Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō

The “manga boom” and “bust” that defined American nerd fandoms from the late 90s to the early 00s is a weird phenomenon. US comic sales were dipping, and the big companies alternated between “we have to copy this anime thing as much as we can!” and “this is a stupid fad for little girls who’ll never read REAL comics like ours.”  In the end, the bubble did burst, a few publishers went under, and the massive manga sections at every commercial bookstore receeded a bit, but it was never a true “bust” like many western comic people were hoping. If anything, the post-manga bubble market remained more vibrant and sustainable than what Marvel and DC are trying to deal with today. That isn’t to say the manga market isn’t precarious, or that everything is roses for publishers, creators and fans. Debates over scanlations, fan-entitlement and how manga gets selected for release over here could fill up several blogs by people with a LOT more specific knowledge on sales, publisher history and localization policies. All I really know about the subject comes from when I was most into manga, at the height of the boom, and how much I really, REALLY wanted someone to pick up and published Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō in English.

Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, or “Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip” (or sometimes just YKK), is a slice-of-life science fiction manga, written and illustrated by Hitoshi Ashinano, that ran on-and-off from 1994 to 2006. Despite winning awards, recieving critical claim from US comic critics and developing a good-sized fanbase overseas, it has never been officially released in English. Its setting can be described simply as “the most relaxed apocalypse of all time.” Alpha, a fully human-like robot, runs a small cafe in post-acpocalyptic Japan. Some untold ecological catastrophe has left most of the world underwater. Yet, life continues. There are only a handful of humans left, but they continue living as best they can. Despite the implied horrors that have come before, the tone of the manga is perpetually upbeat, chill and light. Alpha’s rural commuity is the kind of place where you know all your neighbors, despite the closest one living miles away from you. The early chapters focus on the day-to-day activities of Alpha. One chapter might revolve around her repairing a broken porch, while another focuses on her recieving watermelons from a neighbor. Some chapters cover only a few minutes worth of time. The pace is decidedly slow, despite the fantastic setting. The world has ended, but everyday life goes on.

In between these moments, the reader is able to piece together this new world. Everyone is friendly and the tone is light, yet we see Alpha has a gun with her. Just in case. Money still exists and has value, but we never see any form of government and outside of Yokohama, no one seems to really charge anyone else for anything. People maintain gas stations, mopeds and small trucks in their community, but the roads aren’t maintained and there’s no guarantee of mail delivery. When a storm knocks down her cafe, Alpha scavenges lumber from abandoned houses. Almost everyone outside the city is either elderly or a child. The only non-urban, non-elderly adults are nomadic wanderers, taking odd jobs or living off the land. Street lights serve no purpose anymore, and most are underwater, yet they still turn on every night. Someone or something is generating power for them. Alpha describes paying someone for electricity, but that it is a distant country she doesn’t even know the name of. 

Alpha is an amazing technological marvel, yet humanity lives in pretty humble conditions. Scooters and trucks do not have the same self-powering systems Alpha does, and still run on dwindling supplies of gasoline. Robots in the world were built to last and to do so sustainably, taking in energy from food and organic fuel, yet the ecological disaster is clearly based around the man-made disasters going on in our own present day. As we see glimpses into the past, we see that the world was already over and the land was already slipping away into desert and ocean when Alpha and her other siblings were being developed. Sustainable technology insured that something would last after humanity, but it came too late to change things and save the world humanity knew. Yet the world’s ecology is recovering in its own way. New species of insect and fish exist, and new ecosystems have emerged. Some, like the mysterious and immortal Misago, are likely the result of human technology. But even the more “natural” things that emerge take their influence from the long-gone human civilizations. Trees and giant fungi emerge in specific patterns where roads and cities used to be. Mushrooms grow into the shapes of humans, replicating the exact faces of those long gone. Is the world recreating the lost cities? Did humanity leave another devastating imprint onto the world, deeper than they realized? Or is the planet expressing some kind of sorrow at the approaching loss of humanity? Can the planet we see as having been destroyed, or the planet that emerges from that destruction, be something that sees us not as destroyers to be wiped our and scorned but as something to be mourned and remembered? Or are people (and the reader) just seeing what they want to see from a broken world?

Hitoshi Ashinano is very good at capturing the small, subtle changes in nature. He is able to evoke strong feelings of wind, temperature and even moisture from his sparse inks. His simple, but specific, characters stand out strongly against the more detailed backgrounds, but are able to convey subtle shifts in emotion just as well. Like many of its manga contemporaries, YKK’s panel transitions drawn more from Japanese film and theater than Western comic readers are used to, with a focus on naturalistic montage and changes between moments, moods and symbols over changes between actions. The illustration and comic storytelling techniques work together to highlight the naturalistic and environmental themes of the story.

So why bring in robots? Why add such a fantastic element to such a slow-paced, naturalistic story of societal collapse? The manga is not just about the twilight of humanity, but the rebirth. It is the kind of post-post apocalyptic story, where the mystery is in what comes next and not what was lost, that I’ve previously analyzed in Legend of Mana. For that, we need the new generation. That is the robots, the children of humanity. That is also why these robots have no fantastical powers. Their most impressive technology, such as acchieving sustainable energy through food intact and developing emotions and identities through experiences, do nothing more than replicate what humans can do.

There are no shortage of stories about adolescense and puberty in cartoons and comics. Its a well-worn path, and for good reason. Its the transition from child to adult, and while each person’s version is unique, they all follow along related patterns and themes that can make even very specific stories and imagery feel universal. But its not the only moment of transition in our lives, and its not even necessarily the biggest. Alpha never had a “childhood” like her human friends, yet she is still an adult. She has already gone through that first, mysterious transition. We are not reading the story of a child becoming an adult, but rather the story of an adult becoming a different kind of adult. When we begin, Alpha has no thoughts beyond the present. Her owner has left, and given her the freedom to do whatever she’d like. Like many young, largely pampered, adults finding themselves free for the first time, its hard for her to see anything other than a grand, open canvas. Time is sprawled out in front of her, and the world feels like it will always be there. Alpha does not yet have the mature sense of loss and mortality that everyone most learn, and considering she is essentially immortal its not going to come easily. This is why her relalationship with the only children left in the countryside is important. We don’t see any of their adolescent struggles or transitions, we instead see Alpha coming to terms with the fact that the world will move on even if she doesn’t (or can’t). 

The pace of each chapter never changes, it is always a very slow, single moment in time. But the space and time between each chapter increases as the series goes on. When in the first volume, the time in between a chapter may be only a few days, by the end its several years. Ironically, as she becomes more aware of her immortality, Alpha becomes more connected to the passage of time. The awarenes that the humans she loves and treats like family will one day die, the awareness that eventually the sea will overtake even her cafe, the awareness that freedom to make choices is not the same as freedom from having to choose, these concepts are all forced upon her by the inevitability of time, even as she wants to do nothing more than enjoy the simple life of her country cafe. 

This development is conveyed strongest in the relationship between Alpha and her camera. One of the only other major pieces of advanced technology in the manga, the robot camera has a lens made of the same material as a robot’s eye and allows Alpha to take 3D pictures that she can then view as though it were through her own eyes again. When she first recieves it (a gift from, and the very last contact she will ever have with, her mysterious owner) she is reluctant to take a single photo. The thousands of images the camera can store seem so limited compared to the endless moments she experiences every day. How is it possible to capture a single one? But as time goes on, and more of the world and people around her change, she learns the importance of those pictures and those memories. Her friends will not always be there for her to look at. The countryside will not always be the same. Even herself, the immortal robot, changes. The last chapters of the series show her taking photos every day, capturing the world around her and herself so that she can remember them even after this twilight age has ended.

It is not just her relationship with time that define’s Alpha’s transition from adulthood to adulthood, but the change and development of her feelings and connections to others. Early on, she meets Kokone, another robot who works as a courier. Robots can transmit data through ports in their mouth, which is also how Alpha controls her camera. One thing that society evidently lost during its collapse was the internet and wifi, and so electronic data has to be sent via robot. If you want to send your robot friend an email with a bunch of picture attchments, you hire a courier to make the journey to their place and kiss them. The concept is introduced as a silly, comedic element. This kiss is, for them, nothing more intimate than a usb cord, and yet after their meeting, its all Alpha and Kokone can think of. Kokone is the first to really question how what they experience is at odds with what their unread history and manuals state. They shouldn’t be dreaming, or building crafts, or having moments that touch them emotionally, or falling in love, and yet they are. They are exceeding their original design, creating new feelings and emotional connections from experiences like humans do. Its never stated why robots were made, and why they were made to mimic human appearance and vulnerability so effectively. The robots are treated like any other person, with rights and feelings, and yet Alpha still once had an “owner.” 

People go through many followup adult adolecenses and transitions. There is no true endpoint to life, every epiphany and identity merely leads to the next starting point until death finally ends things. The adult adolecenses queer people go often end up feeling a lot more unique and novel than they actually are. They kind of have to end up feeling that way, considering how society tries so hard to keep us from our own history, peers and mentors. We don’t get the luxury of always being able to explore our feelings the way “normal” kids are expected to. We don’t even always get the luxury of having the opportunities! When those opportunities emerge, there is no guarantee they will be at a time or environment where we get to “compare notes” with a larger history and culture. Alpha and Kokone have inherited a largely empty world without a sense shared of history, either with other robots or with other queers. They are forced to build everything, from the definitions of how they feel to how they eventually live, as though it were brand new. When Kokone begins exploring the archives of robot history, all she can find are a few tantalizing clues locked behind academic, bureaucratic and economic gates. Queer relationships are already existing in a post-post apocalyptic world, and Kokone’s search would not be so different if she were a modern day lesbian rather than a future robot.

