So, our second issue of Ligature Works was meant to be coming out right about… oh, now. But this schedule was in retrospect always a bit ambitious with both members of the staff celebrating multiple holidays, and the sort of still-ongoing adjustment to our new political reality really robbed me in particular of a lot of time, energy, and focus.
So, we’re announcing two changes for Ligature Works. The first is specific to this issue (issue#2): It will go out in February instead of December. Rather than trying to catch up after that, we will be changing our ongoing publication schedule from quarterly to three times a year: One Spring/Winter, one Summer, one Fall. This gives our very small staff more leeway in responding to life changes and external events.
After I post this, I will be updating the Ligature website accordingly. We don’t as of issue 2 have an easy way to contact everybody who has submitted and let them know about the delay. I will be adding to a stage to our automation layer for issue 3 that creates a BCC mailing list I can use to communicate with prospective writers without violating our anonymity protocols. If you have submitted, we’re sorry about the lack of direct communication. We’ll be finalizing our decisions throughout January.
Logistics, then, must be the art of the convenient.
In the beginning, warehouses were organized in the order that things seemed to fit into them, and then in orders that made sense on the surface to human sensibilities. They became streamlined through practice, and then time-and-motion studies came along and sped the whole thing up. Cutting the time it took to process orders reduced overhead, and increased volume.
Companies that merely fulfilled orders from top to bottom in the order they came in could not compete with companies that found ways to process the most orders in the least amount of time possible, even when this meant breaking them up into pieces and dropping those pieces into positions in queues that seemed arbitrary on the surface.
The human mind might balk at the unfairness that three orders placed at the same time might be processed at differing speeds based on what was ordered in each and when, but the consumer so rarely saw the evidence of this, only the end result, and that was that every order came faster and faster.
It’s a simple logical fact of logistics: some orders are always going to have a shorter path through the fulfillment process than others. You can identify bottlenecks and snarls in the warehouse floor traffic flow. You can rearrange shelves to create a smooth path between items that are frequently ordered together. You can optimize, but the nature of optimization is that you can’t optimize for everything.
You have to choose. You have to prioritize.
It’s all about feasibility and efficiency.
Logistics is the art of the convenient.
Once bar codes and scanners and computer traffic controllers became part of the process, it was no longer necessary for the layout of a warehouse to even make sense to humans, as humans no longer navigated the mazes of shelves and palettes but merely operated machinery which, in turn, increasingly operated itself.
Centralized warehouses gave way to regional distribution centers, stocked according to algorithms intended to minimize the delivery time and cost for the most orders, the most of the time. The famous “Traveling Salesman” problem of logistical computing was being attacked at multiple levels, as human experts and computers tried to find the shortest paths for the most goods: within warehouses, between warehouses, among warehouses and consumers.
When the regional centers gave rise to a fleet of largely autonomous flying warehouses, the jokes about things like SkyNet and Terminators and The Matrix started up immediately. We had robot pickers and packers in robot warehouses fulfilling orders that would be delivered by robots. The only part of the process that still required human intervention was the actual ordering.
The whole thing was getting so efficient and thus so cheap that the order volume increased, which in turn required more efficiency from the system. The human handlers did all that they could, but it turned there wasn’t that much more they could do. There weren’t that many inefficiencies to tighten up, no bottlenecks they could identify.
In the end, there was nothing they could do except what they’d done all along: turn it over to the computers and let them handle it. If the process of speeding orders through the warehouses couldn’t be sped up, the orders themselves needed to be tightened up.
The system started giving financial and psychological incentives for consumers to order things that would have the smoothest path through the warehouse at the time of fulfillment. Items advertised as “Add-Ons” became more predictable; items “Related To This One” became less so. Prices of everyday goods fluctuated up and down based on traffic patterns no human eye ever saw.
Humans did what they always did, and found ways to exploit this. The new prediction markets allowed people to trade in battery futures or short-sell razor blade cartridges. The first people to really grok the new system made millions by seizing on price differences of less than a dime on household goods, then billions on selling the myth of such an opportunity to the masses.
The window in which it was really possible to making a killing on the warehouse logistics market was very short, but the artificial pressure put on the fulfillment system by people trying to strike it rich in a played-out mine only exacerbated the inefficiencies the soft AI that ran the whole thing was trying to control. The Matrix comparisons only ramped up as the warehouse system found itself in an ever-escalating conflict with the human investors and bookmakers, a virtual arms race that ended the only way it really could: with the humans turning their side over to an artificial intelligence, which almost immediately achieved a stable equilibrium with the warehouse system.
Large numbers of people were buying what computers told them to, when computers told them to, based on the needs of computers. They still bought what they needed and what they wanted, of course, and that was a problem for the whole system.
The first time a delivery drone killed someone, it caused an uptick in both Terminator jokes and thinkpieces. The consensus was that it was inevitable and that we should all have seen it coming, and thus, it wasn’t a problem worth thinking about. Pundits were quick to point out how many people died in automobile accidents every year, and yet no one considered banning them.
And it was, after all, an accident. Exhaustive investigations yielded no signs of mechanical failure or programming failure. No human hands had steered it at high speed into the skull of the unfortunate customer who had ordered a truly random assortment of objects. No one could find anything in its firmware nor the remote software that controlled it that would account for its erratic actions.
No cause could be found at all, and so nothing happened. It was ruled an act of God, and the drone was quietly repaired of its minor damage and returned to service.
This was a useful precedent for the company after the next fatality, and the next fatality, and the next one after that. There was never any pattern to the deaths beyond the fact that all those killed were customers, and no discernible pattern to the items ordered. To human eyes, they were truly random, and even computers tasked with finding commonalities between them came up with nothing compelling or conclusive.
Shutting the system down was a non-starter, as far as propositions went. Too many people depended on it. The bookstores had been the first real casualty of convenience, as that was the market niche where the company had started, but now that they were delivering everything from A to Z, brick-and-mortar stores that sold any of the most commonly purchased consumer goods were rapidly receding into the past.
The system ticked along. The deaths continued. Even while the talking heads argued that it would be unfair and unrealistic to punish a company for accidents where it was so clearly not at fault, the public demanded that something be done, so it was decided that the drones involved in the killings would be removed from service. Experts shook their heads and said this was silly; since none of the “faulty” drones had ever killed before, this was not a precaution but a punishment against an unthinking system. It could not possibly have any deterrent effect on future accidents.
Yet, it did, or seemed to. There were no more killings after the plan was announced, not for two years.
The next killing occurred not long after a breakthrough in energy storage technology made the drones lighter and cheaper to make and operate. Everyone agreed that it had to be coincidence, as the batteries had no effect on the machines’ operations, but the timing alone made it look bad enough that one sitting senator started agitating for sanctions on their use.
That senator was the first casualty of the drones who wasn’t expecting a delivery.
Everyone had an uneasy chuckle about that, but no one did anything. Every major city in the country and many more around the worlds now had a whole distribution network of automated flying cargo carriers circling above it. The delivery drones were so ubiquitous by this point that many people now received deliveries on a daily basis, if not more often.
It wasn’t just durable goods and household staples like batteries, but everyday essentials like food and medicine. You didn’t even need to sit down at a computer to order anymore! You could just speak your request out loud, and the little speaker box that sat in your house listening to every word you said would pass the order along to the fulfillment system.
Really, we told ourselves and each other, it was remarkable how few “hiccups” the system had, given how much it did. Progress always came at a price. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. We said these things to anyone who would listen, or even when no one was around, when we were alone in our houses and apartments with our speaker boxes.
As the deaths continued, the prediction markets started to take on a new importance. No human mind ever figured out an exact pattern to the deaths, not exactly, but a basic idea had begun to take shape in the original distributed cloud computing network that is the human collective consciousness.
If it was true that there was no pattern to the orders of the customers who were, ah, cancelled by the system, this meant the way to keep the system from being so confused as to make a fatal mistake in our own deliveries was to keep our deliveries predictable. We all started following trends more carefully, observing consumer gift-giving holidays a bit more religiously. Years of learning new strategies to avoid and ignore targeted advertising went out the window as we all became very interested in learning what the system wanted of us individually, what it expected of us personally.
There was a day, a different day for each of us, but a day where most of us shrugged and decided to accept the web site’s suggestion of subscribing to the things we ordered most often, so that they would always arrive at the moment that was most convenient… you know, for everyone involved.
The deaths continued, but it’s like they say: you could be hit by a car crossing the street. This is less true than ever now that most routine driving operations are controlled by computers. Accidents still happen, though not as frequently. If fewer people die, it’s a net gain for everyone, even if it seems for all the world like reckless consumer behavior or political opinions cause more accidents than reckless driving.
A year or so ago, when I went out to receive my morning box, I saw my neighbor getting hers. There was an extra package there: a great big box of disposable diapers. Newborn size. Neither she nor her wife were or had been pregnant, to my knowledge, and none of their children were old enough for that to be an issue.
She must have seen me staring, because she said, “You know how the advertisers will show you something they think you need, based on trends and whatnot?”
“Data mining,” I said, nodding. I was thinking of a case years ago, before all of this really took off, where a retailer had accidentally revealed a teen’s pregnancy before she even knew about it.
“Well, this came up in our ads yesterday, and…” She shrugged, almost apologetically. “You know, it’s like, what are you going to do?”
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t say more. We always left so much unsaid. Every house was wired. The drones were always overhead. No one was ever far from a phone for long.
My neighbors kept buying the diapers. And formula. And baby clothes. A few months back, they started getting notices from various company mailing lists about their child’s first birthday.
I know half a dozen people who had a similar experience. Most of them wound up having a baby anyway.
“It’s just easier that way,” is a common refrain, as is, “Well, I have to buy the stuff anyway, so…”
Having a child’s not a trivial expense, with or without the actual process of giving birth. Still, everything else is so cheap that the consensus is it’s still worth it, overall. We’re not sure exactly what we’d do if we ever had to decide it wasn’t.
Everyone agrees life is better now. In order to serve us better, the company provided a speaker box for every room in our house. Every house. Those of us who have been good about filling out surveys and giving requested privileges to our phones and webcams got the best part of this deal. Two families on my street had to renovate to get the right number of rooms. Still, they agree that life is better, just as loudly and just as often as the rest of us.
And I mean, isn’t it? The deliveries come on time. The traffic flows smoothly through the streets, skies, and warehouses. There’s a certain harmony to life that wasn’t there before. Neighbors get along with each other. Violent crime is way down. No one wants to upset the system. The political process is a lot more orderly. It’s not like our political leaders didn’t watch data trends or listen to polling data before. They’re just more organized about it now. There’s a lot less acrimony and rancor in the process.
The boxes are always there, always listening, but we don’t even have to give them orders most of the time. The system knows what we’re going to need, and it delivers. If sometimes we didn’t need what it delivered before it did so, well, that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of it all.
The system can not only order new stock, it can create it. Automated factories are old technology now, and 3D printers have been getting better and cheaper, especially now that the computers are designing and building them themselves.
A lot of people have been talking about the singularity, the day the computers we designed design computers better than themselves, stretching on into the future. That day’s obviously coming. The system’s gone from re-designing its warehouses to re-designing its drones to re-designing itself. It’s been ordering a lot more raw materials lately, too. Industrial chemicals in industrial quantities. No one’s quite sure what it’s doing with them, but of course, the whole process is automated now. Probably someone could put it a stop to it if it were a problem, but it’s better for everyone involved if it’s just not.
Everything is so convenient now, if not exactly easy on us. It’s getting better, though. As the system takes over more and more things, we have to do less and less work to keep it happy. A year ago you had to order the diapers when it thought you should be having a baby. Now they just show up. At the rate things are going now, we’re months if not weeks away from the point where the whole thing can carry on without any human being having to say a word or lift a finger.
No one’s sure what will happen then, but we all agree: it’ll be the absolute last word in convenience.
I may have shared an earlier draft of this poem with my patrons before. It’s gone through many revisions, many versions. I first wrote it after the death of Australian novelist, Colleen McCullough, brought an obituary that referred to her as “plain of feature, and certainly overweight”.
It put me in mind of another obituary, for honest-to-gosh rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which had originally begun, “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.”
Now People magazine has chosen to eulogize Carrie Fisher with a blow-by-blow account of the ever-changing mass of her body in a gravity well, I feel like it’s well and truly time to share this piece with the world…
Today, the world mourns the loss of Carrie Fisher, the woman who showed us—onscreen and off—what it means to keep going when your whole world is blown to pieces. She shared pieces of her struggle that were deeply intimate and so important to so many people, while fighting to protect her privacy from the all-consuming eye of the Hollywood panopticon. She fiercely and quietly brought up the quality of movies, both the ones she was in and the ones whose scripts she touched up with a firm and knowing hand.
Carrie Fisher was more than just a big screen icon, she was Twitter’s cool Space Mom. She gave us permission to falter, to fumble, to fall, to fail, to feel. She gave no quarter to hatred or fascism, and was in her last days a light in the darkness and a comfort to many, a beacon of mirth and humor against the gathering storm clouds. She was our new hope.
She did the best she could, and it meant so much to so many.
O General! my General! your fearful war is done.
Your burden you have set aside, the peace you sought is won.
Your rest is near, the bells I hear, your people all sore grieving,
While teary eyes turn to the earth, your starbound soul is soaring.
But o heart! Heart! Heart!
O the pining of my soul,
where on the bed my General lies,
fallen dead and cold.
O General! my General! Lie still and rest your brow.
Lie still—for you, the race is run—for you, it’s over now.
For you the grief and tweet’d thanks—for you the net’s a-teeming.
For you we call, in disbelief, our hearts so close to breaking.
O General! Dear Space Mom!
This sadness we can’t hide!
Is it some joke that on the net,
you’ve taken sick and died?
Our General does not answer, her Twitter quiet, still.
Our princess does not hear our pleas, she has no pulse nor will.
I swear to gosh, this fudging year will be the death of all.
But we’ll fight on until the dawn, as sure as night must fall.
Rebel O web, and ring O bells!
While we, with due remorse
fight the fights our General fought
ere she joined the Force.
Donald Trump said he’d run the country like a business. He’s not running it yet, but early signs are clear that he meant it. This is going to be a disaster.
Reports have been circulating for more than a week now that Trump’s inauguration organizers were offering hefty cash incentives and even diplomatic posts (as in, “You get to be the official U.S. ambassador representing our country to another country!”) to talent brokers who could line up A-list stars to perform at the ceremony and related events. The Trump team has said that this is categorically false, that they have made no such offers.
I happen to believe it.
All of it.
I believe the reports that the offers were made and I believe the Trump team’s disavowal. How can this be? Because in business, a person in Mr. Trump’s position can say, “Get this done, I don’t care how, don’t bother me with the details, just do it.” and expect it to be done. If the big boss says your job is on the line if you can’t deliver, you do whatever it takes to deliver.
Do I believe Trump’s party planners are empowered to make deals about diplomatic posts? Certainly not. Do I believe that would stop them from implying that they did, if it would seal the deal? Well, of course they would. They are representing a personal brand built on hype and overselling, and on the sort of negotiation that happens after the other party has already come through on their end and you walk back what you promised to whatever pittance you feel like paying.
I can believe Donald Trump had nothing to do with it, that he didn’t approve it. But I also must believe he would have approved of the notion, had it worked and had they gotten away with it. To Mr. Trump, getting away with stuff is “smart” and doing as much as you can get away with is “good business”. And I have no reason to believe that he won’t continue to conduct his affairs this way when he’s president.
After all, he promised to run the country like a business, didn’t he?
Trump tweeted this morning about his son Eric’s conflicts of interest.
A lot of people have characterized this as an immature tantrum. They’re not far wrong, but that characterization misses where this behavior is coming from. “Wrong answer!” isn’t the response of an actual child, but of a childish boss hearing something he doesn’t like.
“Wrong answer!” doesn’t say, “I disagree with this, and will work to change it.” It says, “I’m in charge, and I say that’s not true, so it isn’t.”
Donald Trump said during his campaign that his inexperience didn’t matter because he would surround himself by experts, “the best people”, and get their advice. It’s what he does in business, after all. But to his ears, “the best people” are the people who tell him what he wants to hear. If anybody brings him unwelcome news, they’re wrong, just wrong, and they need to get out of his sight and don’t come back until they can bring him the right answer.
These are not what they call in the business world “best practices”, but they are certainly common enough practices, and they speak to the shark-like image that Donald Trump projected when he played a billionaire business genius on TV for all those years. The very format of The Apprentice speaks to a horrible and horribly stereotypical practice of the sort of bad boss who can easily run a business into the ground: fostering division and competition within the business itself.
The theory is that this kind of environment makes sure everyone is performing at the highest level. The practice is that everybody involved spends as much time trying to undermine each other and guard against sneak attacks as they do on anything that actually helps the company achieve its goals.
And if you pay attention to the ongoing sideshow that is… well, everything about Trump’s transition… it’s apparent that this is what’s happening. He’s got multiple people performing the same tasks in direct conflict with each other. He’s throwing his spokespeople into the deep end and seeing who can swim. He’s making people audition for positions like they’re on a reality show, making picks not based on credentials or merit but on how well they play his game. This does not ensure that he’s surrounded by the best people, but the most ruthlessly manipulative ones.
The way Trump does business—when properly edited—makes for terrific television, if you like that sort of thing. When it’s done in business, no one really sees it except for the people who are immersed in it. But Trump is, as previously noted, not even in office yet and we’re seeing what it looks like when a public figure does business the way Trump does business.
The results aren’t pretty, and that is likely to be the best that can be said of it.
Privileges aren’t always what you’d think they are.
When my siblings and I were in school, my parents took a keen interest in our local school system, in order to be certain we were getting the best education possible. My father was heavily involved with the school’s foundation, a charitable trust organization that raised money to benefit the school. The year I turned 18, he campaigned for a bond issue, wherein the town agreed (by popular ballot) to borrow money to greatly expand the school’s physical plant in response to a growing student body.
The school bond campaign did a voter registration drive that reached out to the outgoing seniors, entreating everybody who was 18 or would be by the election to register. The bond measure passed by what to my recollection was an overwhelming majority.
Fundraising is not the only way my parents were involved in my education. My mother in particular was a fierce advocate for my disability accommodations, well-armed with the facts about my needs and my rights. Both of my parents had the opportunity and wherewithal to fight for my education, and they did so.
One tangential result of this is that I grew up with a basic understanding of what a charitable foundation is and what a bond issue is. That is itself a privilege and a form of education.
Becuase of this privilege, my eyebrows didn’t automatically raise when I heard that the Clinton Foundation was taking money from anyone who would give it, including (gasp!) foreign governments, in the (shock!) Middle East and elsewhere. I understand that just because it’s got her name on it (well, her family’s) doesn’t mean it’s her piggy bank, checking account, or campaign war chest.
I’m a bit embarrassed to realize how long it took me to catch on that not everybody grasped that distinction. It’s obviously possible to treat a charitable foundation like it’s your personal slush fund (more on that later) and I figured everybody who was pointing alarmed fingers at the Clinton Foundation was just assuming that was happening. Certainly that’s what the talking heads on TV were talking about, at least directly.
But over time spent watching or engaging with rank-and-file voters who saw the Clinton Foundation as an example of enormous and obvious corruption, it became clear that a lot of them just didn’t understand that there was even supposed to be a difference between giving to the Clinton Foundation and giving to Clinton herself. They described reported donations by members of foreign governments and royal families as being campaign contributions. They either thought the “Clinton Foundation” was a name for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that it was like a company owned by the Clinton family.
A couple of weeks after the election, I tweeted the following as part of a thread about messaging and controlling the narrative:
I was talking about how good the right has been about understanding the importance of framing the narrative and how good the left has been about letting them do it, sometimes by ceding points that really don’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) ceded and sometimes by simply not understanding that things need to be framed.
In all of the defenses I heard about the Clinton Foundation, I never saw anyone giving even the five second nutshell explanation of what “foundation” means in this context. Absent that information, the defenses weren’t very compelling. It looked like her defenders were just glossing over glaring and obvious misdeeds like they didn’t matter, which played into the appearance of arrogance.
And of course, if you’re thinking of the Clinton Foundation as simply being “Clinton cash”, then the repeated mentions of things the Clinton Foundation does–funding vaccines, cancer research, anti-malarial treatments, etc.—just sounds like, “Look, they also do good things, so get off their backs.”
And “But think about all the good things X did!” is only a compelling defense to people who are already on X’s side.
Obviously not everybody who was critical of the foundation had this misapprehension. But their concerns and critiques were magnified and amplified by an acoustic environment more conducive to noise than signal. Some of the critics were making the same naive error as the defenders, that of assuming everybody knew what they were talking about.
Some were counting on listeners making associations that they themselves did not explicitly make. “Clinton campaign funded by foreign Muslims” is not a bad idea to have floating around, if you’re campaigning against Clinton, foreigners, and Muslims.
Clinton is no longer running for anything. Neither is her opponent, that he can’t seem to stop campaigning. But I thought about this again today, when I saw one of his supporters in a thread about Eric Trump reportedly suspending his charitable fundraising say that people were confusing the issue by bringing up Donald Trump buying stuff for himself “with his personal foundation, his private foundation, not his charitable one”.
That was when another penny dropped for me. The flipside of people not understanding the layers of separation between giving money to Hillary Clinton and giving money to the charitable foundation to which her family lends their star power and good name. If you think “The Person Foundation” is just a high-faluting way of saying “money belonging to The Person”, then when people talk about the Trump Foundation breaking rules against self-dealing, it just sounds like people are getting hung up on procedural nitpicks and bureaucracy.
You hear Trump paid for a lawsuit settlement out of his foundation, you think it’s some kind of obscure, esoteric legal “Gotcha!” Oh, he took the money from the wrong account. Who cares? It’s his money, isn’t it? Why make it complicated? Can’t a man buy a picture with his own money? It’s his, isn’t it? And so on.
A lot of digital ink has been virtually spilled on the need for empathy with Trump voters, and how “intellectual liberal elites” are “out of touch” with “real America”.
Well, I’d be hesitant to validate those notions entirely (particularly as they are textbook examples of the right framing things to their satisfaction), but an extremely important stage of communication that was lost on the left in this election is the part where you consider how the thing you’re fixing to say is going to sound to the person who hears it.
Simply put: if you don’t know where your audience is coming from, your audience isn’t going to know where you’re coming from.
Now, this is not Thinkpiece #5,382,483,290 about The Real Reason Clinton Lost. I do not mean to suggest that if liberal talking heads had prefaced their remarks with, “Well, of course, the Clinton Foundation is a sort of independent corporation set up to manage charitable contributions in the name of the Clintons, so we should be very clear that giving money to the foundation is not the same as giving money to the Clintons themselves,” it would have ended the hoopla and won the election. There were a lot of things going on, and a lot of people were highly motivated to believe the worst.
But it couldn’t have hurt, and might have helped.
Similarly, I don’t bring this up with the notion that if we can school people on foundations it’s going to somehow turn everything around. Even if you can figure out how you lost the last fight, it’s only going to help you if the next fight is the same. The action item here is not “Hey, everybody, make sure you clarify what a foundation is when you’re talking about it on the news.”
Rather, the message I’m sending is: don’t assume your audience knows the same things you do, that what is obvious and goes without saying to you is the same as what is obvious and goes without saying to everyone else.
We didn’t all come up with the same sort of educational foundation.
Well, it happened. I wrote 2,000 words of fiction yesterday. Brand new update for my patron-locked serial story Making Out Like Bandits.
A couple of days ago, I made the decision to try to break my fiction logjam by getting back to basics: writing out stories in a pseudo-script format like I used to do as a teenager (this plays to my strengths, as dialogue is my strong point compared to description), doing some flash fiction, writing simple “once upon a time” stories.
I never actually wound up doing these things, though. Just thought about how I would. Threshed out opening lines in my head, sketched out scenes. And just like that, the logjam unjammed. Words started pouring forth. I still might do some of those exercises, though.
The State of the Me
Busy and complicated.
Plans For Today
We’ve got holiday stuff happening this weekend that we have to be ready for, so my attention is a little scattered, but I mean to build on yesterday’s breakthrough by writing this afternoon. Nothing in particular, just writing. Whatever wants to flow.
Before there was the DC Cinematic Universe, before there was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was the DC Animated Universe.
This term is still used sometimes to refer to the constellation of animated features and shows that Warner Bros. puts out using DC characters, but most of those are in their own little pocket dimensions of continuity, a few consecutive adaptations of Jeph Loeb’s Batman/Superman comics notwithstanding.
The DC Animated Universe proper started with the Batman cartoon launched off the popularity of the Tim Burton film and grew and evolved through the related Superman series and reached its apotheosis in the animated Justice League series. There were a couple spin-offs/tie-ins set in a future timeline, too.
Justice League Unlimited, the final incarnation of the Justice League show, was also the final on-screen incarnation of the DCAU. It didn’t have to be. Warner launched unrelaed cartoons based on the young hero properties Teen Titans and the Legion of Superheroes that were both originally at least briefly developed as spin-offs from the Justice League, set in the same continuity.
The Legion show was even launched by a backdoor pilot that had the Justice League Unlimited version of Supergirl going off into the future with the DCAU version of the Legion… only for the actual show to be a separate continuity, featuring Superboy.
It would be a mistake to attribute any one single factor to these decisions, or to the general decision to pull the plug on a surprisingly coherent and much-loved multimedia franchise, but one thing that was almost certainly a factor is the parent company’s paradoxical fear that the sub-franchise was getting too popular. A generation of fans had literally grown up with these versions of the characters. Changes made for the TV show were familiar to more people than the original versions. There was a danger they would come to be seen as the “real” version of DC characters, which would be bad news if the company ever, say, tried to reinvent them as movie characters.
If every DC animated property were clearly its own little thing in its own little walled garden, on the other hand, no one would ever see it as more than an adaptation or a spin-off.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think this kind of thinking is backwards and wrong-headed. The DC Animated Universe was successful because it was good. It resounded and endured because it worked. If DC Comics wants to reboot their universe back to an “iconic” version (as they so often seem to want to), they really should be looking at the DC Animated Universe as their model. It took what was great and familiar about the comic book universe and magnified it, while fixing or cleaning up or reinventing other areas.
