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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Metal weapons and (The Way of All Flesh)

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“We were put into this world not for pleasure but duty, and pleasure had in it something more or less sinful in its very essence.”

-Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh

To “go the way of all flesh,” in English, means to die; the phrase originates from a misquote of the Bible, which twice has characters on their deathbeds–Joshua and David–refer to themselves as being about to “go the way of all the Earth.” The distinction matters; the former is a statement that all living things must die, the latter a statement that all material things must come to an end. Both are true, but one is rather broader than the other.

It’s October 19, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, which stubbornly refuses to go the way of all the Earth. Donna Lewis and Celine Dion have the number two and three spots respectively; Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre and No Mercy also chart. At the box office, crime drama Sleepers opens at No. 1; proving that the music charts by no means have a monopoly on horrifying earworms, That Thing You Do is at No. 5. Also charting are The Long Kiss Goodnight and Independence Day.

As the title implies, this episode is the story of a death: John Corben dies and is reborn as the decidedly non-fleshy supervillain Metallo. It is, in its own way, a tragic villain story in the B:TAS vein; I say “tragic” rather than “sympathetic” because it is more of a structural feature than an emotional thread. Corben has always been cold and callous; described as a terrorist, he is really more of a mercenary, hiring out his services as a skilled murderer and destroyer to whomever can afford him. In the first episode, that meant working for Luthor to help terrorists steal his own experimental military technology, but “The Way of All Flesh” establishes that he has had a long career of fighting wherever and whenever. Like all mercenaries, he is, in essence, a hitman on a larger scale.

It is not just his career that makes Corben unsympathetic; his attitude of smug superiority (played to perfection by Malcolm McDowell) contributes, as does his obvious disregard for anyone and everyone around him. His discovery that the loss of most of his senses extends to being unable to feel a touch would be quite sad, for example, if not for the fact that he discovers this while forcibly kissing a struggling Lois Lane. It is difficult to feel sorry for a villain whose biggest complaint is that he can’t enjoy sexual assault anymore.

But structurally, this is tragedy. Corben’s flaw was always that he is unfeeling, in the sense of being utterly callous. He has never cared about the emotions or well-being of others, which is why he became a mercenary in the first place. It’s how he came to Luthor’s attention, and thus how he was chosen to be dosed with a rare virus, to be the frame on which Luthor would build his new anti-Superman weapon. Everything about Metallo is crafted to oppose Superman, from his nigh-invulnerable metallic chassis to strength–nearly as much as Superman’s, according to this episode–to his kryptonite heart. No thought was given to the man within; Corben has fallen afoul of someone as callous as himself and even more powerful.

The result is a Corben who is literally unfeeling, unable to experience taste, smell, or touch. (That he can see and hear without difficulty is perhaps unsurprising; cameras and microphones are fairly standard technology, after all, while the huge number and variety of pressure, temperature, and chemical sensors needed to mimic the other senses would be difficult if not impossible to implement on a human-sized and -shaped frame.) He can no longer experience physical pain, but can also no longer experience physical pleasure, either.

This ties the episode to Butler’s novel of the same name, a scathing satire of Victorian society and mores. Much as Butler’s narrator describes the Victorians as treating all pleasure as a sinful distraction from the only thing that matters, duty, so does Luthor see Corben’s loss as a feature, something that makes him a better weapon against Superman: in Luthor’s words, ” The only hunger you should have is for power… the only thirst, for revenge.”

Corben, over the course of the episode, comes to accept these words. He strips himself of his artificial skin, becoming completely the robotic-looking Metallo. Corben’s body has already gone the way of all flesh; all that remains is the metallic, drawn from the Earth, and a kryptonite heart originating far beyond the Earth. Corben is dead; only Metallo remains.

In creating him, however, Luthor has set up his own tragedy. First, he has created an enemy: all that remains to Metallo is indeed the hunger for power and the thirst for revenge, but he desires power over and revenge on both Superman and Luthor. Second, Luthor’s obsession with creating a weapon to destroy Superman will lead to his encounters with Brainiac, and in turn his desperate quest to reunite with Brainiac. This quest will inevitably lead him to Apokolips, self-sacrifice, and the end of the DCAU.

