Crisis on N Earths: Rick and Morty S1E6 “Rick Potion #9”

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This post was commissioned by Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

Trigger warning: Discussion of rape.

Please note that this was written prior to the #metoo movement and associated revelations about Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon. It has not been updated to reflect that news.

Rick and Morty fans are, quite rightly, frequently mocked for an unearned sense of superiority. The claim that the humor of Rick and Morty–a show riddled with fart jokes and gross-out gags–requires unusual intelligence to appreciate is, frankly, absurd, and anyone who sees a miserable, alcoholic, misogynistic, child-abusing mass murderer like Rick as worthy of admiration or emulation has drastically missed the point of the show.

It should not be that surprising, then, that one of the show’s smartest, most insightful, most inciteful jokes goes largely without comment among the sorts of fans who hold up Rick as a paragon of nerd masculinity or queue up for the brief resurrection of an orientalist marketing stunt involving a mix of ketchup and teriyaki:* referring to a love potion as a roofie.

Because of course it is one. What we call “consent” refers to an alignment of perception, emotion, intention, and action. In other words, to truly consent, someone must have capacity to perceive the situation accurately, room to feel genuine emotion about that situation, opportunity to formulate an intention of how they plan to respond to how they feel about the situation, and finally freedom to take action in accord with their intent. Break that chain, knock any element out of alignment, and true consent is no longer possible.

In discussing rape in real life, people usually assume physical force or the threat of violence is involved, disengaging action from intent and making the victim do something they have made clear that they don’t want to. But that’s not the most common scenario; by far the weapon of choice for rapists is alcohol, which mostly operates by distorting perception and cognition, which is to say the first three steps in the process. Consent is just as impossible as when a threat of violence is involved, but because we are so trained by narratives that fixate on the disconnect between action and intent, it becomes easy for those motivated to do so to dismiss.

Fantasy and science fiction stories frequently depict substances (or spells, or machines) that disrupt perception, emotion, or intention, and rarely recognize that they thus violate consent. But a love potion really is just a magical date-rape drug, because it artificially alters emotion. Jessica doesn’t want to have sex with Morty; that is, to the best of our knowledge, she accurately perceives him, has room to feel whatever she feels about him, opportunity to make decisions about those feelings, and freedom to act on them, and chooses not to have sex with Morty. Until he smears her with magical “roofie juice serum,” at which point she becomes so determined to have sex with him that she loses all self-control. He’s distorted her perception of him, altered her emotions, seized control of her intentions, and is thereby forcing her actions: Rick’s name for it is thoroughly accurate.

That throwaway joke alone would hardly be worthy of an essay. But the rest of the episode builds it into a theme: this is all about the ownership and violation of bodies. Morty’s attempt to violate Jessica’s bodily and mental autonomy goes wildly out of control, and Rick’s attempted solutions make it even worse, as people all over the world unwillingly lose their humanity. They are reduced to monstrous things, abjectified as “Cronenbergs” (referring, of course, to David Cronenberg, master of grotesque horror), and ultimately just abandoned to their fate. Rick doesn’t care about their humanity any more than Morty cares about Jessica’s; Rick just sees something grotesque he wants to escape, while Morty just sees something attractive he wants to possess.

All this comes together in the ending, as Morty is forced to bury his own alternate-universe corpse so that he can slip into that Morty’s life. He passes, silent and bug-eyed, through a world where everything is the same as before he used the roofie juice serum, yet he knows that nothing is the same, because he is not the same. He was forced to confront his own mortality, the reality that he is a body, and see that body treated as an object, buried and forgotten.

Two episodes later, in “Rixty Minutes,” Morty uses the fact of his corpse as an object lesson for Summer on the meaninglessness and horror of existence: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” That is the solution he attempts here in “Rick Potion #9”: he sits in front of the TV. But he remains mute and wide-eyed as ever, making clear that it doesn’t work. He cannot simply forget that he is an object, a monster, a rotting corpse.

None of us can. But that’s the difference between Morty here and Morty two episodes ago: he asks Summer to come watch TV with him. We are all things, animals, bodies; but by treating one another as people, by communicating and asking instead of coercing and forcing, we become people as well.

*Seriously, look at the ingredients list here. Soy sauce + sugar + garlic and spices = Americanized teriyaki sauce. Tomato paste + sugar + vinegar = ketchup. Neither of these things is Chinese. One is an Americanization of a Japanese cooking technique, the other an Americanization of a Malaysian sauce.

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Make me (Identity Crisis)

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It’s September 15, 1997. It’s been two days; the top songs and movies haven’t budged, and nothing really newsworthy has happened.

It’s been an ordinary couple of days for a pretty ordinary Superman: The Animated Series episode. “Identity Crisis” is notable mostly for being one of STAS’s most successful attempts at the kind of “sympathetic villain” episode that BTAS did so well, but even taking that into account, it is still a repetition of things done more interestingly in other episodes: the sympathetic villain was done much better in BTAS episodes like “Heart of Ice” and “Baby Doll,” and the villainous version of Superman done better in “Blasts from the Past.”

Still, it makes a good stab at Bizarro–aptly named, as he is one of Superman’s more bizarre villains. Certainly the idea of a villain that is in some sense an opposite number to the hero isn’t new: the DCAU started by pitting Batman against Man-Bat, and STAS with Lex Luthor, who is human rather than alien, urban and wealthy rather than rural and working class, ruthless rather than compassionate, and so on. But Bizarro in his original conception took the Anti-Superman concept rather literally; he wasn’t so much evil as he was possessed of a bizarre value system.

This version, however, has less in common with the Silver Age Bizarro that Alan Moore killed off in the opening pages of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” than he does with the bizarre creature that Victor Frankenstein brought to life in the 1931 film. Like the iconic Boris Karloff monster, he emerges from an effort to create life in an isolated laboratory, speaks in broken, ungrammatical sentences, and ultimately is immolated in fire.

In this, Bizarro is quite distinct from the the monster depicted in the original novel, who was highly intelligent and articulate, and at the end of the book is still alive and headed into the frozen Arctic, though he does say he intends to incinerate himself. But all three monsters–the two Frankensteins* and Bizarro–share that they are tragic figures, ultimately more sinned against than sinning. But even there Bizarro takes more after the film Frankenstein than the book version, since the problem is an innate flaw in his creation–in Frankenstein’s case, that he was given the brain of a murderer; in Bizarro’s that the process of replicating alien DNA isn’t fully understood.

The result for film Frankenstein is that he is inarticulate and prone to violence when frightened or upset; for Bizarro, it’s that he gradually breaks down physically and mentally. Initially he looks and acts just like Superman, except for not knowing who Clark Kent is; as the episode goes on, his skin turns completely white, his posture more slumped, and his face increasingly asymmetrical and elongated, while his understanding and language degrade to “Me am hero” and the like. The end result, however, is still violence; the difference is that Bizarro is initially acting not out of anger but confusion, and genuinely believes he’s helping.

That gives us the first reason this doesn’t really work as a sympathetic villain story: Bizarro is sympathetic, but not the villain. The real villains are Lex Luthor and the unnamed scientist, but they’re barely in the episode and entirely unsympathetic.

The second, and more important reason, that it doesn’t work is encapsulated at the end of the episode, in the contrast between two of Lois Lane’s last lines. When Bizarro sacrifices himself so that Lois and Superman can escape, she tells him, “You are a hero,” and he smiles as he dies. Shortly after, in the final line of the episode, Lois tells Superman that his clone turning out to be a hero in the end is to be expected, because “he came from good stock.”

Here the show stumbles in the same way that the 1931 Frankensteindid. In the novel, the monster becomes violent because he is rejected and abandoned by its father, and left to survive on his own in a world that all too often regards him with terror and loathing. He is abject, that which is neither subject (the self) nor object (that which we accept having around us) but entirely Other, pushed to and beyond the margins of society, and he is understandably hurt and angry as a result. By contrast, the film’s monster is violent because he was created with bad material from a bad person, and Bizarro ultimately turns out to be heroic because he was created with good material from a good person. Their moral status is not a result of their choices, but rather an inevitable, albeit tragic, result of their biology.

Consider the most effective sympathetic villains we’ve seen. All are, in some sense, abject: Mister Freeze is cut off from all human contact, literally by his suit and metaphorically by the loss of his wife. Killer Croc is, like the monster in the novel, rejected for his grotesque appearance; in her own way, so is Baby Doll. Even Poison Ivy is treated as a femme fatale, objectified to the point of becoming abject. In all cases, it is the conflict between a deeply human character–a subject–and their abjection that creates the pathosessential for tragedy; we recognize that in their circumstances, we probably wouldn’t make the most prosocial choices either, and thus sympathize with them.

Bizarro is just as abject as they are, but we are never given a subject to contrast that abjection with. He is Superman, and then he’s this strange, distorted version of Superman; there is no sense of who Bizarro is when he’s himself. Even his strange “date” with Lois comes from his belief that he’s Superman, not his own wishes or desires, whatever they are. Lois’ final line then denies completely that he has any identity of his own; he is just his biology, and his struggle throughout the episode was not a sympathetic one between subject and abjection, but an abstract one between “good stock” and flawed construction.

Lois Lane shares vastly more DNA with Lex Luthor than with Superman, seeing as she and Lex are the same species while she and Superman aren’t even from the same planet; technically speaking, Superman isn’t even an animal–he’s not a member of the evolutionary clade that includes both sponges and dogs. Does Luthor’s existence prove that humans are “bad stock”? Or all mammals, all animals, all Earth life? How are Superman and Jax-ur from the same species?

