Retroactive Continuity: Insexts Vol. 1

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Commissioned post for Shane deNota Hoffman.

Note: This post was written three days before I realized, in fairly rapid succession, that I was (a) a trans woman, (b) a sub, and (c) a lesbian. In that light, I really ought to rewrite or expand it. Alas, I very much do not have the time–this is going up late as it is.

So, instead, please enjoy this snapshot of a mind on the cusp of life-altering revelation, somehow managing to write phrases like “infected with the knowledge that he is a body” and “all human bodies are equally disgusting” without recognizing them as blatantly obvious expressions of dysphoria.

Insexts lays out what it’s about right from writer Margeurite Bennett’s introduction to the collected first volume: “To be a woman is to live a life of body horror.”

It is hardly a new observation–neither culturally nor even within this series–that there is a relationship between marginalization and abjection. At its most literal and concrete, the abject is that which once was a part of the Self but has been rejected and separated into an Other–excrement, vomit, and the like. More abstractly, it is that which is of the Self but is rejected–reminders that we are made of meat, taboo impulses, actions of which we are ashamed. But go up another level of abstraction, so that even the Self dissolves from a Me into an Us, and then the abject becomes that which is part of Us, but gets pushed into being Other–women, people of color, LGBTQA+ people, religious minorities, the very poor.

And, too, it is hardly a new observation that the abject and the grotesque are closely related. The abject disrupts the social order in the same way that the grotesque disrupts the order of the body; the transformation of a woman into a bug-monster is a transgression of the physical boundaries of what we think of as a human being in much the same way that the socially abjectified–the marginalized–are treated as transgressing the social boundaries of human society.

Only not really, because to be a woman is, as Bennett says, to already live a life of body horror: most of the introduction is a laundry list of the ways in which women’s bodies are policed by society, treated as dangerous. “Authorities will make you cover your body… Your classmates cannot be expected to behave with respect or control–your body is to blame.” The bodies of women are treated as being both objects of desire and dangerous, destructive monstrosities. (And it is the bodies of women that are treated this way, not just cis women–fetishistic pornography of trans women abounds that treats them in exactly this way.)

This is the realm of carnival, of the grotesque, of that which both allures and disgusts–the train wreck from which we cannot turn our gaze, the freak show, and, of course, erotic horror. So, essentially, what Insexts does is simply lean into the way we already treat women’s bodies in media. The main character has a literal vagina dentata in several scenes–one even more blatant than Poison Ivy’s plant monster in “Pretty Poison.” She is a literal femme fatale, someone whose femininity–her abjectivity–is directly connected with her lethality. But where “Pretty Poison” positions Ivy as the villain, the Lady is a dark hero, killing those who prey upon women.

This is not a subtle story. The Lady–who has a name, but is stated to prefer her title–and Mariah are multiply abject: women, lesbians, a servant (in Mariah’s case), and mixed race (the Lady). They are both victims of an abusive man, the Lady’s husband, who is implied to have raped Mariah. Mariah passes an infection to the Lady from her mouth to the Lady’s, who then kills her husband with it and creates a child–a miracle or a monster, depending on how you look at it, a boy born from the genetic material of two mothers and birthed from the belly of a man.

But remember, to be a woman is already to be abject, just as to be a servant, a lesbian, or a person of color is to be abject. What passes from mouth to mouth is not monstrosity, but the awareness of monstrosity–Mariah infects the Lady with the knowledge that she is both abject and powerful, and the Lady infects her husband with the knowledge that he, too, is a body, which destroys him. (As it must, since unmarked identities are defined by the abjection of all other identities; a society which acknowledges that all human bodies are equally disgusting is one in which whiteness, masculinity, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and class cannot exist, at least not as we know them.)

The main villain of the volume is an amorphous monster that feeds on pain, and takes the form of women who gain the approval of men and power over women by denigrating other women (in particular, the Lady’s highly conventional and judgmental sister-in-law, and a cruel brothel madame who caters to sadists and pedophiles). This is the first volume, so  for “main villain” we should read “first villain”–and of course the first villain is the closest, the woman who oppresses other women. But note that Brother Asher–part of an apparently all-male order of monstrous monks that hunt other monsters–tries to opportunistically destroy the Lady and Mariah just as they defeat the Hag. Women oppress other women in an attempt to gain power within a structure that is itself patriarchal; the chief role of male allies like William or Brother Talal is not to lead the fight, but to either police their own (as Talal does when he kills Asher) or to act as shields (as William does when he throws himself in front of the Hag).