That is perhaps the biggest difference between the phrase and its original: “the way of all flesh” is a declaration of despair in the face of mortality. “The way of all the Earth” is a declaration of hope: for all that Luthor declares himself untouchable at the end of this episode, shielded by structures of social power far beyond anything Superman can wield, the apocalypse will come. Those structures will end. Luthor will fall. Sooner or later, the Luthors of the world–fictional or otherwise–will go the way of all the Earth.

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He even had purple skin and orange hair! (Feeding Time)


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It’s September 21, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena and Donna Lewis’s earwormy “I Love You Always Forever” is still at No. 2. Throw in Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” at 4 and you can understand why I refused to listen to popular music in high school. At the box office, revenge comedy The First Wives Club opens at number one.

In the news,  yesterday Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős died; one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, he collaborated with scientists and scholars in a dizzying array of fields, but is probably best known as the namesake of the  Erdős number, the academic-papers equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  On the 24th, U.S. President Bill Clinton will sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; as of February 2017, it has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate, and is still missing approval from eight nations before it can go into effect (including the U.S.)

In S:TAS, we have the first DCAU appearance of Parasite, a rather uninspiringly named villain with energy-draining powers. This episode serves as an excellent example of the primary difference between Batman: The Animated Series and S:TAS, and indeed between the DCAU incarnations of Batman and Superman: Batman lurks in the shadows, and is often a peripheral figure in his own show, while Superman stands out in the light, and is usually the central figure of his show.

Thus Rudy Jones, who seems tailor-made as a “sympathetic villain” of the type B:TAS did so well: a down-on his luck janitor who agrees to help a criminal rob STAR Labs in exchange for help paying off his gambling debts. Unfortunately, the toxic waste he was helping the criminal steal spills while they’re escaping from Superman, transforming Jones into the Parasite, a hulking purple monster that needs to feed on the life force of others to survive.

Parasite could be a tragic figure, forced to hurt people to live, wracked with guilt, but that would require the episode to focus on his internality. Instead, he shows no sign of anything other than pleasure in his newfound power, and the episode’s primary focus is on Superman’s efforts to escape imprisonment and stop him.

The episode’s sympathies thus lie entirely with Superman, whom Parasite chains up in the STAR Labs basement so that he can periodically drain Superman’s energy, keeping him helpless while Parasite steals his powers of flight and superstrength to commit robberies. Superman thus spends much of the episode helpless and immobile, a victim in need of rescue, which comes in the form of Jimmy Olson.

Ironically, Superman’s first few episodes depict him as being far more vulnerable than Batman. Part of that is simply that we are seeing Superman at the beginning of his career, while Batman was already well-established by the time of “On Leather Wings.” But part of it is that Batman is human, and can be killed by a gunshot or a knifewound, and therefore there is a degree of dramatic tension even if his opponents almost never land a blow: we in the audience know that Batman won’t be seriously harmed, but Batman doesn’t, and we can empathize with him. Superman, on the other hand, is virtually invulnerable, and so the early episodes have emphasized the ways in which he is vulnerable, to teach him–and thereby us–that his opponents are dangerous.

Between his vulnerability and focus, Superman comes across very quickly as a more sympathetic, human figure than Batman did initially. Even in their respective secret identities, Clark Kent feels more natural and authentic than the very performative Bruce Wayne, who by comparison is almost Byronic in his confluence of tragedy and privilege. It is almost unthinkable for Bruce Wayne or Batman to be saved from peril by one of Bruce Wayne’s friends; who would that even be? Harvey Dent, perhaps, but only very early on, before he became Two-Face; Alfred is more family than friend; everyone else is linked to Batman rather than Wayne. By contrast, Lois yanked Clark Kent out of the path of fire of Toyman’s toy airplanes two episodes ago–an event important enough to be immortalized in the opening credits of every episode of the series–and then saved Superman from the kryptonite last episode. This episode, Jimmy Olson helped loose Superman from his chains.

