Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #3-10

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Trigger Warning: sexual assault and rape

While we have mostly focused on Superman thus far, the world was not entirely devoid of the DCAU Batman. He wasn’t on television (except in reruns) in 1996-7, but Batman and Robin Adventures continued its regular monthly issues. The eight issues discussed here, corresponding roughly to the period from the beginning of 1996 to the beginning of the first season of Superman: The Animated Series, largely continue with the mood and quality of BTAS, though as always somewhat constrained by the more limited amount of story that can fit into a 22-page comic relative to a 22-minute episode.

There are a couple of recurring themes throughout this handful of months. One is the Riddler as a tragicomic figure, carrying on from his strange Pyrrhic victory in previous issues. Issue #3, “The Christmas Riddle,” begins this trend, as the Riddler publicly declares he has discovered Batman and Robin’s identities despite having at best a vague guess, then pegs two different rich families belonging to the Peregrinator Club as the duo, all as an elaborate distraction from robbing the club. All this succeeds in doing, of course, is drawing Batman to the club, where he foils the robbery and the Riddler’s attempt to discover his identity.

Two issues later, in “Second Banana,” the Joker is incensed when an ex-Arkham doctor states in an interview that the Riddler is the smartest inmate of the asylum (which seems farfetched, to say the least–Batman’s rogues gallery has a significant number of scientists, scholars, and inventors, so at minimum the question should be hard to answer). In response, Joker hatches an elaborate double-blind scheme where he pretends to be planning to murder the Riddle to draw attention away from his real target, the doctor, and then when that fails returns to kill the Riddler, violating the rules of the Riddler-style game he was playing because “I play by my own rules.” This is then turned back on him when Batman, after a rooftop scuffle, saves the Joker’s life–when Joker says it, he means “I do what I want,” but when Batman says it, he means “I act according to a strict moral code.”

Another bad day for the Riddler occurs in #7, “His Master’s Voice,” in which the Riddler’s attempt to break out of Arkham is sabotaged and exploited by Scarface, such that Scarface and the Ventriloquist escape while the Riddler is left unconscious to be recaptured. It’s his final humiliation (at least for now), beaten by quite possibly the silliest and least imposing of Batman’s villains–but it’s all part of the natural progression. In “The Christmas Riddle,” Riddler broke his own rules–he didn’t leave riddles, but instead simply announced what he was doing. As Batman correctly surmised, this lack of riddles was the riddle, his choice of location a clue to what he was really after. But it was still stretching his rules to their breaking point–which, of course, is what the Joker does in “Second Banana.” Notably, the Joker is not only willing to abandon his riddle-hinted plan in favor of another when it doesn’t work out, but his entire plan is to commit one of two murders–as Riddler notes in “His Master’s Voice,” he’s not a killer. (Though of course early in his career he tried to kill someone, unlike Joker he’s never actually succeeded, and does appear to have given up trying.)

Most of “His Master’s Voice,” however, is about the Ventriloquist once again serving as Scarface’s hapless victim. As a result of Riddler’s escape attempt, Scarface discovers Ventriloquist has created a sock-puppet friend. Scarface’s rage is very obviously rooted in existential terror: he nearly ceased to exist (not that he is ever anything but a construct of Ventriloquist’s imagination, but then that makes him as real as Ventriloquist or, for that matter, England) when Wesker gave up being the Ventriloquist in favor of working in children’s television, the frog-puppet incident Scarface mentions. He thus decides that the Ventriloquist needs to be punished, hence hijacking Riddler’s escape attempt and sneaking into the manor house of the Wesker crime family, pursued by Batman and Robin. There we learn that the Ventriloquist is despised by most of his family, and Scarface intends to kill the only person he cares about: his mother. That way Scarface will be all he has left, impossible to abandon.

When Batman and Robin finally confront Scarface and the Ventriloquist, the latter tells them they’re too late. His mother is dead and has been for years–she died after taking a bullet for him when he was 10, with a single photograph all he had to remember her by. Now Scarface has shredded that photograph, and in response, the Ventriloquist shot him in the head. The issue ends with Wesker pleading for someone to help Scarface, because “he’s all I have left.”

The final panel, Wesker standing alone, bleeding from his puppet-hand, saying the final line, highlights the degree to which Batman and Robin have failed. That’s one of the most interesting things about Scarface as a villain: he almost always wins the main battle, which is not whatever heist he’s planning but the war for the soul of Arnold Wesker. And so much of that war is explained by this issue! Young Arnold lost his mother, the only person who ever cared about him, to gun violence, just like Bruce Wayne. He came to hate guns and crime, just like Wayne. And, just like Wayne, he created a protector-persona modeled on a mixture of his father and a figure from pop entertainment–but instead of Thomas Wayne and the Grey Ghost, he had his crime-syndicate father and the title character of the film Scarface (the 1932 version, not the now-better-known 1983 remake).

As already mentioned, two of the issues in this run involve villains borrowing from one another–Joker using a Riddler-style scheme, and Scarface using the Riddler’s escape plan. Issue #4, “Birdcage,” pulls a similar trick, as the Penguin uses technology given to him by the Mad Hatter to create an army of birds, his goal being to steal rare birds from zoos and aviaries and smuggle them to their home habitats. (Which itself carries more than a whiff of the environmental and animal-rights based motivations often attributed to Poison Ivy and Catwoman, respectively.)

But much like Wesker, the Penguin is undermined by his essential failure to understand that things are not people. For Wesker, that means breaking down at the destruction of a photograph and taking orders from a hand puppet; for the Penguin, it means failing to recognize that captive animals cannot simply be flung back into their original habitats and expected to survive. Wesker ends up miserable and wounded, while the Penguin ends up elated at news that some of the birds he smuggled out seem to have escaped, but in the end they’re both equally deluded.

