Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin

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It’s June 20, 1997. The top song is Puff Daddy and Faith Evans feat. 112 with “I’ll Be Missing You”; Hanson, Mark Morrison, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the Spice Girls also chart. The top film is, regrettably, this; lower in the top 10 we find My Best Friend’s Wedding, Con Air, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and The Fifth Element.

And here we have the movie which, legendarily, killed the Batman film franchise started by Tim Burton’s Batman. Is it really that bad?

Well, yes, but not for the reasons usually given.

The usual complaints one hears about this movie is that it is silly and campy; straight male reviewers also often complain of discomfort at the way the camera frames the titular characters, especially in their “suiting up” montage. But the 1960s Batman film was silly and campy, and it was the best live-action Batman film of them all, so that can’t be what’s wrong with Batman and Robin. As for the framing of the characters: yes, the camera lingers on Batman and Robin’s legs, buttocks, and chests, and their costumes now emphasize their nipples. But the camera also lingers on Batgirl’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes her nipples, and it lingers on Poison Ivy’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes practically everything else. In short, Batman and Robin are just being subjected to the same male gaze as practically every woman in practically every movie ever, and critics’ selective discomfort is down to them not liking it when characters who resemble them are sliced by the frame into discrete, objectified body parts. They’ll survive.

No, the problem is that this is still the world where the Joker won. The garish neon colors of Batman Forever have faded into the sickly glow of a black-light poster on some weed-addled college freshman’s wall, the unfunny slapstick antics replaced by an endless stream of unfunny puns, but it’s otherwise pretty much the same.

Added to all the problems of Batman Forever are an overstuffed (and interminable–the film is two hours long and feels like seven) script that tries to juggle three origin stories, character arcs for both the titular characters, an “Alfred is dying” melodrama, and multiple races, car chases, and fight scenes. Then on top of that are severe tone issues, the most obvious of which is the choice to adapt Mister Freeze’s tragic DCAU origin story while trying also to have him be the film’s main source of comic relief.

But again, this isn’t a review. If the surface-level problems were all that was wrong with Batman and Robin, we wouldn’t be talking about its problems; the point here is to dig deeper. We’ll start by looking at how it handles Batgirl.

At first glance, she is horribly miscast. Not even a leather jacket and a motorcycle, or a bat-themed rubber fetish costume, can make Alicia Silverstone seem like anything other than a sheltered ingenue. She is simply not convincing as someone who got kicked out of a private school and made her living in London’s underground racing scene, let alone as someone who can take on a supervillain in a fight.

But this may be deliberate. During the otherwise pointless motorcyle race, her helmet clearly has an angel painted on it, mirroring the “devil horns” hairstyle Poison Ivy sports for much of the film. And indeed, Ivy is in full-on femme fatale mode in this movie, her main superpower no longer control over plants, but rather control over men. Batgirl is the innocent, purehearted schoolgirl to Ivy’s wicked, seductive mad scientist, the angel to her devil, the caregiver to her succubus. In short, the two are a straightforward Madonna/whore pair, and in that light Silverstone’s casting is spot-on.

Of course, the Madonna/whore complex is deeply misogynistic, as we’ve discussed before. The “good” girl is–as Batgirl is here–basically helpless, lacking any agency of her own, and indeed Batgirl has no apparent desires other than driving motorcycles and caring for her uncle, Alfred. It is his choice for her to become Batgirl, and he leads her down that path, even making a costume for her. Poison Ivy, meanwhile, uses her agency solely to hurt and manipulate men, including attempting to murder Freeze’s wife and pin the blame on Batman.

Indeed, Ivy’s–or, rather, Pamela Isley’s–politics are equated to evil throughout the film. Much of her early dialogue is a twisted parody of feminism, in which she blames all the ills of the world on “men” and “mankind” (with heavy emphasis on the first syllable), and replies to Bruce Wayne’s rejection of her scheme by asserting that a few million dead men are no real loss. It’s not just her, either; Dr. Woodrue’s rain forest restoration project is a front for developing super-soldiers. Environmentalism is characterized as blind opposition to industry and humanity, with an end to fossil fuel use described as an economic disaster that would lead to famine and people freezing from lack of fuel. There is, in Schumacher’s Batman, no making things better; your choices are pollution or destruction, the subjugation of one gender or slaughter of another.

There’s a third woman in the film, one presented as even more angelic than Batgirl: Nora Fries. She floats serenely between life and death, draped in a gauzy, flowing gown, the only character in the film who is never subjected to the ugly colored lighting that suffuses practically every scene. That, apparently, is the ideal, out-Madonna-ing the Madonna: a frozen, helpless, trapped woman unable to say or do anything, a woman literally reduced to an object. She has a reflection, too: Madison, Bruce Wayne’s disposable girlfriend of the indeterminate time period, who dares to express desires of her own–specifically, a desire for Bruce and for a commitment from Bruce, framed in the least aggressive or demanding terms imagineable–and then leaves him because he’s fixated on another woman. She never shows up in the film again.

Those are the four categories of women the film acknowledges: evil sexpots, women with agency (who try to entrap or abandon men), perfectly pure innocents whose greatest achievement and fulfillment of their potential is to become a man’s sidekick, and little statues carved of ice that can be carted around and, occasionally, gazed upon longingly.

Things don’t get much better when we look at the men. Just as Batgirl and Poison Ivy reflect one another, so do Robin and Mister Freeze. Both spend much of the film denying how emotional they are; both are driven by anger that they paper over with jokes, and both turn against Batman because they believe he took away, or is trying to take away, a woman that “belongs to” them. Ultimately, both are manipulated by Poison Ivy, but turn against her thanks to finally listening to Batman–whose own arc is about learning to ignore his (artificial) feelings for Ivy and admit to his feelings for Alfred.

Batman and Robin is, quite simply, a misogynistic movie. It is not only sexist in the ways action movies and superhero are usually sexist; it presents female agency as evil, and desire for women as the source of evil in men. Its happy ending is that one woman vanishes out of the film entirely, another remains frozen forever, a third becomes subordinated to male authority, and the last is stuck, stripped of her power and freedom, in a cell with a man who hates her and expresses sadistic delight at having her in his power.

We established with Batman Forever that the Schumacher Batman films represent the Joker triumphant. The same violence for violence’s sake that is the aesthetic of Batman Forever holds here; but just as Joker hates everyone, but treats women specifically with contempt, so does this film now single out women for worse treatment, limiting its violence against men to fistfights and a bit of metaphorical dismemberment by the camera.

This misogyny, misanthropy, Joker-ism, is why calling the films campy is a misnomer. Camp is fun; it entertains because it is silly, because it looks at the absurdity of life and celebrates it. The 60s were an era of camp because the pop culture of the 60s–or at least those bits of it we think of when we think of “the 60s”–was in love with life. It was anti-violence and anti-authority, anti-taking things too seriously, pro-joy and pro-silliness. There’s no trace of any of that in Batman Forever or Batman and Robin; the hammy delivery of the villains’ lines and equally flat delivery of the heroes’ may recall the 60s Batman, but surrounded by decay, ugliness, and hatred, they become grating reminders that something called “fun” might possibly have existed in some long-forgotten era.

By the next live-action Batman film, even the word will have been forgotten. But that’s a story for much later. For now, let’s let Superman bring some sun back in.

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Imaginary Story: JLA #1-41

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In “Calliope” (Sandman #17), Neil Gaiman tells the story of Richard Madoc, a writer who imprisoned a muse, giving him a few years of brilliance. Afterwards, however, Madoc was cursed with an excess of inspiration, an endless bubbling stream of ideas that come so quickly and ceaselessly that it’s impossible to work on any one before the next shoves its way in.

I’m not saying Richard Madoc is Grant Morrison, but it does rather describe his DC career.

JLA #1-41 is generally referred to as Grant Morrison’s run; though eight issues scattered throughout were actually by guest writers, it is Morrison’s writing which sets the tone for the run. The series began in January 1997, after the cancellation of the various struggling Justice League spin-offs and formation of a new Justice League; the intention was to go back to the League’s roots as a core team of the seven most powerful and well-known DC heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Note that this is almost the same lineup as the eventual Justice League cartoon; the only changes are that Aquaman was swapped out for Hawkgirl and the Kyle Rainer Green Lantern for John Stewart, in an effort to add some more diversity to a team that was otherwise very white and very male.

This is far from the only influence of JLA on Justice League, however. Quite a few Justice League stories are more or less adaptations of JLA stories. Both start with a White Martian invasion of Earth, for example, but in the comics the White Martians initially pretend to be friendly; in the show they don’t, but then the Thanagarian invaders two seasons later do. The “Only a Dream” Justice League two-parter and JLA #8-9 both involve villains trapping the Justice League in their dreams, while an unpowered hero works to outwit the superpowered villain and save them. A storyline beginning in #24 introduces the Ultramarine Corps, who bear more than a little resemblence to Justice League‘s Ultimen–and the same arc has General Eiling becoming a nigh-unstoppable monster, which the cartoon would make a separate story in Unlimited. And both issue 27 and “The Return” have Ray Palmer coming out of semi-retirement to help the League against an upgraded Amazo who can overpower the entire team. Even the very, very Grant Morrison-y final battle against Mageddon in issues 40-41 bears some resemblance to the fight against an Apokolips-devouring Brainiac in “Twilight,” which aired about a year and a half after the comics came out–just enough time for them to have been an influence.

That last arc is a good example of the problem with this run, however–ideas piled on top of ideas with no room to breathe. Just in the last couple of issues, we get the approaching alien monster Mageddon blanketing the Earth is psychic waves that increase aggression and territoriality, heralding World War III; Metron telling the Justice League that Earth is destined to become the home of the new New Gods and seed of the next universe when the current universe ends; Martian Manhunter helping Batman psychically connect to a Mageddon-controlled Superman in order to remind him that hope exists; Zauriel persuading a significant fraction of the angelic host to intervene on Earth and prevent World War III from becoming a nuclear holocaust; and Animal Man helping a group of Justice Leaguers build a device that temporarily gives everyone in the world the superpowers their descendants will someday have.