No, this isn’t subtle at all–but then, it really shouldn’t be. Some things should be said as loudly, as garishly, as spectacularly as possible. How better to spread an infection than by splattering it around everywhere? After all, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross”; and another word for “gross” is..?

Current status of the Patreon:

…this is new… (Brave New Metropolis)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s September 27, 1997, and nothing of interest has happened in the day since the prior episode, nor have any charts changed.

“Brave New Metropolis” is a difficult episode to talk about, because it is essentially a rough draft of the much-superior Justice Leaguetwo-parter “A Better World.” Still, it does have a few elements of its own that are worth looking at, most particularly its biggest flaw: its attempt to keep Superman’s hands clean.

This is, or should be, the much-needed counterpart to “Blasts from the Past”: the story in which fascism rises from within instead of being imposed from without. The story in which Superman (as the exemplar of “truth, justice, and the American way”) reveals the ease with which “the American way” becomes fascism. It should practically write itself: beyond even the ease with which the protector fantasy slides into fascism, the fact that Superman’s powers are inborn, racial traits makes for an easy connection to the American eugenics movement that Hitler cited as a model.

But the episode shies away from this, unwilling to make that confrontation (yet–“A Better World” will do rather better on this front). Instead, it makes Lex Luthor the true tyrant. Fair enough: capitalism, and capitalist-driven imperialism (aka “mercantilism”), are the root causes for American slavery and genocide. But ultimately this results in the same problems as “Blasts from the Past”: fascism is still othered, the creation of greedy individuals, slavery and genocide located safely in the (by American standards) distant past.

But they’re not. They are here and present, so deeply embedded in our culture that they might as well be in the air we breath and the water we drink. They are not some alternate universe, viewed through a twisted, crackling mirror cooked up by a not-quite-mad scientist; they are our world.

The episode almost gets it. Superman’s black costume is basically the same as he wears in The Death of Superman, but without the dual machine guns, and the usual S-shield replaced with one based on the Nazi SS logo. The line between a Superman given over to violent, toxic masculinity, and one who is outright leading a fascist state, is thin. But by losing its nerve and having Superman be essentially Luthor’s patsy, the episode loses the thread of that critique–we end up with the rather incoherent image of a Superman in a Hugo Boss version of his costume that doesn’t realize that he’s involved with a fascist regime and never bothered to notice that Jimmy Olson was in a resistance cell. (The That Mitchell and Webb Look “Are We the Baddies?” sketch comes immediately to mind.)

But if “SSuperman” isn’t actually engaged in actively oppressing the populace, how is what he does any different than “our” Superman? He flies around, ignoring the established structures of power, and when he sees a criminal as defined by the powers that be, he helps capture them. (Note that in the scene where we see him fighting the resistance cell members, he doesn’t actually kill any of them–he is slightly reckless, but overall treats them pretty much the same as our Superman treats violent criminals.) The only change is that Luthor and his security forces, rather than the city government and police, are the powers that be.

In short, this episode is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to explore the terrifying prospect of a Superman gone full fascist, but it wants him to also be a revolutionary figure who kills the tyrannical Lex Luthor, but in a deniable way that keeps his hands clean, “accidentally” tearing the tail off his aircraft so it crashes into the giant Luthor/Superman statue.

Consider the title. Brave New World is not about fascism per se; rather, it is more about eugenics and industrialization, the application of the logic of the assembly line to all of human life. Of course the distance from there to fascism isn’t at all far: Henry Ford, revered as essentially a prophet in Brave New World, was an anti-Semite who profited off Nazi-provided slave labor, and the Holocaust was the Nazi application of the techniques of mass production to the already extant idea of concentration camps (another American invention, though to be fair the British came up with the same idea in the same year, 1899).

But the episode blurs that (admittedly fine) distinction by making Luthor, rather than Superman, the real dictator–Brave New Worlddoesn’t even have a dictator, its dystopia being oligarchical instead, as “meritocracies” tend to be. But a superhero story must have its supervillains, so there must be a singular dictator, perhaps with some henchmen, whom our hero can punch and thereby save the day.

It is, in other words, a very rough draft indeed.

Current status of the Patreon:

The light makes him lose his powers (Solar Power)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s September 26, 1997. The top songs are the same as a few days ago, but the box office has updated–the top movie this weekend is The Peacemaker, an action thriller I’ve never heard of, starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, and hey, they were both in Batman movies, so that’s almost relevant-esque.

