Slag it (Batgirl Returns)

I have decided to move from a Monday-Wednesday-Sunday update schedule to Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday, in the hopes that this will make it easier to, for example, not forget to post on Mondays that I’m off work. I have clearly gotten off to a swimmingly good start.

This may therefore not be a great time to mention it, but my Patreon has plummeted by about 1/3 over the last month. It could use some love! If you enjoy my work, please consider contributing or encouraging others to contribute. Thanks!

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It’s a fitting ending. Batman Returns provided much of the impetus for the creation of Batman: The Animated Series; now it provides the title–and Catwoman–for its final episode.

It’s November 12, 1994. The top song is, of course, “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. The top movie is Interview with the Vampire. In the news, last week’s midterm  elections demonstrated just how effective Clinton’s plan to secure Democratic control of the U.S. by turning the Democrats into Republicans Lite was, as Republicans seized both houses of Congress for the first time in  40 years;  tomorrow, the Chunnel opens full public service and Sweden votes to join the European Union.

Amusingly, in his only appearance in the episode, Bruce Wayne mentions that he is engaged in a merger that is important to the European Common Market, a frequently used alternative name to the European Economic Community–an entity which had been absorbed by the European Union a year before this episode aired. But that’s fitting for the swansong of Batman: The Animated Series; Batman is  clearly being marked as part of a past that has already ended, while the future belongs to Batgirl, Catwoman, and, to a vastly lesser degree, Dick Grayson.

It’s fitting, too, that Batman is barely in the final episode of his series; with very few exceptions, Batman: The Animated Series has never really been about him.  He has remained in the shadows, observing, occasionally swooping in to save the day, but in most episodes the bulk of characterization has fallen on some other character, most obviously in the “sympathetic villain” episodes. He is fixed permanently as an eight-year-old boy wearing an adult suit called Bruce Wayne, wearing a mask called Batman; he cannot change, cannot grow, cannot experience an arc, and therefore makes for a poor main character,  but he has always been an excellent magnet around whom more interesting characters accumulate.

Instead, we get the far more dynamic figure of Batgirl, reintroduced in this episode through Barbara Gordon’s absolutely delightful power fantasy, in which she swoops in, saves an injured, almost cowering Batman from the trio of Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face,  and then very nearly claims a kiss as her reward before being interrupted by Dick Grayson. It’s a perfect inversion of the power fantasy superheroes supposedly represent, an adolescent boy saving a cowering damsel in distress from grotesque villains and earning her affection as his reward.

We have been quite critical of the notion that superheroes function as power fantasies in general, but it’s difficult to read Batgirl’s role in this episode as anything else. She’s not  tortured by any past trauma, not driven by any neurotic compulsion; she just wants to dress up in a costume and kick some ass. She is, in that sense, more of a kindred spirit to Catwoman than to Batman or Robin: both women use their alternate identities as a release of frustration, a way to express their power and desire to make the world a better place outside of the confines placed on them by their respective social roles.

But we’ve been down that road before. Perhaps, rather than saying Batgirl and Catwoman are  kindred spirits, it would be better to say that both have kindred  spirits in our departed mascots of impending apocalypse, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and leave it at that.

Regardless, Batgirl is clearly a power fantasy here, which perhaps explains why Catwoman’s attempt at recruiting her seems to be working right up until the moment that Catwoman insults Commissioner Gordon. Clearly she is to some degree sympathetic to the desire to upend the world, as witness that opening fantasy with its upending of the traditional damsel in distress phenomenon. It’s difficult to blame her–once again, Barbara Gordon is the daughter of a man who thinks it’s appropriate to try to pick his daughter’s romantic partners.

Which gives us yet another (quasi-)villainous parallel to Batgirl: Talia al-Ghul. Indeed, the degree to which Ra’s al-Ghul and Commissioner Gordon form mirror images of one another–older men, one who wishes to make himself  Batman’s father figure and the other adopted by Batman as a father figure, one who seeks to make the world a better place by overthrowing its power structures and the other by using them, one a pure power fantasy and the other a protector–makes it quite regrettable that we’ve never really had an episode in which they both play a prominent role. The next generation seems to have inherited these parallels, but to a degree seem to have swapped their positionalities: two young women, both attracted to Batman, yet it’s Talia who wants to either retire in peace or continue her father’s work, and Batgirl who wants to break out of the role chosen by her father and fight as a vigilante.

Batgirl is not content to simply protect things as they are. She wants to change them. She is someone who can take her costume on and off without changing who she is, a unified identity rather than broken fragments of child and protector, Bat and Man. She fights–and defeats, so thoroughly that he is never seen again–one of the recurring corporate villains against whom Batman so frequently struggled without ever entirely defeating. Batman could never truly overcome Roland Daggett, because both ultimately drew their power from the same source, the vast resources, entitlement, and immunity to consequences that come with great wealth; Batgirl’s power comes from a different source entirely, and hence she can stop him.

Well, except for the part where she and Catwoman comes within moments of being killed before Robin swoops in to save the day. The positive reading of this episode twists and turns back on itself; superheroes as a power fantasy are, we have observed before, primarily the domain of very small children. Batgirl–emphasis on the infantilizing term girl–is in over her head and has to be rescued by a man who condescends to her with almost every line. She’s depicted as a child engaged in childish pursuits, which is why in Batman Beyond she’ll grow up to do a real job–but Batman and Robin (who will become Nightwing in his next appearance) get to be manly adult men to who have to be taken seriously when they do the same things.

For a moment, just a moment, we had a glimpse of a new (or, perhaps, very old) kind of hero. But Batman: The Animated Series has room for only one kind of hero–indeed, only one hero, one who lurks in the shadows and on the sidelines. If we want a hero who can stand in full daylight, at the center of things, BTAS has to be broken open. Destruction, rebirth, a new art style and a new network.

And then it’ll have to be done again, and again, and again. A major shock to the system will be needed before we can truly get beyond Batman and break free of the limits restraining our conception of the superhero and the world–if we can get there at all.


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The whole place is going to go (Deep Freeze)

Never fails. I get a Monday off work, I forget to post NA09. Sorry!

This may therefore not be a great time to mention it, but my Patreon has plummeted by about 1/3 over the last month. It could use some love! If you enjoy my work, please consider contributing or encouraging others to contribute. Thanks!

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It’s November 26, 1994. The top song is still Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”; indeed, the charts are almost unchanged since last week’s “Lock-Up,” with the only difference in the top five being that Sheryl Crow has dropped out, replaced by a second Boyz II Men song. The top three movies are likewise the same movies as last week, just in a different order: The Santa Clause, Star Trek: Generations, Interview with the Vampire. The Lion King, Stargate, Pulp Fiction, and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street are also in the top ten. 

In the news, in two days’ time Norway rejects membership in the European Union and cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is beaten to death in prison. Two days after that, Situationist Internationale founder Guy Debord commits suicide, leaving behind an autobiographical film about the social problems of Paris in the 90s in lieu of a suicide note.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

Leave it to Robert Frost, that towering mediocrity of American poetry, to render the apocalypse twee. Nonetheless, quoting his “Fire and Ice” is nigh irresistible here, if only for the fact that “Robert Frost” sounds like the civilian identity of an ice-themed supervillain. This episode’s villain, on the other hand, is a study in rendering the twee apocalyptic: a thinly veiled caricature of Walt Disney plots to plunge the Earth into an ice age which only his newly constructed “theme park”–actually a model city built on fascist principles–will survive.

We know that this scheme is doomed to failure, because the world he seeks to destroy, the world of Batman: The Animated Series, was already destroyed in “Harlequinade,” by magic clown rather than fire and/or ice. But even in destruction, there are elements of BTAS which deserve preservation, most notably its masterful construction of complex, sympathetic villains. Who better, then, to return in the show’s final hours than its sympathetic villain par excellence, Mr. Freeze? And given that his first appearance, in which he was contrasted with the thoroughly unsympathetic villainy of the corporate tycoon, worked so well, why not give him another such villain here? Given that, it makes sense to model that villain on Disney, who (according to a clearly impossible, yet persistent, urban legend) was cryogenically frozen upon his death, to be restored to life in some future age.

The ensuing portrait of Walker makes for an interesting contrast with Ra’s al-Ghul, our patron saint of near-apocalypse. al-Ghul pursues radical change, seeking to topple the world’s power structures, and preserves himself indefinitely to ensure his ability to pursue that goal, his followers a relatively diverse bunch united by devotion to his ideology. Walker, on the other hand, wishes to freeze the world in ice, ending the changes he perceives as a form of decay and locking in its primary power structures–rich old white men uber alles–by reducing the world to a single space small enough for him to personally control, and seeks to preserve himself indefinitely in order to maintain that control forever.

In short, Ra’s is a revolutionary; Walker is a fascist. Both are bent on apocalypse, but Ra’s seeks to destroy the past to usher in his vision of the future; Walker seeks to destroy the future to usher in his vision of the past. And it is here that the value of the superhero becomes clear: for all that they prevent meaningful change for the better, the defenders of the status quo are also a powerful bulwark against those seeking to change the world for the worse. As Batman says, he may be a protector of order, but he will fight to the death to prevent the order that Walker represents.

In the end, however, it is Freeze who makes that sacrifice, forcing Batman to retreat to save Robin, while he remains with his wife, still frozen as a consequence of her fridging in his first appearance. Indeed, much as Walker sought to reduce the entire world to a space familiar to him, a space in which white people work for a “visionary” CEO who controls every aspect of their lives, Freeze ends up in a space containing only himself, his wife, longing and regret. There they will remain, until something happens to melt them out.

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Icy hatred,  callous indifference to the suffering of others, is perhaps the worst form of hatred. It is the kind of hatred which allows the upper echelons of a large corporation to toss workers into the street to shave a few points off production costs, or to build an oil pipeline across sacred lands, or to turn a blind eye while a city is poisoned by their own water. It is the hatred which creates violent conflict in distant lands and then turns away the refugees. The hatred which decides that making a product safe is more expensive than the wrongful death lawsuits, so let’s ship the deathtraps. It is the hatred of the bully, the Internet troll, the corporate climber, the “I’m not racist, but.”

Frost is, of course, wrong. It is not a world-ending hatred, but a world-preserving one.  It is a hatred that perpetuates the status quo, that lets the structures of power remain indefinitely where they are. But Frost was writing long before the 80s taught us what form the second apocalypse would have to take: fire, explosions, and a rain of radioactive debris.

At last, we’re very nearly there.


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Retroactive Continuity 13: Megas XLR S1E1: “Test Drive”

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

As the Long 90s draw to their close, new possibilities open. A lengthy struggle with the ideas of good and evil, which gave us villainous heroes, heroic villains, and 90s antiheroes galore, has been brutally interrupted by conflict for conflict’s sake. No longer is the battle between protagonist and antagonist a war between ideals; now it’s a game played by ten-year-olds and their yellow electric rodents.

The anime boom ushered in by Pokemon had a massive transformative impact on American cartoons, one which eventually back-trickled into comics as well. It encouraged increased serialization–a trend which, as we saw all the way back in Deep Space Nine, was already being felt from the other direction, live action science fiction and fantasy–younger protagonists, and most importantly for Megas XLR, a very different conception of both hero and antihero.

Neither Pokemon nor most of the series added to American television in its wake contain the particular element we’re looking at, but it was common in the media available to someone who was an anime fan or Japanophile before the Pokemon craze. Given that this form of fandom was until recently almost exclusively a pursuit of (and is still dominated by) teens and young 20-somethings, anyone who was a professional adult far enough in their career to head their own show in 2004 must have had their primary exposure to anime no later than the early 1990s, more likely the 80s or even 70s. Rather than Pokemon, Sailor Moon, or Dragon Ball Z, the primary influences one would expect to see in an anime-influenced American cartoon in 2004 are the classic mecha anime of the 70s and 80s, and maybe kaiju movies.

Precisely the influences, in other words, that visibly inform Megas XLR. For instance, the Gundam-esque robots massacred by aliens who, in turn, are massacred by a unique prototype super robot, recall Gainax’s early work Gunbuster, while the giant beam cannon which emerges from Megas’ chest is very obviously the prow of the titular Space Battleship Yamato, firing its infamous Wave Motion Gun. Perhaps the biggest influences, however, are Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and the Godzilla franchise, in the sense of a heroic titular entity that does colossal amounts of damage to that which it is supposed to protect. Just like Megas, Godzilla frequently ravages Tokyo even while protecting it from greater threats; the SDF Macross, meanwhile, does massive damage to the civilian sectors of the ship every time it transforms into its robot mode.

