Crisis on N Earths: Pokémon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will arrive in due time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, they did web design. (Really.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wertham was right.

Superheroes are fascist.

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