Of course not. Which is entirely the problem, and one of the most important reasons the protector fantasy has to remain just a fantasy: Superman isn’t innately good. He just keeps choosing to do (ostensibly) the right thing.

What if he stops?

*No, pedants, it is not incorrect to refer to the monster as Frankenstein. While he is given no name in the book, many film versions, especially the later Universal films, establish in their titles that their monster is named Frankenstein, just like the scientist. Additionally, the novel depicts Victor Frankenstein as being in essence the monster’s father; that would make the monster a Frankenstein.**

**Why yes, I am preempting pedantry by being even more pedantic.

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A shock to your system (Livewire)

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It’s still September 13, 1997, the same day as “Speed Demons” and “Holiday Knights,” and there have been no significant changes in the charts or news stories in the several minutes since the latter.

Livewire’s introduction makes a lot of sense. Harley Quinn was a massive hit, so why not see if lightning (pun very much intended) would strike twice and introduce a new female villain in Superman: The Animated Series? And given that, Livewire and Harley Quinn are interesting to compare. Harley is unpowered, like Batman, while Livewire and Superman both have superpowers. Harley tries to come across as less intelligent than she actually is; Livewire isn’t as smart as she pretends to be. Harley is genuinely funny and subversive; Livewire is angry and power-hungry (in both the literal and metaphorical senses).

One more thing they have in common: they’re both tricksters. But where Harley wields the magic of the harlequinade, subverting and transforming the world, Livewire is a violator of taboos, the woman who laughs in the temple. It is an alternate path to tearing down the power structures of society: mocking the sacred reminds us that it is we who hallow it, not the other way around. Communities create their own taboos; it is the job of the trickster to remind us that we could change them if we wanted.

In the Renaissance carnivals from which the harlequinade ultimately evolved, the breaking of taboos and crossing of boundaries were common. In particular, mockery of the sacred and inversions of the feudal order were encouraged. This is the origin of the tradition of the grotesque, in which the boundaries of the body were violated just as the boundaries of society, and the abject is welcomed in.

In keeping with this tradition, Livewire doesn’t just put on a costume, she is transformed into a monster, a blue-haired, unnaturally pale creature that crackles with energy and eats lightning. She transgresses the boundaries of not just civil behavior but materiality itself, able to transform into an electrical pulse running along a wire or an image on a screen, then emerge again as an apparently solid human being. But this is just a reification of what she was already doing as a radio host: violating boundaries and shocking people. Like Harley Quinn, her very existence is a pun.

As Leslie Willis, at least insofar as we see, the main temple in which she laughs is the one in which Metropolis worships Superman. For this, she is framed as a villain, but as the World’s Worst Books (not to mention the more toxic elements of comics fandom) have taught us, the sanctification of superheroes is dangerous. Nonetheless, it earns her the intense dislike of Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Bibbo Bibowski, as well as the approval of Mercy Graves and Lex Luthor, so her moral standing in the eyes of the show is fairly clear.

And there is a definite negative side to what she’s doing. She is intensely cynical, insisting “no one is that nice for free,” which is a great excuse to never be charitable or kind. Nihilism is easy, especially in the 90s, as we’ve discussed, and Willis is clearly designed to evoke the 90s suburban goth aesthetic, with her dark hair, black eyeliner, pale skin, black clothes, boots and ripped tights. (I went to high school with a girl who dressed just like that, except for the bare midriff–those weren’t allowed.) Even in her clothing, she crosses social boundaries, wearing a rather business-formal black jacket with her midriff-baring tank top, shorts, and combat boots. But she’s sunk through melodramatic despair and into what lies below, acidic cynicism: if there is nothing good in the world, then nothing matters, and everything is equally deserving of attack. The grotesque is an important means to an end; but once it becomes an end in itself, once one is breaking taboos not because they are bad or even unquestioned, but just because they’re there, then the road to nihilism becomes very short. (South Park‘s first episode aired exactly a month ago; as we will see later, it rapidly made the same transition from shock-jock grotesquerie to nihilistic cynicism.)

The problem is compounded by celebrity; Willis’ nihilism is her brand, and garners her what is in essence public worship, exactly what she exists to undermine. Willis herself is precisely the hypocrite she accuses Superman of being, as she tacitly admits when she answers Lois’ questions about whether Willis really believes what she says with a brief rant about how she had to work so much harder than the men around her to achieve her place. That is one of the few unambiguously true statements she makes in the episode: she undoubtedly did have to work much harder than a man would have to reach the same level of fame and acclaim, because our culture is misogynistic garbage (as well as several other kinds of garbage). But it frames what Willis does as genuinely hard work, for which she expects to be rewarded as she deserves; nobody, after all, is that cruel for free.