The correct answer to “who’s the mask, the superhero or the secret identity?” is that the question is built on false assumptions. Both and neither are the “real” person, because that’s how fragmentation of identity works. But it’s understandable why people think Bruce Wayne is a mask worn by Batman, while Superman is a mask worn by Clark Kent. Wayne has Alfred and no one else, and seems to do nothing but go to charity galas and product demos, while Batman has Alfred, Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl, Catwoman, Leslie Thompkins, and more. Superman is alone at this stage, but Clark has the Kents, Lana, Lois, and Jimmy, and a career. The truth behind the error is that Clark Kent has a life outside of being Superman; without Batman, Bruce Wayne is nothing.

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I could use some help here (A Little Piece of Home)


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It’s September 14, 1996. The top movie at the box office this weekend is Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Maximum Risk. The top song is “The Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los Del Rio, about which the less said the better; also charting are Donna Lewis, LL Cool J, and Eric Clapton. In the news, yesterday famed rapper Tupac Shakur either died or moved into the apartment shared by Elvis Presley and Andy Kaufman; the same day, Alija Izetbegovic won the presidency in newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first election; on the 16th, Scotland Yard will intercept an acid bomb mailed to Icelandic singer Björk, sent by a man named Ricardo Lopez on the same day Tupac died and Izetbegovic won the election. Disappointingly, as far as I can tell no one has linked these events into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Superman, meanwhile, must deal with “A Little Piece of Home,” as The Animated Series introduces a key piece of Superman lore, kryptonite. Kryptonite is, literally, a piece of Superman’s home, a chunk of Krypton transformed by that planet’s destruction into a compound whose radiation is uniquely harmful to Superman. But the phrase “a piece of home” usually refers to a keepsake, memorabilia that serves as a reminder of where you came from. What hurts Superman, when he encounters kryptonite, is memory.

Superman has no direct, conscious memory of Krypton, only of images fed into his brain by the device his parents found in his pod.  Nonetheless, the destruction of Krypton functions for him as a traumatic experience, and not unreasonably so–it is not uncommon for trauma summoners to have amnesia around the traumatic experience, after all. The physical symptoms we see Superman experience when Lois unwittingly hands him kryptonite are consistent with the physical manifestation of extreme anxiety: weakness, dizzyness, heavy sweating, and (not depicted visibly, but likely intended given the number of people saying “you don’t look so good”) pallor.

True, these are also consistent with radiation poisoning, but there’s a major difference: radiation poisoning doesn’t go away when the radiation stops, and radiation poisoning severe enough to cause dizziness is inevitably fatal. Superman’s symptoms, on the other hand, vanish soon after the kryptonite is removed–in the absence of his trigger, his anxiety fades.

That is, after all, what kryptonite is: a toxic reminder of a traumatic past, a “little piece of home” that causes him to become overwhelmed and vulnerable.  It is a trigger, and handled as such: he encounters it once accidentally, thereby discovering that it is a trigger; once he is inadverdently exposed by Lois and tries to cover it up, with limited success, leading her to become concerned but not understand what the problem is; and twice he is deliberately, maliciously exposed by the villains.

It should go without saying that deliberately triggering someone is a vicious, cruel, and cowardly act. Sadly, it does not go without saying; deliberately exposing people to probable triggers is a common part of Internet harassment campaigns, both those targeted at individuals and broader sweeps (for example, coordinated posting of triggering content in Tumblr tags used by survivors). In this respect, the episode is astoundingly prescient: the minions of an uber-wealthy real estate tycoon expose Superman to his trigger, then laugh and deliberately kick him while he’s down. When Superman survives that, said tycoon–Luthor–then sends in a bot to try to trigger Superman for him. (This being a 90s cartoon, said bot is a larger-than-life-size mechanical Tyrannosaur, but still.)

Superman prevails, because of course he does, but only with help. For the first time in the series, he is portrayed as being significantly vulnerable, in need of Lois’ quick thinking and skill–and explicitly her physical skill, namely her ability to accurately throw small objects into bins, established earlier when she was throwing balled-up paper into the trash can.

Even Superman can be traumatized. Even Superman needs help dealing with his triggers. We could read that as hopelessness for the rest of us–that everyone has vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the callous, cruel, and powerful–but on the other hand, flip it around. A trauma survivor can be Superman. Indeed, Superman is Superman because he is a trauma survivor; without the same destruction of Krypton that created kryptonite, he would not live on Earth and therefore not have superpowers.

This is not, to be clear, the “inspirational disability” canard that, for example, a blind person gains super-hearing. That’s just feel-good nonsense for the able-bodied. This is something subtler and more complicated. After all, one doesn’t need trauma to be a classical hero–there’s no particular indication that Gilgamesh, Hercules, Gawain, or Wonder Woman were turned into heroes by trauma, although many of them had traumatic experiences as heroes. But it seems like one does need it to be a superhero (and yes, it was entirely intentional which of those lists I put Wonder Woman on; we’ll get into it when she shows up three series from now).

Which in turn calls attention to the other major difference between Superman and a classical hero: classical heroes make terrible neighbors. You want them out in the field adventuring, protecting your home, maybe occasionally coming back to bestow a boon upon the people before venturing back out. As neighbors, they inevitably get drunk and go on a killing spree, or are ambushed by blood-feud rivals, or bound by a geas to burn the neighborhood down unless obscure and complex conditions are met, or something equally disastrous for the community.

But Superman is a great neighbor. Clark Kent is the kind of guy you give your spare key to so your cats get fed while you’re on vacation.

These two traits–trauma and neighborliness–may not be unrelated. We’ll keep this line of inquiry open for now.

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You need a new hobby (Fun and Games)


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It’s September 7, 1996, the day after “Last Son of Krypton.” Headlines and charts are unchanged since yesterday.

Toyman is an odd duck amongst Superman villains. The bulk of the villains we’ll see this season–Metallo, Brainiac, Darkseid, Parasite–have superpowers that allow them either to go toe-to-toe with Superman, or exploit specific weaknesses. Other villains, like Lex Luthor and the Preserver, have access to resources which enable them to threaten or contain Superman. But Toyman, despite his fantastic stockpile of toys, is never any kind of threat at all–at no point in this episode does Superman appear to be putting forth any real effort. Even the two toys which momentarily inconvenience him–the superball and the “Dopey-Doh”–require only seconds to destroy, with his only concern regarding the latter keeping Lois safe. Toyman’s lack of threat is particularly noticeable because Superman is still clearly inexperienced here, as demonstrated by how long he takes fighting the giant ducky, without noticing that it’s just a distraction to keep him busy while Toyman abducts Manheim.

With his tragic backstory, vague references to possible mental illness, and quest for revenge against a “legitimate businessman”/mobster, Toyman comes across very much as a Batman villain, rather than a Superman villain. Indeed, in a sense he is a Batman villain: his behavior bears remarkable resemblance to the villain of “Beware the Gray Ghost,” Ted Dymer, a petty, vengeful manchild who used toys as weapons. At the same time his general creepiness (thanks to a wonderfully understated-yet-menacing performance by Bud Cort), not to mention dressing Lois up like a doll, recall the Mad Hatter. And his small stature and child-like demeanor recall Baby-Doll.

Yet, as we saw with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (which predates this episode by almost exactly a decade), Toyman is a classic Superman villain, prominent enough to be in the pantheon that Superman faces in the course of the comic. And, notably, though he shares the name Winslow Schott with one of the three characters to use the name Toyman in the comics, this incarnation of the Toyman doesn’t particularly resemble any of them in appearance or backstory. This Toyman’s father, also named Winslow Schott, shares with the comics Schott the backstory of a toymaker wronged by another villain, but the Toyman in the episode is the abandoned son of the toymaker, not the original toymaker, who died in prison.

What we have here, in short, is a riff on the same concept as Toyman’s appearance in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”: a darker, more serious take on what might drive a person to use toys to commit attacks, a silly villain reimagined as creepy and murderous. Add in that Lois pities him after hearing his backstory, and the intent behind the character becomes clear: he is a reimagining of Toyman in much the same way that “Heart of Ice” reimagined Mr. Freeze, an attempt to do for one of the silliest Superman villains what that episode did for Batman’s villain. After all, “Heart of Ice” was a masterpiece that helped put Batman: The Animated Series on the map; it makes sense to try again.