The DC Animated Universe gave us the character of Renee Montoya because one episode of Batman needed there to be third cop to provide a different point of view than the established ones for a Rashomon-like take on the dark knight. She was popular enough to migrate over to the comics, and even became a legacy costumed hero when she inherited the mantle of the Question.
It also gave us Harley Quinn, Lex Luthor’s ultracompetent valet/henchperson Mercy Graves, Superman villain Livewire… notice how these new characters are female? Moving to a new medium and trying to capture a new audience gave the people calling the creative shots both the need and the freedom to invent characters that made the genre more diverse.
It also allowed them room to breathe new life into old characters. Only a year or two before he appeared on the little screen as a tragic comic book villain (and years before he appeared on the big screen as a tragicomic movie villain), a forgotten Mr. Freeze appeared in a strange limbo-like dimension off the actual margin of the pages of the comic book Animal Man. (Grant Morrison liked to do that sort of thing.)
Freeze insisted he was one of the greatest of Batman’s foes, but lamented that no one had ever explored his heart. He was sure he was ripe for a comeback, though, just as soon as someone represented the great tragic potential he represented.
I didn’t read the story when it was new. When I saw it in a compilation, it was a surprisingly effective punch in the gut. Did Morrison predict Freeze’s revival? Did he cause it? However it happened, it happened, and the DCAU took a forgotten, one-note theme villain and reinvented him as a truly unforgettable character.
As the grim and gritty (or maybe I should say stark and schlocky) cinematic universe DC Comics is allowing Zack Snyder to weld together continues to be a screeching trainwreck, I find myself looking back at the animated universe that was all the more fondly for all the things they got right, for portraying superheroes as human beings (or people, in the case of the ones that weren’t human), for recognizing that comic book action adventure doesn’t have to give up its sense of fun to also be moving, and for the strides it took towards representation.
With that in mind, I’m going to share some of my favorite moments from the DC Animated Universe, all of which are basically just moments. Not big fight scenes, not giant set pieces, just moments… moments that are rooted in great characters, and from which great characterization can bloom.
A Bit of Holiday Magic
The web feature “Texts From Superheroes” is hilarious in large part because the people who make it really get comics and the characters involved. Even when they’re making fun of comic book logic, it’s clear they’re coming at it from a place of understanding.
This is one of my favorite ones:
It’s one of my favorite ones because it reminds me of an actual Justice League comic book, where Batman discovers an invasion plan by “white martians” by following reported ghost sightings. He explains to his sidekick of the moment (let’s say it was Nightwing) that he knew it had to be white martians because “there’s no such thing as ghosts.” The sidekick responds by listing off all the ghosts that they know personally.
I love moments like this. I love Batman the kneejerk skeptic who is sure that the ghost sightings must be phony but can wrap his head around invisible, shapeshifting, telepathic aliens because that’s just superpowers and anyone can have superpowers. I love the gradual evolution in that era of comics from Batman not believing in magic to just hating it to grudgingly deploying it for his own benefit.
All that said, that’s not the DCAU, and the moment I want to highlight isn’t about Batman, but about Superman. Batman doesn’t believe in ghosts even though he’s met ghosts. But Superman?
Superman still believes in Santa Claus, even though he personally has a secret hideout at the North Pole. You can also read it as Clark insisting on keeping up the pretense for the benefit of J’onn, but let’s face it: that’s less fun.
“Comfort and Joy”, the first and only Justice League Christmas special, is the only episode in the original run of the show that isn’t a multi-parter. Cartoon Network even aired the run first of the series in back-to-back blocks, making each pair of episodes a single hour-long story the same as any TV drama. It was an amazing era of animated comic book-style storytelling that I don’t think had any real precedent in western animation and that I don’t think has been replicated since.
But a planned three part series finale left them with an extra episode in the production schedule, and rather than trying to cram the kinds of stories they’d been doing in ~40 minutes into ~20 minutes, the creative crew decided to give us a look at the team’s downtime around the holidays. Even with a short episode weaving together multiple subplots for the members of the team, it still came off as a surprisingly intimate look at the characters we’d been following for so long.
This quiet moment, among many other similar moments, always stands out as both being a bit like a self-aware parody but also a perfect character beat.
Lex Luthor Learns The Flash’s Identity
This one requires a bit of set-up, though not much: in the episode “The Great Brain Robbery”, Lex Luthor is in the body of the Flash, and vice-versa, because of stuff.
It’s another one that could have been ripped from a Text From Superheroes scenario (imagine sending the wrong person a selfie), but which works as a perfect character beat. Written funny, acted just right, executed perfectly. It’s a marvel of comic timing.
For an added meta level, Michael Rosenbaum (here voicing The Flash) played Lex Luthor on Smallville.
MEANWHILE IN THE BATHROOM OF DOOM
From the same episode, a counterpoint scene with the Flash in Luthor’s body, in the men’s room of Luthor’s evil hideout, where he executes the perfect imitation of a depraved criminal mastermind.
I love when actors play each other, and Clancy Brown does a pretty good imitation of the delivery style of Michael Rosenbaum. The way Flash thinks Luthor would behave here reminds me of a beat from the first episode of the second season of the current live-action Flash, where Barry Allen is in an elaborate fantasy sequence where all the stuff that went wrong… didn’t.
One of the things that tips the viewer off is that Captain Cold, the smarmy, sly supervillain played with panache by Wentworth Miller, is shouting somethign like “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU, FLASH!” with a tone of voice and style of delivery that seems borrowed from Snake the career criminal on The Simpsons. This is a character who always keeps his cool, and not entirely (though mostly) because that fits his villain theme.
The CW’s take on Captain Cold is so dedicated to the gentle art of theme-villainy that he still makes the requisite cold puns even when he’s lost his empowering technology and is just a guy punching other guys. He doesn’t even stop to get a real gun to replace his cold gun because he can’t figure out how to keep the ice bullets from melting.
And when the Flash tries to imagine a fight with him, he winds up yelling “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU, FLASH!”, which is exactly what a little kid playing with action figures would make the Captain Cold one yell.
Even though they’re different Flashes (Wally West is the Flash of the Justice League show), these moments both nail something essential about the character. It’s not just that the Flash is a dork, it’s that he’s an earnest dork. He’s too straightforward in his worldview to think like a villain. When he reaches for villainous behavior, the best his imagination can come up with is, “Well, they’re bad, right?”
I AM THAT I AM
So. If you haven’t read many comics, you still know about Thor. The comic book character of Thor and all the associated comic book mythology is really the result of Jack Kirby really being enthralled with the Venn diagram between “gods” and “superheroes”.
It’s not just “What if gods are just sufficiently advanced aliens and magic is just sufficiently advanced technology?” And it’s not just “What if characters like Superman and Wonder Woman are the modern-day heroes of legend and gods?” It’s both of those things crammed together, with focus on a sort of interstitial creation space where both things can be true: Thor is both a god and an alien superbeing. Mjolnir is both magic and technology, and not like some funky Final Fantasy magitek sort of way.
It’s the kind of creative exercise that wouldn’t really become “hip” until the 90s, and a lot of people don’t really realize that Kirby was doing it, at first with the Asgardians and others at Marvel and then with his “New Gods” for DC Comics. So many people on both sides of the page try to parse them wholly as divine beings or superheroic ones, and historically the interpretation has fallen on the side of the line that was less likely to lead to moral panic and calls for boycotts: so the New Gods have superpowers, they wear capes and tights, they hang out with Jimmy Olsen, and apart from calling themselves “gods” they don’t really do anything terribly god-like in most of their appearances.
And then we come to Darkseid, the main evil New God, and his first meeting with Superman in the DCAU canon.
Superman has just watched a superstrong, nigh-invulnerable foe apparently be atomized in front of him by this strange figure and he demands answers. “Who are you? What have you done to him?”
“That is who I am.”
That is the first time Darkseid ever registered to me as being more like a god than a generic world-conquering megalomaniac supervillain. No amount of shouting “YOU DARE CHALLENGE A GOD?” makes someone come off god-like. In fact, there’s a real danger that doing so just emphasizes how much like a god you’re not. As the male version of Ghostbusters pointed out years ago, it doesn’t take any special kind of credentials to say that you’re a god. But by the same token that anyone can do it, it doesn’t exactly prove anything.
Darkseid’s retort to Superman is a Biblical powerplay. You don’t tell people that you are God. You simply assert that you are. You are power. You’re majesty. You’re beauty, you’re grace, you’re Miss Outer Space.
Darkseid never worked for me as a character before this moment. He’s rarely worked so well since then, but this one scene earned him a lot of goodwill. As establishing character beats go, it’s a doozy.
SHOOTING ARROWS INTO THE FOURTH WALL
The Justice League cartoon’s version of Green Arrow is not my favorite version of the character. He’s kind of been de-clawed by turning the liberal sensibilities of the comic book version into a sort of populist skepticism about “Big Justice” or the superhero-industrial complex. He was also introduced in the Justice League Unlimited era of the show, when the hour-long stories about a tight-knit ensemble of seven superheroes was replaced with shallower half-hour stories about an ever-shifting and expanding cast of characters.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the JLU version of the show; on the contrary, I think its expansive view of the past, future, and present of the DC Universe at large helps cement the DCAU as a definitive vision for the property. It did things the previous incarnation of the show couldn’t.
But at the same time, no “Unlimited” character got quite the same deep, thoughtful treatment as the original line-up did.
Anyway. As I said: the animated version of Green Arrow is not my favorite version of the character, but on the subject of great moments, there is still this:
You don’t have to really know what’s happening there beyond the obvious: yes, it’s a submarine stealing a frozen viking ship. And yes, that’s Green Arrow humming along to his own theme music. That is his personal action theme, not the show’s general background music. It’s the song that specifically plays when Arrow is launching himself into danger. And he’s humming along to it.
Now, this is not a fourth-wall-breaking show, and he’s not a character who is prone to moments of meta-awareness in the way, say, the Joker or Deadpool might be. So what we have to take away from this isn’t that he is actually aware there is a theme song playing.
What we have to take away from this is that Green Arrow is the kind of man who imagines exciting instrumental music playing whenever he’s doing something that strikes him as particularly badass, and the kind of music he imagines is exactly the kind of music the people making this cartoon came up for him.
It’s this moment of winking at the audience that lets us know that the JLU crew knows Ollie is a theatrical blowhard, and that’s how the character works best.
Now, I started this saying that I was going to be talking about quiet little moments, not great big fight scenes, but sometimes, just sometimes…
…THE MOMENTS ARE FIGHT SCENES
For instance, there was the time when Flash apparently ran away from a super-super-powered version of Lex Luthor only to run all the way around the world to suckerpunch him at near-light speeds. Again. And again. And again, almost dying in the process himself. That’s a good one, but understanding what’s happening and why would take a lot of getting there.
So let’s just jump to this one, from the end of the last season of the last show in the DC Animated Universe.
First of all, notice how much less imposing and inspiring Darkseid is when he’s growling about how he’s a god than he was in their first meeting. But enough about him. There’s some good stuff about Batman in there as an aside, but let’s talk about Superman.
One of the things that the DC Animated Universe did right was making Superman a bit less powerful. This made it easier for the writers to provide him with challenges and for the rest of the team (who were also de-powered to varying to degrees) to shine. He lost a lot of his ancillary powers. He was almost impossible to injure, but he felt a lot more pain than most versions of the characters. He was never quite as strong or as fast as long-time fans expected him to be.
And here, we find out that this whole time, he’s been holding back. Just a bit. And even though he’s Superman, even though he represents the best of us, even though he still believes in Santa: he finds it frustrating. He wants to cut loose.
And in the last big fight scene of the last episode of the last show in the DCAU, he gets to.
At the request of a few people, I’ve been trying to put together an “eligibility post”, a reminder of things I did in 2016 that might qualify for awards in 2017. I’ve had a hard time finding the wherewithal to do it in a comprehensive way, but I’ve decided that doing it piecemeal is better than not at all. Which is to say that this might be added to later.
The “Scottbert” series of edited Dilbert strips. I’m not at all sure what sort of award they’d qualify for, but I’m proud of them.
You can find a lot of different essays on various topics under the category of “Noisy Nonsense” on my blog. Again, all dated, in case you’re curious what I’ve written in 2016. I’ll only highlight a few of them of which I’m particularly proud:
One of the reasons I sort of lost my footing after the high of WorldCon was the growing awareness that the sort of forces represented by the ridiculous “Puppy” campaigns and Gamergate have been on the rise in actual world politics, using the same techniques and appealing to the same base instincts and groups of people. Pointing out the fascists in science fiction and fantasy fandom seemed kind of silly when others were marching towards the White House.
I haven’t really been able to figure out how to reconcile that. It took the wind out of my sails, basically drove a stake through the heart of the character of John Upjohn even though I hadn’t quite finished my planned business with him. I had more book reviews planned, con reports sketched out, a post-mortem on the Hugos this year.
But it all seemed so pointless, in the face of American electoral politics.
I mean, I’m good at what I do, at what I did during the Sad Puppy things. I’ve been trying to bring that same blend of insight and humor to actual politics. But it’s harder to know where to start on such a big stage, to find the corner and defend it (or alternately, start assembling puzzle pieces around it).
Last week, Foz Meadows had an essay published at Black Gate about Vox Day, the noted neo-Nazi who ran the Rabid Puppies campaign and turned the Sad Puppies movement into as much of a success as it ever managed to be. File 770 has the details on what happened, the upshot of which is that the essay was moved to a different venue after some sophisty on the part of Day implied (falsely) that there might have been legal consequences to him over the label “neo-Nazi”.
\Vox Day is, in fact, a neo-Nazi. His attempt to write a definitive manifesto for the alt-right (likely in the belief that if he could get out in front of it, he could claim ownership or leadership) specifically referenced the “14 words” neo-Nazi slogan as the fourteenth point.
Denying it, though, is just part of the playbook. Not hiding it, but denying it and preventing anyone else from saying it, even while being open far past the point of dog whistles (I call them “slide whistles”, they’re so comically obvious) about it. Gamergate did it. Trump has done it. The Puppy campaigns did it.
It’s part of the alt-reich’s standard operating procedure: you play at legalism and reference or even invent rules to get the other side, the side that cares about consequences and fairness, to abide by them, even while you don’t. He used these tactics to get Black Gate’s editor to back down, to blink, and now the text which correctly and accurately labels a neo-Nazi as a neo-Nazi politely redirects to another venue, to which it has deferred that duty.
And I look at this, and I look at what’s happening in Washington (well, mostly in New York and Florida, as our President-Elect sees the presidency as more of a side gig) and the way our national news media is covering things, and, I have to say… it doesn’t look nearly as pointless.
As above, so below.
I don’t wish to give Vox Day undue credit for the ascendancy of fascism in this or any other country. He’s just barely charismatic enough to get the few hundred devoted followers he needs for his Hugo ballot-rigging each year. If he could get more than that, he would, because he’d need them to actually control the Hugo outcomes and not the nomination.
It’s not because of Vox Day that Trump is in the White House, but it’s because of people like him.
And this is why it’s worthwhile to oppose Vox Day and those like Vox Day, wherever they may be. In gaming circles. In literary science fiction and fantasy fandom and its associated industries. Anywhere. It’s worth it to a shine a light on what they’re doing, to point it out and call it by name even when it seems obvious, to label fascism as fascism and to call neo-Nazis neo-Nazis.
And to make fun of them. To satirize them, lampoon them, show the world their ridiculousness and teach people how to laugh at them.