But the end result is that Livewire wants power and status, to be worshiped for mocking worship. She has values, and will not stand to see them violated: money and fame, power and attention, precisely the values of late capitalism. Her nihilism is performative; at the core, she’s really just a capitalist, which is to say she’s not laughing in the temple, she’s laughing all the way to the bank. She says it herself: she is the electric company, the cable company, the Queen of All Media (itself a riff on shock jock Howard Stern’s self-declared “King of All Media” title). Just another ruler, another tyrant, Lex Luthor with Freakazoid’s hair and a Bruce Timm pinup girl body.

Small wonder Livewire’s never caught on remotely as much as Harley Quinn: for all her fantastical powers, there’s no magic to be found here. Just dull, acid mundanity.

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Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E1 “Let’s Be Heroes”/”Let’s Be Friends”

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!Ian Jones-Quartey, I am given to understand, does not like the way people keep referencing RPG World when discussing his work, but it’s hard not to. Part of that difficulty, doubtlessly, is that it was abandoned, and particularly that it was abandoned so close to what appeared to be the grand climax. This lack of closure makes RPG World a sort of wound–scabbed over, mostly forgotten, but difficult to stop picking at, a place to seek themes and ideas that echo throughout Jones-Quartey’s career. It is the curse of the Millennial creator: our juvenilia are still out there in dark corners of the Internet, just waiting to return and embarrass us–and the more successful our juvenilia were, the more often we encounter them.

On the other hand, OK KO‘s first two 11-minute stories don’t try very hard to hide the resemblance. Jones-Quartey’s style has some distinct hallmarks, both visual and narrative, and they’re quite apparent here: large, squarish heads and upper bodies; extensive references to video games and animation of the long 1990s*; a male lead who is innocent to the point of naivete and blissfully unaware of how goofy he is; a snarky female lead who is completely jaded about the shenanigans that surround her; gentle mockery of genre conventions.

None of this is a criticism of OK KO; it’s just acknowledgment that it is very, very much a pure Jones-Quartey project in ways that, say, Steven Universe is not. For our purposes, however, the most notable thing about OK KO is that it serves as a handy illustration of the differences between a hero and a superhero. Jones-Quartey’s most visible influences, consistently throughout his career, have been primarily Japanese, whether that’s JRPGs in RPG World, anime in Steven Universe, or platform and beat-em-up games in OK KO. Superheroes, while not exclusively Western, are much more a Western phenomenon, and so the conception of heroism presented in OK KO is notably different.

Both models of heroism involve the protector fantasy, of course, because that’s most of what we mean when we say “hero”: a proactive protector, someone who goes out to slay monsters or capture criminals who seek to do us harm. So, by the end of “Let’s Be Friends,” KO’s quest to become a hero has been deliberately and explicitly entangled with the protection of Lakewood Plaza Turbo; he has completed the first step toward his goal, namely establishing or acquiring a place and people to protect.

The differences become clearer, however, when we examine the other two pillars of this project: there is no near-apocalypse for KO to prevent, but rather an ongoing status quo of which he is seeking to become a part. Lakewood Plaza Turbo and Boxmore exist in balanced opposition, one (as stated in the pilot short, released some years prior to the show proper) providing supplies for heroes while the other provides evil robots for villains. (Separated, according to the pilot, by Route 1. US Route 1 is a major highway that passes through Jones-Quartey’s native Baltimore; his work is as much about his childhood’s re-creation as its recreation.) Perhaps more importantly, what is KO’s origin story? He wanted to be a hero, so he tried to be a hero, with mixed success; now he’s learning to be a hero. There is no trauma here–some slapstick combat injuries, but no genuine suffering, no distortion of memory, time, and identity.

That said, OK KO may not be using the superheroic model, but it is using a model of heroism we have seen before, fairly recently in fact: unsurprisingly for the work of someone as influenced by Japanese culture as Jones-Quartey, OK KO is running on a shonen fighting show’s model of heroism. As in Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and countless others, the hero is originally characterized more by enthusiasm than prowess; however, through determination, training, and the help of a circle of friends, KO grows stronger and begins to discover his abilities.

The show itself appears to be aware of this: again, one of Jones-Quartey’s signatures is gentle mockery of generic conventions, and here he has Lord Boxman declaring a hatred for and desire to destroy all friendship, on the grounds that people who get along are less likely to purchase evil killer robots. His comically inept attempt to accomplish this, of course, only cements that Enid and Rad like, respect, and admire KO, establishing their friendship.

One argument we can make–and will definitely examine–is that by 2017, the time of the superhero is over. As we have been coming to realize, the superhero’s engagement with near-apocalypse can emphasize the most problematic, authoritarian readings of the protector fantasy. Looking at other models of heroism is a good idea, whether our goal is to fix the superhero or replace it–and the creators who grew up on superheroes aren’t a likely place to find those models. It is to creators like Jones-Quartey and his partner, Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar, who grew up on different models of heroism, that we should look for answers.

And three or four hundred entries from now, we will.