But Toyman’s schtick carries baggage that Freeze’s does not. As we saw with Dymer in “Gray Ghost,” the obsessive toy collector trapped in his childhood–and trying to trap everyone else there, too, as Toyman does when he dresses Lois like a doll–is uncomfortably close to the obsessive comics collector trying to cement the “universe” of which he’s a fan into a singular form based on his own nostalgia.

Recall, this Superman looks and acts notably different from the mulleted 90s Superman that appeared in The Batman Adventures. His art style is different, his Metropolis far less anachronistic than Gotham, more a squeaky-clean 90s image of the near future than a hodgepodge of time periods. The obsessive collector, the one who seeks ownership and control of a world locked down into the form he remembers, the one who seeks to enumerate all the world’s knowledge and thereby devour it; these are Superman’s enemies.

This is not the birth of the DCAU we expected. This is the anti-DCAU, just as “Whatever Happened” was the anti-Crisis: the denial of single vision and Tolkien’s sleep, the denial that there is any such thing as a “universe” here. Instead, there is something much, much bigger: an ideaspace, filled with stories and potential stories, extending outward and actively denying attempts to fence it in. The playground has no borders.

Let’s play.

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Retroactive Continuity 15: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?


Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s September 1986, sort of. That’s what the issues are dated, anyway, though they actually came out months prior: Superman #423 and Action Comics #583.

Some backstory is perhaps needed. Over the course of the 1970s and 80s, the nature of the comics market shifted. Once sold in generalized newsstands alongside other magazines, comics increasingly began to be sold in specialty comic shops. Since the general public shopped at newsstands while only comics fans shopped at comic shops, the target audience of comics likewise shifted from the general public to a smaller, more dedicated pool of comic fans.

This, in turn, meant a growing focus on continuity. Fans could generally be relied upon to remember past events, meaning that writers could more freely incorporate references to those events without worrying about the reader losing the thread, but unfortunately fans could generally be relied upon to remember past events, meaning writers were increasingly shackled to decades of dead, shambolic stories. The workaround of choice for this at DC Comics was to proliferate alternate universes where events occurred differently, so that an inconvenient past story could be declared to have occurred in an alternate universe. (There was precedent for this–Earth-One and Earth-Two had already been well-established as the Silver Age and Golden Age versions of continuity respectively, along with a handful of other universes.)

However, this was deemed unwieldy, and so Crisis On Infinite Earths was created, a massive crossover event (at a time when such things were virtually unheard of) that would wipe out all alternate universes and reboot continuity, which could then proceed in a single universe without any contradictions or confusion. (This, of course, did not work.  Nor did it work when they rebooted the continuity again in Zero Hour, and again in Infinite Crisis, and again in Flashpoint, and again in Rebirth, and that’s not even taking into account the absurd number of attempts to make the Legion of Superheroes fit into all of this.)

This in turn meant that the two ongoing Superman titles, his eponymous book and Action Comics, would restart from the beginning. But this left the challenge of what to do with the final issues of the two books prior to the reboot, and editor Julius Schwartz decided to treat them as if they were the real final issues, tapping Alan Moore to write the final, two-part Superman story.

The result is, in typical Alan Moore style, an entertaining superhero yarn on the surface that, just underneath, viciously attacks the assumptions and goals of Crisis itself. The story famously opens with a declaration that it is an “Imaginary Story,” a conceit from decades prior in which stories that would make no sense as part of an ongoing, serialized narrative could be told without disrupting future continuity. This declaration is, of course, entirely unnecessary from a continuity perspective, as there was no future continuity: the brief, remember, was to write the final Superman story.

And final it seems to be, at first glance. One by one, every element of the Superman mythos is stripped away.  With the death of Bizarro, so too dies the ridiculous, campy fun that is the heart of comics; thus, when the Prankster and Toyman attack next, they are deadly serious, torturing Pete Ross to death in order to learn Superman’s secret identity, and then violently attacking Clark Kent on live television, “killing” him by revealing to the world that he is Superman.

After first joy, and then Clark Kent, the Daily Planet is next to go, attacked by an army of Metallo duplicates. Superman evacuates his (non-superhero) friends and loved ones to the Arctic in response and settles in for siege–not just the Daily Planet, but Superman’s adopted home planet is lost as well, as he is forced to bunker down away from the world.

In the ensuing battle, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, the Kryptonite Man, Krypto, Lana Lang, and Jimmy Olson all die before Superman realizes his parade of villains is missing one figure, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the comedic, transdimensional trickster imp. But with fun and joy stripped away, what can such a character be except a horrifying monster, as he explains that he has grown bored of mischief and decided to be evil, using his powers to create all the pain and suffering of the two-parter.

So Superman kills him, then deliberately exposes himself to gold kryptonite (which permanently removes his powers) before going out into the snow to die. Or so Lois Lane tells the world–mischievously, the comic reveals in its last pages that Superman gave up his powers and faked his death, becoming an ordinary man working in an auto shop, married to Lois, with a young child who (possibly unnoticed by his parents) possesses superpowers. The comic closes with the former Superman, now known as Jordan Elliott, winking to the audience as he teasingly agrees with Lois that “happily ever after” sounds good to him.

It is difficult to deny the finality of “happily ever after,” but that wink points to something else. The baby–which is quite happy throughout the story–demonstrates superpowers; Superman and Lois’ story may be ending, but a story continues. Further, the comic has equated ending with pain, suffering, and evil, happiness being what went before: Bizarro’s people “screamed with happiness” before he killed them all, and when he dies, “everything, him go d-dark”; the Prankster and Toyman abandoned their silliness and became deadly serious; and the whole story, we learn at the end, was kicked off by Mr. Mxyzpltk abandoning mischief in favor of evil, ceasing to be a “funny little man.” That wink’s mischief thus represents a restoration of what was, denying this story’s finality.

The story’s very title denies finality. Superman has many epithets: “Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?” is neutral in regards to finality, while the “last” in “Whatever Happened to the Last Son of Krypton?” puts it firmly on the side of ending. But “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” declares that there is a tomorrow, and Superman is the man of it;  how, then, can he have a last story?

So this isn’t the end; this is pushing back against the end. The end is darkness and cruelty, and it comes with abandoning whimsy. The end is wrapping up loose ends neatly. The end is taking superheroes and their stories seriously, because if we do so, we have to accept the silly villains turning into killers, and eventually a Superman who kills as well. At that point we have a choice: pretend that a story about an all-powerful killer answerable to no one is a story about a hero, or just not have superheroes anymore–at least not, until a new generation can be playful with them again. Superman chooses the latter, and walks into the gold kryptonite chamber.

Which brings us back to declaring this an “imaginary story,” despite that it relies on characters established over decades of continuity to work. Superman even uses the same kind of paranoid reading that a fan trying to guess the direction of a particular storyline would employ: Mr. Mxyzpltk is the only major Superman villain who hasn’t appeared as the story draws to a close, therefore he must be the hidden mastermind behind all of it. But that is exactly the kind of reasoning that leads to something like Crisis on Infinite Earths, which for all that the crossover itself is a sublime bit of convoluted comic-book nonsense, nonetheless represents a closing down of narrative possibilities and insistence on a single vision going forward. (That this proved impossible is, here, irrelevant; the attempt itself is bad enough.)

For all that they were, generally speaking, just ridiculous attempts to justify attention-grabbing, bizarre comics, the “Imaginary Stories” of old had the right idea. Fiction allows an infinitude of possibilities; ideaspace has no borders, but too often we allow that very fact to paralyze and terrify us, remaining huddled in familiar zones near where we started, afraid to venture out into the wilds of What If. We build fences around ourselves called Continuity and Suspension of Disbelief, while far beyond Imaginary Stories frolic, calling to us, if only we were willing to tear down our fences and seek them out.

If only we could recognize that In Here is just as ridiculous as Out There. Sure, those are just Imaginary Stories. But, as Moore’s famous opening spiel for this comic concludes (to the nearly as famous ire of incoming Superman writer-artist John Byrne), “Aren’t they all?”

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