Superman the Animated Series starts the usual Saturday block off with a villain I’m sure everyone was clamoring to see again, Edward Lytener. You know, Lois’ stalker from “Target”? Yeah, I barely remember him either, and I wrote about that episode just six entries ago. This time, he somehow manages to find the resources to make an invisibility belt in prison, breaks out, then creates a forcefield around the earth that simulates having a red sun, as part of a plan to kill Superman by sapping his powers. (That this plan will also eventually kill off everyone and everything else except the weird creatures that live in ocean-floor thermal vents appears not to have occurred to him.)

Lytener continues to be a fairly boring villain, but there is something interesting happening here nonetheless. In the (roughly contemporaneous) Earthworm Jimepisode “Bring Me the Head of Earthworm Jim,” the villainous Professor Monkey-for-a-Head taunts the titular hero after depowering him by saying he now has only the power of an “ordinary person.” A moment later, Jim tackles him, leading Monkey-for-a-Head to revise: “Correction, an ordinary really big person.”

At the episode’s climax, when Superman initially confronts Lytener, basically the same occurs: even reduced to the strength he would have had on Krypton, Superman is still taller than Lytener, much broader and more muscular, and has been fighting regularly for more than a year. (Possibly much more–we know little of what his life was like prior to donning the costume.) If not for the fact that Lytener has a few more protective gadgets at his disposal than Professor Monkey-for-a-Head, he still would have posed no threat at all.

Remember this is a show primarily aimed at children and young teens, which means that this scene is easily readable in terms of the schoolyard: this is a jock beating up a nerd. But where that is usually depicted as bullying (and, on the rare occasion it actually still occurred in real life by the late 90s, usually was bullying), it is the opposite here: Lytener is still entitled, still believes that he deserves to have what he wants just because he wanted it. He’s made the step from the nerd with Nice Guy Syndrome who will not leave the girl he likes alone, to the to the angry white boy who shoots up the school.

And that really isn’t a big step at all. As stated, they’re both cases of an entitled child unable or unwilling to deal with the fact that he can’t have what he wants. Lytener continues to think of Lois as an object rather than a person, so he doesn’t blame her for not wanting him–he blames Superman for taking her away from him. Ultimately both are about power: Lytener desired power over Lois and learned that Superman has power over him, so he engaged in an elaborate plan (involving a gigantic, invisible Lexcorp facility that looks like it cost billions and a network of Lexcorp satellites, rather demonstrating that Luthor is lying when he claims not to be backing Lytener’s scheme) to take that power away from Superman.

Lytener, in short, continues to be a character ahead of his time, not the “lovable” misogynistic or objectifying nerd common in television of the 1990s (such as Saved by the Bell‘s Screech or Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel–nor are such figures limited to the 1990s, as witness the entire male cast of The Big Bang Theory), but rather the more realistic nerd who is as invested in hegemonic masculinity as anyone, the bitter, angry, self-pitying, mediocre man who thinks he deserves to be special by dint of his manhood, and therefore feels the need to enact his power through harassment. Lytener’s abuse of his invisibility, his ability to craft illusions through which he is difficult to find–viewed from 2017, these look very much like the anonymity and pseudonimity that Internet trolls use in their harassment campaigns. Lytener is a precursor to every entitled manchild who helped fuel GamerGate and the alt-right. Denied what he incorrectly believes to be his by right, he decides to just go all-in on destroying whoever he has fixated upon as his enemy, and he’s willing to burn down the world to do it. Who cares if we unleash massive suffering at best and multiple existential threats to the human species at worst, as long as we stick it to those libtards and cultural Marxist cucks, right? (Please excuse me while I scrub myself very hard for several hours in an effort to get the stench of that sentence off.)

Look, too, at how Lytener threatens to wipe out life on Earth and, incidentally, depower Superman: by turning STAS into BTAS. Just like Batman: The Animated Series‘ first opening, the skies are apocalypse red, and Superman loses his powers. The clock is rolled back to before the art shift, before Harley Quinn destroyed Krypton, before superpowered heroes existed, so of course Superman cannot be one.

Note that this has essentially the same effect on Superman as kryptonite. It doesn’t send him into a panic attack, true, but that’s because his trauma isn’t being triggered, it’s being removed. Either way, however, he’s weakened. We’ve examined a lot why the superhero is a creature of near-apocalypse rather than apocalypse; here is why the superhero is a creature of near-apocalypse rather than no apocalypse. Without their personal apocalypse, their trauma, their origin story, they can’t be a superhero at all.