*I spotted references to Street Fighter (KO’s design is clearly based on Ryu), Final Fight (Mr. Gar is equally clearly based on Mike Haggar), Mega Man (the robot-building villain’s skull-themed lair, Darrell and Shannon’s designs), Sonic the Hedgehog (Lord Boxman’s design resembles, and he shares a voice actor with, Dr. Robotnik), and My Life as a Teenage Robot (Shannon’s design). I know that last is 2003, but its visual style, sense of humor, and premise (young person who is different from, but more powerful than, everyone else as a consequence of superscience) put it firmly in the tradition of 90s Cartoon Network classics like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. Anyway, at least as far as we’re concerned, the long 90s end with the finale of Justice League Unlimited and premiere of Avatar: The Last Airbender both in 2005. Everything really did change when the Fire Nation attacked.

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Wayne, you alive? (Holiday Knights)

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It’s still September 13, 1997. Mere minutes have elapsed since the end of “Speed Demons,” so the headlines and charts are unchanged.

One thing of note, at least for us, did happen in those minutes: a new opening sequence proclaiming the next hour of Kids’ WB to be The New Batman/Superman Adventures, a programming block which aired reruns of BTAS and STAS on weekdays, and a mix of reruns and new episodes on Saturdays. New episodes of STAS would sometimes air immediately before NBSA, sometimes as part of it, but from here out all new episodes of BTAS–including this one–aired as part of NBSA, and as such have no opening sequence of their own (although streaming and DVD versions often replace the NBSA opening with the original BTAS or New Adventures of Batman and Robin opening).

The new opening heavily plays up the idea of the block as combining Batman’s and Superman’s respective shows in a number of ways. The color palette shifts back and forth between Superman’s blue skies and Batman’s red; characters are initially shown only in monochrome silhouette, but once color starts showing up it almost always fits the pattern, the two exceptions being the transition from young Bruce screaming by his parents’ corpses (silhouettes on red) to the Batman logo, which then dissolves into a swarm of bats on a yellow background, and the transition from Superman flying up to Krypton turning yellow and exploding into Darkseid, wreathed in yellow flames. Otherwise, however, all scenes from STAS episodes have a blue filter and all scenes from BTAS have a red one. Yellow is reserved to mark that which the characters share: both, when they were young, had their worlds shattered.

(Interestingly, Darkseid–who, keep in mind, has not yet actually appeared in an episode–is thus presented as parallel to the Bat. More on this quite a bit later.)

Even more than the imagery, the music serves as an announcement that BTAS and STAS aren’t just being aired next to each other, but are being in some sense combined into one, as it meshes two themes, one stylistically similar to the BTAS theme and the other stylistically similar to the STAS theme (although neither actually reprises or remixes a prior theme). The final shot before the title shows this as well, being a brief scene from the (not yet released when “Holiday Knights” first aired) crossover film/three-part episode “World’s Finest,” in which Batman and Superman meet in person–the only time they, or indeed any characters introduced in their respective shows, are onscreen together in this opening.

But note the music in that brief shot: it is the triumphal STAS-style theme. The filter on the shot, too, is blue, which is associated with STAS characters and clips throughout the rest of the opening. The one moment which has both of them is being treated as, essentially, a Superman moment–as, indeed, will be “World’s Finest” as a whole: it is primarily set in Metropolis, uses STAS’ lighter color palette and Bruce Timm character designs, and would subsequently be included in STAS collections, not BTAS collections. Appropriately enough, Superman is still the one who gets to be in the sun; Batman remains in his shadow.

This is true for the entire final season of BTAS, especially where color palette and character designs are concerned, all of which have been changed to integrate better with STAS. The look of STAS will be the look of the DCAU from here out.

“Holiday Knights” itself thus serves as something of a transition between the old BTAS look and the new. An adaptation of the Batman Adventures Holiday Special we covered some time back, it takes stories originally written for and drawn in the style of the old BTAS and changes them to the new. Since it occurs entirely at night, the shift in color palette is also not as obvious. Similarly, the sequence of stories is changed from the Holiday Special, moving “The Harley and the Ivy” to the beginning so that the first characters seen are Poison Ivy (whose character design changed significantly in the revamp) and Harley Quinn (whose design barely changed at all): the opening scene thus simultaneously demonstrates that we are looking at a visually revamped show, and that it is nonetheless the same show as past seasons of BTAS.

The next segment, adapting the Holiday Special’s “Jolly Ol’ St. Nicholas,” indicates another change. In both the comic and televised versions of the story, Barbara Gordon is at the mall when Clayface reveals himself and attacks the cops, so she has to put on her Batgirl costume without being seen. Both make a point of showing her taking off her clothes and putting on the costume, implying nakedness in between, but choosing angles where nothing is visible that wouldn’t be allowed in an all-ages comic or Saturday morning cartoon. This is in keeping with one of Timm’s major influences, “good girl art,” a school of pinup and comic artists originating in the 1940s. The style is characterized by conventionally attractive women in skimpy or formfitting outfits, and often involve a voyeuristic element in which the subject is depicted in an improbable or private moment that involves a state of partial undress, such as being in the middle of changing clothes. Indeed, the original script for the Holiday Special was even more voyeuristic, as it called for Batgirl to change her clothes out in the open in a crowded mall, relying on the distraction provided by Clayface to ensure no one saw her naked. The comic’s editors considered this excessively risque, so it was changed so that she ducks into a changing room before stripping.