Any one of these ideas could take up an issue on its own, but most of them get little to no exploration because they’re bumping up against the others. Metron’s little revelation is dropped and then ignored–apparently none of the Leaguers present are interested in that revelation about their future. Similarly, everyone on Earth briefly has Superman-level powers, which somehow causes them also to decide to use them only for good despite the aggression blanketing the Earth–admittedly, this one rather bizarre idea, that omniscience leads inevitably to moral behavior, would eventually get something like exploration and explanation, or at least a few panels of expansion, in All-Star Superman a few years later–and no space is given to exploring the aftermath of their experiences. Or, for that matter, the aftermath of all major world leaders seeing first-hand that angels exist and look more or less how European Renaissance painters depicted them.

Morrison’s instincts about which idea most needs room to breathe are, generally, correct. In this case, it’s the psychic struggle between Batman’s hope and Superman’s rage and despair, including one gorgeous panel which plays on their similar appearances to show a single boy representing both, mourning the death of the Waynes and the death of Krypton simultaneously. Superman despairs of every life they fail to save, the endlessness and impossibility of protecting everyone; they couldn’t save Krypton/the Waynes, and therefore they will always lose in the end. Batman’s counterargument, in essence, is that they save Krypton and the Waynes every time they save anyone, and that therefore they always win.

It’s not that the story is confusing or doesn’t make sense; each idea gets enough story beats that the reader can fill in the gaps. The problem is that those gaps cover a great deal that would be interesting to see, to explore–but Morrison has to skip over it to make room for the next idea. In essence, JLA is the antithesis of The Death of Superman; one has too many ideas to give any one the space it really deserves, while the other spends far too long on an utter dearth of ideas.

Pretty much necessarily, this means JLA is a lot more fun than Death of Superman; though separated by only a few years, they clearly sit on opposite sides of the era divide epitomized by Kingdom Come.  Death of Superman sits in a place of rage and despair devoid of intellectual playfulness; JLA is essentially nothing but playing with ideas, so many that they can’t be contained. The latter is a vastly better problem to have if you want comics to be entertaining, varied, and interesting.

The future, at least for comics, is suddenly looking surprisingly bright.

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Crisis on N Earths: Pokémon

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To say that Pokémon completely transformed the American children’s television landscape is, perhaps, overstating matters, but not by much. It almost singlehandedly created the US anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, paved the way for other child-friendly anime to fill the last waning days of Saturday-morning and weekday-afternoon cartoon blocks on network TV, and in turn made space for the growing number of anime-esque and anime-influenced cartoons of the mid-2000s to the present, from Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender to Steven Universe.

It is also very much in a cousin genre to superhero cartoons such as the DCAU, though that may not be obvious at first glance. A brief explanation of terminology: anime is frequently divided into categories by (presumed) target audience, following a similar division that exists in manga. In this division, Pokémon would be considered a shōnen series, which is to say targeted at boys aged roughly 8-14. More precisely, Pokémon is a shōnen fighting anime, a genre which typically focuses on the adventures of a boy in the same age range as the target audience and a group of friends he gathers as he battles a series of ever-stronger enemies en route to some goal–pretty standard coming-of-age stuff. The protagonist is generally eager to battle and prove himself, remaining so throughout the series (or, if he loses his enthusiasm, regains it at a critical moment just in time to overcome the enemy of the week), and there is usually a heavy emphasis on themes of cooperation, teamwork, and friendship. Very often, at least one of the protagonist’s friends is a former antagonist, emphasizing that those themes apply even to those who were once enemies. In addition, there is often a character (usually older than the protagonist) whose primary role is to provide exposition during fights, explaining to the audience what the characters are doing and why it is impressive or unexpected.

While, as the name of the genre implies, shōnen fighting anime typically involve some kind of warfare or martial arts, the same narrative structures and character archetypes can be applied to essentially anything that can be framed as metaphorical combat: shōnen fighting series about drift racing, go, competitive baking, music, and drawing manga all exist. In the case of Pokémon, we have a shōnen fighting series about collecting “monsters” to  fight in “battles” against one another, this comprising the dominant sport in main character Ash Ketchum’s world. This element of the premise draws a great deal of criticism, which is not entirely undeserved: Ash does frequently use Pokémon he defeated in battle to fight for him, which is to say he uses imprisoned animals to capture more animals for himself to use in a bloodsport. It gets even worse if one recognizes the implication of  episodes like “Isle of the Giant Pokémon,” which subtitles interactions  between Pokémon: they are fully sapient, and the battles are thus not cockfighting, but gladiatorial combat between slaves!

Except this is the shōnen fighting genre. Defeated opponents joining the hero is a staple of the genre. So where are Ash’s defeated opponents on his team? It is not, though it is an easy mistake to make, Misty and Brock–though they are gym leaders (the closest things the game has to bosses), in the anime they each join Ash before he defeats them. (Indeed, he never actually does beat Misty, as their gym battle is interrupted by Team Rocket.) Instead, Brock is primarily the aforementioned exposition character, explaining Pokémon moves and their significance to other characters and thereby the audience; Misty is more or less the love interest.

But Ash does face an opponent in the first episode whom he battles, overcomes, and befriends: Pikachu. Pikachu initially attacks Ash at every opportunity. Later, when Ash figures out a way to keep Pikachu from shocking him quite so easily, Pikachu still refuses to fight his battles for him. It is only after Ash risks serious injury protecting Pikachu from a flock of attacking bird Pokémon that Pikachu fights to protect Ash in turn–and after Ash rushes Pikachu into medical care in the following episode, they are thereafter fast friends. Later Pokémon join Ash because he has helped them, befriended them, or, yes, defeated them through his other Pokémon, forming the ever-expanding circle of friends and allies characteristic of the genre.

