


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Rainbow Revolution: Color Symbolism in Revolutionary Girl Utena

At the request of Ana Mardoll–who has just started a blog series on Revolutionary Girl Utena that you really ought to read, because she’s awesome–I am compiling all my thoughts on the use of color in Revolutionary Girl Utena in one place. This is a more than usually off-the-cuff post, drawing together (and in some cases copy-pasting) stuff from a bunch of different blog posts I’ve written and notes I’ve taken, so I’m not worrying to much about flow.

The main, most solid sources for what color means in the show are two episodes, “Tracing a Path” and “The End of the World.” The former is a clip show that assigns names to each of the duels in the Student Council Saga. As each duel is named, a stained glass panel is displayed showing the French word for the concept the duel is named after, and dyed the same color as Utena’s opponent’s hair. The latter episode then shows a similar panel as Utena faces off against Akio in the Duel Named Revolution. However, almost every episode has some use of these colors, and there are several prominent colors not assigned duel names, so ultimately the only source I can give for this is “the show as a whole, watched many times.”

So, let’s get into the colors.

Green

Green is associated with the Duel Named Friendship and the Duel Named Choice. That is, therefore, what green represents: friendship and choice, interpersonal connection and free will. Generally speaking, a character’s hair color indicates what their path or destiny is–what road they are on. Thus, Saionji’s hair is green to indicate he is seeking and defined by his relationships, his friendship with Touga and his (imaginary) romance with Anthy. It is also the color of the dress Nanami sends Anthy to wear to the ball; at the time, Nanami is pretending to be Anthy’s friend, and Utena is trying to get Anthy to make choices for herself. (When characters wear something other than their usual uniform, it generally indicates they are taking on a role or playing a part.)

Green’s opposite color is red; hence it is also the color of the concepts in direct opposition to red’s: doubt or confusion (opposing conviction) and loyalty (opposing the self in both senses of selfishness and self-reliance). Again, these are strong traits in Saionji, who frequently misinterprets situations (such as the whole exchange diary fiasco), and whose loyalty to Touga remains unshakable even when Touga repeatedly demonstrates he doesn’t deserve it.

Blue

Blue is associated with the Duel Named Reason; blue represents reason, the intellect, and the mind, memory and self-expression. Miki’s blue hair indicates his genius, both academic and musical, as well as his fixation on a specific memory he wants to return to, the feeling of playing piano with his sister. Ruka’s blue hair, meanwhile, indicates his calculating, ruthless approach to dueling.

Blue’s opposite color is orange; hence it is also the color of possessiveness (opposing love), the idea that another person is “rightfully” your property. Again, see Ruka; also, that is frequently how Kozue presents herself, and even Miki in his focus episodes tends to start seeing Anthy as someone who “ought to” belong to him.

Orange

Orange is associated with the Duel Named Love; orange represents love, passion, and yearning. Juri’s orange hair indicates that she is driven by both a specific lost love, and quest for love in general–she is a closeted lesbian, and wants the power to revolutionize the world so that she can achieve the miracle of being allowed to love, and being loved in return.

Orange’s opposite color is blue, so it is also associated with that which cannot be understood through reason, the miraculous, the mystical, the spiritual. Again, Juri is seeking a miracle.

Yellow

Yellow is associated with the Duel Named Adoration, and represents that which is placed upon a pedestal, the object of worship and protection. Nanami’s yellow hair signifies both her adoration of her brother, and that she is an object of adoration, the queen bee of the school. Similarly, Tsuwabuki’s yellow hair represents his adoration of Nanami.

Yellow’s opposite color is purple, and so yellow is also the color of stasis (opposing revolution). In the context of Utena, this stasis takes the form of an inability to age or mature, a perpetual childhood or adolescence. The adored child who must be protected and cannot grow up is the Princess, which combines all the meanings of yellow in one; hence the princess in the fairy tale that opens the first episode is wearing a yellow dress, because at the beginning of that story Utena is playing the role of the Princess.

Red

Like green, red is associated with two duels: the Duel Named Conviction and the Duel Named Self. Red is the color of belief, selfishness, self-reliance. It is the color of knowing who you are and what you believe, and acting accordingly. Touga’s red hair and Utena’s pink both represent characters who are confident, proud, certain of their own identities, and always ready to act on their beliefs; the difference is that Touga’s beliefs are cynical and Utena’s idealistic.

Red’s opposite color is green, so it is also the color of manipulation (in opposition to friendship) and power (in opposition to choice). Touga, Utena, and Mikage are the strongest duelists, and all three are highly manipulative in very different ways: Touga uses promises, lies, and seduction; Utena swoops in to save Anthy and in so doing pushes her into performing Utena’s ideas of the savior-prince narrative; Mikage discovers the darkest desires of others and twists them to his purposes. And, of course, red is the color of Akio’s car, where he demonstrates his power and manipulates the duelists into fighting Utena again.

Purple

Purple is the color of the Duel Named Revolution. It is the antithesis of yellow, which is adoration. What is adoration? It is looking up to the object of one’s love, putting them on a pedestal, worshiping them, perhaps not even noticing how that degrades yourself. It is the princess, the Nanami, the one who plays by the rules and is accepted by society as “good,” no matter what she’s really like.

Purple is hate.

Purple is the witch.

Purple is what they’ve all been fighting for all along.

It is that which dwells in the castle.

It is something shining: the morning star, the deceptive beauty, the light which casts the shadow.

It is the power of miracles: the terrible sacrifice, the dark magic of blood and death.

It is something eternal: suffering that never ends.

It is the revolution of the world: the apocalypse.

Purple is the end of innocence. It is corruption and it is maturation. It is stasis and it is change. It is Da’at, the terrible black abyss that is nonetheless the path to enlightenment.

Purple is time.

Purple is putrefaction, the endless decay that endlessly brings forth life.

Purple is Anthy.

Other Colors

There are three prominent colors in the show that are not associated with named duels: white, black, and brown.

White is strongly associated with the Prince: it is the color of Dios’ clothing, Utena’s rose, and the rose frames that appear around Touga when Utena thinks he might be her prince. Lighter colors thus indicate closeness to the Prince and what he represents, so for example Utena is closer to the power of Dios than Touga–pink is red and white combined.

It is tempting to conclude that white is therefore “good” and black “evil,” and to an extent that’s true, but it’s important to remember that one of the strongest influences on Utena is Herman Hesse’s novel Demian (among other things, it’s where the egg speech comes from, as well as the use of apocalypse and global revolution as metaphors for growing up). In Demian, “good” does not mean acting ethically, but rather conforming to social norms, and likewise “evil” does not mean doing harm or violating others, but rather defying social norms. In that respect, it might be more accurate then to say that white represents that which is accepted and black represents that which is rejected, white is the socially acceptable and black the abject.

Sometimes, this aligns with morality: Ruka’s hair is a darker blue than Miki’s, and Touga’s a darker red than Utena’s, and they are definitely much worse people. However, that’s not why they’re darker; Ruka’s blue is darker because sexual assault is less socially acceptable than Nice Guy Syndrome, and Touga’s red is darker because being a lying, cheating playboy is less socially acceptable than being a heroic savior. To use an example where it definitely isn’t aligned with morality: Anthy’s skin is dark because she is utterly abject, the Witch whom society seeks to punish eternally for the sin of being a person instead of a perfect little princess.

Pure black, as we see in the Black Rose Saga, is thus that which is completely rejected, that part of ourselves which we push away so hard that we start to deny it even exists–the Jungian Shadow, in other words. Each of the Black Rose duelists descends into the deep darkness underground and the darkness within themselves, expressing and demonstrating the hidden parts of the people whose heart-swords they wield. For example, Kozue acts on the possessiveness that Miki tries to deny he feels toward Anthy; Wakaba acknowledges feeling unremarkable and overshadowed by her more popular and athletic best friend, while Saionji tries to deny that he feels this way about Touga. The darkness of the Shadow is not the darkness of evil, however, though it is where the idea of evil comes from; the Shadow is dark because it’s hidden. It must be not only faced, but accepted–Utena fights and defeats her Shadow Mikage, and in so doing rejects the aspects of herself he represents, allowing Akio to use those very same traits to manipulate her in the next arc. It is only when she admits and accepts the ways in which she has used Anthy–the same ways Mikage used people–that she becomes able to face Akio in the final duel.

Finally, there is brown, the drab color of the plain, ordinary, unspecial people. Wakaba, in other words, as well as Nanami’s hangers-on, that trio of boys always hitting on Nanami, and the vast majority of the unnamed masses who populate the school. But again, this doesn’t mean that brown is bad, just that it’s neutral; it is the color of not being particularly any one thing. In a way, the brown-haired characters are lucky–they have conventional dreams and acceptable desires, and therefore don’t need to break the world in order to become truly themselves. They get to just be.

Imaginary Story: Kingdom Come

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Note: I published the Wonder Woman essay early. It actually belongs between last week’s essay and this one.

It’s been a while since we talked about the real-life near-apocalypse, the Cold War expectation that the world would end in a fiery conflagration. In the aftermath of a Cold War that ended with more of a wet fart than a bang, the 90s became a decade whose most pressing question was, “Now what?” The world was supposed to end, and it didn’t–but far from inspiring hope, this led to confusion and despair.

In comics, this took the form of heroes who weren’t–dark, violent characters modeled more after the Punisher than Superman or Captain America. “Maturity” became a codeword for characters who weren’t so much morally ambiguous as they were the kind of “angsty badass loner” that LEGO Batman so expertly skewered.

But as the 90s continued, tastes began to swing in a new direction. The letters pages of Batman and Robin Adventures and Superman Adventures are full of praise for those comics’ decision to buck the general trend to “darkness,” and 1996’s Kingdom Come is similarly an attempt to reject that trend, or at least move beyond it.

Indeed, Kingdom Come is sometimes referred to as the beginning of DC’s move away from the grimdark aesthetic of the 90s and toward the hybrid of Silver Age aesthetics with darker thematics–which is to say, toward the New Sincerity movement which increasingly characterizes present pop art. However, as we just noted, this combination was already present in the DCAU and DC’s all-ages Adventures lines, while if we restrict it to mainstream comics, a likelier starting point is a few months later, with the beginning of Grant Morrison’s run on JLA. (About which more in a future entry.)

Nonetheless, Kingdom Come is a significant work, albeit more for how good it looks than any real meat. Alex Ross’ watercolors (guache, technically) give the book a feeling of solidity and seriousness, probably because paint is a medium we associate with museums more than the flimsy, cheaply printed short magazines that comics are published as. That very portentousness is key to the book’s effect: we are tiny, looking up at the battles of godlike beings, desperately trying to stay out from underfoot, but also compelled to stare in awe as the fate of the world unfolds before us.

This is compounded by the book’s general distance from its characters: there are a lot of superheroes in here, and none of them have much in the way of interiority or positionality. This is not necessarily a flaw; the Book of Revelation, quoted repeatedly throughout Kingdom Come, likewise has no characters to speak of, only archetypal figures who exist to fulfill roles in an extended allegory. This is a generic feature of apocalypses, particularly the classical apocalypse genre of which Revelation is the most well-known example: as revolutionary literature, they employed heavily (yet transparently, for those who understood the references) coded language and stories of catastrophe in a mythic past or prophesied future to express hope for the overthrow of contemporary oppressors.

In the case of Kingdom Come, the catastrophic conflict is located in neither the mythic past nor the prophesied future, but a fictional present. Here, two groups of heroes collide. The first group is initially motivated by altruism, saying they’re working for all of humanity, but quickly slide into a more dictatorial mode, quashing freedom in the name of safety and putting their enemies into a place literally called the Gulag. The other group are motivated by self-aggrandizement and love of power for its own sake, claiming an individualistic freedom-to-bully that quickly deteriorates into chaos and, in spots, erupts into outright fascism. At its climax, this conflict threatens to spill out and engulf the world, bringing with it a threat of nuclear annihilation.

The allegory is heavy-handed: the old heroes are Communism, the new Capitalism, and their clash could be the apocalypse–but isn’t. The “Western World,” and especially the United States, entered the 90s with a general sense of unease and malaise, a feeling that the other shoe never dropped. It is natural, since the forces of good never showed up for the final confrontation, to wonder if that means there are no forces of good (which is almost certainly true), and maybe even no forces of evil (which is debatable). Just varying shades of gray, in a world gone grubby and dim.

However, Kingdom Come is ultimately not an attempt to find a way out of the gray world of grimdark, despite that it is often positioned as such. It provides no way forward; instead, it follows the beats of the near-apocalypse of the 1980s, right up until the verge of nuclear annihilation–and then has Captain Marvel, who has been positioned (both within the text of Kingdom Come and in comics generally) as the representative of the kinder, simpler, better Good Ol’ Days, sacrifice himself to save a handful of heroes on both sides.

Herein lies the problem: there were no Good Ol’ Days. The past is as full of horrors as the present, often more so, and the impulse to seek safety within it is a reactionary one, guaranteed to perpetuate the horrors of the present. But ultimately this is all Kingdom Come has to offer, as its hagiographic art suggests: that we little people should look to the powerful to turn back the clock to a time when things were comfortable for them. Its ending, in which Wonder Woman and Superman are having a baby which they plan to raise jointly with Batman, is straightforwardly dynastic; it is the flipside to the vision of Wonder Woman as revolutionary, inspiring, uplifting goddess, instead commanding us to kneel before the gods in the hope that maybe they won’t slaughter us in their battles with one another.

In terms of comics, this means perpetuating the Silver Age: at the end of the story, the violent antiheroes are a broken, beaten lot, studying at the feet of their elders, to be more like them. There is no pushing forward into something new and different, which might incorporate elements of the Silver Age without being a part of it–something like Morrison’s JLA–but instead a retreat into comics’ past, when “things used to be better.”

As it ultimately had to be; if the role of the superhero is to prevent apocalypse, as indeed the closest thing Kingdom Come has to a main character, Norman McKay, spends the book attempting, then it follows that a conflict between superheroes can only end in near-apocalypse. The closest thing to true revolution–the annihilation of both sides and liberation of the people beneath their feet–is the attempt by the allied supervillains to nuke the heroes, and that is precisely what the walking symbol of the Good Old Days sacrifices himself to prevent.

The present is dark and scary and violent, Kingdom Come warns; the past is colorful and vibrant and familiar (and violent). But regardless of efforts to hold it back, the future still comes, one day at a time; endings are inevitable. Apocalypse cannot be held back forever.

Indeed, it has already begun.


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