All three are notably distinct from the kind of destruction brought about by 90s antiheroes, who typically do a better job of focusing it on their enemies. The difference can perhaps be summarized by noting that the 90s antihero chooses to slaughter his (and it is, almost always, his) enemies, while Megas and its antecedents do so accidentally. The antiheroism of the 90s, in other words, comes from hatred, rage, and machismo, while, on the other hand, the antiheroism of the anime-influenced 2000s comes from ineptitude, carelessness, and a capacity for destruction so great that it cannot be contained to the chosen target. The antiheroes of the 90s are deadly serious, and hence absurd; the antiheroes of the 2000s are absurd, and therefore can be taken seriously.

Which brings us to the absurd figures of Coop, a genius technician who repairs an alien robot from the future for fun, yet is somehow still consistently lazy and sloppy; Kiva, highly skilled military commander from the future who can’t control two lazy teenagers to save her life; and perhaps best of all Jamie, the epitome of 90s cool, with his goth wardrobe and snarky attitude, his laid-back aimlessness, his pursuit of wealth and women over all else–so of course he contributes nothing and just tries to take credit for Coop’s work, being ultimately just as lazy and sloppy.

It’s very funny, but there’s something underneath, as well. Remember the essential struggle that gave rise to the 90s antihero: the apocalypse was averted, the great war between good and evil fizzled out, so was there ever any such conflict? Are they distinguishable, or is good simply evil with better PR?

By contrast, what Megas (and its predecessors, as well as early- and mid-90s comedy anime like The Slayers) present is a hero whose power is so much greater than those around it that simply to be near it is dangerous. It gives us a world that we must destroy to save, a near-apocalypse that occurs not because the hero stops the villain from destroying the world at the last second, but rather because the hero nearly destroys the world in the course of stopping the villain. There is good in the world, buried deep beneath sarcasm and incompetence and greed, but there will be collateral damage when it bursts out. To be saved, the world must be changed, which means the world-that-was must be destroyed.

And we can destroy it, or so Megas XLR, laughing, tells us. All we have to do is find first gear in our giant robot car.


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Drop the act (Make ‘Em Laugh)

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It’s November 5, 1994. The top song is, as seemingly always, “I’ll Make Love to You.” In fact, the only difference between who charted (or, rather, would chart) in the last entry and who charted in this one is that this entry has Madonna instead of Bon Jovi; otherwise it’s the same five people. At the movies, Stargate is enjoying its second weekend at number one, followed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein debuting at number two.

Yesterday, the first conference solely about the commercial potential of the Internet was held in San Francisco, but on the bright side, the first Internet radio “broadcast” will take place the day after tomorrow, courtesy of the student radio station at UNC Chapel Hill. The day after that, the Republicans take over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, so you can see how well Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council’s plan to shift the Democrats rightward worked at getting them votes. In between, there’s a bad flood in Piedmont, Italy, but that doesn’t appear to be related to either the corporate takeover of the Internet or of the Democratic Party.

There are basically two ways to look at this episode: as a Joker story, or as a sort of epilogue to the not-actually-a-four-parter about inherent criminality and the inevitability that villains will return to crime. Let’s do both.

Start with the idea of inherent criminality. On the surface, it’s straightforwardly denied here. The three comedians (one clearly a mean-spirited caricature of Roseanne Barr, leading me to suspect the other two are caricatures of early-90s comedians that flew under 13-year-old me’s radar) have to be mind-controlled into committing their crimes, and don’t appear on the show again, implying that they do not resume their criminal activity.

But remember, by now we have fairly thoroughly established that Gotham has four classes: Batman, criminals, government, and victims. Rather than denying that these classes are inherent roles, the mind-controlled comedians prove it. They are almost completely inept villains, with only not-Roseanne posing anything resembling a threat, and even she only a brief one; the reason they never return is that their real role was to be victims of the Joker, who is portrayed as being inherently criminal.

Those, after all, are the two apparent possibilities where the Joker is concerned. Either he is devoid of agenda, simply concerned with creating jokes according to a macabre sense of humor only he entirely understands (as in “The Laughing Fish,”) and occasionally seeking disproportionate revenge for petty slights (as in this episode and “Joker’s Favor”), or else he is playing at being a mercurial force of chaos that seeks to conquer the show and recreate it in his own image (as in “Christmas with the Joker” and Batman Adventures #1-3).