In the red-skied world of BTAS, Superman’s apocalypse, his trauma, has been taken away from him–and with them, his superpowers. Without that pain, without balancing on the knife-edge between safety and apocalypse, he isn’t a superhero.

He’s just an ordinary really big person.

Current status of the Patreon:

Maybe that’s what’s depressin’ her (Double Dose)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

TW: Sexual assault, rape, victim-blaming, rape cultureIt’s September 22, 1997. The top song is still Mariah Carey’s “Honey,” but there’s been some shuffling just below it, with Boyz II Men taking The Backstreet Boys’ #2 spot with “4 Seasons of Loneliness,” which may be the most 90s sentence I’ve ever written. We still haven’t reached a weekend, so the box office is unchanged; we’re still waiting for something interesting to happen in the news.

The first twenty-odd episodes of the second season of Superman: The Animated Series were released absurdly quickly, with the result that Livewire’s escape from prison in this episode–which includes her drawing a janitor’s attention with her complaints about being bored and lonely after her long imprisonment–aired only nine days after her introduction and subsequent capture by Superman. This rather puts the lie to her complaints, but it places her actions throughout the rest of the episode in context: she lies about her intentions, implies sexual favors could be in the offing, and then takes what she wants from the janitor, just as she will attempt to do with Parasite–who, remember, was once a janitor.

It’s a strange take on the character, to be sure–she’s somehow gone from an angry nihilist to a manipulative vamp, which isn’t contradictory, but doesn’t really follow organically, either. But it becomes distinctly uncomfortable when paired to a similarly out-of-nowhere development with Parasite’s character, namely that he’s a rapist now. His repeated attempts to touch Livewire are framed not as his usual draining of powers but as sexual assault–he even tells her not to worry because he can refrain from draining her if he wishes, and later she tells him “no means no”–and this strong subtext is made outright text when he talks about Lois during his fight with Superman.

As I discussed in regards to the last episode, villains are a reification of the abject. Livewire and Parasite, as the two major STAS villains who partake of the grotesque, work particularly well as examples of this: their bodies are hybrids of human and not-human, violations of the boundaries of what we regard as the physical norms of humanity, just as their behavior violates social norms. And, as I discussed last time, a consequence of their ability to cross social boundaries is that they cross the boundaries that are there for a reason–they are terrible people.

But there is another factor to this, another function of the grotesque: by performatively crossing social boundaries, they draw attention to those same boundaries. The depiction of a figure as grotesque reinforces that it is abject–this is the function of racist caricatures, for example, which turn natural human features into grotesque parodies of themselves, and thereby declare that those features are undesirable and not “normal.”

With that in mind, look again at how Livewire and Parasite’s villainy are gendered. Parasite, a man, threatens sexual violence; Livewire, a woman, uses sexual allure to deceive and manipulate. These are not remotely equivalent, of course–Parasite is obviously a lot worse–but both are violations of social norms and moral acceptability. But these very violations draw attention to and reinforce the boundaries they’re violating, and just as the violations are gendered, so are the boundaries.

In other words, what we’re seeing is a straightforward example of hegemonic masculinity and performative femininity: Parasite is a man and so for him, sex and violence are equated; Livewire is a woman, and so for her sex and performance or deception are equated. This, in turn, a question I brought up briefly in discussing Parasite’s last appearance, “Two’s a Crowd”: namely, how can characters like Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and now Livewire be at once grotesque and heavily sexualized? They are, after all, women designed to be sexy by a pinup artist–in what sense is that grotesque?

And the answer is that all contain key departures from the “normal” feminine form–which, in the DCAU, is the default Timm design on which almost all his female characters are based–that signify the grotesque without actually making them less conventionally attractive. Specifically, Harley Quinn’s skintight outfit serves as the model here, evoking the clown–a deliberately grotesque figure rooted in the same carnival tradition as all the ideas we’re discussing here–while still presenting her in a way designed to be appealing to the heterosexual male gaze. Poison Ivy is the same: her green costume (pre-redesign) and unnatural pallor (post-redesign) evoke the plants she has the power to control, and in turn the fact that she is not entirely human, while still allowing her to be a shapely woman with a pretty face. Finally, Livewire has her pallor and her hair, reminding us that she is likewise a monstrous hybrid of human and electricity, but leaving her free to be a Timm pinup in a skimpy costume at the same time.