In the end, the fates of the world, of humanity and of the nigh-immortal lesbians left with the pieces are not revealed. The future of this world is left as mysterious as its past.   The only certainty in YKK is found in the moments lived and read, and those moments but not always the same. Comics are not thought of as being an “interactive art” the way games are, but the story of a comic cannot exist, much less progress, without a reader to fill those gaps between panels. The mysteries of this world are not as important as the answers a reader creates. Apocalypse is the end of a point of view as much as it is the end of the world. The classic canard “it is easier to destroy than create” forgets that every act of creation is a destruction, a deliberate choice to make one thing real and all other possibilities not. A slow pace is still a pace. Even in a world of daily moments, where one can get lost in the repeated actions and moods, people change. Even in immortality, we can’t stop choosing to grow.

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Final Fantasy 7

When I wrote about Final Fantasy V being the secret environmentalism Final Fantasy, I knew the elephant in the room with that claim would be Final Fantasy VII. After all, VII is the one where you start out as the member of an eco-terrorist group, and your primary villains for most of the game are an evil corporation unsustainably monetizing the lifeblood of the planet to power their machines. How can you that NOT be the environmentalism Final Fantasy? Well, just as V’s themes of responsibility, environmental collapse and hope within nihilism are supported by the game’s characters, world and mechanics, VII’s characters, world and mechanics quickly leave the “materia as peak oil” window dressing behind to focus on a different theme. Final Fantasy VII is the existential identity crisis Final Fantasy.

Despite their shared label, there’s actually quite a diverse range of differing doctrines by existential philosophers. One shared idea is that the central virtue of the movement is “authenticity.” An idividual suffers pain because of the disconnect between authenticity and their desires. People want the world to make sense, and so the reality of an absurd world without inherent meaning fills them with dread. Peoples’ actions and experiences are what define them, and the disconnect between what they do and what they think or feel also causes them this painful dread. People want to see themsleves as heroes, and so the fact that other people may see them as something else threatens their very sense of self. In existentialism, it is up to every individual to give meaning to life, rather than the concrete morality or value prescriped by society, religion, or other organizations. However, it is also up to every individual to deal with what it means to be such a powerful individual in a world shared by everyone else with the same power. In a western world trying to find meaning after the horrors of WWII, existentialism proved quite popular, and went on to influence disciplines far beyond philosophy, and 90s video games were no exception.

Japanese rpgs of the Playstation era would go to the existentialism well quite a lot, both to directly borrow from its philosophers or take indirect influence from its descendants. Square’s own Chrono Cross built its narrative around the main character becoming trapped in a Satre-esque nightmare of being regarded as their moral opposite, Persona used its Jungian archetypes to facilitate teenage drama about identity, and countless Tactics games took inspiration from the anti-war and anti-colonial writers of or following the movement. I don’t think its unfair to say that Final Fantasy VII’s explosive success, both economically and critically, helped solidify this trend among its predecessors. 

Existence preceeds essence. Identity is defined by the reality of what an individual does and how the world responds, not just what the individual feels defines them. Now, anyone familiar with FF7 is probably already thinking “yep, I know where this is going, Cloud.” After all, the identity Cloud presents for over half the game is challenged and eventually revealed to be false. His cool aloofness and badassery merely a projection, a false identity he doesn’t even remember creating anymore. In the end, it is revealed that he was a simple dork who, after suffering a traumatic experience, began internalizing and copying the mannerisms of the cool, fallen friend who had earlier saved his life. By the end of the game, his fractured mind and memories are restored and he accepts both his true self and the potential within that version of him to become the person he really wants to be. But Cloud is far from the only character in Final Fantasy VII projecting a false mask. Once you look deeper, every character carries this kind of existential crisis that defines them.

Barrett uses a mask of anger and rage to hide his own guilt and self-hatred. Red XIII tries to project maturity to mask the fact that he’s actually the youngest member of the group. Cait Sith is literally a rebel sympathizer pretending to be a Shinra spy pretending to be a robot cat-and-yeti. Cid projects the appearance of being another, even angrier version of Barrett not to mask guilt or issues of self-esteem, but how consumingly empty his misanthropy is. Even the optional characters have created their own comforting false selves. Yuffie appears to be the carefree, money-and-materia-happy thief, but this is to mask her frustration as a victim of Shinra’s colonialism. Her home country of Wutai lost a war and was reduced to little more than a vassal state fit only for vacationing foreigners who want to experience something “exotic.” Why does she really want the party’s power? Why to make Wutai strong and independent again! But admitting that means admitting Wutai is defeated and weak, and worse requires the help of these outsiders and their power, which is something Yuffie is not capable of doing when the party first meets her. So the only-watching-out-for-herself silly teen thief persona is created to justify to herself what she needs to do. Her actions are still working towards the goal she desires, but not in an authentic way, and it is not until she confronts and honestly engages both her new allies and her familial ties in Wutai that she is able to truly become a member of the party and obtain her most powerful ability.

Vincent, left immortal and sometimes-monstrous by Shinra science, tells the party he shut himself away as a penance for failing to prevent the events that led to the creation of the big villain Sephiroth. He takes on the role of the sorrowful, tragic hero, who failed to prevent his love from being stolen by the wicked scientist Hojo and fooled into becoming the mother of the world’s greatest monster. But anyone looking at the whole backstory (at least pre-sequels, which is going to become a common caveat) would note that Vincent was never really in a position to prevent anything. At best, he was a Shinra grunt with delusions of being closer to the real power players of the plot, merely adjacent to the backstory rather than active in it. He IS optional, after all. His guilt is not really over how he failed to stop Hojo, but over how he never actually COULD have stopped Hojo. But what kind of tragic hero redemption would THAT make for? Better people think his self-pity and inaction is due to something “worth” feeling guilty over, than admit he didn’t actually matter all that much back then (and that Lucretia didn’t love him, of course).

The most interesting cases aside from Cloud are found in Tifa and Aeris, arguably full co-protagonists with Cloud. Tifa grew up with the real Cloud, and is who first recruited him to Avalanche. She knows all too well that the version of events he shares with everyone is bullshit, and worse that he’s far too confident about every ridiculously wrong thing he says. Aside from the equally untrustworthy Sephiroth, she’s the only character alive who can counter Cloud’s narrative of past events with the truth. Yet despite all this, she remains silent, never challenges things and confides this in no one. The player can see that its weighing on her, and yet up until it becomes impossible to do otherwise, she keeps her accurate memories to herself. Why?

Tifa’s projection is one of support and normalcy. For various reasons, she simply does not trust herself, and so she copes by positioning herself to boost others. She’s the mother-slash-sister of the group, the calm collected voice of reason to everyone else’s anger and weird hang-ups. This serves her well for awhile, until her long-lost friend (and potentially more?) Cloud shows up, shortly followed by Sephiroth, the guy who murdered her hometown and set most of her psychological issues in motion. So Tifa, who deals with her existential issues by making herself a supporting character in other people’s stories, starts to run into the problem of Cloud’s version of the past not making any sense. Tifa distrusts herself so much, and her comforting identity is so wrapped up in supporting Cloud, that she essentially gaslights herself. Unlike the others who project a comforting but inauthentic fantasy to mask their existential fear, Tifa’s dread comes from her inability to trust in her own authenticity. Tifa knows who she is, but either doesn’t trust that to be good enough, or doesn’t trust the world to accept it. Eiter way, she’d rather maintain the illusion that the person she’s supporting, and thus validating her own existence through, is capable and in control than risk shattering it by acknowledging her real, objective memories. Notably, Cloud’s psyche is only saved by Tifa stepping forward to take ownership of reality, and in her own capability.

Aeris is unique in that she isn’t really projecting any kind of false self, but rather has everyone, including most of the players, projecting on to her. Considering her role as a healer, her “useless” holy materia’s appearance as the deus ex machina, and her tragic and (at the time) unexpected death, she tends to be remembered by most players as a virginal, sweet, naive young girl. One who loves flowers and being nice and romantic. She IS nice and likes flowers, of course, but she’s also a ratty slum kid who flirts, makes dirty comments, scams jerks trying to pick her up and has no problem making her feelings absolutely clear. She is absolutely nothing like the standard, demure healer girl jrpg players expect from the genre, and yet that is what they project onto her. Replaying the game after you know the plot twists to come makes it pretty clear how early on she realizes that Cloud is a false identity, and is specifically acting out the mannerisms and behavior of her dead ex-boyfriend Zack. Unlike Tifa, she doesn’t keep it “secret” because she doubts herself, but because frankly she has more important things to do regarding the fate of the planet and can’t spend all her valuable time helping Cloud the lost baby tip-toe around reality. She eventually leaves the party and ends up both saving the world and dying because, as much as she cares for Cloud and the other lovable fuckups of the party, she knows she can’t accomplish anything while holding their hands. The planet is saved because Aeris is authentically free from illusions, and Aeris dies because the party is, at the time, too weak to do likewise.

The larger mechanics of the game and the world it takes place in support this reading. While past Final Fantasies often focused on character customization through various systems (the jobs of III and V, the espers of VI, etc) the characters always had their own unique qualities as well. A knight is never going to be as good at spells as a black mage, and even if you abuse espers enough to give Relm an attack equal to Cyan’s she can’t equip his katanas to make use of it. But in VII, the characters of your party are virtually identical ciphers. Each character has their unique class of weapon, but the stats are largely the same. The deciding factors of a character’s stats and role in combat is not their stats or weapons, but their materia. Pretty much every character has the same capacity to be a fighter, a healer, an agile thief, a tank or any other role. The only tangible difference is in the characters’ limit breaks, the special attacks they can unleash when they take enough damage in combat. The only character who has stats built towards a particular role is Aeris, who will always be built with less fighting and more magic in mind. But, as noted earlier, Aeris is the only member of the party NOT trying to project the image of someone they think is cooler or more successful. Everyone else is a blank slate for you to work with because they lack Aeris’ sense of identity. Its also just another tip-off that something may happen to this character, so the player should keep an eye open.

Like V’s environmental themes, VII’s themes of how one presents identity and reality become more obvious once you know you’re looking for them beyond just Cloud. Shinra is an obvious example, with their public face as the good capitalist philanthropists and their literal paying of actors in Niflheim to spend their entire lives pretending to be people they are not. The Shinra corporation also makes a good villain for these themes because its an enemy with a changing face. When the Shinra president dies, his son simply takes over. The Shinra your party faces may be constantly changing with whatever board member you currently battle with, and that obscures how getting rid of these individuals who identify as the system is not the same as getting rid of the system. The question this should raise is, why do we then think that even getting rid of Sephiroth will get rid of the larger system threatening the planet?