Except in both cases it doesn’t really matter, because in effect he is indistinguishable from the dominator-style villains like Bane and Mad Hatter–even borrowing the latter’s schtick for this episode! Whether he’s playing pranks or trying to conquer the show, he spends his time pushing people under himself, to place himself at the top. Hence his fury at little Sid the Squid in “The Man Who Killed Batman”: there is an order to the Joker’s universe, and part of that order is that Joker is the highest of criminals, one step below Batman in the hierarchy, and therefore he and he alone can be Batman’s killer. When he tries to impose his brand of chaos, it is not through the magical transformation that Harley brings to “Harlequinade” simply by being Harley,  but rather something he creates through force and control,  whether that’s hijacking the airwaves  or people’s brains.  Where Harley’s dedication to the Joker means that every time she is being a criminal she is simultaneously also being a victim, undermining the hierarchy, the Joker forcibly reminds victims of their status as victims, reinforcing the hierarchy he seeks to climb.

Consider again the last comedian, the Roseanne caricature. Joker transforms her into the violent Mighty Mom, who attacks using household implements. This is a riff, most likely, on Barr’s most famous role, the titular matriarch in the sitcom Roseanne, whose acerbic wit and cutting tongue were the glue that held her working class family together. But considered diegetically, this is plainly and simply the Joker being sexist: given control of a conventionally attractive young woman like Harleen Quinzel, he puts her in a skintight suit, but given control of a woman who is not conventionally attractive and a decade or two older, he makes her a domestic figure whose costume and equipment could just as easily be janitor-themed as motherhood-themed.

In other words, to the Joker, women exist to be sexy, submissive sidekicks, or to clean up after him. He clearly buys into the power structure we know as misogyny, and chooses every opportunity to sit at the top of it. Gotham’s peculiar class structure is no different.

Joker is, of course, a power fantasy. All supervillains are. But he is a particular fantasy, a fantasy of being able to do whatever we want, not because the world has changed into the Land of Do-As-You-Please and everyone does whatever they want, but because we have the power to stand beyond rebuke or retribution. The Joker is the terror of anarchy, the frightful possibility that if we remove the people at the top of the hierarchy, the hierarchy will not end, but rather find  itself under the boot of someone much worse.

It is fitting, then, that he and Ra’s al-Ghul are traditionally positioned as Batman’s greatest foes. Al-Ghul is, as we have observed, the near-apocalypse incarnate, the almost-toppling of the social order which the hero averts at the last moment. The Joker is the post-apocalypse, the lawless aftermath of the toppling of the social order, in which we are enslaved by warlords who amplify all the worst excesses of kyriarchy and late capitalism. Neither offers real transformation because, in the end, both seek only to rule, to burn the world and reign over the ashes rather than building something new.

But maybe burning the world is the wrong approach entirely..


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Maybe I can at least (Lock-Up)

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It’s November 19, 1992. The top song is Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”; Ini Kamoze, Sheryl Crow, The Real McCoy, and Bon Jovi also chart. The top movie is the mediocre first cinematic outing of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew, Star Trek: Generations, which bumps last week’s number one, Interview with the Vampire, to second. Meanwhile, The Lion King debuts in fourth place.

In the news, Angola and the UNITA rebels will attempt to bring the Angolan civil war to a conclusion tomorrow by signing the Lusaka Protocols, which will more or less maintain an uneasy and occasionally broken peace until they  fall apart in four years. Three days ago, a temporary restraining order barred California from implementing the controversial Proposition 187, which banned undocumented immigrants from accessing state services. This law would eventually be found unconstitutional and be stricken from the books, but as we’ll see it’s an appropriate thing to be talking about near this episode.

Because this is the episode where a vicious bully who, despite a record of failure, thinks he knows how to run things; vows to Make Gotham Safe Again; rants against the “liberal media”; and thinks Batman is soft on criminals because he only savagely beats, rather than murdering, them. All he needs is some orange body paint and a couple of openly white nationalist rants against immigrants and religious minorities, and he can run for President.

Back when we discussed “Baby-Doll,” I suggested that Batman’s villains–and possibly supervillains in general, as Batman is the ur-hero of the DCAU and hence his Rogues Gallery is the ur-Rogues Gallery–can be divided into (or, more accurately, placed on a spectrum between) dominators and destroyers. Lyle “Lock-Up” Bolton, this episode’s titular villain, is about as clear an example of the former as there can be. He is pure authoritarian, utterly certain that society’s rules are absolutely correct, and that anyone who violates them should be punished with maximum severity, regardless of what society’s rules might say. The inherent contradiction to this position does not seem to trouble him, but then, there’s no particular reason why it should; as psychologist Bob Altemayer points out, authoritarians typically have heavily compartmentalized thought processes that allow contradictory thoughts to coexist and encourage double standards, as well as poor reasoning skills in general and a tendency to accept any argument, however specious, which leads to a desired conclusion. (See here for a very brief summary of common authoritarian traits, and here for his book for laymen on the topic.)