In terms of abject behavior, all of them–now that Livewire is playing the vamp–express their sexuality in similarly boundary-violating ways. Harley is in a relationship with a man who abuses her; Harley and Ivy are lesbian lovers; Ivy and Livewire seduce and manipulate men for their own ends. All three are violations of what women are “supposed” to do by the standards of heteronormative patriarchy, which is to wait passively for a “good man” to claim them as his property, a standard which is reinforced by the vilification of those who cross it.

In turn, their abject status is used to justify violations against them: the Parasite betraying Livewire and stealing her powers is portrayed both as satisfaction of his earlier attempts to touch her–which, as I said above, were portrayed as attempts at sexual assault–and as motivated by her refusal to make herself sexually available to him, even though the most she ever “led him on” was to say “maybe” and then immediately walk it back.

Parasite is ultimately punished severely as well: absorbing Livewire’s powers gave him her weaknesses, and absorbing Superman’s gave him Superman’s as well. It is never stated, but throughout the DCAU, Superman is consistently depicted as being vulnerable to electrical shocks, and so when Parasite is sprayed with a large amount of water, he not only shorts out like Livewire, but electrocutes himself as well, with the end of the episode implying he has suffered severe brain damage as a result. But Livewire’s fury at his betrayal and violation is depicted as therefore inappropriate, as if the fact that he cannot remember his actions means they didn’t happen.

She is, after all, a villain and a woman. Doubly abject, in the eyes of society, her opinions and feelings matter not at all.

Current status of the Patreon:

People who care about you (Action Figures)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

It’s still September 20, 1997. Little to nothing has changed.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Action Figures,” as an episode, is that it pulls the same trick on the audience that Metallo pulls on the children, albeit significantly sooner. Specifically, at least at first this looks to be setting up a “sympathetic villain” story of the kind Batman: The Animated Series did so well and Superman: The Animated Series does basically not at all.

In the past, such stories have usually been origin stories, since it helps to see the villain before they became a villain, if we’re to have any sympathy for them. However, amnesia works nearly as well, because it poses the question of whether the villain would be a villain if their life had gone differently–if they are, at heart, a basically decent person who went badly astray due to bad circumstances. It thus implies that, had their lives been different, they would be better people, that they are more sinned against than sinning–exactly as sympathetic villain stories do.

“Action Figures” appears to be setting us up for such a tale, as Metallo comes ashore on a deserted island and is found by a pair of young children, who adopt him as a sort of pet superhero and keep him in a cave. This is the classic E.T. scenario, in which children have a strange friend who is unjustly pursued and must be kept secret–a common story device in everything from 1980s sitcoms to cartoons to one of the best chapters of Desolation Road to Stranger Things. However, STAS almost immediately complicates the scenario by adding in a degree of ambiguity–flashes of memory experienced by Metallo when asked who he is and where he came from. Are these flashes indicators that his memory is fragmented, that he genuinely doesn’t remember? Or do they belie his claims not to remember? Or, a third option, is it that he doesn’t want to remember, that he is hoping for some kind of fresh start?

Regardless, he does save the little girl shortly before that moment. Nothing compelled him to do that, and it wasn’t part of any cover–he just arrived, saw her in danger, and acted. It was an act of good, even if not the act of a good man. It is entirely possible that his memory only started to return when the children questioned him, and only completely returned when he held the Superman doll. Certainly, it is only after that point that he begins unambiguously lying, claiming to be even more E.T.-like–an alien hiding out from “bad men.”

Before that point, the ambiguity remains. This looks like a sympathetic villain episode, as Metallo’s “unjust persecutors”–Lois Lane and Superman–realize he is on the island and set out to investigate. At that point, a confrontation with a tragic end is inevitable–even if this were a sympathetic villain story, Metallo would still end up going back to villainy out of anger at Superman and possibly Lois, because that is how tragic villain stories work. However, by lying to the children, he is scheming against them before he even knows they are coming–a proactive, deliberate choice.

What is his plan, exactly? To sneak off the island in his absurd “disguise,” and then–what? He was always a violent person with little respect for law or civilization–a mercenary and terrorist-for-hire–and became even more so when he lost all possibility of physical pleasure and sensation. None of that has changed; unlike the “monsters” of the E.T.-style story, he actually is as monstrous as he appears.

Metallo’s heart is a major focus this episode, with Metallo’s defeat hinging on its exposed position; it is fitting, then, that a man who lives to destroy and inflict pain has a heart made of reified trauma. Here kryptonite does not represent Superman’s trauma specifically–though, as always, it triggers him, dramatically reducing his ability to fight as the lava erupts around the two–nor even Metallo’s, but rather the trauma John Corben has inflicted upon the world. Just as his cold, numb skin reflects the callousness with which he has inflicted pain upon the world, his kryptonite heart reflects the trauma he creates. It is the core of his being: he is that which hurts others.

John Corben, in short, is an evil man, whether or not he’s Metallo. (This is, of course, fiction, where the complexity of real humans is drastically dialed down to create characters, and there can therefore exist such a thing as a still-living “evil man”–someone who is programmatically, consistently evil, as opposed to someone who has done many evil things but could do something completely different tomorrow.) For all that–as we have discussed–the power fantasies of adults tend to resemble supervillains rather than superheroes, it does not therefore follow that all supervillains represent a power fantasy, or at least not a good or healthy one. Corben is the fantasy of being untouchable, unfeeling, uncaring, impossible to hurt and very able of hurting others–he is the power fantasy of someone who is already a bully. (The resemblance of that description to a typical Internet troll is no accident.)

The reason power fantasies, transformed into characters, end up as villains is not that villains are innately power fantasies; rather, it is that villains represent the abject, that-which-is-unacceptable. So even a villain like Poison Ivy–who represents the fantasy of a world in which feminism and environmentalism have power, an obviously preferable state to the unsustainable late-capitalist patriarchy we have now–is a reification not of the fantasy, but of its unacceptability: she is a signifier of the fact that we are not “supposed” to have that fantasy. As a result, as a character as opposed to a symbol, she is still a terrible person–violent, destructive, domineering.

This is why the answer to our question–of how to build a better superhero, one that keeps what is good but isn’t pulled constantly in the direction of the fascistic–cannot simply be to embrace the supervillain. That way lies 90s comics and the DCEU. No, what we are looking for is a hero that represents a fantasy of the power to change the world for the better–not the fantasy to impose one will on all others, a protector who will keep us safe from change, or a human-shaped kaiju monster, but an apocalyptic fantasy that leads into utopia, all reified into a character with cool powers and a nice costume.

We will get there, but neither villains, nor antiheroes in the popular sense, are a viable path to do it.

Current status of the Patreon:

Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E33 “The Power is Yours”

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

We have already discussed the degree to which OK KO is a recreation of creator Ian Jones-Quartey’s childhood. It is thus perhaps inevitably that some earnest, well-meaning, terrible cartoon of the 1980s would be featured or parodied, and there is perhaps no better example of the genre than Captain Planet and the Planeteers. (The fact that it aired 1990-96 doesn’t change that it is a prime example of this genre of 80s cartoons–that’s why we have long decades.)

Captain Planet is everything that the Animaniacs singled out for mockery in “Back in Style”: stiffly animated, repetitive, poorly characterized, and painfully, intensely determined to hamfistedly hammer home the same prosocial lesson every episode: pollution bad, environment good.

Which, of course, is true, but that doesn’t make Captain Planet‘s delivery any less patronizingly simplistic or painfully unnuanced. It showcases the biggest problem of trying to use the structures of heroic narrative in a socially responsible way: heroic narrative is predicated on a Great Man theory of history. In Captain Planet, the destruction of the environment is the result of a few bad actors, who are doing it because it makes them money (somehow), and can likewise be stopped by a combination of the titular team’s superheroics and viewers being responsible, “green” consumers, as instructed by episode-ending “Planeteer Alert” segments in which the show’s characters gave advice on how to “save the planet,” always ending with “The power is yours!”

The show thus hides in the ambiguity of the term “Anthropocene.” Proposed by Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s (although it was used in a different sense by Russian geologists in the 1960s), the Anthropocene is a proposed name for the geological period in which we now live. The Holocene (the period between the end of the last major Ice Age 12,000 years ago and modernity), Stoermer and later users of the term argue, has ended as a result of human activity; climate change and the ongoing, largely human-caused mass extinction event–already the largest mass extinction since the death of the non-avian dinosaurs–are in the process of creating a distinct divide between the Holocene and what comes after much as the retreat of the glaciers created a divide between the Pleistocene and Holocene.

