Let’s check out the pet store (Monkey Fun)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Note: This post was written a hair over two weeks after I realized I was trans. I’m not sure that has any visible impact on the post, but on the other hand, how could it not?

It’s still September 27, 1997, and…

No.

I can’t do this.

I can’t not ask this question.

What the fuck is that title? “Monkey Fun”? Is it supposed to sound dirty? Was it a joke title they forgot to change? Because it is a uniquely terrible title–it sounds like it ought to be a pun or a reference to something while utterly failing to refer to anything whatsoever. Titano isn’t even a monkey; he is visibly, obviously a chimp!

So the title just leaves you out there dangling, searching for meaning that doesn’t exist. Which on some episodes might work, but on a fun piece of cotton-candy Silver-Age froth like this, really, really doesn’t.

But, with that off my chest, let’s dive into this.

This episode is most interesting as a superior rework of the same concept as “The Prometheon”–a giant monster from space terrorizes the city, but it’s not evil, just a creature doing what it does by nature. But this episode does a far better job of being a “sympathetic villain” story, and in so doing shows how Superman: The Animated Seriescan approach that Batman: The Animated Series staple.

The key is that BTAS is psychologically complex, and so its sympathetic villain episodes are about people in extreme situations who respond by doing terrible things–they are explorations of the psychology of villainy, which necessarily requires empathizing with the villain, and usually building that empathy results in audience sympathy as well.

STAS is not psychologically complex. Characters have big, singular motivations; for all that we talk about Superman as a reification of Kal-El’s  trauma (which he is), he ultimately is summed up in a single word: he is the Protector, plain and simple. Lex Luthor has no tragic backstory or complex motivation; he just wants to control and possess everything he sees.

So that can’t be what an STAS sympathetic villain story is about–and without a psyche to delve into, how can the audience empathize with the villain? Sympathy must come from elsewhere, and this episode finds three places to derive it. First is the same as that attempted in “The Prometheon”: Titano has no idea of the damage he’s causing. He is just an animal acting on its instincts.

But as “The Prometheon” shows, that alone is not enough, and so the episode tries something different by employing one simple reversal: it’s Superman who just wants to beat the monkey up, and General Lane who brings the key to peacefully shutting the monkey down–not in his role as a military man, but as Lois’ father.

And yes, I did just type “it’s Superman who just wants to beat the monkey,” because his actions in this episode are perfectly masturbatory: he is protecting people from Titano, but doing so in a way that exacerbates Titano’s rampage. The protector fantasy turns easily into the fantasy that something is a threat we need protecting from, and oftentimes leads to the manufacture of that very threat. Superheroes create their own villains; fear-driven societies create their own enemies.

Add in Titano’s bond with Lois–the fact that we first see him as a fun, gentle playmate to a small child, so that we can recognize the same behaviors when he grows enormous–and we have a perfect recipe for sympathy. Superman is now in General Hardcastle’s former role as the over-aggressive protector, which is to say a bully, and so we sympathize with Titano as the innocent victim.

Which, in turn, reveals why sympathetic villain stories, in general, just don’t work for STAS: its simpler aesthetic means that in order for a villain to be sympathetic, Superman must be unsympathetic. Where sympathetic villain stories frequently show Batman as his best (“Baby Doll” being, as always, the standout example here), they show Superman at his worst.

Which makes them indispensable for us.

After all, it takes only a perspective shift to turn Superman into General Hardcastle. A slight difference in how events play out, and he becomes the alternate Superman of “Brave New Metropolis.” There is less daylight between him and Mala or Jax-Ur than it once appeared. We saw in “Brave New Metropolis” how ill-suited he is to the role of revolutionary, and here we see that he really isn’t on the side of the innocent at all–given a threat to the innocent posed by the innocent, he is on the side against the threat.

What Lois shouts to Superman when he flies off to fight Titano is telling, here: “He’s just a baby!” That is how the episode positions Titano, as essentially childlike–confused, frightened, hungry, clumsy, and fond of his stuffed animal. Superman, in other words, is willing to hurt a child to protect the Children–he is more interested in maintaining peace and order than determining the right of a situation and acting accordingly. Superman’s actions here are precisely what I meant when, long ago, I described Fredric Wortham as a superhero.

And so our challenge becomes clearer and clearer: can we salvage something of the rich, vibrant superhero tradition without falling into this trap of valuing abstract social order over concrete, material good? The answer may well be no–but we have a long way to go yet, and the answer may very well be yes.

 


Current status of the Patreon:

Vlog Review: Seven Deadly Sins S1E04

Ugh. It is so weird that I have a beard in this video. Still, if I’m wearing THAT shirt, that means there can’t be too many more videos filmed before I shaved it off.

Commissioned vlog for Benny Blue. Reminder that Patreon backers can request commissions, see these videos (including Star vs. Evil, commissioned episodes of other series, and panels I presented at various cons) 4-5 weeks early, AND see Near-Apocalypse articles four MONTHS early!

 

My Anime Boston 2018 Panel Schedule

I’ve been sitting on this for a while: I am a featured panelist at Anime Boston 2018! With, like, perks and stuff!

It’s also going to be my first time presenting as a woman in public! I even used she/her pronouns in my bio in the program book! I’m exceedingly nervouscited.

Anyway, I’m presenting the following panels:

  • Firing the Canon: How to Stop Suspending Disbelief (and Why): 3/30 1:30-2:30 pm in Panel 310
    Yes, I am starting off the con by pissing off everyone there.
  • Spiralling Back: Gurren Lagann 10 Years Later: 3/30 6:00-7:00 pm in Panel 311
    With Viga Gadson! This is the same panel we gave at Otakon last year.
  • The Duel Named Revolution: Making Sense of Revolutionary Girl Utena3/30 11:00 pm-12:00 am in Panel 309
    Trying something a bit different–instead of being an ultracondensed version of the chapter of the same name in Animated Discussions, I instead drew on the first and last chapters to discuss queer identity, because OH HEY for SOME REASON that’s on my mind lately, plus it ties in well with the color symbolism stuff I posted here a couple months back, so a discussion of that is in there too.
  • Anime Doesn’t Exist: The Secret History of a Fandom:  3/31 10:30-11:30 am in Panel 310
    Why yes, I DID take advantage of featured panelist status to submit two panels that exist solely to piss off the audience. How kind of you to notice! This makes use of a lot of the same information as the secret history chapter of Animated Discussion, but to a slightly different place–that while the Japanese word anime refers to a sensible category of things, the English cognate creates a distinction without a difference.
  • Fullmetal Alchemy: The Real-World Alchemical Tradition and FMA: 3/31/2018 5:30-6:30 pm in Panel 311
    This is my standard alchemy panel. I like giving it, people like seeing it, why change?
  • The Avatar in Amestris: A Comparative Study3/31 9:30-10:30 pm in room Hynes Panel 309
    I’ve been sitting on these ideas for a while: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as mirror images, (inevitably failed) attempts by one culture to tell their own stories through the medium of the other, with an astonishing amount of (entirely coincidental) similarities.
  • More Forgotten Classics and Overlooked Gems: 4/1 12:00-1:00 pm in Panel 206
    My not-a-recommendations-panel-but-it-totally-is is back! I swapped out about half of the things from last year for new things, and by “new things” I mean “old things that have been forgotten or flew under the radar in the first place.”

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: