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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