None of this negates the twin specters of slavery and animal cruelty that haunt the show, but they provide it context. Twenty years later, when Steven Universe‘s title character made the first of many (mostly successful) attempts to convert enemies into friends in classic shōnen fighting style, in the first season’s “Monster Buddies,” Pokémon references abounded, from the very fact that his first attempt was a monster, to its newly cute appearance and smaller size, to the Pokéball-like appearance of its gem.

More broadly, Pokémon became the gateway for anime to flood American children’s television. Prior to Pokémon, anime’s reputation in the U.S. was as violent science fiction and pornography; after Pokémon, it was Pokémon. Suddenly anime adaptation was a growth industry, and for a time, it was everywhere, from television–most notably, the Fox Box, Kids’ WB (which aired Pokémon itself) and Cartoon Network’s Toonami block–to a growing number of specialty stores, to movie theaters, which in the late 90s and early 2000s increasingly showed anime-based films as varied as the first few Pokémon movies and Hayao Miyazaki’s contemplative-yet-violent fantasy epic Princess Mononoke.

This boom impacted Western animation, as well. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the line between Western animation and anime was never as hard and bright as fans of the latter generally liked to maintain, and the anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s caused it to fade away almost completely. Shows like Powerpuff Girls incorporated anime-esque action sequences and a soupcon of design elements into a show primarily influenced by Western cartoons and comics; later shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender combined heavily anime-influenced designs and backgrounds with Western-style animation techniques and character archetypes.

But another show looms on the horizon, just a few years away, a point of contact between the DCAU, anime, and one other major source we’ve yet to touch, though here in 1997 it is happening as we speak. But, though closer than it’s ever been, it’s still just a bit beyond our grasp, too much of the future to touch just yet.

We will arrive in due time.

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Crisis on N Earths: Heaven’s Gate, Left Behind

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In writing this piece, I am incredibly indebted to Fred Clark’s incredibly thorough excoriation of the Left Behind series. Is it not written, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he reads the World’s Worst Books so we don’t have to.”

Over the course of the 20th century, religious predictions of the end of the world became increasingly popular. This should not be regarded as particularly surprising–people like round numbers, and so there was mounting belief that the Christian world was coming to an end back when the year 2000 was approaching, just as happened with 1000. These predictions intensified with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948–those who read the Bible as a work of apocalyptic prophecy (millennialists) see the conquest of Israel and slaughter of its people as one of the signs of impending doom, and of course a country has to exist before it can be conquered.

This also gave a way around one of the most powerful arguments against reading the Bible this way, Matthew 24:34, in which Jesus is quoted as saying “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” Everyone Jesus preached to directly is dead, and the world is still here, so anywhere “these things” refers to the end of the world must be read as metaphor or hyperbolic descriptions of things that happened back in the 1st century. (Or, you know, as Jesus being wrong, but Christians usually don’t much like reading the Bible that way.)

“Not so!” reply the millennialists. Their argument is that Jesus wasn’t referring to his own generation, but this generation, the reader’s generation–and they know it refers to the current generation of readers, not any of the generations between the writing of the New Testament and now, because there wasn’t a state of Israel until now. (I’d argue this is a tortured and tenuous reading, but I’ve written about the Qabala of My Little Pony and the destruction of Krypton as the end result of a magical ritual performed by Harley Quinn; I have no room to talk.)

So religious apocalypticism, and especially Christian millennialism, rise even faster in the latter half of the 20th century. One relatively minor figure in that rise is Marshall Applewhite, who dabbled in the Christian prophecy industry in the early 1970s. After he met Bonnie Nettles, who was similarly interested in predictions of impending apocalypse, but from a more New Age perspective, the two gradually came to believe that they were the “two witnesses” described in the Book of Revelation. They preached an ascetic blend of Christian millennialism, Gnosticism, and New Age UFO lore, in which extraterrestrial demiurgic entities had infected all Earth religions with lies, but good alien “walk-ins” (a kind of extraterrestrial possession common in New Age UFO belief) had taken over the bodies of Applewhite and Nettles so that they could preach the truth and help followers shed their earthly ties, sparing them the horrors of the destruction to come. This could be accomplished by ascendance to “the next level,” which could be achieved by the faithful through physical transportation (via a spacecraft Applewhite later declared to be hiding behind the comet Hale-Bopp), natural or accidental death, or martyrdom.

Also, they did web design. (Really.)

By the mid-90s, a decade after Nettles’ death, the group had evolved into what is known as a cybercult. From behind a front organization, the web design firm Higher Source (see?), the cult uploaded recruitment materials to the Internet and sought out the lonely and disaffected. In March 1997, as Hale-Bopp passed Earth with no sign of a spacecraft behind it, Applewhite posted a video online in which he described a revelation that there was a fourth way to achieve the next level, by deliberately letting go of one’s physical body. On March 22 and 23, 1997, at a house outside San Diego rented by Higher Source, 39 members of the cult, including Applewhite, killed themselves by ingesting poison and then putting plastic bags over their heads.

To be fair, they thus actually did avoid the horrors to come, as by and large the early 21st century has not been a fun time. Of course, anybody who has ever died at any point has avoided the horrors to come, because there are always horrors to come.