The episode, however, has her merely duck into the aisle between two rows of shelves, leaving open the possibility that someone unseen is watching her change. It is not quite to the level of the comic script, but still has a distinctly voyeuristic tinge. More importantly, its presence implies that the show is now a little less concerned with being child-friendly than the comics–which is interesting, since the comics repeatedly showed that they were a little less concerned with being child-friendly than the cartoon. That the revamped show is a little less worried about The Children than it was previously–a change at least partially explained by the accompanying shift from initial airings on Fox to WB, which had a generally less strict Standards and Practices policy for children’s programming–is confirmed in the next segment, adapted from the Holiday Special story “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve,” in which we have a successful on-screen murder for the first time in any televised DCAU story (Mask of the Phantasm having been a theatrical release). The act itself is not shown, but Commissioner Gordon shows Batman video of the Joker threatening to go on a killing spree, then tells him that there’s already been a victim and hands him photographs of a chalk outline and a man with the grinning rictus brought on by Joker gas. All previous episodes involving the gas took pains to indicate that victims were hospitalized and treated, but there is no mention of hospitalization here, and both the Joker’s threat and the chalk outline clarify that the man is dead.

The third segment also demonstrates a much bigger change, namely Robin. He does not appear in the comic story, but figures prominently in the episode, and his design has changed even more than Poison Ivy’s. His costume’s color scheme has changed, now more red and black than red and green, he himself is much shorter, and most notably, his voice actor has changed to the much younger-sounding Mathew* Valencia. He also seems to have become less experienced, making the rookie mistake of turning his back on one of Joker’s goons when distracted by what’s happening to Batman. These changes combine to make him seem like a much younger character, which he is: it is stated nowhere in the episode, but this Robin is a new character: Dick Grayson has left and been replaced by Tim Drake. The details of how and why Grayson left, where he went, and how Drake came to be the new Robin will be gradually revealed over the course of the season, forming an ongoing story arc.

This is a huge development, because outside of the occasional two- or three-parter, the DCAU has never attempted a preplanned story arc. Going forward, however, they will become increasingly common, especially in STAS and Justice League. The DCAU is thus both deepening its continuity by introducing ongoing story arcs, and broadening it, by emphasizing that BTAS and STAS are part of a shared continuity.

Story arcs, crossovers, shared continuity: the DCAU is suddenly sounding a lot more like the comics–for better and, as we shall eventually see, for worse.

*Not a misspelling.

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How many superheroes does it take to screw in a lightbulb? (Speed Demons)

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It’s September 13, 1997, the day after “The Prometheon,” and the world is basically unchanged: the same top songs, the same top movies, and more or less the same headlines, at least in the sense of anything which interests us 20 years later.

In the DC Animated Universe, however, major changes are afoot. Suddenly, the Flash is here, a fully realized hero in his own right. He is given no origin story, no secret identity, but a great deal of personality: he is cocky, reckless, and loves attention, but nonetheless a dedicated protector, just like Superman. He’s “that guy from Central City” just like Batman, way back in “The Last Son of Krypton,” was “that nut in Gotham”: someone with his own milieu, his own aesthetic, his own villain, and presumably his own allies and supporting cast. The Flash is a fully fledged superhero, which of course most of us already know from the comics; but he has never before been mentioned in the DCAU. No superhero has outside of Batman, Batgirl, Robin, and Superman. (And technically Wonder Woman, but that was just a shout-out by the writers: diegetically, Lois’ line in “Blasts from the Past” can be read as either referring to an established superhero or just making up a spur-of-the-moment superhero name for herself, but Wonder Woman’s first appearance, in “Secret Origins,” suggests reading Lois as meaning the latter.)

There were, until this episode, two clearly delineated superheroic milieus within the DCAU: Gotham, with its looming darkness and the several avatars of the Bat, and Metropolis, shining home of the Man of Tomorrow. Now we have someone who belongs to neither, the “guy from Central City,” a denizen of the space between. Of course there has always been the idea that Gotham and Metropolis both are part of some larger world, with Batman’s globe-trotting adventure serials and Superman’s science-fictional space journeys, but in terms of ideaspace they were presented as essentially binary. Now we see that there is a between, the ideaspace from which the Flash briefly visits STAS and then moves on. It can only be a visit, because BTAS belongs to one milieu and STAS the other; lying between them, Central City does not belong in either show.

