With its animated series Superjail, the often jaw-droppingly inappropriate Adult Swim appears to have perfected the long-form cannibal joke, a breed of humor that unnerves us because, as primates, we all have cannibalism in our ancient past. Longtime friends know I regularly claim that no day is complete without at least one good cannibal joke. My dark(ly humorous) turn of mind comes from parents who exposed me at an early age to satirical ditties including “The Reluctant Cannibal” by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels and their cinematic adaptations also helped; they form a subgenre let’s call the police procedural of manners (wherein rudeness gets people eaten). Superjail, whose second season is now on DVD, puts cannibalism to unparalleled use as a critical tool for assailing a social construct that manages to be immane yet almost invisible: the United States’ prison-industrial complex.
Visually dense and allusive, often chromatic and even psychedelic, and always ultraviolent, Superjail realizes the potential of Atlanta-based Cartoon Network’s grown-up programming the way few animated shows do—and in ways unpermitted on live-action shows. Its catalog of way-past-gruesome horrors includes casual amputations, blood sports, illicit medical experiments, massive blunt-force trauma, burnings, disintegrations, anthropophagy and (not alwaysthe same thing) cannibalism. I’ll address the sexual depredations later.
Readers may wonder: How can this stuff be funny? Sensory overload helps. So many characters die so fast during an average Superjail episode that the potential for surprise lingers even after repeat viewings. A cartoon sense of mortality helps, too. Recurring characters expire messily in one episode, only to show up whole in the next. Despite a cartoonishness that extends from the cheapness of its characters’ lives to their crude renderings (Superjail revels in repellent physical detail), the ethical universe of the series is one that must be entered roundabout through scientific inquiry and artistic commentary.
Marina Warner writes persuasively in her essay “Cannibal Tales” that behaviors such as incest become metaphors in art for cannibalism (and vice versa). She connects the myth of Zeus’s sister-shtupping, offspring-gobbling father to J.M.W. Turner’s painting known as The Slave Ship, the latter an eighteenth-century memorial to everything lost in the intentional drowning of enslaved Africans by the crew of the bad ship Zong. Warner concludes that cannibalism “combines so much lawlessness and irrationality that it communicates magical sovereignty.” Her last two words perfectly label Superjail’s master and founder, the Warden, a fey technomancer whose sense of fashion and design comes from Willy Wonka. Mind you, Roald Dahl’s cryptosadist candy man looks beneficent next to the Warden, whose automated “reformatory” ingests prisoners but releases only transplantable body parts and unspeakable meat products.
Philip Zimbardo includes a revelatory aside in The Lucifer Effect, his book about the Stanford Prison Experiment. He defines at length the Latin term cupiditas, which I had previously thought referred to nothing more than the love of money (as in, Radix malorum cupiditas est: the love of money is the root of all evil). Cupidity, as the word appears in English, is much broader, Zimbardo notes: “For instance, lust and rape are forms of cupiditas, because they entail using another person as a thing to gratify one’s own desire; murder for profit is also cupiditas.” Rendering prisoners into flesh-and-bone commodities is de facto “using another person as a thing”—even if the person in question is himself a rapist, a class of criminal Superjail houses in abundance. The show doesn’t shy from the uglier realities of prisons (disproportionate numbers of black inmates, prisoner-on-prisoner rape, turnkey-on-prisoner rape), even though it depicts a prison that both occupies and encapsulates a strange multiverse. Furthermore the show’s unaired pilot (see season one’s DVD) strongly suggests that co-creators Christy Karacas, Stephen Warbrick, and Ben Gruber know Zimbardo’s research: in that episode the Warden clothes half his inmates in wolf suits, half in bunny suits. The result resembles the Stanford Prison Experiment set Where the Wild Things Are, and the pilot culminates in a cheery meal of prisoner-meat stew.
Of course, in our corner of the multiverse—the one where you’re reading this sentence—we don’t grind prisoners’ bones to make bread, use their flesh in cookery, or “accidentally” kill them to provide material for black-market surgeries. Instead, we strip them (a practice the Supreme Court has given a universal thumbs-up), number them, disenfranchise them, sardine them into facilities that were overcrowded ages ago, at best turn a blind eye to their sexual abuse, and offer pallid apologies alongside mere money upon discovering that—oops—some of them never committed the crimes that led to their imprisonment ages ago. Oh, and a few of them we execute (unless you’re reading this in Texas, where only recently have authorities learned to count as low as a few). Before you mistake me for what I am not, allow me to identify myself as a hard-hearted liberal who believes that some crimes damn well ought to cost you your liberty. I also believe, however, that the way we treat criminals reflects our true values, not the platitudinal ones we simply mouth; that we let prisons wed themselves to the insatiable engine of profit at great risk to our freedoms; and that we empower the state to take the lives of its citizens at our peril.
Although Superjail ingeniously distills so very much from history and culture, the show’s artful and much-deserved mockery of our vast, privatized warehousing of human beings (yes, criminals are still human beings) stands as Karacas and company’s greatest achievement—one I applaud amid something like awe.
Superjail has been renewed for a third season; seasons one and two are available on DVD.