This idea, however, that there are particularly bad horrors in the near future, but a way for the faithful to avoid them, is a common, albeit not universal, theme in contemporary Christian millennialism. Its most popular form is the Rapture, in which, shortly before the beginning of the Tribulation–the years-long period of mounting suffering culminating in the apocalypse–the faithful will be evacuated to Heaven instead of dying. (Because apparently ceasing to exist on Earth and going to Heaven is somehow different from how Christianity normally describes dying.)

One of the popularizers of this particular form of millennialism is Tim LaHaye, a fundamentalist evangelical pastor who emerged from much the same time and background as Applewhite, but kept his predictions firmly in the fantasy genre rather than incorporating elements of science fiction, and thus found more popularity. In the mid-90s, LaHaye teamed up with alleged writer and fellow fundamentalist evangelical Jerry B. Jenkins to present LaHaye’s apocalyptic timeline in fictionalized form, beginning with the 1995 book Left Behind, which followed a group of characters who, following the Rapture, embrace LaHaye-style millennialism and form a resistance cell against the Antichrist.

Except that they don’t do any actual resisting, because everything evil the Antichrist does is part of the prophecy, and therefore has to happen because the divine plan says so. The whole thing is a pantomime orchestrated by God; the Antichrist thinks he’s rebelling, and is therefore evil, while the “Tribulation Force” resistors think they’re serving God, and are therefore good. There really isn’t a difference between their actions; good and evil are names for sides.

Left Behind, in other words, is very much part of the same 90s aesthetic as The Death of Superman. LaHaye’s disappointment in the fizzling out of the Cold War is palpable, to the point that Left Behind essentially ignores it–Russia pretty much plays the same role that the Soviet Union did in pre-1988 millennialist prophesy, namely as the Biblical “Gog and Magog.” In LaHaye’s interpretation, that translates to an attempt to nuke Israel some months prior to the Rapture.

And much like the superheroes of the 90s, the fantasized protector becomes more authoritarian as it becomes more violent against those from whom it protects. A combination of bad writing and general lack of empathy leads to a depiction of a monstrous God, who visits terror and destruction on all who oppose or are even indifferent to him, while those who surrender utterly and unquestioningly to his whims are protected and rewarded. It is not even that goodness becomes identified with obedience; the Antichrist, after all, is just filling out his role in the timeline set down by God. Rather, it’s that the in-group are to be protected, and the out-group to be destroyed. Failure to defer to the authority of the protector is one way to demonstrate one belongs in the out-group, but not the only way; some people are just inherently Not Like Us. You know who.

And indeed, the books are unrelenting in their casual racism (mostly in the form of all characters of color being walking stereotypes), pointedly deliberate sexism and homophobia (women are to submit to men, while gay and lesbian coding are used as indicators of villainy), and predictable anti-Semitism (good Jews convert to Christianity or reinterpret Judaism in ways that make it indistinguishable from Christianity; the rest of the Jewish people exist for purposes of dying horribly in the wars leading up to the apocalypse).

This is what the protector fantasy becomes at its most extreme. Weare to be protected, they are to be slaughtered. We are good and our protector is therefore also good; anything bad that we or our protector does to them is their fault, for not being us.

There’s a word I’ve studiously avoided using, not just in this entry but in the entire project thus far. It’s a word that tends to shut down thinking, because it describes an evil so extreme that any reference to it is prima facie assumed to be hyperbole. Yet it is a word that must be said, especially now as I write this, in 2017. A word for this extreme form of protector fantasy, for an authoritarian division into in-group and out-group in which any and every act of violence against the out-group is permitted. Here at the very heart of the superhero, in the protector fantasy itself, we find that word lurking, waiting for us all along.

Wertham was right.

Superheroes are fascist.

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Retroactive Continuity: “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” (Adventures of Superman #40-41)

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

A koan, in Western usage, generally refers to an unanswerable riddle or meaningless statement, usually in a quasi-derisive reference to Buddhist thought. The actual koans of Zen Buddhism, however, are neither riddles nor meaningless. Perhaps the most famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (a very loose translation of a koan by the Japanese Zen master Ekaku Hakuin) is not a question without an answer; rather, it is a metaphorical invitation to explore the rejection of duality. Two hands clapping represents our dualistic division of the universe into binaries–meaningful/meaningless, light/dark, good/bad, male/female, West/East; a single hand clapping would then represent an attempt to think about the world as a monad, that those apparent opposites are in fact manifestations of a single unified whole.

Superman is a well-defined character with a strong personality. Too strong; he’s so nice, so endlessly perfect and flawless that he becomes boring. He’s just nice–what does that even mean? It’s so vague, he has no personality of his own, no character, he’s just an empty shell that exists to serve as a moral center for the DC universe.

The Joker, now there’s a compelling character. So iconic, so cool, laughing and thumbing his nose at authority. A prankster, a monster, a loser desperate for attention. The last role of a great actor, so powerful and difficult that it killed him. Always lying, always joking, he believes in nothing, does nothing, is nothing, a pathetic loser child trying to get Bat-daddy’s attention. Absurdly easy to write or play, just have him laugh and be cruel, no need for rhyme or reason or personality, such a boring, superficial character only a child could find interesting.