Bolton’s desired conclusion is “I get to lock anyone I deem a criminal away for as long as I want, under any conditions I want,” which makes it very interesting that this episode comes immediately after three consecutive episodes about how Batman villains can never stop being villains. Consider Harley Quinn’s complaint during the inquest into how Bolton has been treating the inhabitants of Arkham Asylum: “He takes away privileges even when we’ve been good.” Rewarding good behavior is an important part of teaching that behavior, which presumes that teaching criminals to behave differently is at least a goal of the criminal justice system. Lock-Up, as is often the case with authoritarians, sees this as being “weak on crime”–that anything less than brutality is an insufficient deterrent to crime, and hence banning brutality is in essence encouraging crime. To an extent, this is a logical conclusion to the reasoning laid out in the last few episodes: if criminals cannot ever reform, if they will inevitably return to a life of crime, then “criminal” ceases to be a description of behavior and instead becomes a name for a class. All criminals, this line of thought goes, are innately criminal by nature, fundamentally different from the rest of us, and we’ve already decided that criminals deserve punishment; hence, there is no reason to ever stop punishing criminals.

This is the in-group/out-group thinking of authoritarians applied to crime instead of its usual targets of nationality, religion, and political affiliation. To quote Altemeyer, authoritarians are “highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause.” Combine that with the authoritarian tendency to see the world as fraught with danger, and you get both a willingness to go to extreme measures to defend against the out-group (“we have to protect ourselves from the bad guys by any means necessary”) and a tendency to dismiss harm done to the out-group (“it’s a tough world, get used to it.”)

We’ve discussed this before: a terrified hatred of crime and criminals, a zealous desire to punish them, a willingness to use violence to achieve dominance over the nebulous, inhuman entity Crime. Lock-Up is not at all wrong that he and Batman are a lot alike: Lock-Up is the Bat.

But not the Batman. There is a restraint to Batman, a deliberate holding back. He follows rules beyond which he will not go, holding himself accountable in a world where no one else is able to hold him accountable. Interestingly, it is Bruce Wayne that suggested Bolton be hired as Arkham’s director of security, and Batman who ultimately puts down Lock-Up. (As Robin notes in the episode, parodying the then-current catchphrase of the PBS network, “Another fine villain made possible by a grant from the Wayne Foundation.”) It is Bruce Wayne whose parents were murdered by Crime, Bruce Wayne who traveled the world to acquire the skills to pursue bloody vengeance against Crime.

The Bat is Bruce Wayne’s fantasy of revenge, of dominance, his rage personified–a power fantasy, in other words. Which is to say, as we’ve been exploring in these essays, the Bat is a villain. Batman, by contrast, is a protector fantasy. He is not vengeance, despite his famous declaration that he is; he is restraint. As he tells Lock-Up, “I was born to fight your brand of order!”

The protector fantasy is not just about protecting us from them; that’s just part of it, and indistinguishable from a power fantasy of us dominating them. The protector fantasy is also about protecting them from us, and us from ourselves.

Bit by bit, we inch toward the possibility that the superhero can be extracted from the authoritarian.


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An ex-con? You know (Harley’s Holiday)

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It’s October 15, 1994. Boyz II Men are at number one with “I’ll Make Love to You”; Sheryl Crow’s cover of “All I Wanna Do” is second, with Luther Vandross, Baby Face, and Immature rounding out the top five. At the box office, Pulp Fiction opens at number one.

In the news today, Haitian President Aristide returns to the country after three years of exile in the U.S., and Iraq withdraws troops from the Kuwaiti border in  yet another round of the long dance of threat and counter-threat that will continue until the second Gulf War, still nearly a decade away.

And in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley gets a vacation–an episode of her own with no Joker in it! Oh, and she’s been released from Arkham, there’s that too. Funny how once the Harlequinade begins, and the world changes under her spell, Harley is suddenly no longer considered quite so mad, isn’t it? Even Poison Ivy, in a sense, returns to the world–not completely, since it still won’t allow her to speak, but she is visible in the background in the Arkham scenes, watching approvingly as Harley plunges the world into chaos.