Deluded characters and borrowed schticks, not to mention people breaking their own rules and having it go awry, are all major factors in the very funny “Round Robin,” Issue #6. National Insider, a tabloid with more than a passing resemblance to National Enquirer and especially its sister publication Weekly World News, reports that Batman has fired Robin, causing numerous people throughout the city to dress up as Robin and engage in various ridiculous attempts to become his replacement. (By far the funniest of these is Carrie, who in a classic BTAS anachronism is very clearly Carrie Kelley from 1983’s The Dark Night Returns wearing the original Robin costume from the 1940s, and whom Batman just cannot get to stop following him, even after she’s arrested.) One of these pretenders is mistaken for the real Robin, kidnapped, and held for ransom, a scenario which could be easily resolved if Batman could go more than five feet without a would-be Robin trying to impress him. While all this is going on, however, Robin succeeds in freeing the kidnapped pretender and taking his place, allowing him to get the drop on the kidnapper.

At the end comes the rule-breaking, as Robin convinces Batman they should allow themselves to be photographed to end the rumors that Robin’s been fired–leading to National Insider using the photo to report that Batman and Robin are secretly agents of the CIA. (Also that Mother Theresa rescued a “wild child” in the Everglades and TV network programmers are secretly aliens, all of which are perfectexamples of the kinds of stories Weekly World News reported without actually being stories Weekly World News reported.) They really should have known better–1996 was the height of the tabloid’s popularity, as well as the year in which the sole season of the TV version aired. Founded in the late 1970s, Weekly World News‘ purpose was to make money off the black-and-white press National Enquirer had recently stopped using after its switch to color. It quickly established itself as the most ridiculous of tabloids; while National Enquirer became mostly celebrity gossip, Weekly World News ran what was in essence weird fiction–tales of Biblical prophecies, Elvis sightings, and aliens secretly advising government officials. Of course its equivalent in the DCAU would run stories about Batman and Robin–the real-life Weekly World News, after all, gave us Batboy, the long-eared child found in a cave in a 1992 issue who, according to later issues over the years, led the capture of Saddam Hussein, endorsed Al Gore’s Presidential bid, and was the subject of a prophecy that he would become President in 2028.

(This is the one place so far where I show up in these entries on the comics, since I didn’t read comics as a teen. I did, however, avidly follow Weekly World News in the latter half of the 90s. I found it hilarious.)

Issue #8, “Harley and Ivy and… Robin?” inverts the fake-Robin conceit of “Round Robin.” Here, Robin is real, but forced out of character in a weirdly psychosexual tale of mind control and jealousy that had me double-checking the credits to make sure it wasn’t by Chris Claremont. It opens with Robin in his occasional pervy creeper mode, as he swoops down on a fleeing Harley Quinn saying, “You know, Harley, I love it when a girl plays hard to get.” This gets grosser when he picks her up, and Harley says “Hey, watch those hands, Boy Wonder!” The latter in isolation is an uncomfortable joke about the (presumably horny, as fictional teen boys invariably are) teen boy superhero accidentally grabbing the female supervillain’s breasts; in combination with the first panel,  however, it becomes an actively gross joke about the horny teen boy superhero deliberately molesting the female supervillain he’s just caught.

But Robin has no monopoly on being gross; after she kisses him with her “magic lipstick,” Poison Ivy goes into full-on dominatrix mode, teasing the mind-whammied Robin about him wanting to kiss her again, then telling him he has to “work his way up” starting with kissing her boots. Which might be fine if it were consensual, but Robin is under her control, and can consent to neither the boot-kissing nor the implied promise of performing oral sex on Ivy when he’s “worked his way” about halfway up. And much like Robin’s line in the first panel, this is made even grosser by Ivy commenting on his age, saying there’s “something about” men that young. Given that Robin is described as both a teenager and in college, he is presumably 18 or 19, making Ivy’s comments a gender-swapped version of the kind of thing creepy men say about the “barely legal” young women ubiquitous in porn.

(Me showing up in these is apparently less rare than I thought, because here’s a second place: I worked in a video rental store in the early 2000s, and like most non-chain video stores, new releases got people in the door, but it was children’s movies and porn that kept us in the black. The titles alone were an education on the horrifying sexual proclivities of my fellow man.)

There is one genuinely funny, albeit still horrifying, joke in what’s apparently intended to be a light, comedic issue about Robin being sexually enslaved and possibly raped: Harley, who hates all this because she’s jealous of the time and attention Ivy is giving Robin, makes a crack in response to Ivy calling him “baby”–that if he’s a baby, Ivy is “cradle robin.” Still, this just serves to highlight the ugliness lurking under the surface of this issue, given that it’s exactly the same as what Mad Hatter did to Alice in his origin episode, but played for laughs because men being raped is, apparently, no big deal. (Meanwhile, at the same time as this issue–the summer of 1996–34-year-old elementary school teacher Mary Kate Letourneau is raping her 12-year-old student Vili Fualaau, a case which will make national headlines when she’s arrested and tried the following year. She will get six months, and then another two years after she goes right back to Fualaau immediately on release.)

So, to summarize this issue: a teen boy molesting a grown woman is funny, at least if he’s a superhero and she’s a supervillain. Also, a grown woman molesting a teenage boy is funny. It’s rape culture in a handy 22-page child-friendly format.

And then the next issue is also about a female supervillain mind-controlling a man. Titled “Tears,” this is the first half of a two-parter, yet another in which Talia al-Ghul serves as villain for the first part and Ra’s al-Ghul for the second. In this case, Talia attempts to kidnap Barbara Gordon’s chemistry professor, and basically wipes the floor with Batgirl, telling her it takes more than a costume to be a warrior. Batgirl manages to jury-rig together a form of tear gas (entirely fictional, as near as I can tell–there does not appear to be any such substance as denzenel or denzel bromide; perhaps there was concern about giving instructions to make tear gas in an all-ages comic, because apparently teaching children to make weapons is dangerous but teaching them that sexual assault and abuse are funny is A-OK), with which she takes down Talia and rescues her mind-controlled professor. (Oddly, the professor is going by the name Mr. Siddiq, but was once an employee of Ra’s al-Ghul under the name Dr. Fazil; it is difficult to read this as anything other than a reference to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine star Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi changing his stage name from Siddig El-Fadil to Alexander Siddig the year before this comic came out. Coincidentally, as of this writing Siddig has been cast to play Ra’s al-Ghul in Gotham, though he has not yet appeared as the character.)