Superman is a hero. He always does what’s right. He attacks someone whose potential for harm has already been neutralized, and threatens twice to kill him; that’s how we know he’s a hero. Batman is a hero. He never breaks his code. He lets the Joker run around endangering countless lives; that’s how we know he’s the hero. Batman tricks and tests Superman; Superman destroys Batman’s property; that’s how we know they’re allies.

We know the Joker is a villain because he never actually hurts anyone. That’s the villain’s job, after all: to try to hurt people, and fail.

Superman isn’t greater than anyone, but he’s better than you. He’s one small man who does what seems right to him. Always, without exception, he does what seems right to him. Can you say that?

Batman can’t. He doesn’t trust how things seem; he lives in a mask, after all. He needs a code, and sometimes he does things that seem wrong, but he tells himself it’s right because he’s following the code, sticking to his principles. Everything must be questioned, tested, subjected to experiment, even if that means endangering thousands of people in Metropolis.

We know Batman and the Joker are opposites: good and evil; hero and villain; order and chaos; the man who never laughs and the man who never stops.

We know Superman and Batman are opposites: light and dark; day and night; hope and fear; the famous, unmasked hero who hides as a bumbling nobody and the masked urban legend who hides as a rich celebrity.

We know Superman and the Joker are opposites: caring and callous; kind and cruel; protector and killer; truth, justice, and the American way and tricks, crime, and cheating.

But if Batman and the Joker are both opposites of Superman, they must be the same. If Superman and Batman are both opposites of the Joker, they must be the same.  If the Joker and Superman are both opposites of Batman, they must be the same. Everyone is the opposite of everyone else, and everyone is the same.

Binaries don’t work. It’s more complicated than that, because everything is one.

“The sound of one hand clapping.”


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Imaginary Story: Lois and Clark, Pt 2

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Last time on The Near-Apocalypse of ’09: Superman got married twice in the same day, soap operas and superhero comics are basically the same thing, and Lois and Clark makes an excellent metaphor for the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberalism.

Superman exists in tension between two fundamentally contradictory ideals. This is true of all superheroes, and it’s a tension we’ve already explored: the near-apocalypse. We want change and we fear chaos, want to be both free and protected, unbounded and restrained, and superheroes embody that contradiction. This plays out very visibly in Lois and Clark, because the show is likewise caught between parallel, contradictory ideals, namely that it clearly wants both to be progressive and to be accepted as a family show, which is to say a show that parents and children watch together–and as fully subject to puritanism and reproductive futurism as that implies.

So, for example, we get Lois Lane, tough career woman, who in classic 90s Strong Independent Woman fashion proves how feminist she is by using gendered insults rooted in misogyny–telling people to “man up,” for example. The show clearly wants to be on her side–she gets higher billing than Superman in a Superman show!–but it cannot get away from traditional gender roles without earning the ire of parents’ groups worried about The Children. Thus (as its humor betrays) it cannot escape the idea that feminists are “trying to be men” or in some sense masculinized–the very first shot of Lois has her disguised as a man!

Gender roles are not the only place this tension exists. Sex in particular is subject to it: on the one hand, the show is built around the title characters’ relationship as it progresses from coworkers to friends to romance. On the other, The Children cannot be permitted to see unmarried heroic characters who have (or even might be suspected to have) sex, or who knows what kinds of premarital hankies-panky* might ensue. So we get characters like Cat Grant, who spends the first season being slut-shamed and then vanishes from the show entirely, while Jimmy Olson changes girlfriends on an almost weekly basis, which is deemed perfectly acceptable. More precisely, while there are jokes about Jimmy’s dating habits, they paint him as failing in ability (to keep a girlfriend), where Cat is depicted as failing morally (and correspondingly shallow and materialistic). This tension about sex is most notable, appropriately enough, in sexual tension. Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain have immense chemistry together, and where the dialogue occasionally struggles to convey that these are two people fighting their romantic feelings for one another, the performances consistently and convincingly portray two people who would very much like to have sex with each other.

Nonetheless, the show periodically reminds viewers that Lois definitely does not and has not ever fucked, with both her fiancés (Luthor and Clark) noting in their respective (failed) wedding episodes that Lois wants to “wait until marriage” so that “it will be special.” Very familiar phrases when I was a teenager watching this show and subjected to mid-90s Virginia politicians’ ideas of Sex Ed; one half-expects Lois to bus out the old “when you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with every person they had sex with” canard.

This puritanical attitude is balanced, however, by the show’s clear awareness that its stars are sexy people good at acting like they want to have sex with each other. Only a few episodes in, characters are already being subjected to inhibition-removing chemicals that cause them to pursue each other, Luthor’s schemes soon become as much or more about getting Lois to love him as killing Supeman, and once Lois and Clark actually do get married, they are very strongly implied to be fucking like bunnies. (Once they get the literal curse preventing it out of the way.)

But the strongest tension is one we’ve already discussed with Batman: Superman is a protector fantasy and therefore cannot promote meaningful change. When H.G. Wells arrives in his time machine (which is a thing that happens more than once in the course of the series) with stories of a future utopia built on the ideals of Superman and Lois Lane, no indication is given of how this happens. There is, reportedly, no crime, but what exactly this means, how crime is defined in utopia, is given no answer. We are simply assured that if we trust in the protector, utopia will eventually occur–but how can it, when the protector insists on doing nothing beyond catching criminals (as defined by our decidedly non-utopian system of law) and handing them over to the equally non-utopian criminal justice system?

Which is precisely what Superman insists on doing, as explicitly stated in “Faster Than a Speeding Vixen.” A new superhero appears in town (who for some reason is named Vixen, despite being a white American woman with speed powers) and begins attacking and killing criminals (and, secretly, select businessmen). Superman specifically states that she should capture the criminals unharmed and hand them over for the police and courts to deal with. Eventually she turns out to be a robot and he kills her by reflecting her attack, because moral dilemmas and alternate approaches cannot be permitted in a family show, apparently.

Or utopia, for that matter, as apparently the only dissenter in the perfect future is a man named Tempus, who is essentially the American version of Doctor Who‘s Master that the (roughly contemporary) TV Movie failed so badly to present: he is a scenery-chewing, pompous, smarmy, self-aware, selfish, amoral, fourth wall-breaking cartoon supervillain and easily the best thing to come out of Lois and Clark. In one two-parter (his final appearance), he manages to presage both the 2007 Doctor Who finale and  the 2016 election by hacking the phone system to mind-control the population into electing him President pretty much entirely out of spite, gunning down a homeless man in the street, and transforming the US into a fascist state. Alternate-universe Superman, HG Wells, and Lois valiantly battle him, the real Superman having been imprisoned in a dimension of bad CGI, and save America, restoring the status quo.

But what is the alternative? No matter what political position Superman espouses, he is Superman. It’s right there in the name: he is a superior, singular individual, physically, mentally, and (the show would have us believe) morally. This is essentially what Tempus programmed the American electorate to think of him, and his rise to power was the birth of an authoritarian state–not because he is evil (though he gloriously, campily is), but because the idea that superior and inferior people exist is in itself authoritarian. There is no way Superman can fix our problems and bring about utopia; whether he kills or not, hands people over to the police or throws them into the Realm of Bad CGI, chooses his targets based on law or a moral code or whim, acts as a vigilante or joins a government organization, the story is still one of a superior man imposing his will upon the world.

Which is where the dilemma of the superhero, the dilemma of the show, and the dilemma of liberalism stand revealed as one. Superheroes are trapped because, as (presumably) “the good guys” they must oppose authoritarianism, yet by their very nature as heroes are themselves authoritarian. The show is trapped between its desire to be progressive (and, in particular, feminist), and the regressive reproductive futurism that arises from its status as a family show.

This is liberalism. Liberalism wants to be the good guys, to be on the side of freedom and equality and a better tomorrow, but shies away from revolution. It wants to be polite and friendly and liked by everyone, which in practice means objecting to Nazis getting punched. It is built on self-contradiction, the creation of slave-holders who wanted freedom, genocidal colonists who wanted independence, and rich white men who talked about equality while not allowing women, black people, or the poor to vote. It insists that the system of government these rich white men built is somehow capable of freedom and equality for all (because they said so, which means it must be true), if we could just catch the villains and put the right people in charge. No need for, say, reparations for the descendants of victims of genocide and slavery; after all, we’ve been doing nothing whatsoever about the ensuing inequality and injustice for generations, so obviously it has to have fixed itself by now in our most perfect of all possible governments, right?

This is the trap, the inescapable tension at the heart of Superman. Where Batman is a conservative hero, motivated by the desire to punish the guilty and maintain the structures of power, Superman is a liberal hero, motivated by the wish for people to be nice to one another. He’ll oppose the KKK, but carefully ignore the fact that our prisons are just slavery in a new guise. He’ll try to foil Lex Luthor’s schemes, but won’t take him in unless he breaks the laws written by the politicians Luthor owns–and even then, Luthor is a rich white man, unlikely to have too bad a time of it in the criminal justice system.

We can’t gradually slide into utopia thanks to one good man getting rid of the bad men. Utopia can only happen in the wake of apocalypse; unfortunately, it’s far from the most likely outcome. And therein lies our own tension: are things bad enough for us to be willing to risk the possibility of worse?

*The even more glorious plural of the glorious phrase “premarital hanky-panky,” both coined by cartoonist David Willis, about whom more in a very, very long time.

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Imaginary Story: The Wedding Album, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

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It is October 6, 1996. This week, Superman: The Wedding Albumcomes out, although its cover bears a December 1996 date.

The long-delayed marriage of Lois Lane and Clark Kent is presented in a rather odd little volume. The idea, it seems, was to present it as the work of a comic-book supergroup, with the cover announcing it to be the work of many “Superman artists and writers, past and present.” In practice, the result is a disjointed book that shifts tone and art style every few pages, more like a series of vignettes joined only by the fact that they occur in the same couple of days. It has very little in the way of overarching narrative, just a series of “and then… and then…” (“And then Mxyzptlk shows up, and then he turns into a “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” reference, and then he leaves, and then they get married, and then Batman is Superman’s landlord.”)

But that’s more or less what the title promises: an album, a set of photographs which need share in common only that they be in the same book. A wedding album isn’t a narrative, except in the sense that all experience is narrative because it occurs in a temporal sequence. Most of the time, however, there is just a photo, and then another photo, and then another photo. The photos may be arranged in the order they were taken, or they may not. Some may be candid and others may be posed. Items other than photos may be inserted, such as a copy of the marriage certificate.

Ultimately, any photo album is an exercise in nostalgia. The point of it isn’t to narrate, but to point at narratives, to remind the reader of past events and people. A wedding album in particular is also about celebrating the event; it is meant for members of the family to leaf through and, ideally, relive a moment of love and joy. The point of The Wedding Album isn’t to tell the story of Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s wedding day, but rather to remind readers of “old friends” (i.e., significant supporting cast) and take joy in the love of Superman, Lois Lane, and their families and friends.

All of which adds up to being better than dozens of issues of “let’s kill ‘im,” but still can’t really rise above empty fluff, and not particularly well-executed empty fluff at that.

Speaking of (generally) well-executed empty fluff, it’s October 6, 1996, and after more than three years of build-up, the wedding episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (known by only its subtitle outside the US) is finally here: “We Swear to God, This Time We’re Not Kidding.” The title refers to the number of times the title characters broke up, got back together, pretended to be married, tried and failed to get married, and so on over the course of the series, including a gloriously ridiculous five-episode arc in which they appear to marry, but at the last second Lois is swapped out for a clone created by Lex Luthor, and then Lois gets amnesia and thinks she’s the main character of a novel she started writing while mad at Clark, and then the clone gives her life to help Superman defeat Luthor and get Lois back, and then one of the doctors who are supposed to be helping Lois recover her memories brainwashes her to assassinate Perry White, and then after she and Superman foil that plot the other doctor manipulates her into thinking she’s in love with him, and then her memories are accidentally restored by an unrelated mad-science scheme by one of that doctor’s other patients.

Even the wedding episode itself teases the possibility that it might not happen. In the course of the cold open, Lois bumps her head and then pretends to have amnesia again, then floats the possibility that their relationship is cursed, and then Clark quips that at least the (never before seen) Wedding Destroyer hasn’t escaped and vowed revenge. The Wedding Destroyer then escapes and vows revenge. (In the following episode, it turns out Lois and Clark’s relationship is cursed and they have to time travel to a Robin Hood pastiche and the Old West to undo the curse before they can consummate their marriage. Herein lies the entire essence of the show.) In the end, it is only through the intervention of what is heavily implied to be both an actual guardian angel and a stand-in for the show creators, as well as possibly the Archangel Michael himself, that they actually manage to get married.

The story is, in short, silly, but that’s in keeping with the rest of the show. It is light, goofy, and frequently quite funny, full of disarmingly mediocre performances and charmingly bad special effects. And, as you may notice from my description of the one five-episode arc, its metastructure is precisely that “and then… and then…” I noted above in regards to The Wedding Album. That said, the really surprising thing about Lois and Clark is that it has a metastructure at all–in the mid-90s, most American television was still highly episodic: individual episodes might occasionally call back to past episodes, but arcs longer than the occasional two-parter were extremely rare. This was starting to shift by the late 90s, but most television still consisted of individual, largely self-contained episodes. Occasionally there might be shifts in the status quo, such as cast or setting changes, characters getting married or divorced, and so on, but these were not arcs per se–there would be an episode in which the status quo changed, and thereafter it would be treated as the new status quo.

The primary exception to this was, of course, soap operas, both day- and prime-time. Soap operas were notable both for their serialization and the relative complexity of their episodes; where most hour-long dramas would have an A plot and sometimes a B plot, soap operas would typically have at least three plots, given roughly equal weight. In addition, where most shows generally resolved plots in the episodes that introduced them, in soap operas plots were usually staggered, so that a new plot might be introduced while another is ongoing and yet another is drawing to an end–a very deliberate structure designed to simultaneously give new viewers a good jumping-on point and encourage established viewers to keep watching, without sacrificing a sense of resolution. And Lois and Clark does frequently draw plot elements from soap operas, including amnesia-inducing head-bumps, elaborate revenge schemes, dark secrets, fake and disrupted weddings, doppelgangers, and dual identities.

But Lois and Clark isn’t structured like a soap opera, as frequently as it draws on that aesthetic. Instead, each episode is its own self-contained story, sometimes with a (usually also self-contained) B-plot. However, frequently, a twist will occur in that story’s denouement, just when everything seemed to be over, that then prompts a “To Be Continued…” and forms the basis of the next episode’s story. This is not how soap operas do it–but it is, frequently, how comic books work. A given storyline might take up a single issue or several, but very often it will end with a setup for the next storyline, this being how comics solve the problem any indefinite-length serialized work has of providing resolution while also encouraging readers/viewers to return for the next issue/episode.

In other words, Lois and Clark is fusing the soap opera and the comic book, both in terms of story elements and at the structural level. Indeed, look at the list of soap-operatic elements it plays with: amnesia, elaborate schemes for revenge, doppelgangers, dual identities and dark secrets (with the secret often being the dual identity)–other than the fake and disrupted weddings, these are all staples of superhero comics as well! (And even those showed up from time to time in the Golden Age.) What the show reveals is that there is very little difference between a superhero comic and a soap opera, and honestly that shouldn’t surprise us: both are melodramas structured as open-ended serials that can run indefinitely. The only real difference is that soap operas are (at least on the surface) usually about sex, while comic books are (at least on the surface) usually about violence.

Also, Lois and Clark makes an excellent metaphor for the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberalism.

To Be Continued…

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