Super Mario Primer and Playlists

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It is astonishingly easy to take things for granted in terms of media and canon. There are certain “cultural touchstones” that we are expected to absorb even without seeking them out. Often, instead of talking about or critiquing these touchstones, we end up assuming the most important aspects are already exhaustively known and absorbed by everyone long ago through said cultural osmosis. This is especially true among nerds, where often the “price of entry” into subcultures was consuming specific media. But being aware or adjacent to these touchstones is not the same as actually engaging with them. Even absolutely ubiquitous icons are new to someone, and concepts of “canon” can be intimidating for outsiders. Why do a primer on Mario? Because while everyone is as familiar with the character as they are with Mickey Mouse or Snow White, not everyone has played the games or knows where to begin to find value in them beyond the commercial.

Why does Mario matter? The simplest answer is in Mario’s role in defining multiple genres and mechanics in games. Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong heralded the first videogame with a story told in cutscenes, and one of the first mainstream games with an actual narrative at all. Mario’s first NES game brought us the scrolling platform, and became the template for one of the most common and popular game genres. Super Mario 64 brought 3D platforming and videogames to the forefront. In addition, you also have Mario headlining spinoffs that have now become etremely common such as the kart racer and “party game.” But in some of those cases, Mario was not the first, just the most successful. There are also plenty of Mario games that are not “firsts” or forerunners to anything that were still successful or interesting. Was all of that success from Mario’s status as an cultural icon like Mickey Mouse or Citizen Kane? Or is there something specific to Mario games that matter and resonate beyond their status and history? Is there a specific thread between the myriad Mario games, despite their differences?

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I’ve written about a single, specific instance of Mario design philosophy before, the Marrymore Suite in Super Mario RPG, and its role in surprising players who think they figured out everything and push against what they assume are the limits of the game. Mario games are infamous for moments like these, going all the way back to the first NES game where players can discover Warp Zones and infinite 1ups by pushing against what first appear to be the games’ boundaries. Mario’s designers have always spent a lot of time trying to imagine where their players will try to push back against, and then rewarded them for trying. Sometimes these rewards are nothing but a cosmetic nod, such as the trick to making fireworks appear when you beat a level, but the fact that they come from the player’s experiments and inventiveness helps them resonate.

Recently, Nintendo has described this design philosophy as “kishotenketsu” which is a literary term from classic Chinese and Japanese writing. The original kishontenketsu was a four line poem, but also came to describe a literary style for developing a story. The basic explanation is that you introduce an idea, develop the idea, twist the idea or introduce something seemingly unrelated, and then conclude it by tying the twist back to the original idea. An example by the Japanese poet Rai San’yo goes:

Daughters of Itoya in Motomachi in Osaka.
The elder daughter is sixteen, the younger daughter is fifteen.
Lords from many provinces kill you with arrows.
Itoya’s daughters kill you with their eyes.

The first line introduces the idea (ki) in this case that there is a man Itoya and he has daughters. The second line develops this further (sho), giving us more information about the women. The third line seemingly twists (ten) the poem by introducing a new and seemingly unrelated idea about how warriors kill people. The last line concludes and explains the connection (ketsu), connecting the daughters and their power of seduction to the power of the warriors.

Over time, this tradition has been applied to other mediums from longform narratives to philosophical debate and arguments (it is particularly popular as a format for developing gags for four panel comic strips). Its use in describing Nintendo’s design philosophy dates back at least to Mario Galaxy in 2007, but it is hard to know if it was an active part of the development process on earlier games or if it was merely a literary term that was adopted by designers to describe their process after-the-fact. But whether or not it was adopted later, it makes a useful tool for describing how ideas work in Mario games.

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Applying kishotenketsu to an entire Mario game doesn’t tell us anything. Instead, it should be applied to each idea, mechanic or activity in a game. For example, let’s use it to analyze something as simple as the basic jumping mechanic in the original Super Mario Bros.

Ki: Mario can jump on enemies to defeat them.
Sho: Some enemies are covered in spikes, which defeat Mario if jumped on, forcing him to avoid them.
Ten: Bowser, the last enemey in a world, is covered in spikes but MUST be defeated.
Ketsu: If Mario can jump PAST Bowser and grab the axe, he can cut the bridge and drop Bowser into the lava.

In more recent games where the kishotenketsu idea was applied more directly to its development, it can show how new ideas or mechanics can be introduced and played with in a game without taking over or wearing out their welcome. Lets look at an example from one of the minigames in Super Mario Galaxy, where you use motion controls to roll a ball through an obstacle course.

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Ki: Instead of a normal level’s gameplay, the player must balance the wiimote upright and move it as they wish the ball to move.
Sho: In the first of these levels, Rolling Green Galaxy, gives the player the chance to learn these new controls and how they work in the space within the game.
Ten: The second is part of an otherwise “normal level”, Melty Molten Galaxy, and requires the player to use the controls in a completely different set of environment expectations.
Ketsu: The last of these levels, Rolling Gizmo Galaxy, is once again an isolated, dedicated space, but is much more difficult. The player is required to have used and understood the different uses of those mechanics from the previous environment, and apply them to the more difficult version of the first level.

New mechanics, power-ups and minigames in later Mario games often use this format to keep them from overwhelming the rest of the game. The player has the chance to try something new, to use what they learned from that in a new setting, and then to demonstrate a mastery of the concept at the end. The various creatures and objects you can possess in the recent Mario Odyssey are a great example of this. There are many different forms you can take with their own unique moveset and mechanics, and many of them could easily have entire games built around them, but rarely will you use them in more than two or three worlds, including the extremely difficult post-game world which forces you to use almost all of those movesets in new or challenging ways.

In many cases, the “twist” is one that the developers have anticipated the player to bring themselves. For example, lets look at the previously mentioned secret warp zones of the original Super Mario Bros.

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Ki: Mario moves left-to-right along a 2d plane and can jump on blocks.
Sho: The level is bordered by blocks, showing the limits of the level.
Ten: A skilled player may figure out how to jump in a way that lets them reach these borders and advance past the “normal” part of the level.
Ketsu: If the player is already this skilled, they probably do not need to play all of the earlier, easier levels, so we reward them with the ability of skipping past those levels to the next challenging part of the game.

It would be a mistake to look at kishotenketsu in this context as a strict formal, however. It is not to be mistaken with the kind of checklist one sees on TVTropes or over-eager film students who have just read Campbell for the first time. Rather, it is a way of thinking about how to build on ideas. What makes Mario games so appealing is in their ability to surprise while still building on logical, expected ideas. These ideas can reappear between games as well, and taking the time to learn the language of levels, mechanics, enemies and power-ups that build up this larger world can provide additional rewards.

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Of course, while the series’ mechanical narratives are based around surprising twists and synthesis, the same can’t really be said for the stories. The basic premise of nearly every Mario game will ALWAYS be based around the classic Popeye cartoons Shigeru Miyamoto enjoyed while working on the the original games. Mario-Peach-Bowser mirrors Popeye-Olive Oyl-Bluto and always will. But even within that confined, unsurprising story, the Mario games have been able to apply the techniques of developing an idea, twisting it, and then bringing it back around to create something new. Instead of applying to the story, the Mario games can use those techniques to create compelling characters and personalities. The Paper Mario games introduced versions of familiar characters with their own surprising quirks. Despite being stuck in the simple, immutable world and story, they all have unique personalities and interactions. The formerly identical masses of creatures Mario fights or rescues revealed themselves to be surprisingly diverse and interesting. Super Mario Galaxy had the same “kidnapped princess” story as all the others, but it also posited a Mario world with multiple, sentient universes that grow, die and give birth to new versions of themselves based on the actions of those living within them, all watched over by the nigh-immortal daughter of Mario and Peach from another, long-dead universe!

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Unfortunately, Miyamoto himself is notoriously skittish about going any further than that. After the second Paper Mario game, he handed down a mandate for future Paper Mario games that would mean no new characters and a much more uniform style. The sequel to Mario Galaxy dropped the entire concept of multiple universes like a hot potato, and Rosalina was demoted from breakout cult-favorite costar to a mere easter egg. Of course, Miyamoto’s mandates against these changes seem mostly to come from anything that may possibly interfere with the Popeye-esque dynamic of the stars, rather than the presence of anything unique itself. Mario Odyssey uses unique and alien environments and characters (at least, alien in terms of their connection to Mario) to create the same sense of surprise as his other games. The twist of seeing the cartoonish Mario in a “real” human city or alongside a Jurassic Park-style T-Rex first creates a sense of shock, but is then built upon and developed in a way that makes it feel natural and connected. There is still room to surprise, even within the extremely strict narrative confines.

Its also possible that the simplistic nature and design of the story itself is what has allowed fans to project a great deal of nuance and pathos of their own. Twitter’s fondness for reframing Bowser as a misunderstood, hunky, put-upon single father or Peach as both secretly endlessly-competent and endlessly-kinky are good examples. The combination of strong visual designs with strong, consistent mechanics often evoke interesting ideas for different players. As I’ve argued with other games, giving players the space and freedom to create their own ideas and narratives often makes them connect stronger to them, even if the game’s intended story is pretty barebones or jejune. The fact that Mario’s world is so mechanically meaningful means that the player is invested in inscribing it with their own literary meaning rather than abandoning that aspect entirely, and in that case Mario’s lack of anything beyond “hero/victim/brute” may work to its advantage.

Playing a good Mario game is like a conversation with the unseen developer. You put forth your own ideas and see how the game responds. Did they anticipate it? When those moments and ideas connect, and your idea was something the developers DID expect and respond to, it is a fascinating kind of communication that really can’t exist in any other commercial media.

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Playlist: If you somehow are only able to play 5 Mario games ever, these are the ones that will best help you understand what a “Mario game” IS.

  1. Super Mario Brothers (NES, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Color, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): Despite its age, it is remarkably fun and compelling still today. If nothing else, its first level is a master course on designing a level that teaches a new player what to expect and how to react to new information much later. Super Mario Bros is the rosetta stone for understanding the language of countless videogames.
  2. Super Mario Brothers 3 (NES, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): A huge, sprawling game that introduces new ideas or new applications of old ideas in virtually every level. It also hides many secrets ranging from shortcuts and hidden power-ups to the tiny easter eggs and challenges that would come to later define the appeal of the series.
  3. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): Super Mario 64 may be just as influence and important to the history of its medium as the original Super Mario Bros. Without it, we simply would not have the videogames we do today. While its camera controls can be frustrating, it has managed to remain fun and playable while many other early 3D games have not. Instead of completing levels in a linear order (warp zones aside) the player has to search the levels, and the large castle that serves as the game’s hub, and accomplish various tasks to earn Stars. This more open-ended approach to level design defines the series’ present state.
  4. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii): Super Mario Galaxy takes a dizzying concept of playing Mario among conflicting physics and geometries in outer space and makes it approachable. Most players may not even realize how wild things have gotten due to the skill in which it teaches them to play and react. It even introduces a tragically underused concept for asymmetrical multi-play where a second player can interact with the environment through the wiimote while the first player controls Mario normally. While not as open-ended as its predecessors, Mario Galaxy’s levels are tightly designed and full of interesting ideas. While its direct sequel is probably the better designed game, the first Galaxy is probably the more important in terms of its boldness and energy.
  5. Super Mario World 2 – Yoshi’s Island (Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance): While it would go on to spawn its own separate Yoshi franchise, here it was still very much a Mario game. Yoshi’s Island is a visual delight, pushing the limits of the Super Nintendo hardware to their ultimate limits and looking fabulous even today. More than that though, its immaculately designed levels perfectly showcase that kishotenketsu philosophy in action. No gimmick outstays its welcome and no level repeats itself needlessly. It is a playground of ideas and experiences ripe for exploration, with an innovative twist on managing both the player’s life and the time limit in a way that encourages both risk-taking by newcomers and high-level play by experts.

B-Sides and Experiments: These games include interesting attempts at tacking the same problem as the previous games in different ways.

  1. Super Mario Brothers 2/Mario USA (Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): Often referred to as “not a true Mario game” because, frankly, it wasn’t originally a Mario game. It was a different game made by the same team, with Mario and friends conveniently slapped on for the American release. Make no mistake though, it is a more proper sequel to Super Mario Bros than the “Lost Levels” which was little more than a grueling, cruel “master version” of the original game. Instead of punishing hardcore players, THIS version of Mario Bros 2 introduced the concept of exploration and adventure to the franchise that would ironically go on to define the series more than the “true” Mario sequel. There’s a reason Shy Guys, Birdo, Bob-ombs and other creations of this game went on to appear again and again while Lost Levels’ Poison Mushrooms and windy chasms did not.
  2. Super Mario World (Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii/Wii U/3DS Virtual Console): It was a tough call between this or Super Mario Bros 3 for the previous list, and while 3’s sheer inventiveness won out, World should not be ignored either. Aside from the addition of Yoshi, the charismatic rideable dinosaur everyone loves, World helped bridge the open exploration of Mario Bros 2 with the gimmicks and twists of Mario Bros 3. You cannot get from the NES Marios to Mario 64 without Mario World’s work in joining the competing philosophies.
  3. Super Mario Sunshine (Gamecube): Much maligned by people who never played it but read too many old game websites, Mario Sunshine may be the single most underappreciated game in the franchise. A sequel to Mario 64 that attempts to do a (very slightly) more complex story, it also moved Mario toward a true “open world” style game. The game takes place on a single location, Isle Delfino, and while it is still divided into multiple levels, it is always doing so within the context of this world it has created. Mario is given a complex new series of abilities with a combination jetpack/water gun and the first appearance of a rideable 3D Yoshi, but does not let this complexity overwhelm it. It also has a number of challenges based solely around Mario’s traditional jumping skills from Mario 64, and those are among the most tightly designed platform levels of their era. To be fair to its critics, it does have one huge glaring flaw: the post-game blue coin hunt is an abysmal, unfun chore that seems to be there only so the number of “Shine Sprites” to be collected can be identical to Super Mario 64’s Power Stars. But that alone does not warrant the scorn this otherwise inventive game receives.
  4. Super Mario Land 3 – Wario Land (Gameboy, 3DS Virtual Console): Like Yoshi’s Island, this game would go on to spawn its own franchise. But at this point in Wario’s life, his game still clearly stated MARIO Land on the box. Mario’s previous Gameboy outings were scaled down versions of his normal adventures, visually interesting and distinct but largely unsurprising in their design. Here, the development team began twisting expectations and creating something new. Instead of trying to be a hero, Wario is simply trying to get rich. The coins you collect no longer reward you with extra chances, but are the reward themselves. You replay levels and search for secrets not because it will help you do good deeds or save anyone, but in the pursuit of avarice, be it Wario’s for gold or the player’s for fun.
  5. Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo 3DS): The 3D World/Land series began as a response to ANOTHER Mario series, the “New Mario” games that took Mario back to his 2D platforming roots. Those games were usually competent, but unexciting. The 3D World/Land games, however, strove to find a balance between the different competing ideas of what a Mario game was. While 3D like Mario 64 and Galaxy, they are viewed from a fixed angle and are built with the “get from the start to the exit” formula of the 2D games rather than the semi-open exploration of the latter. The result are two Mario games that are significantly better at showcasing and evolving the “classic” feel than, ironically, the intentional throwback the “New Mario Bros” series represented. 3D Land, for the 3DS, slightly edges out World for the Wii U on this for the completely and utterly fair reason that is I never owned a Wii U.

Spin-offs, Rivals and Descendants: More than maybe any other franchise, the Mario series has had more spin-offs, copy-cats and direct responses to it than almost any other. Here are the most interesting examples, that either take the lessons from the main series and apply it to a new medium or that rebelled and created something new and shocking in response.

  1. Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis and, frankly, almost every modern platform you can think of): Sonic was the original “Mario-killer.” He was fast, cool and extreme while Mario was “classic”, methodical and safe. Mario levels were designed to be explored and mastered, while Sonic’s were designed to be raced through. Mario shrinks to small size when hit, and dies if small, forcing the player to be deliberate in their choices and strategies. Sonic can suffer near endless disaster as long he has at least one ring, which are as common as Mario’s coins. He even has a chance to recollect rings that he drops when hit. This difference encourages players to be a little less deliberate and embrace the free-wheeling nature of Sonic’s world. While it is all but unquestionable that, in the long run, Mario has won their competition, Sonic’s original adventures are extremely interesting and valuable to examine in how the encourage different kinds of play, or reward the same styles of play differently.
  2. Super Mario RPG (Super Nintendo, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): A joint venture between Nintendo and RPG wonder-company Squaresoft, this was the first game to look at Mario’s platform world from the perspective of a Role Playing Game. Despite the very different mechanics, it is a game that embodies the same ideas of developing and then twisting ideas, as well as anticipating clever players. Mario RPG’s world is delightfully packed full of secrets and rewards to uncover and experience, and showcases how even vastly different game genres can learn from each other.
  3. Wario Land II (Gameboy, 3DS Virtual Console): Wario’s first outing without his rival’s name on the box takes his adventure to its logical conclusion. While superficially the same as any other Mario platformer, it completely drops the idea of “lives”, “game overs” or the very idea of a losing state. Wario is invulnerable now. If the player messes up, they merely lose a few coins but can continue as normal. This still rewards high-level play, because it allows skilled players to amass huge amounts of wealth faster, but it also allows newer players more of a buffer. But the game pushes that idea of invulnerability further. Some problems can only be accomplished by using enemies or environmental dangers to change Wario in some way. A Wario flattened by a weight can glide like a paper airplane, a Wario set-alight by a flame can burn barriers, a Wario turned into a zombie can collapse into a pile of bones and fall through certain floors. Wario Land II embraces the best of previous Mario games’ exploration and focuses on developing those ideas to their limit.
  4. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Gamecube): CAN you do a Mario game with a compelling story? The basic story begins the same as any other, Mario is off to rescue the Princess, and the twists that come up in regard to that are not TOO twisted. However, what is really compelling about this game’s story is its characters. Mario is still a friendly-but-blank cipher for the most part, but his companions and foes are all unique individuals with their own stories, hopes and challenges. Even random background characters have personalities and surprising developments. The humor comes from the strong personalities of the characters, and the natural interactions and emotions that emerge from placing them in different situations. The story is merely a vehicle for exploring the characters and interactions of this world. All that AND it manages to still utilize the classic Mario design philosophy in its mechanics and level design.
  5. Legend of Zelda (Any and all Nintendo system ever): Legend of Zelda is Nintendo’s sibling franchise to Mario, and while it represents an entirely different kind of game and story, it also focuses strongly on the kishotenketsu idea of design. The best Zelda games are remembered not for their fantasy stories, but for the worlds and challenges that build on Link’s tools and environment in the same way Mario’s do. Playing favorite or classic Zelda games with this in mind can be a rewarding experience.

Super Mario Odyssey: I’ve intentionally avoided putting the newest Mario game on any of these lists as it is still VERY recent and we all need time to best process and understand its place alongside its predecessors before making any, even entirely subjective, pronouncement about where it fits the rest. However, it is still an excellent game and a great example of the design philosophy I’ve described. It could easily be played either to get an understanding of what makes a classic Mario game work well OR as an example of how classic Mario ideas and designs can be applied in new, exciting ways.

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Its 2017, Let Gene Have A Crush On A Boy

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When Bob’s Burgers first began airing back in 2011, it was a pleasant surprise. A new Fox animated show that not only wasn’t horrible, but managed to actually be funny and have a great deal of heart. In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, as series’ creator Loren Bouchard had previously helped create Home Movies, one of the funniest, earnest and underappreciated adult animated shows of all time. At the start of its eighth season, Bob’s Burgers is nothing short of a phenomenon. A critical darling with a massively devoted fanbase, the show has hit that sweet spot all animated sitcoms have dreamt of reaching since the early Simpsons first showed the way.

I would argue that the success of the show is largely due to its focus on strong character-based humor. Most sitcoms, animated or otherwise, tend to use their characters as vehicles for whatever joke is wanted, rather than letting the jokes emerge from the characters themselves. Not to beat up on Family Guy too much, but it IS the classic example of a bad gags-over-character show. Can you define Peter Griffin’s character in a concrete way other than “dumb fat guy”? He has no specific dreams, hobbies, interests, fears or neuroses. He will simply become whatever is needed to facilitate the joke the writers and animators want to tell. Modern Simpsons too often falls into this same pattern, where once specific characters like Homer or Lisa end up acting completely contrary to their described natures if it means being able to tell a specific joke. South Park is no better, with its characters changing personalities and motivations episode to episode in order for the writers to fit whatever pet issue, jokes or bigotries they want into their mouths. There isn’t necessarily a problem with doing wacky joke-based shows as opposed to character-based humor, but the latter tends to develop a very strong and dedicated connection to its audience in a way other shows struggle with. The last big, successful animated sitcom that focused strongly on character-derived humor was Fox’s King of the Hill, whose best episodes came from the show’s creators putting a character in any wild situation and understanding their motivation and behavior well enough to let the humor flow from the character’s natural reactions. If I say “a Peggy episode” or “a Dale episode” you automatically have an idea of the kind of humor and tone the episode will have. Bob’s Burgers follows that tradition, with the creators strongly invested in understanding and drawing humor from the differences between how, say, Bob would react to an absurd situation compared to how Tina would.

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But this post isn’t meant to be an overview of what makes this show so beloved by me and other fans who think like me. I just want to highlight the importance of the show’s strong characterization before I get into the one thing about the show that’s gotten stuck in my fan-craw.

The core cast of the show are all unique and relateable in different ways. There’s slovenly, but dedicated and surprisingly brilliant Bob himself. Its easy for me to identify with Bob’s desire to create and share his gifts artistically despite getting so caught up in himself and his worries that he sabotages his ability to do so. He can make the fanciest high-class burger in existence, but he also can’t dress himself nicely or do anything with his restaurant to get people in the door to eat said burgers. I identify with his wife Linda’s unbridled enthusiasm and inability to not get caught up in other peoples’ joy. I identify with Louise and both her feeling of being smarter than everyone else in the room and her letting that feeling screw herself over. I definitely identify with Tina and both her weird confused, awkward sexual awakening and her refusal to let that confusion stop her from enjoying things. Then there’s Gene.

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Gene is, superficially, perhaps the simplest character on the show. He’s the fat, loud, “random” kid. The one who screams when excited and makes fart jokes and wants attention. But there’s a lot more to Gene than that. More than anyone else on the show, Gene understands himself and loves who he is. He is not simply seeking attention, but is seeking to share himself with others. He is immune to embarassment or shame. If a gag or a credits sequence calls for a character to dance without reservation, it will call on Gene. There is an unbridled joy to Gene’s physicality. We should all be as lucky to love ourselves and own our bodies as much as Gene does. Gene’s strong sense of self doesn’t stop there. Like Tina, he’s approaching the age where kids start thinking about subjects adults have tried to keep them from, but while Tina’s thoughts swarm around butts and erotic fantasies, Gene leaps headfirst into fluid gender expression.

“We’re working girls now! Deal with it!”
“You’re a girl?”
“Yes I am!”
“No he’s not.”
“TELL THAT TO MY VAGINA!”

 

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Gene gleefully jumps back and forth between identities, but not just for “haha wacky joke” purposes, but out of his natural, established character. When Gene appears in a dress for a bit, its not just out of “haha boy in dress” but because he clearly feels comfortable in one. When Gene describes himself as one of three sisters its not just a joke, its how he seems to view himself within the family. Gene is not just fluid in his gender identity either, but in his emerging sexual identity too. Gene jokes about and expresses attraction to all kinds of people, and always with the same enthusiasm and lack of implied judgement. The humor comes not from WHAT Gene says as much as from that enthusiasm. And yet, its never used as anything OTHER than humor.

 

With the show so clearly defining the motivations and expectations of the characters, its hard to imagine that if Gene came home from college and said “I like boys” or even “I’m a woman” Linda and Bob would react poorly. In fact, Bob’s voice actor himself, H. John Benjamin, has said in interviews that not only does he think Gene is likely queer, but that Bob would absolutely accept it. And yet, for all the jokes the show is willing to make about Gene possibly being queer, it hasn’t ever done anything beyond that. For a show full of heart-felt moments, none of them ever really touch on this aspect of Gene. What’s perfectly acceptable for overt jokes or unspoken subtext is still not available for “real” stories.

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Some people are likely already angrily thinking “oh, how dare you! Gene’s a kid! He isn’t thinking about those things!” Except, we’ve already had episodes about his crushes. If his on-again crush Courtney Wheeler (who like many women and girl characters on the show is voiced by a male actor) had been a boy instead of a girl, literally nothing else about their episodes would have needed to be changed. Not a single one of their jokes or story beats is dependent on Gene having a crush on a girl or vice versa.

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“But kids don’t know if they’re gay!” If that were true, kids wouldn’t know if they were straight either. “Straight” is not a default position that all kids are in until the suddenly wake up queer. Queer and questioning kids exist, and queer and questioning adults have memories of their own queer crushes. Likewise, not all kid crushes are sexual in nature, and the assumption that acknowledging any kind of queer crush means you are “sexualizing” kids is the kind of rhetoric that further marginalizes queer people in our culture. Queer people are assumed to be primarily sexual or fetishistic because most straight people refuse to acknowledge or interact with any other aspect of us.

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The show has had no problem putting queer characters in the background or for examples of “local color” before, and in general has managed doing so better than its animated prime time ancestors. One Thanksgiving episode had a gag where Bob accidentally ended up in an increasingly awkward flirtation with a gay butcher at the supermarket. The joke is not a simple “haha Bob’s being hit on by a gay guy” though, the laugh isn’t at gay peoples’ expense. The humor comes from Bob’s awkwardness and embarrassment at having to buy so many turkeys being exacerbated both by it being misinterpreted as desperate flirting and also it ending in rejection. The butcher being overwhelmingly polite and sympathetic about the whole thing feeds into that (“Hey, don’t let this stop you from trying. I know a lot of guys that are into ‘sloppy bears’”). Bob isn’t embarrassed about being mistaken for gay at all, but for being mistaken for someone who can’t cook. The core of the joke itself works no matter what gender or sexuality the butcher is. An earlier episode featured Bob befriending a group of trans women sex workers, and while it had a lot of unfortunate jokes, it also specifically built its story around the idea that Bob liked these women, considered them good friends, and that he did not doubt or devalue their womanhood at all. A one-off character from the same episode, Marshmallow, has since become a reoccurring character. Marshmallow is never directly stated as being trans, but its damn strongly hinted that she is. She’s also a valued member of the community whom the other characters consider admirable and attractive. She also doesn’t ever do anything but make brief appearances to deliver a joke.

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Its great to see queer characters appear in media as something other than jokes, but honestly its also great to see queer characters in media that can make jokes. We know when the joke is meant to be at our expense and when its not, trust us. In real life, us queers can be dumb, goofy fuckups and good lord do we want to see that reflected in the dumb, goofy fuckups we identify and laugh along with. All of us queers grew up with shows we loved, but had to tolerate insulting us and telling us we weren’t human, and the fact that not all shows come with that caveat is pretty huge. It feels GOOD to have queer characters in all kinds of genres, mediums and stories who are finally “allowed’ to be funny for reasons other than mocking real-world queer people, or worse, providing a smokescreen for “gay panic” bullshit. It feels GOOD to feel ourselves and our lives not laughed at, but invited along to laugh at the absurdities of the larger world with everyone else. But we also notice which stories we’re not invited along to.

Bob’s Burgers clearly likes playing with the idea of Gene being queer, and its done some great comedy around that theme. Gene might realize he’s gay or a woman or a gay woman when he grows up, and that unstated but undenied possibility is used to connect the character to underrepresented fans. But eight seasons in, and in the world we are living in today, its getting kind of cowardly to leave it there. I don’t say this to attack the show, but because it is clearly a show that cares about its characters and its audience. If a character can make queer jokes, they should also be allowed to make other queer stories. If we’re real enough for comedy that doesn’t aim to hurt, but to elevate and connect people’s experiences, then we are real enough for the rest of it as well. If you want to dance around it, you need to sometimes be willing to SAY it.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  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 modernity.live-a-live
  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
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  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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