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The Paranoid Power Fantasies of "Superjail!"

by Ethan Tussey

by Steven Pustay for IN MEDIA RES

One of the primary appeals of animation, for both children and adults, has always been its ability to render the human form in ways that (literally) stretch the boundaries of the physical body, from Winsor McCay’s early shorts to Looney Tunes to SpongeBob SquarePants. In more adult fare, such distortions of the body take on a sinister role, including fantastical representations of the domination of the body through mechanical force. Adult Swim’s Superjail! visualizes such fears, playing off a paranoia that has developed since the privatization of the American prison system began in the 1980s.

Superjail! imagines a super-secret, semi-magical prison (picture a jail built by Willy Wonka) where the world’s worst criminals are kept away from normative society. Each episode involves a failed attempt to rectify a new social problem within Superjail (low morale, for example) which is ultimately resolved through a massive brawl in which countless prisoners are maimed and killed while fighting each other, the prison’s Warden and his various mechanical devices, and often other mystical and magical creatures. Despite the chaotic nature of these fights and the situations that lead up to them, episodes often end with a visual or narrative clue that suggests that the maniacal Warden, as a grand puppet master, had intended for such an outcome all along – a brutal and medieval form of social control.

As Foucault showed us in Discipline and Punish, one goal of modern power structures (“the disciplines”) was to create “docile bodies,” subjects of the state that are unable or unwilling to recognize the power that the state has over them. To accomplish this, the spectacle of physical punishment was replaced by prison systems that made punishment invisible and hidden from sight.  In Superjail!, these hidden systems of control once again become spectacular, visualized through bodies that are governed by physical force.

For example, in this clip we find that, in Superjail, Bentham’s panopiticon is not simply a watchtower that spies upon the daily activities of the inmates, but instead an all-pervasive technological system (literally an organ that controls dreams) that penetrates both the minds and bodies of those under its control. Just as the dream world of the prisoners spills out into the reality of the cartoon prison, the fantasy of Superjail! (with its paranoid fear of physical and mental domination) bursts forth into actual reality, leaving behind a clear message about panoptic power: “we’re watching you."

Superjail! - "The Dream Machine"

A clip from Adult Swim's "Superjail!" episode "The Dream Machine" (01x03, production code 108)

from Superjail! (2008)
Creator: Christy Karacas, Stephen Warbrick, Ben Gruber
Distributor: Adult Swim
Posted by Ethan Tussey