A fun story continuing the arc of Batgirl learning both that superheroing is harder than she expected it to be and that she has what it takes, this leads into Issue #10, “Blood of the Demon,” where Talia seeks out Batman’s help after her scheme to capture Fazil/Siddiq fails.  It seems that, prior to fleeing, Fazil created an airborn version of a deadly pathogen previously limited to a single tropical island; al-Ghul plans to release it around the world, killing off everyone but a select few.  Of course Batman is able to stop the scheme with a bit of misdirection and help from Robin, once again averting al-Ghul’s near-apocalypse.

But it’s September 1996, and on TV, there’s nothing near about the apocalypse: Krypton is exploding as we speak. The old world is dead and the new is upon us; Superman: The Animated Series has begun.


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Retroactive Continuity: The Joker’s Daughter #1

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Commissioned post for Shane DeNota-Hoffman.The 2014 one-shot Joker’s Daughter comic depicts the origin of one of the stranger DC villains, the eponymous Joker’s Daughter, who is not the daughter of the Joker, though at various times she has claimed to be, along with a dozen other villains including Catwoman, the Riddler, and Doomsday. Her actual name (probably) is Duela Dent, and at least in the pre-Crisis comics,  she was Two-Face’s daughter. While her name has remained, she was not Two-Face’s daughter post-Crisis, and her parentage is unclear in the New 52, to which this comic belongs.

The comic serves as a revised origin story for the character, which slowly unfolds through disjointed flashbacks and narration throughout the comic: an apparently ordinary young woman, she craved tragedy, and made up a number of tragic backstories for herself. Eventually she turned to drugs and cutting, before finding the severed face of the Joker in a sewer. She began wearing it as a mask and set out on a quest to find him–at this point in continuity, he was apparently dead.

Narrating with a repetitive, logorrheic stream-of-consciousness  babble as she goes, she first creates a fake Joker crime, in the hopes Batman will investigate and find the Joker for her. He sees right through it and confronts Duela, telling her she isn’t truly sick but rather a child in need of help. She breaks free of the cops, injuring both but unable to bring herself to kill, and moves on to Arkham Asylum, where she confronts some orderlies in a basement. One berates her, again telling her that she isn’t “sick enough” to be like the Joker, and she murders him and leaves.  She briefly encounters the Anchoress, who accuses her of pretending to be sick and stealing stories that aren’t her own, then seeks out the Dollmaker–the man who removed the Joker’s face–to get his face permanently attached to her own. She ends up in an abandoned building, where she receives a note hinting that the Joker is watching her, and declares herself his heir and prophet.

Duela is a tragic figure. Her thoughts are shown in narration boxes throughout the entire story, and paint a clear picture of a confused and self-loathing young woman, whose self-hatred drives her to ever-greater extremes of self-destruction, from cutting and drugs, to exposing herself to a disease-ridden sewer, to attaching the Joker’s face to her own and seeking out a murderous, volatile, dead supervillain as a father-figure. She wants to be a monster, a supervillain, because she feels monstrous; wants to destroy beauty because she feels ugly. She’s lost track of her past in a chaotic mishmash of invented backstories, and compulsively pursues bizarre quests based on spurious logic.

Yet character after character tells her that she’s “not sick enough.” Not just characters, but authorities and experts, strongly implying that the declaration of Duela’s health is to be taken as fact: Batman, who has dealt with countless supervillains; a psychiatric orderly who has experience working with supervillains in general and the Joker in particular; and the Anchoress, who can manipulate minds; all declare her to be “ordinary,” as if mental illness were a badge that earns one the right to be a costumed supervillain.

It is difficult, given the time of its release and the age (not to mention gender) of its protagonist, to read this comic as anything other than a mean-spirited jab at the communities of distressed and mentally ill young people–especially young women and people on the LGBTQIA spectrum–who can be found online, particularly on Tumblr. Many of these people, due to monetary obstacles or shame, have no formal medical diagnosis, but instead guess at what their issues might be, and thus are commonly dismissed.

Yet by presenting the Joker’s Daughter as a grotesque caricature of this kind of behavior, the comic backfires, because the idea that she isn’t sick is prima facie absurd. Her looping, semicoherent, self-hating thoughts are not the thoughts of a healthy person. Running away from home, cutting, using drugs, and committing crimes in the hopes of finding a father-figure are all obvious and desperate screams for help. Batman, bizarrely, seems to draw a line between “troubled young person” and “truly sick,” but nothing about being young renders one immune to mental illness. She is not well, and the continual failure of everyone around her to help causes her behavior to escalate, until finally she crosses the line into murder.

The implicit assumption the comic appears to be making is that because there are lines she has not yet crossed, Duela is less sick than someone like the Joker: she, it is implied, can choose to stop. This nonsense arises from the collision of two mutually opposed yet extremely common fallacies about the mentally ill: that one can simply choose to stop being sick, and that mental illness is an inescapable and incurable trap that poses a constant threat to everyone around the sufferer. The former is the origin of the common assertion that mentally ill people are just “seeking attention”; the latter is where attempts to ban the mentally ill from purchasing guns come from. Together, they form the idea that anyone who isn’t uncontrollably violent isn’t “really sick,” precisely the attitude which leads to no one taking Duela’s obvious, dangerous issues seriously until someone is dead.

Therein lies the true tragedy of the Joker’s Daughter: not her sickness, but the fact that next to the lurid, sensational deviance of Gotham’s supervillains, she has to go to horrific extremes before anyone will accept that she is sick and in need of help. It is difficult to say whether that is more or less tragic than someone who can’t turn to violence as easily as she can–not that it is that easy for her, as she takes quite some time to work up to murder–and thus never gets any kind of help.

Except, of course, that that’s precisely who she’s a caricature of: people whose illness is rejected, mocked, or ignored, and so they are  denied the help and support they need. After all,  the argument goes, they’re mostly self-diagnosed, so they must be making a big deal out of nothing–except that even if their inexpert diagnoses are incorrect, the symptoms are real, and therefore something is wrong. Such people are real, unlike Duela, and hence inherently more tragic.


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Retroactive Continuity: Wonder Woman

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This is actually a few months premature–it’s meant to go roughly halfway between STAS seasons 1 and 2, and we’re still in season 1–but I’m shifting it up because timeliness.

She’s not going to show up in the DCAU for quite some time, other than brief intrusions from outside like DC vs. Marvel, but let’s talk about Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman, which is in theaters as I write this.

It’s June of 2017. Six months ago, after a shock electoral upset which may have involved election tampering by Russian hackers, and definitely involved election tampering by Republican state officials via gerrymandering and assorted forms of voter suppression, confessed sexual predator Donald Trump assumed the Presidency. A major factor in the campaign was the neoreactionary, quasifascist movement that has come to be known as the “alt right,” the dry run for which was the misogynist terror campaign GamerGate.

And all that barely scratches the surface of how nasty things are for women right now.

Enter Wonder Woman, a film directed by a woman about the superwoman, which presents her as an unstoppably powerful warrior motivated by deep compassion, a naif with much to teach, a literal goddess, all without subjecting her to the male gaze. In short, she is presented as a power fantasy for women, by a woman.

Which is as it should be. That’s what Wonder Woman was made for, crafted by a child psychologist to give girls a model of feminine power, to help them realize their own power.

Or, well, that’s the usual narrative. Typically at this point we’d segue into talking about the other two things William Moulton Marston is known for, the lie detector (which he didn’t actually event and doesn’t actually detect lies) and being submissive and poly. But the real key to Wonder Woman, as Phil Sandifer persuasively argues in his A Golden Thread, is neither of those things; rather, the same project underlies all of Marston’s work, which Sandifer memorably described as “feminist bondage utopia”; in short, Marston believed that the world would be a better place if men voluntarily submitted to the loving authority of women.

In his The Emotions of Normal People, Marston argued for the existence of four basic behavioral patterns: dominance, submission, compliance, and inducement. To oversimplify drastically, dominance is forcing another to do what you want, compliance is allowing yourself to be forced to do what another wants, submission is willingly doing what another wants, and inducement is persuading another to willingly do what you want. The world, basically, has too much dominance and compliance in it, and not enough submission and inducement; Marston thus created Wonder Woman as a model for young people in general, but especially girls, of both inducement and submission.

This plan has a number of issues, one of which is that it ran almost immediately headlong into the very different direction in which superheroes evolved during and after World War II. Quite simply, Marston’s conception of Wonder Woman seeks to bring about utopia, to fundamentally alter “Man’s World” such that it ceases to be exclusively Man’s, and therefore is a figure not of near-apocalypse but full-on apocalypse; she does not use dominance and therefore cannot protect us from those unwilling to submit; and she has no particular trauma from which she originates. In short, the character Marston created is not a superhero as they have come to be constructed.

Toss in the misogyny rampant in the comic book industry, and the result is a character which, despite being one of only three continually published without break by DC, has nonetheless proved to be an immense challenge to writers and artists who tried to approach her as a typical superhero. As, indeed, she will be for the DCAU: out of the seven founding members of the Justice League, she is the only one who has no character arc.

Wonder Woman, rather cleverly, sidesteps this problem by questioning the idea of heroism itself. Not the superhero–that concept never even comes up within the film–but the hero. Diana begins the film convinced that she is a hero setting out on a classic journey. The first act puts all the pieces in place, straight out of John Campbell’s vile little book: the Mentor Antiope, the arrival of the Herald Steve Trevor, Diana’s Refusal of the Call, the intrusion of the outside world leading to the Death of the Mentor, after which Diana finally sets out into the world–and promptly falls into a war movie by way of fish-out-of-water comedy.

But Diana plows through the complexities of World War I, approaching it as a heroic struggle in which her friends are The Good Guys and her enemies The Bad Guys, where her role is to break through the lines, save the innocent villagers, and slay the evil king, bringing peace to the world. But the cracks are beginning to show: the leadership of the ostensible good guys give Diana her first experience with overt sexism, Steve’s people (i.e., the people who made the movie) committed genocide, and while they may be a (real-life) fascist and a (fictional) mad scientist, neither Ludendorff nor Dr. Poison is an entity of pure evil whose death will solve all.

Even peace isn’t necessarily good: Ares, God of War, is the architect of the peace, the punitive terms of which will help the Nazis rise to power. And yet even killing him does not save the day, though it does give the “good guys” and the previously faceless gas-masked “bad guys” (now revealed as frightened teenagers) a chance to rest; the peace will happen, the Nazis will rise, and Diana’s heroics can change nothing.

Relying on heroes gets us nowhere; not only is Wonder Woman not a superhero, she’s not even a hero. This is where the movie stumbles, as it implies that she spends the next century doing basically nothing. Meaning that an unstoppable force who has already proven she can walk across heavily defended borders like they aren’t there and destroy tanks barehanded sat around doing nothing while the fucking Holocaust happened.

But that stumble was probably inevitable, from two different directions. First, it is a case of the film tripping over its essential liberalism; it cannot endorse Wonder Woman actually carrying out her mission of overthrowing Man’s World, and instead instinctively seeks some kind of “middle way” with mealy-mouthed nonsense about changing the world by loving at it. Which is where the other end comes in: the essential problem with Marston’s project was that meaningful change cannot be achieved through what he calls inducement. People do not, as a general rule, let go of power unless forced to do so, which is to say that only power can oppose power; what Marston calls dominance cannot be induced into submission, only forced to comply.

The film tries at the end to reach for the Marstonian ideal of loving authority. Unfortunately, at least in the realm of politics that ideal is nonsense, an oxymoron. Political authority does not and cannot love, because love requires consent while political authority is built on coercion. So, after an entire movie built on the idea that the myth of the hero, of meaningful change accomplished by isolated individual action, is the fantasy of a child, Wonder Woman declares that she will sit around waiting for meaningful change to happen.

But set aside the ending; if Wonder Woman is not a hero, what is she? The movie answers for us: she is a goddess. And certainly that seems to be the effect she has had: countless women have written about how inspiring, empowering, and energizing they found the movie, which is exactly what gods are supposed to do when they’re being loving (as opposed to when they’re being authorities, which involves a lot more smiting and demanding sacrifices).

So, a goddess. Goddess of what? Wonder Woman was created to bring about a better world. Leave aside Marston’s crank theories on how to achieve such a thing and focus on the better world itself. How do we get there? Not by sitting around doing nothing, to be sure–but for all that she herself spends a century doing it, that doesn’t seem to be what she inspires in moviegoers.

Wonder Woman is a power fantasy, not a protector fantasy. She is a disruptive force, the woman in brightly colored armor holding a sword in a room full of stuffy suit-clad old men. We have, generally speaking, observed that superheroes are protector fantasies while supervillains are power fantasies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all power fantasies are villainous; that relation holds only within the context of superheroes, which context Wonder Woman has rejected. She’s no supervillain, but she is a force for change, a warrior for change.

Marston dreamed of a gentle strength that could guide the world into something better. But he’s been dead for most of a century; Wonder Woman lives on, changes, grows, evolves. We’ve seen what’s needed to make a better world, courtesy of the harlequin: the old world must be removed so the new world can be built. The powerful and the complacent look at revolution and see apocalypse; the disenfranchised and the downtrodden look at apocalypse and see hope.

That is who Wonder Woman is: the goddess of revolution.


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Like turning on lights in a roach motel (Two’s a Crowd)

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It’s February 15, 1997. The top songs are largely the same as two weeks ago, with a slight difference in order; Toni Braxton is still at the top, however. The Star Wars Special Edition is still number one at the box office, too. In the news, on the 10th George McKinney, Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, will be suspended pending court martial for multiple counts of sexual harassment, part of a succession of sexual harassment scandals which have plagued the U.S. military from the 90s to today; on the 13th the Hubble Space Telescope receives some much-needed upgrades; and on the 22nd scientists in Scotland will announce that Dolly the Sheep–the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult–was born last July.

Yawn. The same boring, pointless rote repetition of boring, pointless factoids as every entry. Why even bother? It’s not like you ever do anything with it.

Superman: The Animated Series ends its first season a bit oddly, with something that feels like just another episode, as opposed to a season finale. This was the norm for Batman: The Animated Series, which tended to end its seasons with relatively weak episodes, but subsequent seasons of STAS will end with Apokolips and major upheavals to the status quo–the second season with the introduction of Supergirl, and the third and final season with Superman tarnished in the eyes of the world, transformed into a figure of fear.

But the choice to do a BTAS-style, lower-key finale is fitting, as in many ways this season has been about figuring out how Superman: The Animated Series differs from Batman: The Animated Series. We’ve already discussed some of those differences–the art style, Superman’s desire to be loved rather than feared–but this episode highlights a major difference: the villains. Batman’s villains are, generally speaking, physically and mentally grotesque; that is, their bodies are distorted from the supposed norm in ways that reflect their mental deviation from similar norms–even when it is arguably the norm, rather than the deviation, which is grotesque, as with Poison Ivy.

Did you really just describe Poison Ivy–Poison Ivy!–as grotesque?

Superman’s greatest foe, however, is not grotesque at all; both physically and mentally, Lex Luthor is what society says he should be, a physically fit master capitalist, the ubermensch from which Superman derives his name. Metallo is somewhat more like the “tragic villain” figure which BTAS did so well, and as an entirely inorganic being, it’s unclear whether this concept of the grotesque applies to Brainiac at all.

Which brings us to this episode’s villain: the Parasite. Physically grotesque, a purple hairless monstrosity that feeds on the living energy of human beings, we see in this episode that Rudy is actually fairly rational: he is selfish and opportunistic, yes, but no more so than Luthor, and perfectly willing to help save the city if it will get him a cable hookup in his cell. By contrast–

Ugh. You’re obviously flailing. Do you even know where you’re going with this? Something half-assed about class? Or back yet again to beat the Superman/trauma horse some more?

–Earl Garver, despite his apparent conviction that he is always the smartest person in the room, lets his sense of superiority blind him to the fact that playing along is his best bet. Earl’s constant dismissal of Rudy and gradual takeover of the Parasite gestalt jeopardizes not only the comforts Rudy seeks, but their prospects of survival, as they find themselves fighting Superman while a literal ticking clock counts down to an explosion that would kill them.

Pathetic. Your puerile observations aren’t improved by injecting this second voice pointing out how pitiful they are. This is a gimmick, and it isn’t working any better than the plain entry you were stuck on. Face it: you’ve got nothing worthwhile to say about this episode. Not that that’s different from any other entry, you fraud.

As Earl grows stronger, both Rudy and Superman grow weaker. That’s the Parasite’s power, of course: it grows stronger by weakening others, leaving them drained, listless, and in extreme cases even dead. One of the common results of trauma–

And here we go. Learn a new song! Find something else Phil Sandifer wrote about that you can crib off! Lord knows you can’t come up with anything on your own.

–is depression, which likewise leaves one drained, listless, and in extreme cases even dead. In addition to the trauma itself, social isolation, difficulty in expressing oneself, and the lack of a stable sense of self can contribute to an extremely negative self-image–feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing are quite common among trauma survivors.

Coward. How many times did you erase that paragraph and rewrite it? Holding back, keeping yourself out of this story, leaving it as dry and empty as everything else you attempt. And you think this italicized shit can make up for that?

Depression is very much like a parasite. It eats at you, denying you nourishment in the form of positive memories and feelings of achievement, while a vicious, nasty voice tells you how worthless you are. And that voice is smart, very smart, able to twist anything into a negative, to come up with the flaws in any plan to get better, to manipulate its way into survival no matter how you try to eliminate it.

Again: yawn. It doesn’t matter if you manage to pull something out of your ass for this episode, you know you’re fucked on Retroactive Continuities and Crisis on N Earths to follow this. It’s a good thing you’ve barely got any readers–just think about how many people you could bore and disappoint if you had more!

But that’s not the really dangerous voice. It’s the other, more insidious voice that’s the real threat. The one that doesn’t say “you suck,” but rather asks “why bother?” The voice that advocates the easy way out, the feeling of tiredness that leads you to not take care of yourself that leads to more tiredness, the seeking of comfort instead of doing what needs to be done. That’s the most insidious side of depression, because it is so hard to tell the difference between genuinely running out of energy such that rest is a form of self-care, and falsely feeling out of energy such that doing nothing is a form of self-harm–and as difficult as it is to tell the difference when you’re depressed, it’s impossible for anyone else to tell at all.

For other people, maybe. It’s easy to tell where you’re concerned, though: you’re always faking. You’re always giving up too easily. No amount of work will ever be enough to make up for what you are, especially when your work is this bad. But that’s no excuse for how often you blow it off to feel sorry for yourself, or how much of a coward you are for not just coming out and saying what you mean.

Rudy is stronger than Earl, and outlasts him. But in truth, both are ever-present. The Parasite is never not going to be a villain–there is no suggestion, as there is with Batman’s villains, that he can be reformed. Given that we argued that Batman’s insistence on trying to reform his villains is rooted in the hope that he can be healed as well, this would imply that Superman has no such hope.

Which seems to be the case. Batman wears his self-loathing on his sleeve, choosing to become someone who is feared and hated. As we have observed, he fights crime knowing that sooner or later he will be killed, like his parents, by “a punk with a gun,” because on some level he believes he should have died with them. Superman is a little different; as we observed from the start, he actively seeks love and approval. He is not a tortured soul, diegetically speaking; at the same time, he is still a superhero, which is to say a trauma survivor’s protector fantasy. It’s just that in his case, part of the fantasy is that the trauma is largely externalized–so triggers become radioactive poison and red suns, and depression becomes a hulking purple monster that steals life force.

Believe me, if I had the option to stick my depression in prison, I wouldn’t be interested in whether or not it can be reformed either.

This didn’t work and you know it.


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We go all radical (Tools of the Trade)

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I know, this is super late. No real excuses, shit’s just been busy and I forgot.

It’s February 1, 1997, a jump of several months from our last episode. The top movie is the special edition release of Star Wars; further down in the top 5 are  Jerry Maguire and Scream. The top song is Toni Braxton with “Un-Break My Heart”; En Vogue, R. Kelly, and the Spice Girls also chart. In the news, on January 22, Madeleine Albright became the first woman to be U.S. Secretary of State; on the 27th, French museums are revealed to possess over 2,000 pieces of art looted by Nazis, mostly from Jews; in an unrelated move on February 5, the Big Three Swiss banks create a fund to aid Holocaust survivors and their families.

Meanwhile, Superman: The Animated Series introduces a cluster of related Jack Kirby creations, all tied to his New Gods mythos: hardbitten Metropolis police officer Jack Turpin (whose STAS design was made to resemble Kirby as a tribute), the planet of evil gods, Apokolips, and its ruler Darkseid.

We will be discussing the New Gods, Apokolips, and Darkseid in more detail in a later post; for now, they remain mysterious but ominous figures, with even their divinity referred to only obliquely. More central here is Turpin, introduced as a relentless, stubborn pursuer of truth in the Lois Lane mold, yet also hostile to Superman in much the same way and for much the same reason as Lex Luthor. Specifically, he seems to be rankled by reporters commenting that Superman is increasingly doing the police’s work for them, but also takes potshots at his boss (and, clearly, old friend) Maggie Sawyer with similar comments. He is upset by the claim because he fears it’s true.

We have, in other words, a working-class older white man frightened that he is being rendered obsolete by a younger, more skilled, more efficient refugee. In a city largely controlled by a self-absorbed real-estate magnate whose enterprise covers up far darker dealings with foreign governments. I am not, to be clear, saying that Dan Turpin is a Trump voter. I’m just saying that if Lex Luthor were to run for public office, it’s the Dan Turpins of the world whose vote would be most likely to put him there.

But this particular Dan Turpin has something that the Lex Luthors of the world would rather he not: the aforementioned relentless, stubborn desire to learn the truth. His off-book investigation of Mannheim leads not only to uncovering the involvement of Apokolips (somewhat–the characters still have no idea where Kanto came from, just that it is probably not Earth) and dismantling Intergang, but also to him saving Superman’s life. The two end the episode with gestures of mutual respect; it is clear Turpin no longer considers Superman a threat.

Because of course he doesn’t. He has discovered that he is stronger than Superman, or at least that he was in the moment in which he saved him. Further, his pride has been assuaged: now, anytime Superman catches a criminal before Turpin can, Turpin can understand it as payback for that time he saved Superman’s life.

All of which makes Turpin sound worse than he is. He’s actually a pretty decent guy throughout STAS, and indeed comes off in this episode as the classic lovable old curmudgeon. He feels like he should be played by Peter Falk or Walter Matthau or whoever took over their roles in live-action children’s movies now that they’re both dead.

True, Superman should never have had to earn Turpin’s respect. Maggie Sawyer clearly respects him from the start–but then, she understands how it feels to be rejected for being true to oneself, after a lifetime of acceptance conditional on living a lie. At least in the comics–and nothing in the DCAU suggests otherwise–she came to Metropolis in the first place to start a new life after coming out as a lesbian.

The point is, though he shouldn’t have needed to, Superman does earn Turpin’s respect. Turpin is at least capable of recognizing Superman’s value when it’s shoved in his face. (Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that Turpin is Jewish, while Superman is simultaneously an alien refugee and a WASP from Kansas, but more on that dichotomy in a much later post.) Lex Luthor seems incapable even of that much.

We have barely scratched the surface of the complexity of Superman-as-immigration-metaphor. There is much to unpack here, and this initial, superficial attempt is necessarily going to be inadequate.  Nonetheless, Superman has always represented a particular kind of immigrant experience in a way that most other superheroes do not (of the major Big Two heroes, the original Spider-Man is the only one that comes close), and as a result the suspicion with which certain other characters regard him is politically loaded in a way that, say, Harvey Bullock’s attitude toward Batman is not.