VII’s ambiguous ending refuses (until the unneeded sequels anyway) to give a definite answer on if humanity survives with the rest of the world. The ultimate white magic is released and empowers the planet to remove all toxic and harmful variables. This includes the dark magic meteor set to crash into the planet, but it may also include the humans who spent their whole existence unsustainably harvesting the planet. The party can claim that it beat Sephiroth and the Shinra board members, but they didn’t actually fix any of the systems in place, did they? Everyone is still using power that has to come from somewhere, and that is draining the planet. They didn’t fix the fundamentally broken things inside humanity that apparently prevented them from acting in their own best interests. VII raises the question of whether the idea we can save the world is just another false identity, on a massive cultural scale. Does it matter if we think and feel that we’re getting better and capable of change if the planet itself knows better? Does the image we want to present as heroes matter if, when given the option, objective reality categorizes us as toxic and removes us? Even scarier, if we’re NOT moving forward and fixing problems, does that mean there’s any point, beyond our own egos, in attempting? How can we both deal with thse harsh realities without giving way to a selfish nihilism? Since (again, until they ruined it with sequels) the ending requires the player to decide and justify what happens to humanity, it requires the player to answer that question themselves.

In the end, what FF7 has to say about environmentalism is in terms of how existentialist ideas of identity impact our ability to deal with environmental issues. Over and over again, we find ourselves as a species embracing comforting lies to avoid harsh realities. Make no mistake though, “humanity is evil so there’s nothing we can do” is just as much a fantasy as “humanity is good and we don’t need to worry.” We’ve broken our own planet beyond what any species we’ve ever known is capable of, and the planet that comes from doing so is going to be one that a lot of people won’t survive. In a mere 14 years, we may be looking at a United States that is mostly desert and large parts of Europe that are uninhabitable. This is a painful future to think about, and our natural inclination is to escape having to do so. But its a reality that will still come, no matter how we choose to ignore it. We don’t have the luxury of solving this problem by spamming summon spells or just by admitting we’re overcompensating nerds, but there’s nothing wrong with bits of media that remind us how important it will be to face this reality sincerely. Accepting the difficult reality of what we can’t change, what we can’t avoid responsibility for, and what that means for our world requires cultivating an authenticity we’re not well versed in on a scale we have even less luck working with. But wether its on a personal or global scale, that existential pain will only abate when we face it with that same authenticity.

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Final Fantasy V – Hope in a time of environmental crisis


Most people would consider Final Fantasy VII, with its opening party members being an environmental terrorist group and its focus on materia as a metaphor for fossil fuels, as being the most overtly environmental-themed Final Fantasy. However, despite its place as narrative window-dressing, these themes take a backseat to themes of identity, performance and the conflict between how you and others perceive yourself. I would argue that, rather than VII, the Final Fantasy that is truly most about environmentalism is Final Fantasy V.

The world of Final Fantasy V was split in two millennia ago. An evil being emerged from The Void, the primordial chaos that is both nothingness and the potential to be anything, and became such a threat that the power he unleashed could only be destroyed by splitting reality in two and forcing The Void between them like a prison. Today, neither world realizes that the other exists, or that they were originally one, and on their own both worlds have inadvertently been leading themselves to destruction.


Like in VII, one of the driving conflicts in Final Fantasy V is the over-consumption of a finite resource. The kingdoms of the first world extract energy from the four elemental crystals in order to power technology and live easy lives. While the power of these crystals is considered to be limitless by short-sighted and short-lived humanity, their increasing reliance on that energy eventually weakens the crystals enough that they can be shattered. As the elements of the world are intrinsically linked to the crystals, this means that the world is going to slowly collapse. Air will become thin and polluted, fire will refuse to burn and the world will grow cold, the earth will become fallow and crumble, and water will grow stagnant and filthy.

It turns out that the crystals serve a second function, that of sealing away Exdeath, an evil warlock from that second world who longs to achieve the power of The Void. When he tried to destroy his world, four heroes from his world drove Exdeath to the first world and sealed him away. Naturally, the denizens of that second world are pissed that the thoughtless people of the first world abused their crystals’ power and allowed Exdeath to return and threaten both worlds.


But as the party explores the second world and learns the true history of Exdeath, it becomes clear that the situation is not quite that simple. The second world is not innocent, and the creation of Exdeath himself is directly related to their own environmental catastrophe. In this world, the people discovered that the Forest of Moore contained trees that could absorb and process “evil spirits.” The people dealt with destructive monsters, evil wizards and the most repulsive criminals by sealing them inside the trees of this forest (in particular one large, great tree at the forest’s heart) and allowed the forest to purge them of corruption. Of course, the concentrated evil energy was not destroyed any more than plastic or radioactive waste is in our world, and slowly the forest itself would become increasingly corrupted and evil itself. In time, a branch of the great tree became so infused with the discarded evil spirits that it formed a being of nothing but corrupting, destructive urges. That being was Exdeath, the evil tree-warlock behind the party’s troubles.

So improper psychic waste management lead to the creation of a being of pure radioactive evil, how does the world deal with it? By burying it in someone else’s backyard. Imagine if that chunk of plastic in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas was also sentient and wanted to twist your flesh into an untenable form of abstract terror. Imagine that the drinking water in Flint is not only still dangerously toxic, but that by trying to even use the tap, the water becomes increasingly self-aware and hungry for your degradation and death. Of course, they don’t bother to tell anyone, or give them instructions on how to make sure the sealed evil doesn’t awaken, or mention that they used the source of that world’s life-giving energy to do all this. While the first world’s sin is of unregulated resource extraction, the second world is guilty of a hideous form of environmental racism. Both worlds end up doomed because of their separate failures of conservation, and in the end are forced together for survival.


For a game rightly remembered for its light-hearted atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie, Final Fantasy V is undeniably dark. From the very beginning of the game, we are told that when a crystal shatters, the long-term effects on the world are irreversible. The shattered wind crystal means the air quality of the entire planet will simply get worse and worse, until it is possibly too toxic to support life. As each crystal shatters, it becomes a race to mitigate a dying world rather than a quest to save it. When Exdeath attains power over the Void and begins banishing entire populations to realms of unending horror, the game doesn’t tell you “oh, they’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Because its an early Final Fantasy game, we trust things will be alright in the end, and they are, but strictly speaking the narrative of the game is that each place lost to the Void is gone for good, condemned to an existence of undying horror. At least one species ends up functionally extinct by the end of the game, and even that doesn’t get undone during the happy ending. There is no false hope presented here, and while the game doesn’t explore the world that can be expected to come, that reality of a cold, polluted, dying world existing even after you defeat the evil warlock is there for players to consider.

Nihilism can be a destructive tendency, especially when it gets wrapped up in selfish narcissism. There are certain things we cannot change or save, and it is easy to give up on everything in the face of this. Its almost comforting to give up in that circumstance, to mock those who cling to hope and use life’s lack of meaning as an excuse not to create meaning yourself. This is the kind of “college 101” nihilism that most of us are familiar with, the kind that not simply acknowledges a lack of innate purpose or hope, but that actively seeks to prevent such things from being created. Nihilism is a terrible ethos, but then, so are most things we tend to use as such. As merely another tool or lens to be used as needed, nihilism can be something different. Facing the reality that the world as we know it is “doomed” and will change into something different is important. Acknowledging that there is no inherent value to life or our world allows us the opportunity to create and examine value ourselves. The world as we know it IS over. Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has ever been in the last 650,000 years, and a national parks social media account merely pointing that out is considered an act of rebellion. On a global level, we’ve passed the tipping point of climate change and a lot of people are going to suffer and die in this hotter world. On a national level, we have a president emboldened by literal nazis and an opposition party that is more intent on procedure than opposition. On a personal level, I will probably end up losing my insurance pretty soon, as well as many of the slight lgbt protections we worked so hard to win over the past decades. We can’t walk back from the damage we have done to the environment or from the political failures of neoliberalism and the resulting rise of fascism. But the reality that things are bad cannot be an excuse or a crutch. Only by allowing nihilism to be a tool to foster compassion, introspection and realism can it be anything other than a source of apathy.


While Final Fantasy V doesn’t shy away from the reality the world will still be doomed, its focus is on hope and finding meaning in fighting regardless. The ending, where everyone’s friends and hometowns are returned from The Void and both the world and the crystals are restored can be seen as a deus ex machina, or a generic happy ending (after all, only Final Fantasy VII really explored a potentially apocalyptic and unhappy ending, and even that was eventually walked back from in order to cash in on sequels). It can also be seen as a just reward for how the party continued to fight, regardless of the reality of their situation. Exdeath succeeds, even in death, in returning creation to that primordial Void, but the Void is not merely nothingness but potential. The drives of the party to find meaning, even when everything is lost, is what allows a world to be born out of that Void. Notably, the world that returns is NOT the status quo, but a new synthesis of the two worlds that must remember and deal with the consequences of what has happened. The idea that this happy ending is in fact earned rather than given is enforced by the narrative fake-out that results if one or more of your party members is at 0 hp when the final blow is struck against Exdeath. In that case, the party member does not have the strength to return from the Void, and the ending is changed to show their friends mourning them and the repercussions of their absence on the new world. The game treats them as dead, up until the very last moment of the ending, when they are shown to have been struggling against the Void even in their weakened state. All struggle is rewarded by the game’s narrative, no matter how weak or futile.


Still, in the real world, a truly happy ending IS a fantasy. We can’t expect to be rewarded overtly with a return to normalcy just because we didn’t give up. But the reminder that nothingness contains the potential for somethingness is important in this age. There is always time to create meaning and purpose, and to fight for that. We can’t stop the hotter world we’ve created, but we can support the people who must live through it and create new models for a society that can do so. We can’t undo Trump (even impeaching him just leaves the equally terrifying prospect of president Pence), but we can obstruct and mitigate damage, and create new visions of a future that opposes fascism. It may not be as flashy as setting up a loop of mimes dualcasting Holy while equipped with the Sage’s Staff, but in our world its what we’ve got.