As she inevitably does. Harley passes through the streets and shops of Gotham like–well, it’s hard to come up with a metaphor more appropriate than a bubble gum-chewing, pigtailed, scantily clad roller-skater being pulled down the sidewalk by a pair of slavering hyenas on leashes. She passes through the streets and shops of Gotham like Harley, which is to say equally and simultaneously deliberately fetishistic, bizarre, and ridiculous. She ignores and upends all rules of social behavior, seemingly blissfully unaware that, for instance, hyenas are not permitted in upscale clothing boutiques. But again, she managed to survive living in the world long enough to get through medical school and secure a job at Arkham; she knows what the rules are.

Why, then, does she pretend not to? The answer’s in the title of the episode: she’s on holiday. She’s been on both sides of the glass walls of Arkham; she knows that criminals come in and out all the time. She doubtless knows about the Riddler’s and Two-Face’s brief releases before her, and knows they were out hardly any time at all before they returned. Sooner or later (sooner, as it turns out) she’ll have a bad day.

To get out of Arkham, Harley had to pretend to be what those who had power over her–the doctors and wardens–wanted her to be. Now she’s free to indulge, to be Harley; as long as she doesn’t break any actual laws no one can stop her. And it’s her job as the Harlequin, the Trickster, to push the boundaries of socially accepted behavior, to put people in positions they never would have thought to find themselves in–especially the powerful, or those who cater to the powerful.

It’s no accident that the store she enters with her hyenas is the kind of place Veronica Vreeland would take Bruce Wayne to spiff up his wardrobe. It’s frankly astounding Harley could afford anything there–but that’s where this ties into, and caps off, the trilogy of villain reformation episodes we’ve been working our way through. However she manages to buy that dress, she does so legitimately, and so panics when the alarm goes off.

It’s hard to blame her. She must know that on every level, she is expected to fail. The audience expects her to fail and become a criminal again both because of the last two episodes, and because we know that’s how she’s most interesting. The “justice system” expects her to fail because, as we’ve discussed, it exists not to rehabilitate or protect, but rather to ritualize the brutal vengeance of society upon those who violate its norms–and as we already said, violating norms is what the Harlequin does, what it is.

The world around Harley doesn’t understand her panic, and Harley doesn’t understand that the man in the uniform is trying to help. Why would she? She’s been in the system, she has years of experience telling her that people in uniform exist solely to violently enforce arbitrary rules, rules that she has now accidentally violated. She takes a hostage, flees, and one bad day ensues.

That perhaps is the best part of this episode, its climactic thumbing of the nose to The Killing Joke. Harley had a bad day, and the result was… that she stayed the same person she’s always been, Harley Quinn, the Harlequin. Her bad day caused her to end up right back where she started, where she belongs, under the knowing and watchful eye of Poison Ivy.

There’s few better proofs that Paul Dini, at the very least, gets it.


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Retroactive Continuity 11: Tomboy vol. 1: Divine Intervention

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

I know, this is a day late. I have no excuse.

A commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks as always for backing the Patreon!

The problem is that there are two different things people mean when they say “justice,” and no necessary connection between the two. Real justice is when everyone gets at least what they need, if not more, and life is otherwise as fair as we know how to make it.

That’s not what the characters in Tomboy mean when they use the word.

Tomboy is an aggressively uncomfortable comic, at least in these first four issues. An adorable cartoon pixie and the ghost of her dead best friend Nick (boyfriend, possibly? Addison insists otherwise, but she’s shown having sex with him in a flashback) urge a teen girl to become a serial killer, which she does, starting with the two crooked cops who killed her friend. Her gruff and curmudgeonly grandfather, a retired and highly respected cop himself, helps her cover up the murders and trains her to commit more, revealing that he himself was a vigilante killer once. Addison is shown cuddling with the hallucinatory ghost of Nick, and the apparent main villain of the comic goes directly from cutting a man’s head off with gardening shears to hugging and bantering with her (oblivious) teen son.

While it draws visual elements from magical girls and story beats from superheroes, Comixology’s classification is right: this is a horror comic.

At the core–nearly literally, as the flashback depicting it begins just past the midpoint of the volume–of this story is Justicar, the masked vigilante Addison’s grandfather became out of frustration that being a cop was more complicated than being an off-record soldier, that he couldn’t indiscriminately slaughter anyone he felt deserved it and that people he was certain were guilty sometimes got away with it.

His words are telling, when he describes his motivation to become Justicar: “The rules of law limited my actions and punishments were never as harsh as they needed to be.” So he murdered the local mob’s lawyer, and then began picking off its members. Telling, too, is the one rule he insists Addison follow in her own killings: “No crime goes unpunished. No criminal walks away.  No matter who they are or what they’ve done, the sentence is death.”

But he and Addison are killers, and they walk away again and again. Just as we’ve observed with Batman, there is an inherent hypocrisy to fighting crime by committing crimes. But Addison has her excuse, laid out in a scene where she argues with her pixie advisor (likely a hallucination, though there are a couple of hints that some kind of evil entity may have haunted her grandfather as Justicar and is now, as the pixie and the ghost of Nick, haunting Addison). In a scene after she murdered the cops and before her grandfather starts training her:

Addison: [distraught] I shouldn’t have done that.. I shouldn’t have done that..
Princess Cheery Cherry: Why not? No one else was going to do it.
Addison: It’s wrong!
Cherry: It’s only wrong if you’re a bad person.
Addison: But… what if I am a bad person?
Cherry: You can’t be bad unless other people think you’re bad, and everyone thinks you’re good, right?
Addison: I guess. But if I’m not bad… then what am I?
Nick: You’re a hero, Addison. My hero.

(Note that Princess Cheery Cherry and Nick both speak with the same distinctive speech balloons, white text on black backgrounds.)

This is a particular, perniciously popular understanding of morality, one endemic to fantastic and speculative fiction. We see it in Harry Potter, in Star Wars, in Batman, and countless other places: good and evil are teams. If you’re on the good team, anything you do to people on the evil team is justified. When the bad guys murder, torture, and destroy, it’s because they’re evil, and hence their fault. When the good guys murder, torture, and destroy the bad guys, it’s because the bad guys are evil, and hence the bad guys’ fault again. Addison is narratively positioned as good, following the beats of the hero’s origin story–“everyone thinks [she’s] good”–and therefore any action she takes against the comic’s villains is heroic, even when the exact same action done to a bystander is evil.

Which ties directly into the misunderstanding of justice that is the monster lurking within this horror comic. Possibly literally, if the visions Addison’s grandfather had in the war, Princess Cheery Cherry, and ghost Nick are not hallucinations but manifestations of some kind of demonic entity. On the other hand, Addison is shown taking the drug Ambidrex when she kills, and the fact that it causes hallucinations and violent behavior is precisely what her targets are trying to cover up, so our monster may be purely metaphoric. It doesn’t matter.

The point is that it’s an easy mistake to make, because all justice comes from rage and frequently requires violence to achieve. The challenge is directing the rage and violence properly, because true justice has nothing to do with punishment. Far too many people use the word “justice” when they mean “retribution”; instead of trying to ensure fairness and that everyone gets what they need, they try to do (usually in less extreme ways, but not always) what Justicar did and Addison now does: ensure that everyone is punished at least as badly as they deserve. That this does nothing but compound suffering with suffering doesn’t matter; after all, they’re pursuing “justice” and therefore “good guys.” Making the “bad guys” suffer is the whole point. This is the basis of our entire criminal “justice” system, from the courts to the prisons to the police. It’s a brutal system designed to create suffering based on a childish understanding of right and wrong.

The problem is that the idea of the hero is based on exactly the same concept. When Addison horribly tortures, mutilates, and murders the participants in the Ambidrex coverup, she really is being a hero, which is to say someone who hurts the “bad guys.”

Real justice means raging not at the alleged criminal who doesn’t get punished, but at the fact that some people don’t have enough to eat. It means employing violence not indiscriminately against everyone we’ve decided deserves it, but precisely, as needed to destroy the social structures that create injustice. It is revolution, not vigilantism. Healers and activists, not heroes.

Unfortunately, every healer we’ve seen in Tomboy is either a serial killer themselves or a corrupt pawn of Big Pharma. The horror is the likelihood that this is true in real life.

 


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Imaginary Story 4: Batman Adventures vol. 1 #16-28
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E24-25
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($8 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!