Turpin, in short, may be an ally now–but he is one who has already demonstrated once that his kneejerk reaction is suspicion and fear. Neither allyship nor his general decency is enough to redeem him for that; more is needed.


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Retroactive Continuity: The Batman S3E13 “Gotham’s Ultimate Criminal Mastermind”

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

“Gotham’s Ultimate Criminal Mastermind” exists in a major moment of transition, in terms of computers, as social media are in the midst of emerging. Airing in May 2006, this episode predates Twitter by nearly three months; YouTube is a year old but not yet purchased by Google; Facebook is still restricted to students at select colleges and high schools; Netflix is still strictly a DVD-by-mail service. In short, online activity and “IRL” are still distinct for most people, as witness the then-ubiquitous initialism–“in real life”–but their merger is approaching. Within just a few short years, texting, tweeting, and social-media interactions will be as much a part of the typical friendship as phone calls.

As with any transition, there are those to whom it appears an apocalypse. They are still with us, convinced that we are losing ourselves to an alien online world of pure simulacra, all material reality lost and with it all ability to interact meaningfully with one another, as if we ever lived anywhere but inside our own heads. That apocalypse is reified in the amusingly named D.A.V.E., a concatenation of robot references rather shallower than those in Batman: The Animated Series’ “Heart of Steel”: the sinister monotone of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL-9000, making it disappointing that Batman never actually utters the line “I can’t let you do that, D.A.V.E”; the mediocre 1985 family movie D.A.R.Y.L., about a seemingly human boy who doesn’t know he’s a robot, the overall plot of which only manages to avoid being an inferior retread of Short Circuit (hardly a masterpiece itself) by dint of predating it by a year; the voice actor of BTAS’ H.A.R.D.A.C., Jeff Bennett; and an inverted version of the trio of red dots that serve as Brainiac’s symbol in Superman: The Animated Series (themselves a variant of a recurring motif in his various comic designs).

That last is the most interesting to us, as in many ways D.A.V.E. is an inversion of Brainiac. Brainiac, after all, has no doubt about who he is, and indeed is never doubted to be a person by the narrative: at no point in the DCAU is he ever defeated by a logical paradox or an irreconcilable contradiction, as AIs in fiction tend to be. Instead he is treated as a villain like any other, albeit one with a specific set of powers mostly to do with technology. D.A.V.E., by contrast, is defeated specifically by the realization that he is not a person when Batman points out that he has no origin story.

This is not the only time the episode equates origin to identity: D.A.V.E. describes how it figured out Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne as a series of deductions based on medical and financial data. It narrowed the list of all males in Gotham by age and body type, then further narrowed that list to those sufficiently wealthy to be able to field the same resources as Batman. The final step by which it identified Bruce Wayne, however, was motive: news records of the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne made Batman’s identity “obvious.”

This is no surprise to us. A superhero’s origin, as we’ve discussed, is the trauma that fractures their original identity, after which one of the pieces dons a costume and goes out to fulfill the protector fantasy. That trauma can never be healed, since then the series would end, and so it becomes an indelible, root part of the character’s identity.

But Batman suggests in this episode that the same is true of supervillains, that “all great villains have a great origin.” We already know that’s not true thanks to the DCAU, where neither Catwoman nor the Joker have anything like an origin story. Catwoman is just a wealthy woman who decided to become a thief to fund animal rights activism; the Joker a killer who used to work for the mob, then at some point changed his appearance and adopted a clown theme. But the suggestion alone is enough to get D.A.V.E. to analyze his own memories and realize he has none: he is merely a simulation, or rather a gestalt composed of multiple simulations of supervillains. He has no self, and that realization distracts him long enough for Batman to (quite ruthlessly, actually) kill him.

In his seminal Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argued for a spectrum of sorts from simulations, which are perceived as a faithful representation of an underlying reality, to simulacra, which have no relationship to any kind of underlying reality. In between lie unfaithful or incomplete attempts at simulation, and simulacra which pretend to be simulations.

Brainiac spends much of his time creating that last: he constructs symbolic representations of entire worlds, and then destroys those worlds to ensure his simulations can remain statically “perfect.” The result is that they cease to be simulations and become simulacra, since the underlying reality they represent no longer exists. D.A.V.E., appropriately, exists as an inversion of Brainiac’s catalogs: he is a set of simulations pretending to be a simulacrum.

D.A.V.E.’s realization is that everything he is refers to some underlying reality, namely the memories and behavior of a supervillain. But who are you, without your memories? Memories are just simulations of things that happened to you (and generally pretty poor ones at that). Who is the you to which those events occurred? What is the self? It has no underlying reality–a self is not a representation of a brain or body, though it purports to speak for one, any more than the story printed on its pages is a simulation of the book. Rather, the self is a simulacrum, a simulation of itself reflecting itself ad infinitum. We are all simulacra.

But not D.A.V.E. He is a simulation; paradoxically, because he is a faithful representation of an underlying reality, he is therefore not a real self. His ego and arrogance cannot survive the revelation that he is simply acting in imitation of others, but he has no other basis on which to act, and so freezes into indecision, where Batman can destroy him.

Which brings us back to the anxieties surrounding the dawn of social media and the growing presence of online activity in daily life. The fear, essentially, is that the symbolic interactions of “real life” (in opposition to “online”) at least have real referents (though Baudrillard would largely disagree at least as far as the “real life” of late capitalism is concerned) and are therefore rooted in simulation; online activity exists without physical interaction, being mediated largely through prose text, and thus are mere simulacra. But that fear is misplaced: most of us have had little difficulty in integrating social media as part of our social interaction, a means of supplementing relationships when physical interaction isn’t an option.

We already are simulacra. Going online doesn’t threaten our humanity; it is simply a different avenue by which to explore aspects of it.