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The Theoretically Potentially Annual List of the Games of the List of the Year

Hey everyone, its time again for when I remember to make an arbitrary list of the games I played this year that I enjoyed and had thoughts about, but not enough thoughts to write an entire blog post about. This year there’s just one problem.

I, um, didn’t really play any new games this year.

But this year was also the 25th anniversary of the Super Nintendo! So I can still do an arbitrary list like the real writers do! Here are 25 Super Nintendo games I haven’t written about before! And to keep my weird gamer cred, I’ll focus on the obscure, non-Mario or Kirby ones.


  1. Actraiser
    Here we go, starting strong. Actraiser was one of the first SNES games, and yet felt amazingly ahead of its time. You play as God, and alternate between platforming action stages where you fight pagan deities and satans, and simulation stages where you encourage humanity to build civilization and occasionally blast their houses with lightning so they’ll build better ones. Separately, they would have been two sub-par games, but together they exceed the sum of their parts and create something new.evo1
  2. EVO Search for Eden
    Start as a fish and fight your way through every fossil era until you become intelligent and get to bang the Earth itself. Its not remotely scientifically accurate, and the dinosaur levels in particular are exceedingly bland design, but it let you create all kinds of weird creatures and explore the fossil record through a bizarre, almost nihilistic lens.goof-troop-ingame
  3. Goof Troop
    Most licensed games are drek. Some licensed games are surprisingly good. Some licensed games are just weird because no one publishing the game really gave a crap, and so the developers could get weird and experimental. Anyways, remember that bad 90s cartoon about Goofy and his son? Here’s a co-op Zelda-esque puzzle-adventure based on it.soulblazer-3
  4. Soul Blazer
    The first game in Quintet’s Heaven and Earth Trilogy. Soulblazer is kind of a companion piece to Actraiser, being made by the same studio, coming out not so far apart and having a similar premise. The world is barren of life after a king sold every living soul on Earth to Satan for a gold coin each. As one of God’s angels, you must find and release the captured souls of every person, plant, animal and sometimes inanimate object.jerry-boy
  5. Jerry Boy/Smart Ball
    This simple platformer (an early work by a pre-Pokemon GameFreak) is merely a cute, serviceable romp in its US release. The original Japanese release, however, is… also just a cute serviceable romp, but one that features all kinds of additional story! In between levels you get to explore towns and communities, which tend to ignore you since you’re just a weird slime ball, and overhear how the larger conflict is impacting (or not) the people. These interludes are charming, and serve to showcase how the otherwise unrelated levels connect to each other.illusion-of-gaia
  6. Illusion of Gaia
    The sequel to Soul Blazer, taking the basic idea of a world waiting to be reborn and spinning it in a new direction. While Soul Blazer was rooted in judeochristian theology (albeit, one with a shinto lens), Illusion of Gaia takes a more humanist approach, looking at the twin drives of humanity, creativity and cruelty, and using them to explore ideas of fate and
  7. Live a Live
    Squaresoft is famous for its Final Fantasies and Secrets of Mana of this era, but its more experimental games that didn’t leave Japan deserve more attention. Live a Live tells eight different stories, each a different genre and seemingly unconnected. Each story is short and based around a single gimmick. Only when taken as a whole do all the stories reveal their true connection.hourai-gakuen-no-bouken
  8. Hourai High
    Comedy is hard to pull off in video games. Hourai High is a Dragon Quest-esque rpg mashed up with a high school anime, yet manages to actually be funny by our jaded, modern standards. The story takes place on a high school the size of an entire island nation, and follows the school newspaper as it tries to reveal the truth about the myriad punks, apple polishers, out of touch teachers and truent officers who are out to ruin everyone’s good time.hagane
  9. Hagane
    Remember the anime Iria – Zeiram the Animation? Sure you do. Anyways the guy who did the design for that animation did the design for this game. So if you like the idea of robots powered by Buddhist statues, get on in there.skyblazer-8
  10. Sky Blazer
    This was one of the few games Sony made for Nintendo before the…unpleasantness. Its a really well made action game in the Mega Man vein. A lot of similar games give you weapons and abilities that are only useful against one boss, if at all. All of Skyblazer’s abilities feel fun to use, and you never feel like you’re shoehorned into using any one weapon.pocky-rocky-2
  11. Pocky and Rocky 2
    The first Pocky and Rocky is one of the best “cute ’em ups” to grace any system. A girl and a raccoon run around and shoot cute goblins. The sequel loses some of the polish and two player options, but gains some additional content (what we called rpg-elements back in the day). I like shmup-adventure/rpg hybrids, and wish the franchise had continued that direction and hadn’t pretty much died off.super-godzilla-ingame
  12. Super Godzilla
    Godzilla tend to lend itself to action and fighting games, so naturally they decided to make a leisurely-paced simulation game where you play the government organization whose goal is to guide Godzilla toward the bad monsters, destroying the parts of the city that they’re ok with losing and avoiding the military that apparently didn’t get the memo that Godzilla is controllable by a clandestine organization.1013titlescreen
  13. Snoopy Concert
    Did you know that Nintendo developed an official Peanuts game? Its a weird collection of point-and-click games where Woodstock is your pointer. If you ever wanted to hear Hirokazu Tanaka’s take on Vince Gauraldi, this is pretty much where you’d go.terranigma-3
  14. Terranigma. That’s still obscure, right?
    Boy, a lot of SNES games were about building or rebuilding the world, huh? There was something really cool about those games, particularly how you’d start with a nothing wasteland and slowly find hope for the world, nurturing it until a real community emerged from the ashes of destruction again. Yet at the same time, the “new” world you created was always just our world. There was something sad and fatalistic about that. There was no room for revolution in these apocalypses, only the restoration of the status quo. The world of Terranigma was brought to ruin by humanity’s acquiescence to Dark Gaia, but we gotta get everything back the way it was when they made that choice anyways, including making sure fucking Columbus existed.romancing-saga-3
  15. Romancing SaGa 3
    Its like a 2d, jrpg Skyrim that came out a decade early. Yep, that’s the take I’m sticking with. Romancing SaGa is 2d jrpg Skyrim.
  16. Christ, did I say 25? What was I thinking?chaos-seed-fuusui-kairouki
  17. Chaos Seed – Fuusuki Kairouki
    Another of the weird experimental genre mish-mashes of the SNES. This one never got out of Japan, but there’s a fan translation available. It is complex as hell, mixing a roguelike with an RTS with a dungeon-managing sim. You run around a dungeon, adding new rooms to the part you control, recruiting celestial beings to gather resources and fight spawning monsters, building power plants and devices that control the flow of energy and money, all while utilizing the techniques of feng shui.taz-mania-ingame
  18. Taz Mania
    Another weird licensed game, this one utilizes the much ballyhoo-ed Mode 7 abilities of the SNES. You run Taz around a Mario Kart-esque track, trying to eat all the kiwi birds before time runs around. Its weird and loose, but more interesting than another bland platformer, that’s for sure.
  19. Ok, I’ve just decided that because of the Super Game Boy, all compatible gameboy games count as super nintendo games
  20. Great Greed
    This is just a generic gameboy rpg, so why is it here? Well the ending is great. The king lines up his daughters and says “for saving us, you can marry whoever you want” but instead of having to marry a princess, you can then talk to ANYONE in the room, which includes all the party members and npcs, and the king goes “ok, you’re married now.” Marry the queen! Marry a baby! Marry some dude! Marry the king!cosmo-tank-u5
  21. Cosmo Tank
    The gameboy was home to a lot of wild experimental games despite the extreme limitations of the cartridge. Cosmo Tank was an early gameboy game, and yet its still a weirdly progressive combination of shmup, first-person shooter, and action rpg. No one knew what kind of game would succeed critically or commercially in the newfangled handheld market, so developers were able to get away ideas that would be indie darlings today.legendriver-1
  22. Legend of the River King
    The same goes for theme as well as game design. The gameboy was host to tons of games about subjects no other system would get for decades. Japan saw gameboy rpgs about insect collection, dog breeding, wilderness survival, fashion, and many more. Of those games, we in the west only got one of the myriad fishing rpgs. Still, fishing rpg!
  23. I don’t want to do this anymore
  24. Fuck it, I’m just going to end with Yoshi’s Islandyisland-1
  25. Yoshi’s Island
    Objectively the perfect platformer. Not a single level is wasted. Everything you do feels unique, no gimmick outstays its welcome. The game’s aesthetic holds up even today, ignoring the dated CGI attempts of its contemporaries for a timeless illustrated look. Some people complain about the sounds baby Mario makes, but those people are wrong. Its SUPPOSED to be an annoying sound, just like a crying baby is supposed to be. Instead of dying when you are hit, the game offers you a buffer period with which a player can recover. The noise and countdown help make sure that the player is still being tested during that buffer, and when the player learns to maneuver the levels without losing the baby they are rewarded with additional content. Wanting Yoshi’s Island games to get rid of that flawless system (YES. Flawless!) for a generic health bar is why we can’t have nice things.
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Ostrander’s Suicide Squad and the Failure of Masculinity

People love good villains, especially good cartoonish genre-fiction villains. Villains are alluring, decadent and transgressive in ways the generic, moral, white-as-hell protagonists they usually try to corrupt or destroy can never get away with. The simple fact that people find the Joker, literally a sociopathic and asexual clown, to be fuckable is proof enough of that, but there’s another reason for the allure of villains. For marginalized people who are treated by society as disposable, monstrous and dangerous it is far more easy to see yourself in characters challenging the status quo. There’s a reason young queer kids in particular tend to gravitate towards celebrating Disney villains, with their exaggerated bodies, angles and mannerisms contrasted so starkly with the generic Cal Arts hero/heroine design they usually face off against. The common wisdom tends to be that villains, not having to “appeal” to the audience the same way a generic hero does, end up more appealing because they get to be more unique and rounded characters. As more kids who grew up identifying with the “wrong” characters turned to writing genre fiction, sometimes in creative control of the very characters they grew up with, a lot of said villains get even more chances to be redeemed as cool sex-havers and misunderstood (except by the cooler readers) anti-heroes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I know I sure love a good transgressive anti-hero and enjoy good stories about hot characters getting to fuck.