The introduction of a between, the suggestion of a spectrum, emphasizes a kinship between Superman and Batman and their respective aesthetics. A binary implies two opposites with nothing in common, but in truth a line can be drawn between any two points, and what is a spectrum but a line between two points previously presented as binary? The similarities between Batman and Superman–the line that connects them–will soon be far more important than their differences.

What, after all, do they share in common with each other and with the Flash? Some commonalities we have already covered: they’re all protector fantasies, and all divided identities disrupted by trauma (though in the case of the Flash, we will only ever see that trauma in brief flashback). The episode, however, emphasizes a third commonality we have only briefly touched upon: they are all performances.

The Flash showboats. He shows up to the race disruptively late with a humblebrag of an apology about having only woken up two minutes prior. He trash-talks Superman, flirts with Lois, and arrogantly predicts an easy victory. He could not be more clearly playing a role; he hams it up for the crowd, but he’s still playing the same role when he assumes Superman telling him about the ship caught in the Weather Wizard’s first hurricane is a ruse, when he charges into the lightning shield, and when he zips in through the tunnel Superman dug to knock the control rod out of the Weather Wizard’s hand. All of these behaviors are too consistent with a single theme to not be performative: he’s not just fast-running, but fast-talking, always rushing in, quick to jump to conclusions, and speeding to the rescue. There is no need for the episode to show the outcome of the race: we know the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, because that’s the role he’s performing.

In the same sense, Superman is the Man of Steel: he shrugs off both physical harm and Flash’s needling, pushes an entire oil tanker and digs through solid rock with equal ease, and tanks the hits from the villain’s all-powerful weapon.

We’ve observed this before with Barbara Gordon, for whom Batgirl is just a performance, a costume she can take off and put on. But all identity is performative, and not always in a way that can be turned off so easily. Batman is a core part of who Bruce Wayne (who saw his parents murdered at age 8) is, a performance that he can hide, but cannot stop anymore than he can stop performing masculinity, while Bruce Wayne (wealthy playboy) is something he can turn off and on at will. Similarly, Clark Kent can perform the role of a reporter at work, and that’s a part of who he is, but he’d still be himself if he lost his job; he cannot stop being Superman. He could take off the costume and change the name, but he’d still have the powers and the drive to protect; to change that would be to change who he is in a fundamental way.

But Superman is still a performance. Some aspects of who he “really is” are channeled into that performance, just as some aspects of Wally West–his lackadaisical approach, humor, and spooniness*–are channeled into his performance as the Flash. But ultimately, just like every other role played by every other person, real or imagined, these roles are still just a part of who they are, shaped by the constraints of the role itself yet also an extension of the underlying personality.

But the Flash is more consciously, deliberately a role than Superman or Batman. Superman is Clark Kent; elseworlds and what-ifs notwithstanding, there is only one Superman and that is he. The same goes for Batman: yes, Dick Grayson, and yes, Terry McGinnis, but if you ask people who Batman is, the answer any but the most pedantic are going to give is Bruce Wayne.

But the answer to “Who is the Flash?” is “Which one?” There have been many Flashes, with different names, origins, appearances, and personalities, but all playing the role of the Flash, the role we have identified as the Fastest Man Alive. There is no singular iconic Flash, though Barry Allen comes close: he is the best-known and the most likely to appear in adaptations, but he’s not the original, and that complexifies the question in ways that don’t come up for Superman or Batman. What this episode has done, however, is sidestep the question: it’s answered “Who is the Flash?” with “the Fastest Man Alive.” In so doing, it has declared its Flash, this Flash, to be the Platonic form of the Flash, an expression of the essential Flash-ness which all the specific Flashes share. In much the same way that Batman: The Animated Series‘ anachronisms declared its Batman to be the timeless distillation of all eras of Batman, the DCAU Flash is here declared to be a distillation of all versions of the Flash.

Later, in Justice League, this will be further emphasized by giving him Wally West’s name and appearance, but Barry Allen’s job and origin story, while also incorporating elements of both their personalities and Jay Garrick’s status as the first Flash. But the point is already made here: it’s not just Batman and (more subtly, as the anachronisms of his show are more subtle) Superman who are being presented as timeless forms distilled from all depictions of the character. The DCAU as a whole is presenting itself as the best and most iconic elements of DC Comics, mixed and purified down to the deepest essences of its characters and stories. It is a bold declaration of ambition, but as Superman comes to realize about the Flash, underlying those brash words is the skill and dedication to actually mean it.

So, with that said, let the New Adventures begin.

*Yes, “spoony” is a real word. I’m bringing it back.

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Chill out (The Prometheon)

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It’s September 12, 1997, three days since “Blast from the Past, Part 2.” Top songs and movies are unchanged; the only news items of interest since then are the death of Burgess Meredith–who played the Penguin in the Adam West Batman series and film–on the 9th, and the decision by Scotland on the 11th to form its own Parliament independent of the English one (while still remaining part of the UK).

And, frankly, there’s not much happening on Superman: The Animated Series either. “The Prometheon” is one of the most forgettable episodes of the series–indeed, until rewatching it for this project, I had forgotten entirely that it existed. There’s nothing particularly–or interestingly–wrong with it; it’s just a simple premise executed with a minimum of elaboration: a giant monster smashes a bunch of stuff, Superman employs the help of STAR Labs to junk-science up a solution, and that’s it–the episode doesn’t even really bother with a denouement to speak of.

The only other thing really going on is a B-plot in which the fantastically named General Hardcastle is grumpy and suspicious about Superman for a jumbled mix of good and bad reasons–on the one hand, Superman is a vigilante who is nigh-impossible to hold accountable for his actions, which is a pretty good reason to be wary; on the other, he’s an alien, which is a terrible reason. The latter is the main focus, as Hardcastle shows in his response to the Prometheon itself: he sees the alien, the Other, as the enemy, and believes the correct response is to attack it with whatever means he has available. But the Prometheon feeds on heat, so all the explosions Hardcastle’s troops subject it to just make it stronger. No matter; he’ll just attack it with bigger, hotter explosions–which make it stronger still.

Hardcastle is a monster-movie staple, the military commander who is too busy being “tough” to listen to the solutions of the “weak” or “egghead” scientist. On the one hand, this character type is a rare case of action and science fiction movies actually identifying and critiquing a form of fragile masculinity; on the other hand, it perpetuates the myth that college-educate white men are somehow both superior/automatically right and an oppressed underclass. (And we saw last episode where attempts to resolve that particular kind of cognitive dissonance can lead. The jock picking on the nerd, the pseudoscience of “alpha” and “beta males”; these are the stabbed-in-the-back myths of 4chan, and Revenge of the Nerds is their Mein Kampf.)

Of course this reading of Hardcastle is complicated by the fact that he is getting the “egghead” recommendations second-hand, via Superman, who is definitely not weaker than Hardcastle. That’s where the two stories emerge as parallels: both involve Hardcastle attacking a powerful alien instead of listening to reason. He is afraid of the Other, and lashes out violently at the slightest provocation; Superman, as the protector fantasy par excellence, has no fear, and can think through the best way to destroy the Other.

But both, in the end, seek to destroy the Other, because in this episode as in so many alien invasion and monster movies, the only error of the Hardcastles is in their methods. The Other is still depicted as a threat.

What, then, of Superman? Is he not an alien, an other? And the answer is that no, he is not. In all the ways that matter–upbringing, appearance, how others treat him–Clark Kent is an American-born white man from Kansas. This is why claims that Superman is an “illegal alien”–like the one Fox News commentator Todd Starnes made in a recent-as-of-this-writing opinion piece complaining about a Superman comic being insufficiently racist for his taste–are so absurd. “Illegal alien” doesn’t mean “person living in the country illegally”; it’s a racist term for Latin@ people. Nobody’s going to deport white adults who were brought into the country illegally as children, but Latin@ people whose ancestors settled in the Southwest long before the U.S. conquered it are threatened by the racist police state every day. Like “criminal” or “terrorist,” it is a word which appears to describe a behavior, but in the mouths of racists becomes just another dehumanizing slur: a white cop who murders a black teen might have been frightened of something, and so deserves paid leave and a “fair” trial that will inevitably find them not guilty; the black teen murdered by that cop might have smoked weed once, so they’re a criminal who deserved it. A white man who shoots up a government building because his far-right political beliefs and extremist religion tell him to is a “crazy” lone-wolf bad actor; a Middle East or Central Asian man who does it for the exact same reasons is a terrorist.

Privilege isn’t about who you are; it’s about who you’re not. Everyone who is not Latin@ (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being threatened by anti-immigrant violence, state-sanctioned and otherwise. Everyone who is not black (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being subject to anti-black racism. Everyone who is not Middle Eastern or Central Asian (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being viewed as a potential terrorist. And so on, and on, and on…

Clark Kent isn’t any of these things. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Kryptonian; he still has all the privileges of not being part of any marginalized ethnicity, which is to say he has white privilege, and therefore is white in every sense that matters. This is not passing privilege, where racists mistake someone for white, allowing them to escape some elements of institutional racism (though not all, and not without price)–that is contingent on concealing one’s true identity, but Superman’s Otherness is public knowledge; everyone knows he’s an alien, and treats him like a white man anyway (with the occasional rare exception like Hardcastle). Whiteness is defined by its privilege; a white person is a person who is not part of any marginalized ethnicity, and hence in the DCAU an alien can be white. (Contrast Supergirl, where institutional anti-alien prejudice does exist. Supergirl and Superman are publicly alien and hence subject to that prejudice, but their secret identities pass as human, and thus they can be argued to have passing privilege.) 

In the DCAU, as in most DC Comics spinoffs and adaptations, Superman is white. When he punches the alien, invading Other, it’s a white man doing it–a white man protecting the in-group from the out-. And we all know where that leads.

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