The problem with the name “Anthropocene,” however, is that it lays the blame on either humanity–which is to say, all of humanity, equally, and with the implication that this destruction is an inevitable part of who we are–or humans, individual bad actors. But neither is true. Yes, mass extinctions have occurred anywhere humans have gone on this planet–it’s essentially a truism in paleontology that as soon as humans arrive on a landmass, any animal bigger than us goes extinct–but after the initial shock of our invasive species showing up, things generally settled down. It is only in the last few centuries that the pace of mass extinctions has increased again, and only in the last few centuries that human activity has significantly impacted the climate. Climate change and mass extinction are thus not a natural consequence of some innate human savagery; at the same time, no one person causes an extinction or changes the climate, and no one person can change it.

Environmental historian Jason Moore (not to be confused with the Pitch Perfect director of the same name) thus proposes an alternate term for both the mass extinction and the period it ushers in: the Capitalocene. It is capitalism run amok that is “destroying the planet” (or, rather, rendering it inhospitable for many species, possibly including us and almost certainly including our civilization). As individuals, there is nothing we can do to save the planet–there is, as the saying goes, no ethical consumption under late capitalism. It is only by fundamentally changing the assumptions, processes, and power structures upon which our culture is built that we can hope to stop the Capitalocene–if it’s not already too late.

Which is where OK KO comes in, ready to mock the earnest futility of Captain Planet. The opening scene sets the stage: efficiency expert and Captain Planet villain Dr. Blight (voiced by Tessa Auberjonois, because her original voice actress, Meg Ryan, is too high-profile for this, and her second voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, is too dead) and her sidekick MAL (unvoiced, because original voice actor David Rappaport is likewise too dead, and second voice actor Tim Curry too ill) tells Lord Boxman that he can make his evil corporation more profitable by using a giant machine she happens to have that does nothing but spray pollution into the atmosphere, because it’s a “scientific fact” that pollution leads to profit. This scene is doing a lot of work: on the one hand, it is mocking the capitalist definition of efficiency. Pollution is inherently wasteful–it is made of waste products, after all–but efficiency for a corporation doesn’t mean lack of waste, it means spending less money, and pollution is a way of dumping part of the costs of production on the community. Cleaning up a mess requires labor and equipment; if the community has to do it instead of the corporation, then the corporation saves those labor and equipment costs. If the mess is left uncleaned, as it often is, the cost is instead paid by the environment itself. This is why people pollute: not because it somehow creates wealth (quite the opposite), but because it’s cheaper and easier for the polluter than being actuallyefficient, and therefore clean.

Put this way, the solution to pollution is obvious: use regulations and fines to ensure that polluting ceases to be cheaper and easier than not polluting. Unfortunately, just because something’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s politically easy or even feasible: between regulatory capture, government corruption, and neoliberal distaste for regulation of any kind, corporate pollution remains economically viable.

And pollution is far from the only form of environmental destruction. Direct destruction itself–fracking, deforestation, overfishing–is driven by the demands of late capitalism for perpetual growth, that an already unsustainable economy must always keep getting bigger, and thus constantly dig deeper and go farther to fill an insatiable appetite for resources and raw materials.

Capitalism is the real villain that Captain Planet tries to reify in its cackling industrialist supervillains, but in so doing it misses the point, just as badly as it does in its “Planeteer Alert” segments. You can’t kill capitalism by killing billionaires (though it’s a start), any more than you can kill it by buying “green” products or recycling. The only way to save the world is to change the world, and the only way to change the world is collective action to fundamentally alter the structures of power.

But, of course, finding a villain to kill is much more heroic, much more fun. We can just sit back with our recycling bins, feeling like we’re doing our part, and hope five magic teenagers and an Earth elemental take out the bad guys. That’s where the bulk of the episode finds its humor, with the arrival of Captain Planet hero Kwame (voiced by his original and only actor, LeVar Burton). The rest of the Planeteers quit to get “real jobs,” he explains: in other words, they were swallowed by the engines of capitalism, forced to concede the idealism of their youth by the desperate struggle to survive that capitalism imposes on working-class adulthood. He recruits the OK KO cast to wear the rings and summon Captain Planet, but after Blight and Boxman defeat him, the new Planeteers fall apart in squabbling. The natural formation of the left is the circular firing squad, after all: every setback is an opportunity to turn on one another, because that’s so much easier and more satisfying than endlessly chipping away at structures that feel as big as civilization itself.

Fortunately, KO is there with the power of Heart. In Captain Planet, Heart was talked up as the strongest of the five powers granted by the Planeteers’ rings, as it should be–the other four being the traditional alchemical elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air (Wind), that makes Heart the show’s name for the quintessence, the aether, the substance of which the heavens and human soul alike are made, the philosopher’s stone that grants the ultimate power: the power to change.