The current resurgence in popularity of DC’s Suicide Squad is a good example of this phenomenon. While it was always a cult hit, its finally managed to now go mainstream in a way DC is still struggling to do with goddamn Superman. Despite the film’s goofily backfiring attempt to make a new sexy Joker, there’s no question that the film’s naked witches, rough mean muscle men, sexy lady clowns and handsome Deadshot contributed to the film’s success. This is what makes it so interesting to go back and reread the original breakout-hit 80s version of Suicide Squad, and see just how unsexy it is.

Ostrander’s original Suicide Squad is one of the greatest runs in Bronze-age comics. Its premise took several questions DC was facing at the time such as “how do we make goofy silver-age villains interesting in our serious post-Crisis, post-Watchmen world?” as well as fan over-thinking questions like “how do these villains keep getting out of prison every other issue?” and crafted a simple explanation that tied everything together. The comic reveals that the US government of the DC universe is covertly employing villains for suicide missions, with the promise that any who return successfully can get their sentences commuted or access to government aid or tech. In each mission, it is guaranteed someone is going to bite it, and since the characters are generally all d-list nobodies, that means ANYONE could go, creating real tension. From the very first issue, the comic wanted you to know it was going to be different than its silver-age cast would suggest. The opening pages quietly introduce the comic’s creators like the opening of a movie or cable miniseries, rather than the expected Stan Lee-esque bombastic splash page. At a time when comic creators were trying to attain maturity through “man I love pollution and crack!” storylines, this was a comic that let the reader know it was going to be hip, mature and fresh with subtlety. Like any comic from the late 80s/early 90s, its not without is faults of questionable politics, but as a whole it holds up remarkably.

But while most villain-focused comics, especially later Suicide Squad runs, tried to focus on their cast as sexy anti-heroes, Ostrander is under no illusions that his villains are fundamentally broken, unsexy people. Some are victims of circumstance or capable of greatness, but most are simply bad people who have utterly failed at life. They are characters we learn to understand and root for, but never in a “sexy” capacity. We may start out identifying with them as fellow outcasts, but all too quickly learn that a community based solely on that is not community at all. What’s notable is that each of the main recurring characters gets to be a failure in a different way. When this is looked at through the proper lens, an interesting pattern emerges. Of the biggest consistent failures in the series, and failures not always leading to their death, each represent a different archetype of presumed masculine success. Through these failed, flawed and decidedly unsexy characters, we see the illusions of that era’s ideals of masculinity laid bare.

Rick Flag isn’t a villain, he’s the army man expected to keep the villains from bolting or screwing up a mission with their bs. He’s a strong-jawed, dedicated, handsome man in uniform, and yet he’s completely out of touch with this new world. He’s a silver-age GI Joe-type in a complex post-comics code world of ambiguous morality. He more easily identifies with the villain’s he’s leading than with his bosses or former lovers, and that pisses him off because they’re all HORRIBLE. It is obvious he is heading toward mental catastrophe, but no one ever steps in to save him because, as the muscled hero, it is assumed he can weather it. He ends up snapping and killing himself in a last-ditch effort to prove his worth, because all he knows how to do is one thing and he’d rather die doing that one thing than have it end up not being useful anymore.

Bronze Tiger is another not-villain on the team. A government agent who was temporarily brain-washed by the League of Assassins, Bronze Tiger is a martial arts specialist doing this work as a kind of penance. He is also perhaps the least fucked up of the Suicide Squad men, but the fact that he is not white means the government will not trust him the same way. The government places Flag in command, against the wishes of the people running the Squad, and never really questions his crumbling mental state because he looks like them. Bronze Tiger, significantly less damaged than Flag, is constantly questioned and distrusted and his ultimate breakdown is largely instigated by the government itself. Bronze Tiger defines his problems as urges and needs to hurt others, but it seems pretty clear in the reading that the real “urges” that are bothering him aren’t entirely related to his time as an assassin.

Because he’s gay. As. Fuck. Bronze Tiger may get paired off with super model superheroine Vixen for a bit, but its clear that his real sexual outlet is the never-ending lineup of handsome musclemen with vendettas against him. Bronze Tiger collects ambiguous boyfriends throughout the series in a way that seems directly contrasted against every other character’s failed ability to hook up. Seriously, look at how Bronze Tiger talks to all these handsome men who want to get sweaty and punchy with him and compare it to his moments with Vixen. This is the most erotic this comic ever gets! A character who struggles with dealing with unseen, unspoken inner troubles and urges just HAPPENS to be so closeted he makes Captain America and Bucky look platonic.

Deadshot, with his dapper facial hair and handsome aloofness, seems poised to be the team heartthrob. He’s a straight shooter in both his mannerisms and skill set! He exudes a classic machismo and plays by his own rules! He’s a Batman villain! But Deadshot is an utter failure by the standards of that same machismo we project on him. He makes a big deal about going to “cathouses” when he “gets the itch” but as soon as one woman makes a move on him he collapses into confused frustration. It isn’t that he doesn’t “know what to do” so much as he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want ANY of the things he’s “supposed” to want as a cool dude. He doesn’t care about sex or money or even respect. What he wants is to shoot things. Sometimes he wants one of his friends to not have to be as fucked up as he is, and sometimes he wants to be dead. Sometimes he just wants Batman to like him. Later comics tend to write Deadshot as a cool guy, hopping from bed to bed and quipping wise with everyone even as he just wants to be a good father. Honestly, none of those cool macho Deadshots come as close to being as compelling as the simple, sad, failed Deadshot who can get anything he wants, except he doesn’t want any of it.

The most surprising success, at least from a not-getting-horribly-killed standpoint, is Captain Boomerang. A goofy, shitty Flash villain with a silly costume and “trick boomerangs” as a gimmick, Boomer seemed destined to be one of the squad members who eats it. Except he never does. From the first mission to the last, Captain Boomerang manages to beat the odds not through luck, but by skill. Even as you hate him, and you will hate him, you can’t help but be impressed by him. Yet despite his success at not being killed, he is still an utter failure. Everyone despises him, he can’t pull off any scams, he never gets laid, his home country is convinced he’s a Yank pretending to be Australian and has disowned him, he’s constantly being humiliated and shown up by the women and people of color he feels so superior to, and he’s not balding gracefully. Even when this preening, narcissistic machismo he represents manages to survive in this new world, it is not in a position of power or respect, but neither is it willing to really examine why.

The other, less iconic male character don’t fail much better. Dr Light’s a child-killing coward, Punch is a shallow yuppie turned to “wacky” villainy with his wife because he can’t think of any actual sexual kinks, Briscoe only wants to fuck his helicopter, and then there’s Count Vertigo. Count Vertigo is another seemingly macho dream. He’s a handsome wealthy aristocrat. He’s got money, women fawn over him, and he’s the inheritor of a noble lineage. He’s also an inbred fuckup suffering from severe bi-polar disorder. He doesn’t have any illusions about this, he knows about his problems and despises himself for it, but he feels too much apathy and shame to do anything about it other than wish for death. He’s one of the only squaddies who has sex, but it comes from Poison Ivy turning him into a slave and its not only portrayed decidedly unsexy but as another source of intense shame and self-loathing. Considering how often Poison Ivy’s mind-control gets presented in the comics as a weird male fantasy, its striking how Suicide Squad presents it unambiguously as rape. Vertigo eventually comes to Deadshot in one of his lucid moments and asks if Deadshot would be willing to kill him if asked in the future. Deadshot says he would, because Deadshot likes shooting people, so to be damn sure that is what he wants when he asks.

While Poison Ivy gets used as a degenerate fraud and rapist, only succeeding because of the stupidity of men rather than any actual ability, the other women who survive the squad longest generally show their male companions up in major ways. Enchantress is a mess, but her power is rightly feared. Nightshade conquers her demons, ends up stronger for it, and even manages to escape the Squad’s grip. Lashina, aka Duchess, is a towering amazon who utterly emasculates any men sent against her, and fails after accomplishing all her goals only because of the very nature of evil in the DC universe (aka Darkseid is a petty asshole and hates initiative more than he hates failure). Vixen manages to pull off being a super-model, a fashion mogul, a super-hero AND a covert ops agent and her only real problem comes from trying to make Bronze Tiger straight and not suicidal. But in terms of success, none of them can hold a candle to Amanda Waller.

Amanda Waller is one of the most memorable characters from comics of her era. Short, stocky, ugly, black and mean, Waller is the antithesis of the expected superhero body type. She is ruthless, and in later stories often gets cast as a more generic villain. However in the original Suicide Squad run you really see the nuance being built with her. She does horrible things, but she does not try to hide or justify them. We know for a fact that the people who want to replace her are worse than she is. While she at least refuses for the Squad to be used as a tool for corrupt politicians, the people who want her job are eager to turn the weaponized villains on US citizens. Even if she gets whats coming to her, the vacuum she leaves behind is even scarier. There’s no question she does fucked up things, but there’s also no question that even though she’s horrible, she’s not nearly as horrible as her detractors want us to think she is. She is resented and despised not because she does these horrible things, but because she is an unapologetically unattractive black woman doing them.

But what does she actually accomplish? Does she make America a better place for marginalized people? Does she address the system that is slowly realizing that if it can’t displace her, it can at least co-opt her? The Squad stops a few terrorists groups in its time, ranging from domestic white-power groups to the only-in-80s-comics-level multicultural super villain team known as “the Jihad.” But of course each time they leave everything in place so that new ones can immediately pop up to replace them. The series ends with her ultimate victory being her quitting America entirely to run her own country alongside the less-fucked-up Squad survivors.

Waller represents everything dangerous about neoliberal America. On paper she’s everything we’re told is promising and good about the American dream. She’s a rags-to-riches story and a marginalized woman who’s attained incredible power. She’s the world’s policewoman, smarter than anyone else but still willing to work within the system (unless she absolutely has to break the rules to save our way of life). She’s better equipped to protect America than Rick Flag or any of the other old fashioned white men. She’s the original lean-in slay queen making drones and collateral damage look intersectional. She makes you honestly believe, even if just for a moment, that the idea of weaponizing goddamn sociopathic super villains with magic guns and mind-control is in your best interests. She’s one of the only characters in comics who can outsmart and outscare Batman, for goodness sake. Macho, imperialist American exceptionalism’s greatest salesperson ends up being a black woman. This shows both the innate hypocrisies within the system, as the reason the forces of the status quo hate her so much is revealed to be because it self-destructively hates how such a woman is better at their job, and also why said hypocrisies don’t matter. Even though the status quo sabotagues itself, the larger machine of capital and colonization doesn’t care. The old imperial system would rather shoot itself in the foot than let one of THOSE people accomplish everything they actually want to happen, and as a result the “new” neoliberal system gets to look subversive even as it accomplishes the same conservative agenda.

Suicide Squad ends up being a moral about how corrupting the system can be, turning outcasts (be they actual villains or marginalized people) into tools to support the status quo. In the end, the “cool” villains are all revealed as failures and cast-offs of that status quo, and the only hope for the genuinely good people stuck with them is to quit the entire system. The marginalized people of this modern world need to be careful and remember that just because the status quo TREATS them like villains and monsters, that does not make them so. We identify with villains because society hates us for existing, and we see these monsters fight againt said society. But true monsters will remain monsters, and solidarity with them is not real. The resolution of the series, as mentioned above, where Waller and some of the squad decide to run their own country, is strange to think of as a happy ending. It seems very, very clear that this could just be the same imperialist bs that has been destroying Waller and the Squad all along. But the tiny sliver of hope is that what is actually happening is these characters are realizing they can be more than just the next generation of rich, white, ultimately failed men.

Even the previous generation of failed men has a chance to be something else if they choose. The very last pages of the run show Vertigo and Deadshot together, Vertigo deciding once and for all if he wants to die. If his ultimate failure to be everything this world expected of him means he has nothing left to live for. If death is preferable to having to live as a different kind of man. If he cannot escape his self hatred. In the end, two of the characters let down the most by the twisted expectations of masculinity must decide if there’s something else worth living for.

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The Power and Failure of Art Under Oppression — A Story from Ancient Greece and Modern America

I want to tell you a story I first read in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. A story that stuck with me long after, and helped shape how I think about art and art’s role in liberation. It is the story of Thespis and the birth of the protagonist, but it is also the story of theatre as a weapon, one that would be used in many different hands and not always for the right cause.

Thespis of Athens was one of the most well regarded singers in the chorus. Back in those days, Greek theatre was nothing like what we call theatre now. It was the age of the dithyrambs, the hymns sung in unison by the chorus. Evolving from the songs and celebrations of the harvest, the chorus sang familiar, unchanging hymns to the gods. The audience knew what it was expecting each time, it knew the stories that were coming and the morals and traditions they imparted. One did not go to the theatre to think, one went to relax and be reminded of what one already knew.

Athens had changed a lot by this time. It was now a dynamic city of competing philosophers, lawmakers and tyrants. Despite the gulf of history between us, many of those movements would look familiar to us, especially those that currently carried the most clout. Men like the lawmaker Solon who legislated against the moral and economic decline of the city and created the basis of what would become Greek democracy. Solon and his contemporaries argued the merit of free markets and the importance of an economic meritocracy. Solon could also be very progressive, for example his controversial policy that forgave all debt for everyone in the city. At the same time there was no willingness to then tackle and dismantle the larger systems that had created that debt in the first place, and that quickly lead to those forgiven becoming trapped once again. The old nobility of birth had been replaced by a new nobility of money. The best choruses of Athens received funding from the richest members of this new aristocracy, who in turn received tax credits for their service to the community. Theatre was part of Athens, but the idea that it was a direct part of the important work of Athens was absurd.

On this night, Thespis stood in the chorus, prepared to sing the prepared and expected answers to the prepared and expected questions the chorus was about to sing. The audience watched, content in complacent enjoyment. It was then that something in Thespis snapped. Something within him compelled him to move, to change. Whatever that something may have been, the result was like nothing seen before on a Greek stage. Leaping out of the chorus, Thespis shouted “NO” to the question the rest of the chorus was politely singing their “yes” to. The audience gasped as Thespis continued, moving about the stage contrary to the rest of the performance. Not having any prior experience to draw on, the rest of the chorus simply continued their performance as normal, not deviating or stopping once. Thespis responded by loudly and aggressively commenting on everything they said. Challenging every moral put forward, doubting every myth, free associating every current event in Athens to the legendary stories on stage. In one moment, Thespis had invented the protagonist. The being on stage that stands alone, that controls the story, that engages the audience directly in a way a unified chorus never could. The protagonist could not exist without the chorus, but there was no question who commanded the stage.

After the show, despite the grumbling of some traditionalists, the audience and other actors celebrated and cheered this daring display. Never before had any of them been moved by theatre in such a way. Never before had a night at the theatre been so gorgeously surprising. Thespis knew he had struck on something. It was from this cloud of giddy triumph that Thespis returned to his dressing room to find himself greeted by none other than Solon. The great lawmaker had been in the audience, silently taking in everything, and now he had words for Thespis.

“Are you not ashamed?” Solon asked the actor. “You ruin a lovely performance, and for what? To condemn good morals? To insult good stories? To debase everything we have been told? To obscure the truth we all know with your lies?”

“But I do not lie, I am merely playing. I have transformed the stage to a place where the protagonist can challenge everything, can play with any idea. If what I say on that stage is ever not true, it is not me lying but me playing a game in a false reality where one can challenge truth. This is now a space to engage with truth as we’ve never been able to do before.”

“Regardless of who you really are, when you take on that role on the stage, you become a liar, and a danger to Athens. The people will not understand your game, they will not understand your ideals. They will only see that someone on stage has said these things, and they will then believe they can say them too. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what you say in your game, what matters is the message that anyone can speak. That it is possible for anyone to say something. This is a message that cannot be tolerated. You cannot do this again.”

Solon then perhaps overplayed his hand. He turned back to stubborn, triumphant Thespis and gave a more specific threat.

“When Prometheus gave fire to humankind, the gods chained him to a rock and tortured him with vultures for all time. Imagine what your lords could do to you if you gave my city a tool more dangerous than fire.”

If anything can sway a successful, stubborn artist, threats from above is not one of them. Thespis’ audience demanded he perform in this new manner again the next night. Though rightfully terrified, Thespis’ resolve was only hardened by the combination of adulation and unjust threat. Thespis’ great contribution to the stage would remain, but he would have to become more clever in order for it (and himself!) to survive.

Thespis created a new art to aid the performer in this role. If Solon’s problem was that the audience would believe the stage was reality, then Thespis would obscure that reality further, and create plausible deniability. Thespis would create the mask and costume the performer could wear to disguise himself. “This being, which looks like me, is not me.” He created the actor, to further separate the stage from reality. “You know me as Thespis, but at this moment you also know I am in fact someone else.” Ironically, this new creation made his work even more of a lie than the unbridled truth he had let forth the night before, but it was a lie the lords of Athens could only grumble at without cause for action.

But Solon was not the only man to dislike this new art. Even as the audiences poured in to the theaters, even as ticket sales rose higher and higher, even as Thespis’ triumph was praised all over Greece, his patron, Maecenas, stewed. Athens was a city of money and politics, and theatre was made possible only by the patronage of the wealthy merchants and banks. Maecenas was no draconian lawmaker. Maecenas was cultured, educated, cosmopolitan, liberal and clever enough not to come at Thespis with threats.

“Thespis, darling! Your work has never been better. The ‘protagonist’! Amazing! The ‘actor’! Transcendent! You have changed art forever. Already, young dramatists begin to call themselves ‘thespians’ in your honor.

That is why I am here with you today. I am not an artist, only a producer, and I would not DREAM of telling you how to perform your art. That is not my place. But at the same time, I hope you can see the puzzle I am in. People see my name on your work, and they assume the words you say are my own. They are not cultured, like you and I are. They do not understand you like I do. I have to be careful, because even if I see the value of your new art, I cannot always risk funding it. It would be such a shame if Thespis’ grand work faded into obscurity because I was no longer able to promote it. Such a shame, indeed. Luckily, while I am no actor, I AM a producer, and I know how we can solve this problem.

“You should be free to improvise every night as your protagonist, just as your producers should be free to not fund things that might be misunderstood or get them in trouble or go against their own feelings. Bring me a written script of your improvisations ahead of time, I will read it to make sure I am not going to be surprised, and if I approve, I will give you my money. If not, then you are still free to perform! On your own. Perhaps on the street, so long as you are careful to avoid the lawmakers (it is such a shame I wouldn’t be able to protect you outside this theater).”

Where tyranny had failed to censor, capitalism had succeeded. A censorship that hid itself well. Thespis and the thespians that followed were still free to improvise, and the market was free to publish or punish as they desired. There would be no free art, so long as the freedom of the market was the biggest concern for the rulers of Athens, but to anyone watching it would appear to be a voluntary subjugation undertaken by the artists themselves.

It is a story that had happened before, outside of Greece, and would happen again many times. It would happen in Japan, where the brilliant Okuni created a new theatre, free from law and caste, that scared the Shogunate so much they banned all women from the stage and legally classified all musicians as prostitutes. It would happen in England, where Shakespeare’s daring counter-culture work was intimidated and brought to heel before the monarchy. It would happen in America, when a fake beaver on stage enraged the US government so much they shut down the Federal Theatre Project. But none of these stories end there. Because Solon and Maecenas were not the only grand thinkers of Athens moved to action by Thespis’ discovery.

As the theatre grew in popularity, the philosophers of Athens could not keep ignoring it as though it was mere “peasant dance.” Plato reacted first, and with a hatred so strong and terrified that people would not even have a word for it until Sartre. To Plato, theatre was an existential threat. Plato’s world was one of absolutes. A world where there were objectively correct forms of everything (Platonic ideals) and society was no exception. People lived in a false world that only reflected the objective, true ideals Plato knew must exist, and this theatre and poetry was but a reflection of a reflection. It was debased, it pulled people even further away from truth, and it would have no place in Plato’s vision of a perfect Athens. More than any other philosopher of his age, Plato railed against the theatre and condemned it. The more he did so, the more he looked like a fool to anyone not hoping to be his disciple.

Plato was a wise man, but not a particularly clever man. His contemporary, Aristotle, was both. Aristotle watched as Plato flailed against Thespis’ new art. Finally, Aristotle came forward, “my dear friend Plato is close to the truth. Art is not reality. But it is a mistake to think that it has no place within reality, just because of that. The ideal society should not shy away from this new theatre, but embrace it. Embrace it and use it.

“The common man, filled with confusion and conflict, goes to the theatre. They see the protagonist, engaging in actions that they cannot do in reality. They place themselves into this false reality, feeling everything the protagonist does as if they did it themselves. They feel the protagonist’s triumphs and failures as if it was their own. If theatre is done correctly, the common man is then able to feel a release from their conflict. They feel catharsis. They get to engage in the debased morals and rebellions that we would not want good citizens to indulge in outside of the stage’s false reality. Then, good theatre would give the protagonist a chance to repent, or suffer for their sins. The audience would repent with the protagonist, or suffer with one who refused, and would again feel catharsis. Without realizing it, the citizens would be trained in proper behavior, and in acting out rebellion would walk away with a desire to conform.”

Aristotle’s view was popular, though not universal. Indeed, most later tyrants would follow the thinking of Solon and Plato, and in doing so would unknowingly give art more power. For art’s power is strongest when it is feared. But sometimes in history, a clever tyrant would follow Aristotle. Those were the moments when artists who wanted to use their work for change would have the hardest time.

In our time, it is hard to say exactly when a more Aristotle-esque view achieved a stronger hold among our own tyrants. It was there when the young, college-educated proponents of American exceptionalism and the free market joined the CIA, and convinced the fearful old men above them to sponsor the painters and dramatists they had spent the past decade fearing. It was there when Rockefeller tore down Diego Rivera’s mural. It was there when two young Jewish immigrants named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first new god of the 20th century, and in order to survive had to sell him to a corporation for a mere $130. It was there in the disenfranchisement of black writers, artists and cartoonists. It was there as it erased women artists and writers, and then argued they had no history of their own but could “join in” the great work of men if they were willing to behave. It was not the only view, and the Plato-esque terror at art and artists still holds sway among some even today, but the more clever, sinister tyrants have had many successes.

Today, celebration of art is everywhere. No longer seen as a path to becoming degenerates and drop-outs, it is the dream of every young child to be an actor, a cartoonist, an animator, a graphic novelist, an anime voice-over, a game designer, a comedian, a creative, a youtuber, a content creator. The new Maecenas has learned a great deal since that first compromise. Now he is able to convince new artists to pay HIM in exchange for being produced. The new Aristotle tells their audience to consume these stories that the desperate artists have sacrificed so much to get produced. To consume the stories and live them as their own. Scared of fascism? Live the life of an plucky orphan, chosen for greatness. Resist through the wizard boy, the empathic gem child, the space rebel, the super hero. Resist through them, feel their struggle as your own, and walk away soothed. So even work that could be used to think and challenge becomes a tool to stop thought and stop conversation.

The jester has no power. It does not matter if they mock the king, as long as the king remains king. If the king can convince people the jester matters, it can protect them. So the jester mocks the king, mocks his name, mocks his bad ideas and policies. The jester HATES the king. But then the jester sees the coming mob, and instead of seeing the downfall of the king they claim they are mocking and fighting, they only see the loss of their place in the castle. So the jester mocks the mob, mocks the those protesting tyranny, and tells themself that there is no other way, that the king would be defeated if only they had listened to him. They watch the king send out soldiers to slaughter the people, and, despite themselves, the feel at ease. If the jester was a threat, they would have no job. If the Daily Show was any threat to power, it would not be allowed on the air.

The new Maecenas and Aristotle laugh, dropping bread crumbs in the form of “gay Iceman! Muslim Ms Marvel!” only to turn around and donate a million dollars to Trump. They turn journalism into media, making the consumption of news and data as cathartic as “good” theatre. They trick the oppressed and the desperate into fighting harder to get “representation” in these false realities than they fight to get funding and support for fellow oppressed and desperate artists. They trot out the occasional Plato to say, “look! It matters! Look how scared this man is of you, the jester, the poet, the thespian!” The truth is, the tyrants do not currently fear art.

But they should.

Make them fear it again. Make them fear you.

The reality created on the stage, created on the page and even in the digital spaces of your computer still have power. Do not mistake that power for the ability to enact great universal change, to instantly bring down tyrants or to sway the hearts and minds of bigots. No, the power of art is that it creates spaces to think, to connect, to challenge and to train. To take the stories and say “this is possible.” To resist the easy catharsis of “I am Harry Potter, I support the democrat Khaleesi” and ask the harder question, “WHY do I see myself in here? What about this false world do I want to see in mine? How can I then work to achieve that?” Any cathartic art can be made powerful, if the audience is willing to become artists themselves. Any rebellious art can be made toothless, if the audience decides to remain passive.

Make them scared of the artist again. Make them scared of the audience again.

Make Athens burn itself until we are all free.

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Fear of the Shapeshifter

We, as a species, are pretty obsessed with form. Appearance is everything to us. We judge people based on uniforms more than actions. We judge animals based on how vaguely their proportions mirror that of our own offspring rather than their ecological role. We are so convinced we can accurately divine an objective reality based on imagined platonic forms that we end up becoming cartoonish. Maybe it is this obsession with these worlds of ideal forms that has led to such consistent themes in how we utilize shapeshifters in fiction.

Fictional cultures and civilizations of shapeshifters are, almost exclusively, villains. In tabletop games dopplegangers, changelings, skulks and their ilk are uniformly described as sociopathic parasites, incapable of creating their own culture or art and instead using their abilities to usurp the positions of the humans (or elves or whatever) that were truly capable of creation and innovation. They steal identities, rather than create their own. The best role these fantasy races could hope for in the official narratives is that of a craven trickster, amoral but not overtly evil by birth. The idea presented here is that if people were free to take any form they wanted, they would be either unwilling or unable to stop. If you could be anyone as needed, why would you ever be anything for longer than it remained the most useful? Why would you slow down and make one form your own if you could just instantly be one more useful? Not putting the time into improving and changing one form, the argument goes, would translate into not putting the time into improving and developing an individual identity. Dopplegangers of D&D steal identities because their powers prevent them from developing a proper identity, and then the creativity to develop their own new forms. Its a pretty dim view of the fantasy of shapeshifting.

There have also been heroic shapeshifters in myth, folklore and pop culture as well, but those of modern culture all tend to be easy to identify even as they change forms. Stretchy super heroes Mr Fantastic, Ms Marvel and Elongated Man can change their body to any shape but it’s always still their body. Plastic Man has a wider range of forms, able to disguise himself as nearly anything, but still is always locked to the same color scheme and rad shades. He may be an end table, but his tell-tale color scheme means he’ll never be mistaken by the audience for an end table that isn’t him. There are exceptions, but they tend to be much more obscure (is anyone outside of a narrow slice of an already narrow slice of comics fandom going to recognize Chameleon Boy the way they might Ms Marvel or Plastic Man?). The one big name, the Martian Manhunter, is unique enough that he merits his own explanation later. As a rule, heroic shapeshifters change their forms, but not their identity. That is what separates the heroic, individual figure and the formless, identity-free masses.

Identity is hardly a static concept, but the idea that it is a single, unchanging form is pretty deeply ingrained in modern culture. Western civilization is not fond of those who don’t . Its even harder on those able or willing to shift between identities, or even just what western civilization has decided “should” be an identity. This is reflected in pop-culture, where cultures of shapeshifting villains are a mainstay of science fiction including the Marvel Skrulls and Star Trek’s Dominion Founders. Both of these space empires posit a formless existence as being the root cause of each culture’s descent into fascism and paranoia.

For the most part, the Skrulls serve primarily as faceless masses of aliens for the Marvel heroes to fight. Sometimes they are vaguely racist caricatures of whatever culture the average American citizen is expected to dislike at the moment. Sometimes they are not-so vaguely caricatures along those lines. Sometimes they’re just a convenient way to show super heroes murdering someone while still saying “see, they’re not human so our heroes aren’t, y’know, murderers for real!” We haven’t seen many specifics of Skrulls history or culture in the comics, and what we have seen tends to be from isolated writers not working together along any single storyline or plan. Yet it is from these isolated stories that interesting themes have emerged about why the Skrulls are who they are.

The Skrulls have the potential to take any form, and yet in their “natural” state they are all identical. Skrulls all wear the same uniform, all have the same basic anatomy, and even tend to have the same (aggressively sociopathic) personalities. Skrulls are also essentially parthenogenic. They have no “natural” gender or sexes, as any Skrull can become “biologically” male or female at will, complete with working reproductive organs. In addition they have been shown able to become any other possible sex present in any other species, complete with functional reproductive organs. Yet despite this, Skrull culture recognizes a very rigid cultural gender binary and is incredibly misogynist. Aside from a few notable Skrull queens, the glimpses of Skrull society we have seen have shown that women are second class citizens at best, barred from most positions of authority and constantly talked down to by aggressive male war leaders. Skrull women are expected to present themselves as possessing large mammalian breasts, despite being reptiles who cannot produce milk, solely for the purposes of differentiating them and of titillating the male skrull population. This weird dichotomy between a biology that explicitly rejects the gender binary and a society obsessed with it is rarely made part of the Skrulls’ appearance in the comics, but has provided several interesting Skrull “facts” in the background of two specific comics: Runaways and The Incredible Hercules.

Runaways (created by Brian K Vaughn and Adrian Alphona) is the story of a group of kids who, upon discovering that their parents are really a gang of horrible cross-genre super villains, run away in hopes of finding their own non-evil path. While their parents are quickly removed from the board, the legacy of their villainous ancestry continues to hang over them. One of the Runaways, a girl named Karolina Dean who discovers she is actually a rainbow-colored alien, ends up having to deal with her parents’ legacy of war and betrayal in a shocking way. A skrull named Xavin arrives claiming to be her fiance, and that their union is the only thing politically that can end a war her parents engineered that is destined to destroy two worlds. While at first she agrees only to halt the destruction of two people, Karolina and Xavin eventually grow to genuinely care for each other and remain involved even after the arranged marriage becomes unnecessary. Karolina is a lesbian, and Xavin originally presents as male. Despite Xavin’s insistence that skrulls can “change gender” at will, it still uncomfortably seems like a story of a male character tricking a gay woman into a romantic relationship. As we learn more about Xavin, this problem does get dealt with. Xavin was raised in the most mysoginist part of Skrull society, and learned to present as whatever would get them less abuse. In Skrull society this means male, and among the mostly-girl team of the Runaways looking out for their teammate and not trusting a space-bro this means presenting as female. As Xavin learns that on Earth they can present as whatever they want, they admit that they do not actually see themselves as either male or female as either humans or skrulls define it. It is not actually the story of a deviant shapeshifter using their power to trick women, but the story of a character learning to come out as non-binary due to love and friendship.

But while Xavin’s story shows us insight into an individual Skrull, it still doesn’t answer the question of why Skrull civilization is so fascistically uniform despite the potential of its power. For that, we have to look at the second comic I mentioned, The Incredible Hercules (by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente) and its tie-in to the 2008 “major event” Secret Invasion. Secret Invasion was, overall, a pretty dumb crossover event that mostly existed to do a comic about superheroes murdering vaguely Muslim foreigners without getting in trouble. So now the Skrulls were all religious fanatics for the first time in comic history, and in the main series this religion was as thinly-veiled a reference to how the average American viewed Islam as could be. The one actually good comic to come out of the boring alien splat-fest was the Hercules tie-in, where the various gods of Earth put together a squad of divine superheroes to fight the Skrull gods. Ironically, the one comic that actually dealt with the Skrull religion was the one to NOT stick to the lazy stereotypes of Islam. Instead, it created a new mythology that finally sought to explain the dichotomy of the Skrulls. When ancient Skrulls purged the non-shapeshifting members of their species, the last “Skrull Eternal” argued he must be left alive to serve as the template for all skrulldom. Without him, he argued, they would have no form to return to and be left without identity. The “default” Skrull form we see in all Marvel comics is an attempt to emulate this iconic Skrull eternal. His followers argue that through their devotion to him, they remain Skrull even when they take on the myriad other forms of the universe. Through their adoption of his presented gender, they remain male even when they take on the myriad other sexes of the universe. Ironically, Skrull fascism is based on the same obsession of idealizing form that makes Skrull shapeshfiting and rejection of form so terrifying to Earth culture.

Interestingly, the Skrulls debuted around the same time as another Marvel alien, the Kree, and the two became mortal enemies. The famous Kree-Skrull War storyline of the Avengers (1971–72 by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema) told the story of the two space empires, locked in an interstellar cold war, who were more than happy to use our planet as a tool for proxy battles. The most advanced species in the galaxy were essentially barbaric, un-knowable, nationalist despots who cared not a whit if we lived or died other than as a tool for the embarrassment of their political enemies. Its a great old comic that brilliantly satirized the Cold War-era “nation building” our own country took part in. Both the Kree and Skrull were acting like Americans and Russians, though neither species could be pointed to as “oh THESE are us, the others our enemies.” The Kree were introduced as just as evil as the Skrulls, and arguably their history in the Marvel universe has been even more damaging to Earth. The Kree are genocidal, ultra-conservative space-racists who have repeatedly tried to wipe out our species to cover up their genetic tests on our ancestors. But while the Skrull remain perennial Avengers punching bags, the Kree became all but celebrated allies. The only difference between the two is that while the Skrull are deviant shapeshifters, the Kree are essentially humans, only sometimes they are blue. Marvel’s humanity would rather ally with a species that gloriously revels in fascism, so long that they appear attractive and consistent in form.

The Founders of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 are also ironically obsessed with form for a species without any of their own. The natural state of these beings is an orange goo that naturally takes the form of whatever it is in and effortlessly blends with any others it comes in contact with. The Founders only have identities when they are away from the “Great Link” they all congeal in. The Founders are also head of a far-reaching fascist empire, and see beings of other species, the “solids”, as barely sapient and unworthy of consideration other than how they can potentially harm real, amorphous people. The reason for this is once again tied to their shapeshifting’s effect on their culture and psychology. In the Founder philosophy, to take on a subject’s form is to truly know it. You take the form of a square, you ARE the square and you understand its square-ness in a way no being of another form could. To the Founders, humanity (and Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians, etc) is no different than any other shape. There is nothing to know about other beings than their shape, and it is inconceivable to the Founders that anything could exist in one of the solids other than what their physical form reveals. Despite being a species without form, they have become sociopaths unable to see the world through any other lens. Like the Skrulls, it is only by teaching one of their outcasts, Constable Odo, that they can learn how our culture can liberate them from their myopic view and allow them to become individuals. Also like the Skrulls, their battle with Earth takes the form of sabotage and infiltration and leads to mass panic and paranoia.

While they are often used as a science-fictiony way of talking about cultural witch hunts, the truth is that races of identical shapeshifters do not tend to make very effective ones when we look at them too deeply. Sure, it is shocking that Star Fleet so quickly begins tossing aside its hard-won utopian ethics and establishes martial law to combat the threat of shapeshifters infiltrating Earth, but… There really WERE shapeshifters infiltrating Earth in that story. Witchhunts from Salem to McCarthyism are terrifying because there is NO real enemy to hunt. As soon as you introduce actual evil shapeshifters into the mix, especially genocidal fanatic ones, you create an actual justification for the witchhunt. It might be more “morally ambiguous” to give space McCarthy an actual space communist threat to fight, but real witchhunts aren’t ambiguous. McCarthy was wrong, and he destroyed lives. None of the women in Salem were brides of Satan, they were simply murdered. The moments where both the Kree-Skrull War and the Dominion War are most effective is when they focus on the sinister shapeshifters not using their power to actually infiltrate and debase society, but instead provoke the already paranoid, racist, murderous humans into doing the job for them.

The only big-name shapeshifting people that stray from the “lack of true form leads to sociopathy” template are DC’s martians. Usually, J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter is the only surviving member of his species, but even when he’s not we rarely see any glimpses of his society. Whenever we see flashbacks to J’onn’s family and the destruction of his people, it always presents the same picture. Martians are all naked, identical and live in unremarkable, unadorned simple dwellings with no obvious art or aesthetics of any kind. They are pacifists who invariably get wiped out, either by natural disaster or alien invasion or their own evil twins depending on the story. J’onn always looks like every other identical martian until he comes to Earth and has to define a new form for himself. Is the best a “good” shapeshifting people can hope for a doomed life without individuality, art or even personality? Is J’onn allowed to be a hero without form because he’s so aggressively non-threatening and the last of his people?

The martians are not simply shapeshifters, but are also telepathic and have every power Superman possesses minus the heat vision. The reason they all walk around naked and identical is because they give no thought whatsoever to physical form. Like the villainous species described above, they simply adapt whatever streamlined form is best for the moment, and so most of the time on boring, empty Mars they all have the same form. Their skin is tough enough to not worry about sandstorms and they cam fly without wings, so a bland biped shape is fine. At the same time, they all possess incredible, worldwide telepathy, and so all their individual expression is mental. We create art of all kinds to try and convey ideas or feelings that are otherwise impossible yo express, but martians can’t even conceive of that problem. Why bother expressing yourself through physical fashion, art or speech when you can be understood so much easier and more intimately through telepathy? At the same time, the fact that everyone’s minds are open means its impossible to lie to anyone. The concept of deception and private thoughts are as alien to them as pants. Not that there would even be reason to lie, as you feel what everyone else is feeling and wouldn’t want to feel any hurt you caused by your deception. Nor would you worry about what other people think, because it would always be open to you. Shame as we know it doesn’t exist on Mars. It couldn’t if society could even exist in that telepathic environment.

Its easy to then write the last martian in Earth as a calm, paternal figure. One who sees our fear of our own weakness even as they see the strength we won’t acknowledge. Often J’onn ends up the bland “dad” of the Justice League, and this may be why J’onn is so often an important supporting character in team books, but has struggled to carry his own title. Its harder, but potentially more rewarding, to write the culture shock. The most interesting J’onn stories focus on just how frustrating the adjustment is. He can’t understand why we lie all the time. Even the little lies we tell each other that he can’t help but overhear drive him nuts and make us look immoral and petty. He could communicate with any martian more easily than he can with the people on Earth he’s grown closest too. In that interpretation he appears stoic not because he’s a wise, zen sage but because he is still learning how to communicate physically and verbally with people who are put off by “invasive” contact between open minds.

This dichotomy helps other martian characters than just J’onn, fleshing them out as interesting, unique characters in their own right rather than just a tragic backstory. One of the ongoing themes in DC martian stories is that martians LOVE trash Earth TV. Why? Because its impossible to read the mind of a recorded image, and the irrational and goofy behavior of badly written characters is pretty much the only art form that can surprise a martian. Teenage Miss Martian flees to Earth because its the only place she can lie about herself, but the allure of human deception is as dangerous and leading to sociopathic behavior in as humans imagine shapeshifting to be. Like the other sci-fi shapeshifters, they’re in a culture where they’re able to express themselves through form in a way he never could before, but unlike the others it isn’t a liberating experience. The awkwardness of a form-based identity for a being who intimately knows how that mindset is contrary to peoples’ true thoughts allows martians a chance to fear and distrust humans just as those humans project the normal shapeshifter fears onto them.

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