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What’s up with (My Girl)

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It’s November 23, 1996. The top movie is Star Trek: First Contact, a solid time travel adventure that’s had a decent zombie movie and a boring, cliche Star Trek Does Moby Dick for the Nth Time smashed into it. Space Jam and Jingle All the Way also chart. The top song is still “No Diggety,” but the Macarena and Donna Lewis have finally been knocked out of the top five by Merrill Bainbridge (with “Mouth”) and Keith Sweat feat. Athena Cage, which is an amazing pair of names. In the news this week, bird expert Tony Silva goes to prison for running a parrot smuggling ring, Romania and Zambia hold their presidential elections, and Angola joins the WTO.

“My Girl” may be the best early showcase of how well Harley Quinn’s apocalyptic spell has worked. Lana Lang arrives in the episode as a redhead in a slinky green dress, on the arm of a powerful man. She is confident, sexy, smart enough to figure out that Clark is Superman on her own (a feat otherwise matched only by Batman), independent, and successful. She owns her sexuality, blatantly trying multiple times to seduce Clark, and her power, commenting on her ability to get others to do what she wants. In short, she is a near-perfect mirror of Poison Ivy in “Pretty Poison,” her introductory Batman: The Animated Series episode, with one critical difference: Lana is not depicted as dangerous or evil.

Lana has all the traits of the “bad girl” without being bad. Alternatively, she is able to be the “good girl” without a trace of submissiveness, foolishness, or weakness. She does get herself into trouble, and does need rescuing, but this isn’t because she’s weak, but rather because her strengths lie elsewhere. At the end of the episode she is still a successful, globetrotting fashion designer, still confident and powerful; she simply isn’t a crimefighter, and comes to that conclusion on her own, without losing one whit of her power or confidence.

This is not, of course, the first time the DCAU has presented us with a woman who breaks the Madonna/whore complex by being both good and powerful. Renee Montoya is the first, most obvious example, but (in sharp contrast to the comics) Montoya is never shown in any context other than her work as a police officer. She is given no life outside that work, and in particular does not display any hint of sexuality, so her ability to serve as a contrast to Poison Ivy’s femme fatale is limited. Batgirl might be a better example; she owns her sexuality in the sense that she feels free to say “no” to her father’s picks, which is good as far as it goes, but in combination with being Batgirl the implication is of an ingenue, a young woman who can be an object of attraction but lacks experience and independence.

Remember that the root of the Madonna/whore complex is a fear of feminine sexuality, and more importantly of women’s sexual agency–a fear that women can and will make their own choices about their sexual activity, based on their own desires and needs. This fear applies powerfully to Poison Ivy because she weaponizes her sexuality to destructive ends. By contrast, Montoya is not frightening because (in the DCAU) she demonstrates no sexuality; Batgirl is not frightening because, the sexual agency demonstrated by rejecting her father’s choice of suitors notwithstanding, she pursues no one and accepts a subordinate (and infantilized) position as one of Batman’s sidekicks.

Lana, by contrast, owns herself and her sexuality, and the episode treats this with respect. For example, there is a male gaze-y shot early in the episode of Lana’s rear and legs as she ascends a staircase; however, where in “Pretty Poison” a similar shot had every man in the room seemingly irresistibly drawn to watch Lana, here the cut to a watching Lex Luthor makes clear that the male gaze is specifically his–that is, that it’s the supervillain who has reduced Lana to a butt with legs with his eyes. The universalized male gaze in “Pretty Poison” implied a helplessness on the part of the men, that the ability to draw their gaze was a dangerous power Ivy possessed; here, looking at Lana in a sexualized, objectifying way is a choice made by the episode’s villain. She owns her own sexuality; how others respond is their own choice and their own responsibility.

In this respect, the episode’s ending has implications of the beginning of a character arc for Clark. Lana is still attracted to him, but recognizes that their lives are on different trajectories, so she tells him that someday he’ll find the woman that’s right for him, describing that woman (in contrast to herself) as quiet, understanding, and patient. However, Clark is called away by Lois, who shouts across the office, demanding he come immediately, either not noticing or not caring that he is having a fairly important personal conversation with his ex.

This is simple dramatic irony; the audience knows that Lois Lane is famously Superman’s primary love interest, and here she is being loud, impatient, and a bit insensitive, not at all the woman Lana described. But Lana is an intelligent and perceptive woman who knows Clark extremely well; she is correct that right now he is looking for someone quiet, understanding, and patient. (Someone rather like his parents, actually.) There is a reason for this: his body language and tone throughout the scene where Lana tries to seduce him most directly, in her suite after he rescues her from the thieves in the elevator, is profoundly uncomfortable. Her open, mildly aggressive sexuality unnerves and intimidates him.

By contrast, Luthor enjoys that same attitude. He clearly has genuine feelings for Lana: he is excited by her, seeming to relish the challenge she represents, as when he speaks approvingly of her curiosity after Mercy catches her spying on him. It is only after she clearly chooses Superman over him that he turns against her, at which point he tries to have her killed. Even then he is the most upset we have ever seen him, unwilling even to hear Mercy’s snarky comments.

Luthor overreacts, but it is an in-character response to understandable feelings: Lana is cheating on him, and he naturally feels angry, hurt, and betrayed. This doesn’t justify murder in the slightest, but he’s a comic-book supervillain, and murder is how he deals with those kinds of feelings. Ultimately, however, his problem is that he misread Lana as a “bad girl,” assuming that her defiance of patriarchal convention also meant that she would ignore his defiance of basic morality.

Clark, meanwhile, struggles with the fact that Lana isn’t a traditional “good girl.” Contrasted to a Neanderthal like Lobo last episode, Superman comes across as the more progressive figure, but he’s still a small-town boy from rural Kansas new-come to the big city, while Lana has presumably been traveling the world for quite some time, if she’s already made enough of a name for herself as a designer to command the kind of show we see at the episode’s beginning. He lacks experience with confident, sexual, powerful women willing to take charge, and therefore has not yet realized that that is what he truly wants in a partner.

He is, in short, not ready to love Lois. He is still too immature, still too rooted in patriarchal traditions. He has some growing up to do. Time around Lois will help, but one suspects something–someone–more extreme and less familiar is needed, and unfortunately it will be several years before she arrives.


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