In KO’s hands, it becomes the power of solidarity, of remembering who your allies are. It allows the group to resummon their elemental hero, and this time defeat the evil polluters and save the plaza–leaving the rest of the planet in ruins. The show here transitions to its own version of a “Planeteer Alert” segment, with even the art style changing to match Captain Planet, while the characters give advice such as unplugging unused cell phone chargers and separating compost from recycling while all the coastal regions of the world are flooded and most of the world’s atmosphere is toxic. It is hard to imagine a more comically inadequate response, and yet that is exactly what “green” consumerism entails: futile, solitary action while the ice caps melt and the forests burn.

It might not have to go this way. If every household in the world recycled… the rain forests would still be destroyed, and the seas overfished, and the mountains blown up for strip-mining. But if we rose up to impose limits on the corporate actors that do these things… well, it’s conceivably possible that it’s merely almost too late. And even if it is too late, well, at least the last years of our civilization, and possibly species, could be a bit more equitable than they otherwise would have been.

The power is, or at least could be, ours.

Current status of the Patreon:

New Gotham, new rules… (Sins of the Father)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

My apologies. I somehow just forgot to queue anything yesterday. Here is the post that should have gone up then.

It’s a few minutes later on September 20, 1997, so no significant headlines or changes in the charts.

The phrase “the sins of the father” comes from the biblical Book of Exodus, which declares that children shall be punished for the sins of their parents for generations. Despite centuries of ink spilled in efforts to justify or explain away this decree, it remains at once blatantly unfair and unjust, and obviously true. Children do suffer for the misdeeds and mistakes of their parents, as the less-powerful always suffer for the misdeeds and mistakes of the powerful. Some mistakes and misdeeds can, especially in a cultural milieu that compounds the punishment, echo for generations, as with whatever parental failures led to Stephen Drake being a “hard-luck case” as a child, forcing him into a life of crime just to survive, and thus placing his son Tim in the exact same scenario.

Which in itself is an interesting choice, because this backstory has much more in common with the comics’ second Robin, Jason Todd, than with the comic version of Tim Drake. Later episodes will bring in a little more of the comics’ Tim Drake–particularly his high intelligence and detective skills–but there will always be a significant amount of Jason Todd in him, including a horrific, career-ending encounter with the Joker.

But that is one of the titular sins of the father–not just that Tim Drake’s literal father literally “sinned” in becoming a criminal, forcing Tim to grow up in an environment where he has little choice but to do likewise, but that Tim is overshadowed by his predecessors, his role colored by their fates. Extradiegetically, he is preceded by Jason Todd in the position of being the second Robin, but cannot actually be Jason Todd, who is mostly known as “that Robin who died.” The WB’s censors allow BTAS to get away with a lot, but it seems beyond belief that they would allow a character to be introduced just to die. Instead, Tim Drake absorbs much of Jason Todd’s character, while still not being him, and therefore his death is not a fait accompli.

Diegetically, Tim is overshadowed by Dick Grayson’s status as the original Robin. Even as we are introduced to Tim, the more interesting question–signposted from the moment Tim entered the Batcave–is “What happened to Dick?” That no one seems to want to talk about it except in vague, ominous terms, and the similarity of how the costume is displayed in the Batcave to how Jason Todd’s costume was displayed after his death in the comics, suggests the possibility that Dick died. This is disproven at the end of the episode, but it’s clear something happened–Dick is polite enough, but there is clear hostility in his snide comment about Batman’s “I make the rules.” Something went wrong between them, something which has elevated Batgirl to the status of Batman’s partner and left Dick out in the cold.

(Later revelations raise another question here: Are Bruce and Barbara sleeping together yet? We will discuss this more in later episodes, but the short answer is: probably, I’m afraid.)

Structurally, Tim is overshadowed as well; the fact that the primary story arc of The New Batman Adventures (making it the first season of either BTAS or STAS to have a primary story arc) concerns the relationship between Bruce, Barbara, and Dick, and the latter’s decision to go solo as Nightwing, means that Tim is never really given an opportunity to distinguish himself as a character in his own right. Despite appearing more regularly than Dick Grayson ever did as Robin, Tim remains “that other Robin.” The only real character focus he’ll get in the series is in “Growing Pains” (admittedly one of the best episodes of TNBA).

And yet he is–or will be, years from now–the real Man Who Killed Batman. But that’s a story for another time, and another series.


Current status of the Patreon: