Saturday, May 16, 2015

Chapter 116: In Which I Discuss Nostalgia and Continuity

This track gets me so pumped up. I listen to it and start feeling like this guy.

I just saw Mad Max: Fury Road. My lord, it is glorious. An instant classic. Proof that George Miller needs to direct every movie. There is so much heart and imagination and pure joy fit into those two hours that I'm still reeling. What a masterpiece of fantasy.

One thing (of many) that I found interesting was that it's a reboot that doesn't feel like one. Reboots/remakes/sequels are all the rage now. They seem to be rebooting Spider-Man faster than they can release the things in theaters. But Fury Road feels like it could easily fit into the established canon. Like its the lost film between Mad Max and Road Warrior. It's no surprise to find it was originally supposed to film in 2001 with Mel Gibson before it got pushed back.

George Miller has said the Mad Max films are supposed to be mythic Sergeo Leone-style movies with no real continuity. I suspect he's a bit of a troll. There are both visual cues and character beats that establish a continuum over the trilogy. Even without these cues, I felt no real disconnect between the new film and the old, except Max has a new face.

Also, thank Poseidon Mel Gibson is nowhere near this film. Some movies might need the nostalgia value he brings to sell tickets. Fury Road is making money based purely on quality. He would be nothing but an albatross around the film's neck. His presence is absolutely unneeded and Tom Hardy is great as the new Max. (Needless to say, Charlize Theron is an acting goddess.)

It seems to me that Miller did the impossible: he resurrected a franchise after thirty years without a bit of nostalgia. All the gags and storytelling and action beats feel fresh; you don't have to have knowledge of the old Mad Maxes to enjoy this movie. Miller is looking ahead with his filmmaking, to the point I can't even really call it a resurrection.

After all, you can't resurrect what was never dead in the first place.

In our current milieu, "new" is uncool. It seems that all of today's entertainment is geared towards making adults relive their 3rd grade summer vacation. Later this year, Star Wars is reemerging as part of Disney's campaign to mass market everyone's childhood under their umbrella. I would not be surprised if we soon got Lisa Frank: The Movie. And as a genre fan, I'd really like to see something new. Even anime, which has yielded some of the freshest shows and movies I've seen, has descended into moe, otaku-made, otaku-served navel gazing.

There are upsides to this nostalgia, of course. The main being that a lot of the stuff from our childhood actually sucked. I've never watched My Little Pony, but by all accounts it's a better-written toy commercial than the toy commercial it was based on. I hear there's going to be a new Masters of the Universe flick. Hopefully, since the studio can see the dollar signs, they won't kneecap it like Cannon did to the almost-good 1987 version.

Then there's a part of me that's like, "Wait! That He-Man cartoon sucked in the first place. Give me something new." Is the future so bleak that we're all trying to be kids again?

I just answered my own question. I live in California, where we're facing a water drought that will inevitably end with rich people having water while poor people have to pay out the ass for it. Water privatization is coming. Water riots are coming. We're staring at the world of Mad Max in real life and I can see why a lot of adults with the time and money (i.e. mostly white people) would want to throw on their Ninja Turtles jammies and pretend like none of this is happening.

But back to entertainment and the hipsterization of American culture. The last blockbuster movie I can recall that offered something new was The Matrix. They took a little bit from anime, a little bit from John Woo, a little bit from Grant Morrison, but in the end it was their creation. And it was a great movie. I thought the sequels were bloated and tension-free and nonsensical, but they were all the Wachowskis'. They stand alone as works of art.

Compare this to the nostalgia-drenched trailers for Star Wars. It might be a great movie. I hope it is. But the trailers are filled with cues to the original. So far, a lot is banking on people's love for a 38-year-old movie. My fear is that the new characters and their storyline will suffer. A bold move would have been to cut out the old characters entirely. Everyone's excited that Luke, Han, and Leia are back. That's pure nostalgia. The original actors also made Return of the Jedi. There's things to like about that movie, but it certainly doesn't come from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher sleepwalking. The original cast are 2 for 3.

And it's frustrating after seeing Fury Road. Here you have an old school, honest-to-god filmmaker who crafting beautiful images and stirring sequences. He is obsessed with the craft, not at what callbacks he can make to something from long ago. There's no Mel Gibson cameo or gratuitous shots of a dog or putting a Tina Turner wig on Zoe Kravitz to signify she'll be the next Aunt Entity. It's a vibrant, alive movie. I don't know if modern big-budget filmmakers have the space to do that kind of auteurship anymore. Maybe Christopher Nolan, but who else?

George Miller pretty much created the post-apocalyptic genre. Everything from Borderlands to Fist of the North Star to every 80s metal band to the entire existence of Burning Man stems from Mad Max. If our current zeitgeist existed in Miller's heyday, we would have never gotten The Road Warrior. After making Mad Max, he would have been scooped up to do the third Dick Van Dyke Show movie in the 50s Sitcom Cinematic Universe.

I mean, they're resurrecting Jem and the Holograms (in a shitty manner, judging by the trailers) while we still don't have a proper Avatar: The Last Airbender film. Come on, people. Get on it.


New creator = new continuity. That is my policy.

Mad Max has me thinking about this, as it is the only "soft" reboot I've seen that I would put in canon with the original films. That is because it remains Miller's singular vision. If they'd brought on a new director, it would automatically be new canon for me. This philosophy has saved me a lot of grief as a fan of spec-fic shows and movies. Big studios own the rights to intellectual property. In such a world, art is seen as capital, and artists as product creators. How to determine canon in such a world?

I came to this philosophy after reading a Wikipedia article on Alan Moore's Watchmen. For the character profiles, they included background info from Before Watchmen. And I asked: how could this info be listed in the bios for Moore's character's when Moore had nothing to do with the comic? When he was against it from the very beginning? How can you just insert your ideas into someone else's story without their say-so?

We have a word for that. It's called fanfic. I never wrote fanfic; having taken creative writing classes since I was a kid, I had it drilled into my head not to write something you can't market. But fanfic has it's place and people seem to get a lot out of it. What they don't get is the original creator's vision.

In fact, lately I've become, if not partial to fanfic, intrigued by it. Fanfic is the realm of the happy ending. For every individual fan, there is a realm where Spike got with Buffy. There is a sphere where the werewolf kid hooked up with Bella instead of with her infant daughter. There is a world out there where Charlie Brown hooked up with the Little Red Haired Girl. All you have to do is find it in the labyrinthine universe of online fanfic. I'm glad fans have their happy endings out there. Everybody ends up happy. The ones that tickle me the most are the Song of Ice and Fire fanfic, which usually take place in some sort of AU where the characters are high schoolers. Then, you know, Arya hooks up with Gendry or Sansa gets with Sandor and they all go to the prom. It seems like the only way to squeeze a happy ending out of George R.R. Martin's crapsack universe is to get rid of the universe entirely.

But Martin himself will tell you: those aren't his characters, that's not his story. Neither is the TV show Game of Thrones. It's head-canon, the same as Before Watchmen. The fact that DC chose to market that comic makes it no less fanfic.

I believe in artistic integrity. I loathe the idea that a different artist's take on a universe can ruin a good story or validate a bad one. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but they were overseen by the same guy who directed and produced the originals. Lucas may have messed it up, but it was his story and his imperative to do so.

J.J. Abrams' sequels? Whole new canon.

People say The Simpsons got bad. No, it didn't. The Simpsons we all grew up on was a brilliant show that lasted for an unparalleled nine great seasons. After that point Matt Groening turned his focus to Futurama. What followed was a series of mediocre shows with the same name and character designs. The Simpsons you loved ended when Groening left and remains untouched. Those who came after him were following a separate vision. Their artistic faults (as well as Fox's continuing to renew the show long after it had anything to say) has no reflection on what came before.

Greg Weisman and the other creators of Gargoyles had the cartoon wrested from them by Disney to make the inferior third season. All Gargoyles fans consider this season non-canon. The creator disavowed any part in it. But it exists as a separate continuity. Weisman's is a cautionary tale: he tried to continue Gargoyles in comic form, but had to quit because he couldn't afford to keep licensing his own characters from Disney.

But what of when the original artist cedes the story reins to a minion? What if they say it's part of their continuity? If so, then it is for me.

Until . . . continuity errors.

The moment continuity errors emerge, it's a new story for me. Simply put, if the artists don't care enough to keep things consistent, I'm not going to jump through hoops to do the storytelling myself.

An example of this is True Blood. Alan Ball left after season 5 and the new team was left to clean up the mess he'd left, with a dozen story arcs and a massive cast and a human-vampire war they couldn't possibly film. The spent much of season 6 retconning away season 5.

In that season, the character Terry gets glamored (read: hypnotized by a vampire) to forget his PTSD.
The problem? It was established in the first season that Terry couldn't be glamored because he has a metal plate in his head. This entire plot development is impossible based on what has come before. Everything falls apart.

Unless you accept that this Terry and the one before are two different characters.  Yes, you go into the season knowing Terry is a short order cook with PTSD from the Iraq War and a wife named Arlene. You also go into every Robin Hood movie knowing he's a lord who went off to fight in the Crusades. They're still separate works of art.

The original True Blood ended on the cliffhanger of Bill drinking Lilth's blood and becoming a god. Then there was an unconnected two-season show with the same name.

When I was a kid in the 90s, there were a lot of Elfquest offshoots made by artists other than Wendy and Richard Pini. Warp Graphics was expanding and with it the EQ Universe. Most of those comics were of debatable quality, and twenty years later are entirely unmarketable, so it's best they're available for free online. Nobody would ever buy them.

This sucked.

One such comic called New Blood was just . . . bad. In a lot of ways, starting with the art. And it played fast and loose with the rules. Part of Elfquest lore is that elves use telepathy. But Barry Blair totally wrote a scene where some elves are stuck in a tree or something and don't know how they're going to contact their friends.

Nope. Elves use telepathy. It's always been this way. In New Blood, these powers can apparently short circuit. Different rules = different universe. New Blood is non-canon for me, and not just because it's a crappy comic. It's rules don't align.

I like the Elfquest Rogue's Curse comic a lot. Wendy Pini herself did some Rogue's Curse one-shots, so it's safe to say the original creator signed off on the storyline. Still, I remember that story having some parts that didn't gel with the Pinis' canon. Henceforth, it becomes non-canon, AU, What If?, Elseworlds, whatever you want to call it.

This theory feels liberating as a fan, but also frees up artists to tell the story they want to tell. Really, the new True Blood team shouldn't have had to abide by the set rules if that doesn't suit the story they want to tell. (Which is not to say I loved those two seasons. They were awful. Just a different kind of awful than what came before.)

There are exceptions for things like pro wrestling or superhero comics, where lack of continuity is the point. If you're asking yourself why Batman never ages, that's the point you put down the comic and pick up a novel. If you need to find reason in-character as to why CM Punk is a fighting champion one day and a cowardly heel the next, then you're over pro wrestling. The storylines are meant to be fluid. Then there are comics that follow a linear storyline, like the Dark Horse Conan comics. But the moment a new writer forgoes canon, or embarks on a complete tonal shift, it becomes a different Conan universe for me. And I get to choose which I like best.

Whew! That was a ramble. I haven't gone on a nerdy rant in a while. Feels good.

Watch the new Mad Max. It will kick your ass.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

On Anime Conventions, Part 3


The power of black people is an unstoppable force. Beautiful to see.

In such times, it feels weird to devote a weekend of my life to an anime convention, but also necessary. Anime is the realm of the imagination, which they cannot take from us, even if they kill us for having imaginations.

Today I'll talk about my latest anime con. I was overjoyed to see all the black folks at Tekkoshocon in Pittsburgh last weekend. Most surprising to me was that black dudes were running the LARP. I generally avoid LARP, as the idea of giant aggro white dudes hitting me with foam bats doesn't sound appealing. But apparently we've taken over LARPing. When did this happen? Am I gonna see cats walking down International Blvd. in armor on their way to the club? Will we start donning armor to bash cops? Anyway, loved seeing a multicultural crew handling the LARPing, which was really friendly to beginners.

Some notes:

There has been a complete generational turnaround in anime fandom. I saw maybe three people I recognized from my con-going days in college. Two of them were vendors, which seems a logical step for a fan. One of them was the old chair, who was visiting for the day. It was cool, as I felt like I was stepping into an entirely new space, with opportunity to meet new people.

Sometimes I wonder if I can call myself a real otaku since I've never seen Evangelion. I caught maybe two episodes when it first came out in the late 90s. Didn't strike my fancy. Then it became a seminal anime. The thing is, first there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, then Death, Rebirth, End of Evangelion, now Rebuild. And it's all THE SAME STORY. I understand not getting it right the first time, but the second? The third? I'm sorry, but a story so convoluted it has to be remade every five years sounds sloppy.

At some point, I'm going to have to watch End of Evangelion for the weird imagery alone. But I won't enjoy it. Shinji Hikari is pretty much designed to be the most loathsome character in all anime. The whole point seems to be that these characters are miserable and unrelatable. I wouldn't want to watch one show about Shinji, let alone several shows getting made until the end of time.

The only anime I sat down and watched in the Tekko video rooms was Space Dandy. Shinichiro Watanabe is a maniac. That is all.

I saw a panel about putting on cosplay skits that showed some examples of good ones. I've seen a lot of bad skits but there are people out there who think of it theatrically and pull out all the stops to put on a show. I particularly liked this one, a tribute to the classic Duck Hunt game:

Tekkoshocon taught me the true value of a good staff. All through the weekend, con ops was helpful as far as setting up equipment for my panels. They were easy to talk to, totally accessible. Around 10 pm Saturday night, there was a fire evacuation right as I was doing a panel on Leiji Matsumoto. Staff immediately got on directing people down the stairs and out of the building. Thousands of anime nerds made it outside just in time to see the fireworks from PNC Park. It was pretty magical. Then everybody came back inside (complete with a Daniel Bryan "Yes!" chant) and staff had to hold everybody on a bridge in David Lawrence Convention Center while they got the convention floor ready. This could have been a disaster, but we weren't waiting more than ten minutes before the con resumed. I went to con ops, which was already up and running, to see if I could get my panel rescheduled for the next day. I couldn't. You would have never known they'd just led an emergency evacuation, that's how professional they were. Amazing, especially considering so many on the staff are college kids. Competent staff can make or break a con, and these ones made it.

My Matsumoto panel getting scheduled at 10pm was kind of weird. Its a panel on old school anime and gender roles, not really conducive for the J-pop rave and porn that occupies that hour. Strangely, the evacuation actually helped, as my audience quintupled afterward.

In other nerd news: The new Star Wars trailer looks great. I noticed they focused a lot on the characters, both old and new. I noticed they didn't focus on CGI cartoons, not so subtly letting everyone know the mistakes of the prequels would not be repeated. I didn't like that J.J. Abrams used Star Trek as his demo reel for Star Wars, but they seem to be making all the right moves so far. I'm also genuinely intrigued by Justin Lin bringing his diversity-minded sensibility to Star Trek. I might have to start watching both series again.

Synchronicity. I did a panel on anime and black culture. I was inspired to do it by the police murder of Darrien Hunt, an otaku who got shot in the back by police for cosplaying. And I began to wonder what draws black folks to anime, product of a culture as racist as our own. The intersections between our culture and Japanese culture are just so myriad. Tekko had an educational panel track this year called Tekko Gakkou, which I got into.

I had an hour and a half for the panel and I was the only panelist, seeing as how I live in California and don't know too many otaku in Pittsburgh. This was not what I wanted, to sit up there alone and pretend like I am the All-knowing Authority on Blackness. I was thinking of just picking some people from the audience to come up and riff with me.

On the Wednesday before the con, I did a reading at the Cyberpunk Apocalypse. It went well. Beer, wine, sausage, poetry, etc. Only complaint is that Pittsburgh was too damn cold to be having an outside reading like that. I told someone at the reading what I was in town for and she said one of her advisee's at Pitt was doing his senior thesis on anime.

My response: "Hook it up."

I ended up doing the panel with Tom Bautista and it went great. He's doing his senior thesis on representations of blackness in Afro Samurai. Really smart guy; it was cool to give him that space to share his work. I went first, with some historical info on how anime has influenced black culture, and the other way around. Then Tom got into his part. The discussion afterward dealt a lot with what the audience got out of anime, how black people have related to it, and anime fandom as a potentially anti-racist space. Between AWP and Tekko, I spent two straight weekends in the company of brilliant black people having serious discussions. No complaints.

Okay, racism. I can still complain about that.

All geek culture is together now. When I was doing cons, plenty of people cosplayed western characters. But I genuinely feel in our globalized world that it all occupies the same space. You can put your Frozen meme on Tumblr right next to your Naruto one. Or combine them. I went to two panels celebrating the ridiculous of 80s cartoons and none felt out of place. I think all cons now are multimedia cons, no matter their specified purpose.

I met a girl who referred to the Nintendo Gamecube as something from the early days of gaming. I told her I had an original NES. She had no idea what I was talking about.

Cons are the realm of the imagination. I attended a panel where a bunch of college kids sat up front pretending to be characters from Attack on Titan. The audience asked them questions based on the anime. What is more fun than pretending to be a cartoon character? It was nerdy and niche and entirely worthless if you're not a fan of the show, but it's all good. I noticed the girl playing Sasha stayed in character the whole time. Kudos to her.

On that matter, there were AoT cosplayers everywhere. I was always interested by the uniform aspect of cosplay, especially military ones. Once upon a time everybody cosplayed Full Metal Alchemist, and when you saw somebody else in the blue military uniform you were automatically in a brotherhood. Now you can join the AoT army. When I cosplayed, I made a lot of friends cosplaying Naruto. The popular anime of the day creates an instant bond between cosplayers that goes beyond apreciation of the show.

Cosplay has gotten really good. With the internet, there's fame and fortune for those who do great costumes, and you'll see a flurry of professional quality outfits at any con. Get on enough Tumblr posts and you're a celebrity cosplayer. AMVs are also really good, with the editing software to seamlessly splice all kinds of stuff together.

I had four panels crammed into Saturday afternoon and evening. There was a ton of interesting panels about gender, doll-making, translation, video game design, fashion . . . so much educational stuff. I went to an awesome one about wielding a katana where the audience got to go up and practice in the end. (With wooden practice swords.) Just fun paneling all around.

Anime fandom is queer, sexually deviant, kinky, bi, trans, lez, sadist, masochist, furry and pony, and I would have it no other way. I definitely saw a girl cosplaying the Nazi fetish furry slave from Hellsing. There were your requisite gay girls cosplaying gay boys. There were your standard femme boy ravers in fishnet shirts. I'm trying to remember if I saw a single male cosplay Levi from AoT. Otaku subculture has always been welcoming to different lifestyles, and provides a friendly space for queer kids to celebrate queerness in all its yaoi/yuri/beyond iterations. For many kids, cons are their only safe space for some healthy genderbending.

What I found interesting was how kids (and yes, I mean teenagers) were dressing in some very fetishy costumes. It was like Folsom Street Fair: PG Edition. I'm betting many of them will get into kink as they get older, with anime as their gateway. And I wonder if they're fully aware of the sexual aspect, or if it's more about dress-up at that age.

Anime is really normal now. The popular new show is about Satan working at a McDonald's. It's called The Devil is a Part Timer. And I'm thinking: so Satan is in this. At what point does he die and get resurrected as a sex slave for an evil warlord who cuts off his hands and feet so he can walk on all fours like a dog? I think a lot of otaku nowadays would vomit at the weird shit I grew up on.

Oh yeah! I almost forgot you weren't allowed bags in the dealer room. Somebody said you had to check your bag and it was $12 and there was a long line to do so. Fuck that. I carried my bag all weekend.

Also, Tekko needs to do day passes again. Fifty bucks isn't steep for me, especially since the panelists got reimbursed. The day pass exists so kids without tons of cash, and who have school on Friday, can still have a solid day at the con. It could be that only weekend passes cover the rent at the convention center, but its still unfortunate.

Anime cons basically exist for young people to have fun, and that's what happened at Tekko. Not much has really changed since my con-going days, including the requisite scene drama that people would mutter about over the course of the weekend. Friends having falling outs, sleeping with each other's boyfriends, hating somebody for winning some cosplay award, etc. I was never into con drama, as I go to these things to have a good time. The drama feels oddly quaint and fun because the stakes are so low. It seems less like a stressful thing and more like a feature of the space.

Good lord, I wrote a lot. It feels good. Hopefully, generations to come with be finding their imagination stirred by the art of Japanese animation. I know I have.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chapter 115: In Which I Discuss the Myth of White Male Meritocracy

I just got back from AWP in Minneapolis. Had an amazing time, as usual. It's funny about AWP. Every year I do the same thing. Go to readings, speeches, panels, old friends, new friends, drink. This might have been the best year because I had a hotel and got to fully experience the conference. But no year feels any better or worse than another. It is all a blur of activity that's over too fast. I'm starting to think AWP exists outside of time, like a perpetual conference that takes place over an endless weekend in a pocket universe into which I periodically materialize.

Mark-out moment: getting a hug from Pulitzer nominee/dragon highlord Karen Russell.  "Keep writing weird," she told me. Yes, Karen. I will do that.

So, onto less fun topics. Puppygate. Black Gate Magazine has a pretty nice writeup of the controversy.

Basically, a cabal of straight white male Republican writers decided the Hugo Awards have been hijacked by a leftwing conspiracy. According to them, this is the cause for stories with progressive topics winning Hugos over the last few years, as opposed to changing readership. As a response, they hijacked the Hugo nominations and filled it with candidates of their choosing.

Writers far more eloquent and experienced with the Hugos than I have debunked their conspiracy theories. Not like it matters, because talk of making the Hugos more "diverse" and fighting a "leftist" agenda is all poppycock. Simply put, some people who weren't supposed to get through the gate got through anyway, so the gatekeepers are closing it again.

The rhetoric of straight white males is strangely steeped in victimhood and this weird idea of them being the little guy. The dialogue from the Puppies side certainly reminds me of the Tea Party rhetoric from a few years ago. A lot of whining about big government coming to oppress them. The Tea Party was a scam, a Republican get-out-the-vote campaign disguised as grassroots organizing, appealing to those whites who think they are "losing everything."

As Chris Rock said, if they're losing everything, then who has it? 'Cause it sure ain't us.

What we have here are straight white males, a.k.a. the people who run the publishing industry, asserting their dominance over the marginalized. It all comes down to fear. In a way, they are the little guy. In the acronym SWM, the S is the only letter connotating a majority. So much of white supremacy stems from them knowing they're surrounded and acting out of fear.

In reading the Black Gate article, I was struck by the language of the Sad Puppies side. I am not going to quote because I don't want to read that shit again. One was the SWM language of false equality. At the suggestion that Hugo voters will No Award their nominations and nullify the entire ballot, Vox Day claims this is an extremist thing, and it is up to the "other side" to "negotiate."

Like Israelis killing thousands of Palestinian children while getting double digit casualties is a "war." Like a photo of a black boy hugging a cop means there is hope for reconciliation between our two sides. Like everybody is on the same footing. Painting the oppressed as a rival power instead of the underdog is a key trick of the oppressor. And Day's insistence that his side is winning smacked of demagoguery.

What I found most interesting was the notion of "deserving." Did Resdshirts "deserve" best novel? Did Rachel Swirsky's  dinosaur story (which conservatives hate) "deserve" best story. He's talking issues of meritocracy in a fan-based scifi/fantasy award.

That Rachel Swirsky, man. If only she'd pull her pants up and start speaking correct English, maybe she'd get somewhere in life. But you had to give her a Hugo handout and now she'll never go away.

America is based around the notion of meritocracy and it's a complete myth. It's easier for a SWM to succeed when the whole system is made for him to do so. Ironically, meritocracy becomes real when applied to the marginalized. To get a dark-skinned man in the Oval Office required him being the most amazing negro who ever lived. His predecessor was actually sold as "the guy you want to have a beer with." Mediocrity was his marketing point. Bush had everything handed to him from the moment he was born but in the eyes of his supporters he's a bootstraps story.

Their ancestors created a world in which they can coast. I am assuming that most white male writers, no matter how bad their elementary school, were not criminalized from a young age. I would wager they were given the tools for success and had a support network on their way to publishing. I'm guessing they never had to worry about police gunning them down in their own neighborhood. But so many are told from the beginning that they are a badass who can do anything and internalize the myth of work and reward. Really, their forefather who shot that Native American is the one with claim to badassery. What we call merit in America is actually inheritance.

And it isn't just related to POC. Gamergate was structured around slut-shaming a female journalist for who she slept with. You now what? I don't care. Plenty of people move up in their industry because of who their friends are (again ,the myth of meritocracy). Mark Zuckerberg is an industrious dude, but he had the right friends. Being rich, white, and going to Harvard also helped. Whether or not he slept with the Winklevoss twins is irrelevant to the fact he had them in his corner in order to start Facebook. But with a woman, all of a sudden her sex life is the biggest part of the argument against her.

I went to Day's website once and had to leave quickly at the echo chamber of mouth-breathing and hatemongering. This is the troll who called N.K. Jemisin a "savage." Her response was far nicer than mine would have been. The Hugos are officially about straight white men versus everybody else. But they always have been. When it was only SWM on the ballot (plus or minus a lightskinned black man or a woman writing under a male pseudonym), science fiction imprints like Ace and Ballantine were highly exclusionary as to who they published. The war was going on, just not out in the open. Puppygate is not an uprising but the status quo trying to protect its spot.

And I wish I could say it's not important, but it is. Look at South Carolina. If you remove the voices of marginalized people, it is easier to dehumanize them. Shoot them down in the woods like deer. If we don't express our truth, someone else with no emotional investment will do it for us. Literary awards factor into this. Toni Morrison's Pulitzer. Jhumpa Lahiri's Pultizer. Their stories are part of the global consciousness.

Even in defending their position, people like the Sad Puppies can't set it outside of political arguments. This is about diversity in the Hugos. The storm of misogynist rape and death threats last year was (in)famously softpedaled as being about "ethics in game journalism." None of this has to do with life and death matters. These trolls could walk away form the internet and their lives would go on as before. They could simply read the books they like and not care about awards and they'd be fine.

But for POC, visibility is about life. Things suck, but not as much as when we had no voice. The blues happened, then rock'n'roll, and all of a sudden black people had access they never had before. In the long run, whites benefited more from the music. But what we were doing was expressing our humanity, reacting to oppression. And doors opened. For artists of color, the political is entirely personal.

Of course, there are those who want to close the doors. As the saying goes, that seat on the front of the bus was leading us straight to a prison cell. It will be interesting to see how Worldcon voters react, and what the atmosphere at the con is like. I often debate how much I want to engage in scifi fandom. Sometimes I go to cons and do panels, but the idea of struggling against men like the Sad Puppies for a spot in their world sounds stupid. Better to just write stories and get them out to my audience, while staying away from places like Worldcon. Better to burn it down and make something new.

What's a nerd to do? I find my joy in anime fandom. This weekend, I'm doing four panels at Tekkoshocon in Pittsburgh. Anime is a truly international art form that people around the globe  celebrate. It is a youth-oriented fandom, with few of the intergenerational battles you see in scifi/fantasy spaces. Anime has always been a friendly space to females and LGBT. Yes, the art form itself comes from a culture that racially oppressed most of Asia, and there are problematic elements. But the moment a cartoon leaves Japan, it becomes part of the world, loved by people of all colors. Anime fandom is far from perfect, but it sure as hell ain't the shitstorm of this Sad Puppies thing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On Anime Conventions, Part 2

Otakon 1999

Otakon was the first convention I ever went to. I ran upon an ad for it randomly while surfing the net and saw that it was that very weekend. Needless to say, the fact that they had conventions for ANIME blew my mind. I knew they did it for comics and scifi, but anime? This was new to me and I was beyond hyped.

This was shortly after my freshman year of high school and I had yet to assemble an otaku crew. Hell, the name otaku itself had yet to gain the cultural cache it would among US anime fans. It was weird to find a convention called otakon, as in a con of otaku, as in a con of desperate nerds. As to not be wandering around Baltimore by myself, a called up a kid named Darrell who I didn't know very well, but knew he was into that anime stuff.

ME: Dude! You're not gonna believe it! They have conventions! For anime! This is gonna rawk!

Darrell came over on a Saturday and my mom drove us two miles from Montgomery County to Baltimore. It was my first time that I can recall visiting America's most famous hood city, which didn't seem so scary when hanging around the Inner Harbor. Otakon was a strange, overwhelming thing for someone who'd never been to an anime con before. Even back then, it was crowded, stuffed full of panels and more things to do than my mind could track. I remember you could get a day pass back then. I also remember the lines being short, in contrast to the four-hour mire they would turn into over the next few years.

There were a lot of Final Fantasy 7 cosplayers, as it had recently bridged the gap between anime and games. Most of the cosplay was pretty obscure, as there weren't a lot of mega-popular shows at the time. There was certainly more cosplay of 1970s properties like Yamato than you see nowadays. The Ota-Cafe with its daylong karaoke was a great idea. Whenever we got bored, we just went and watched more karaoke. I wanted to go to every panel possible, whether it was voice acting or model kits or an academic treatise on Evangelion. I was already drifting away from video games but played with other otaku in the game room nonetheless. Me and Darrell were basically running around the whole time, trying to fit in as much anime-related sights as possible.

The big deal that year was a performance from Yoko Kanno, who I'd never heard of, but had nerd popularity from scoring some ridiculous-sounding show called Cowboy Bebop. Even then, she was accomplished from shows like Escaflowne, so getting her to come was pretty special. Sad I missed her.

Ota had a good sized dealers room with a bunch of obscure stuff. In those days, the dealers room had stuff that you simply couldn't get anywhere else, so it felt like finding a treasure trove. And it was priced like treasure. The cost of a single J-pop CD made my brain bleed. With my limited amount of spending money, I bought a Satoshi Urushihara art book. Also known as: porn. Ah, the good old days when nobody checked IDs for anything.

The best part was making a new friend and bonding over this obscure thing we liked. And it set the template for the next few years, when Otakon or Katsucon was the reason to load everybody in someone's mom's van and go be ourselves a while.

In a twist straight out of an 80s movie, while I was having fun, my mom and little sister got lost driving around the Baltimore ghetto. When it came time to leave, I called her on a payphone, during which she told me she'd seen a man with a penis wrapped around his neck. I'm guessing said phallus was fake. Anyways, my mother was distressed. When I asked if we could stay longer, she emphatically said no.

It's interesting looking back at photos from then, because Ota 99 wasn't very crowded. For one of the biggest cons in America, there weren't huge numbers. Around 4,500. In fact, it only took up half the convention center, the other half hosting a Muslim convention. But at the time, it felt like an otaku tsunami. In fact, I was at the cusp of what would be an explosion in anime fandom, and the numbers would only increase.

Monday, March 30, 2015

On Anime Conventions, Part 1

I used to go to a lot of anime conventions. From 1999 to 2013, I attended at least fifty. I've been a fan, a staffer, and a panel participant. And lately I've been thinking about this, because I'll be doing panels at this yea's Tekkoshocon.

This is also the most personal I'll get in a blog post. Memoir has never been my thing--I enjoy looking at life experience through the lens of fiction. But this particular important part of my life is probably something I'll never write fiction on. There's thousands of con reports online that go into the good and bad of every convention held since the start of the millennium. That's not what this is. I'd like to look at what anime fandom meant for me growing up.

The storytelling in anime influenced my outlook on life from an early age, and certainly influences my writing. When I was a kid, MTV used to show reruns of Speed Racer. I thought the show was cheesy (because it was), and paled next to kewl cartoons like The Maxx, Beavis and Butt-head and Aeon Flux. This was long before I knew where animators like Peter Chung were taking their influence. Or that Nickelodeon cartoons like Maya the Bee and Adventures of the Little Koala were anime. I had always loved cartoons. Even today I'll sit down for some Daffy Duck or Tom & Jerry. The medium is amazing. Anything can happen. I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up.

I don't know when my actual initiation to anime was, but I believe it was watching Vampire Hunter D on TNT one weekend at my Aunt Barbara's house. This was the Streamline Pictures dub, so the voices were obnoxious, and I'm sure it was edited. But the visuals! The action! And the story! It was complex for a cartoon, a series of crosses and double-crosses. Ever character had their own game they were playing. I could relate to Rei Gansi's desire for immortality, or Lamica's desire to keep her bloodline pure. And then the poor thing finds out she's a half-breed? Lawdamercy! And these were the villains! On the flip side, I hated Greco. Couldn't wait for him to die.

In other words, I was invested. This was epic fantasy. A far cry from American cartoons at the time, which were uniformly toy commercials.

By the way, and this has been confirmed by other otaku I've met, the event horizon of American cartoon awfulness has a name. It's called Inspector Gadget. I would sit there watching Nickelodeon's endless reruns, thinking: how come the plot never moves forward? How come Dr. Claw doesn't just have him shot, if they're mortal enemies? How come he can't solve a case without Penny and Brain? And if they're really the heroes, why is Inspector Gadget there? Why am I watching a show about an idiot who can't do his job?

Another seminal piece for me was Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer. I watched a lot of the movie adaptations of American cartoons. It was hard not to. I saw Star Stealer at least ten times on cable because my parents simply plopped me down in front of HBO. It is the only 80s cartoon movie I can sit through nowadays, besides the Care Bears movies. I'm sure there are a million blogs about those films, but good lord were they dark. In the first one they fight the Necronomicon. The second is a children's version of Paradise Lost. Whoever made those films zeroed in on the weird religious aspect of the franchise, and bless 'em for it.

But back to Star Stealer. It's an all-around fun movie. There's also some cool cross-genre stuff, with the color-loving kewpie doll/kami/pagan nature goddess going on a scifi adventure. There's a strong female protagonist and antagonist. Plus, it's pretty dark. Imperialism, resource depletion, slavery. Rainbow Brite deals with it all. On top of that, she blows the villainess to smithereens. They later retconned this in the series, which doesn't change the fact that somebody thought it perfectly fine for the child protagonist to off the Dark Princess. Star Stealer isn't just animated in Japan. It's an anime.

I got to witness the ascension of anime's popularity, from roughly 1995 to 2005. Before school, there was Sailor Moon (which I didn't get then, but get now). There was Samurai Pizza Cats, a goofy cartoon that actually had plot twists and stakes and a three act arc with an ending. Sometime in elementary school, I watched Akira, and it was a wrap. As I've mentioned before, thank Paladine my dad thought all cartoons were for kids. Because that poor man definitely rented me hentai when I was eleven years old. You really could just go to the Animation section and grab a copy of Urotsukidoji. Nobody working there had a clue it was porn.

Then again, so much of '80s and '90s anime is straight B-movie. That's why I like it. I like that if I feel like vegging out I can pop Plastic Little in the VCR. No thinking required. In fact, thinking is discouraged.

In the midst of garbage OVAs, I found Akira, which up to that point was the most epic movie I'd ever seen. Akira was the face of anime for about a decade, probably because otaku of my generation had such low expectations, then this epic and beautiful cyberpunk film comes along to blow us away. The name Katsuhiro Otomo had so much otaku leverage we were watching crap like Harmaggeddon just to get a piece of that Akira magic.

I would buy videogame magazines to look at the artwork for whatever new RPGs were coming out on the SNES. I was entranced by these colorful characters: big-eyed, blond (or blue) haired Japanese people with crazy costumes. It was like a window to a secret world.

In middle school there was the original Toonami with its million-year-old reruns of Voltron and Thundercats. Then they reran the first two Robotech series. Also, during this time, Princess Mononoke got a wide release from Disney. Gundam Wing premiered and I found a bunch of other kids who were into it. We would discuss the latest episode in the foreign language hall of my high school before class. This was my first taste of an anime community.

If you were a nerdy kid at the turn of the century, it was hard not to be an otaku. Masterpieces were coming to our shores at a rapid pace. Cowboy BebopGhost in the Shell: Stand Alone ComplexSamurai ChamplooParanoia AgentJin-Roh. Witch Hunter RobinInuyasha (yes, asshole, I consider Inuyasha a masterpiece). Spirited Away. Roughly 1995 to 2005 was the rise of anime in the US. I paid for those $20 VHS dubs at Suncoast. Worth every penny. We were also seeing the beginning of what would become the dominance of videogames, and I played Final Fantasy VII just like everybody else. The Final Fantasy series basically became an anime in it's subsequent releases, with mostly bad results, but that's another story.

I admit, the foreignness was part of the appeal. Imagine watching Project A-Ko as an 11-year-old. It was like stumbling upon a piece of extraterrestrial technology. Oh, the movie works if you understand the pop culture references and have some cultural context. But at that point, the giant robots and blue hair and big muscly dudes in schoolgirl outfits was just bizarre. And why are all the girls in sailor uniforms? I honestly didn't know what to make of it, which was part of the appeal.

Besides cultural differences, a lot of anime at the time was just weird. Mad Bull 34? Crying Freeman? Angel Cop? ANGEL COP??!! These bizarre crime story-horror-porno-scifi hybrids where everything popular at the time is pushed into a blender. I don't think Violence Jack could even get made nowadays. Anime of the time had a prominent nihilistic streak, a fatalism that can only come from a country that had two nukes dropped on it. Even a piece of crap like M.D. Geist has an overall mood of darkness and despair I couldn't help but find intriguing.

I got introduced to fandom even before I found anime. When we were kids, my little sister started reading comic books. I would read hers, which pissed her off. She was pretty possessive about most things. Eventually, she stopped reading series like Archie's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I kept it up. Every month I spent my dad's money to pick up a new issue at the newsstand in Monroeville. My parents divorced when I was seven, which was the start of a prolonged period of depression for me. My dad quickly caught on that comic books were one of the few things that made me happy. He started taking me to the Pittsburgh Comic-con.

It's insane to think how young I was, running around the Monroeville Expomart, buying old Elfquests and paying dudes for their self-published comics. At this point, kids had new distractions, and comic books were becoming the domain of hobbyists. So most of the people there were grown men. I was maybe seven or eight. Somewhere, I have a panel of original art from Scott McDaniel. Somehow, his work called out to me. This was long before I became a true fan from his work on Nightwing. He was a struggling artist running his commission table, and I was a child, and we met. Pretty cool.

In the mid-90s, the only manga to be found on a regular basis were Ninja High SchoolGold Digger, and Usagi Yojimbo; cutesy big-eyed characters wedged between all the Liebfeld big muscle-little head stuff that even as a kid I thought looked pretty stupid. These were manga-influenced American comics. The original stuff was a beautiful mystery, smuggled across borders and translated by fans in their basements. One cool thing about the Pittsburgh Comic-Con is that it had BOOTLEGS. They had all sorts of geeky giant robot shows long before anyone licensed them. I figure the internet's killed the trade show market, even for unlicensed subs. But in those days, the dealers room was the appeal. I went to the Comic-Con year after year, knowing I could find anything in those cardboard boxes.

So I was already familiar with the idea of geek community, even if I didn't have one of my own. There were only a few kids I could talk with about these obsessions. The instant camaraderie of Twitter and Tumblr wasn't around then and I was too young to know of things like listservs and message boards.

But I did read about something called Otakon.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Chapter 114: In Which I Discuss Last Year's Wrestlemania

I've been a pro wrestling fan for a long time. Some of my fondest memories involve watching WWF Superstars with my little sister. It seemed like any Saturday morning show, with sneering villains and larger-than-life heroes. The All-American Lex Luger was going against the "Japanese" heel Yokozuna and I could not wait for Luger to slam him. It was like watching WMAC Masters, only with less reruns.

However, I was only getting half the story. Eventually, I discovered Monday Night Raw, which during the mid-90s was going through a strange transition. You had Bret Hart, a champion who was heel in America and face everywhere else. His main enemies were a trash-talking Texas redneck and a male stripper. The show felt gritty and adult and scrappy. It seemed like they scripted on the fly, two hours of chaos flying at the screen. I loved it.

The WWF's programming grew along with me, so I started high school right at the start of the Attitude Era. I had a pretty diverse group of friends, and it seemed the unifying factor was that EVERYBODY loved wrestling. The question was who was your favorite. Mine was Chris Benoit, who I respected for his technique and showmanship. He could get a good match out of anybody and knew counters to more moves than I could keep track of. I loved that floppy arm swinging he would do to get out of the Walls of Jericho. Anyways, I had a friend who loved Jericho, another who marked for Too Cool/Rikishi, another who loved American Badass-era Undertaker, and another who adored the Hardy Boyz like they were the Backstreet Boys.

In short, I've been a wrestling fan a long time, but the love is waning. Occasionally I'll watch Lucha Underground or a Ring of Honor match. The WWE is really bad now. Monday Night Raw hasn't been must-see TV in years, but I read the recaps, and their Road to Wrestlemania that started with the Royal Rumble has been a legendary bedshitting. So awful that it's actually entertaining to read about just to see how far they'll go to disappoint their fans. From Roman Reigns getting booed at the Royal Rumble to his laughable tug o' war with Brock Lesnar on Monday, the WWE has done everything to seemingly kill interest in the show. The only feud they haven't messed up is the Cena/Rusev Rocky IV retread, which will end with Cena winning, and Rusev getting shunted down the card until they eventually fire him. I can't get excited about somebody losing his job.

Wrestlemania is in the Bay this year and I wouldn't go if somebody gave me a free ticket. So I'll write about last year's Wrestlemania.

At the time, the WWE’s attempt to push Daniel Bryan from the main event was frustrating, maddening. And downright bizarre. A multi-million dollar company was actively trying to make the audience not cheer for its most popular performer. What other business punishes a guy for being too good at his job? The fans rebelled, hijacking multiple Monday Night Raws with "Dan-iel Bry-an" chants.

When Batista won the Royal Rumble, I was considering selling my ticket. They had no plans for Bryan and it looked like the main event was going to be a heel vs. heel trainwreck between Batista and Orton. Then the company followed the fan response, turned Batista heel, and put Bryan in the main event via a people power storyline taken straight out of the Occupy Movement.

In short, the WWE was ready to have an awful Wrestlemania, and the fans forced them to have a good one.

Bryan's twisting road to the championship had some truly great moments. For instance, they tried to de-push him by making him join the Wyatt Family. Making your most popular performer into a midcarder's henchman is, of course, a recipe for disaster. When the fans still cheered him, he turned on Wyatt, leading to this exhilarating cage confrontation and the electrifying crowd reaction.

Goosebumps. Then there was also the go-home show before 'Mania, which didn’t end in a preschool tug o' war, but an epic beatdown on his arch-nemesis Triple H.

Bryan Danielson had an organic rise to the top of the card that was exhilarating to watch. A lot of the time, the WWE insists on forcing things, and it ends up terrible. For instance, they tried to turn CM Punk heel when the audience wasn't ready. So you have him doing increasingly dastardly stuff trying to make people hate him, including insulting the dead, and he gets cheered like Hogan. All through his heel run, he looked uncomfortable, exhausted, and over it . . . which he was. Punk left the company within the year.

Now they're pushing Roman Reigns as the next big face before he's ready and he's getting boos. Getting force-pushed to the top of the card exposed all his flaws as a performer. They wanted a new Cena, and right it's looking like they'll get a new Orton or Batista. A self-entitled douchebag heel who can't play face, gets never-ending title shots, and doesn't draw.

I'm a fan of Bryan Danielson because he is the best wrestler. Keeping in mind that wrestling is not just about technical ability, but mic skills, in-ring psychology, and whatever intangible quality draws an audience. Danielson went to Japan and became the best shoot-style wrestler. In Ring of Honor he became the best indie wrestler. Then he went to WWE. Not every indie guy can succeed in that environment. AJ Styles is on Bryan's level but could never work under those restrictions. CM Punk was a main event guy but he never seemed comfortable with the company’s politics and PG style. Watching him try to do promos about how much he likes “crazy chicks” was just painful.

Danielson, on the other hand, proved to be the total package. They wanted him to work WWE style, and he narrowed his vast repertoire of moves to a few hard-hitting crowd-pleasers. They wanted him to do comedy, and he excelled in an odd couple tag team with Kane. They wanted a heel, and he gave them a detestable asshole who berated his nerdy girlfriend. They wanted a face and he gave them the ultimate underdog. They wanted catchphrases, so he gave them the most popular catchphrase of the modern era.

If Danielson went to Canada, he'd out-grapple everybody. If he put on a mask and went to Mexico, he'd out-flippydoodle the luchadores. If he wrestled bears like they did in the carny days, he'd grow his beard even more to be the hairiest person in the ring. The man set out to be the best wrestler in the world and he succeeded.

The fans respected him because he put his all into entertaining them. I had not seen that kind of organic growth of a superstar in a long time, nor somebody with that level of crowd connection. And Danielson's rise gave testament to what the WWE provides that no other wrestling company can: scale. Danielson's matches in Ring of Honor may be better than his current work on a technical level, but cannot contend with the electricity of a whole arena chatting "Yes!" And it’s made better by how unassuming he looks. The guy is a bearded vegan from Washington State. With a few turns in his life story, he would have ended up a barista at the Red and Black Cafe in Portland, instead of just looking like one. But this guy is the best on Earth.

At this time last year, I was living three hours from New Orleans. Not only was Wrestlemania in my backyard, but I had a ready crew of smarky fans to go with. I even contributed to a prediction article, which is embarrassing to read because of how smarky I was trying to be:

Could I have dropped any more obscure references? Fuck is wrong with me? The best part is that their picture for that smark-fest was Randy Orton putting Cena in a chinlock. Anyway, I bought my Wrestlemania ticket when Danielson was in the main event, though they were trying to push him down the card with regular ambush beatdowns from Orton and various Triple H cronies. This "evil authority figure" mess the WWE loves is so bollocks and kills my suspension of disbelief. Daniel Bryan is being bullied by his boss at work. The head booker is interfering in his matches. Why doesn't he report these people to the Athletic Commission? Problem solved. Ugh. So they got Bryan out of the main event entirely. My hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, proved our awesomeness by shitting all over the Royal Rumble. They put Danielson back in. For the first time in a long time, I was invested in a wrestling storyline. I told my students at UL-Lafayette not to come to class on Monday. I went to New Orleans.

Walking downtown from the Greyhound station, I started to feel the magic. They were people everywhere in their old Attitude-era shirts. I saw a fat guy with a beard cosplaying Bray Wyatt (which turned out to be the go-to costume for fat guys with beards that year). I passed a lady in a bar who was excited she saw Curtis Axel. It was the same feeling of going to a large anime convention. Wrestling fans had taken over the city, and I was among my people. I had plans to attend the indie shows around town.

A good friend of mine in New Orleans was French. Several people in our circle were going to 'Mania, leaving her in the unenviable position of being surrounded by wrestling fans talking esoteric stuff.

HER: I don't know anything about wrestling.

ME: You're from France.

HER: Oui.

ME: Andre the Giant?

HER: Who is that?

I was aghast. They don’t teach Andre in schools over there? He’s the most important French person since Jeanne D’Arc. Being with her made the weekend more interesting, serving as a foreigner's guide to this incredibly American art form. I explained to her the histories behind the various wrestlers. She said it sounded like a soap opera, which was funny because we weren't even talking about the storylines, but the wrestlers' real lives.

ME: So, you see, Bret wouldn't give up the title because he didn't want to lose to Shawn in Canada. 'Cause Shawn was a diva who faked injuries so he wouldn't have to lose to Bret. So Shawn put him in the Sharpshooter . . .

HER: What?

ME: It's a submission move. And Vince had them ring the bell so Bret had to give up the belt before he left for WCW and he should have been the top guy in WCW but Hulk Hogan used politics to keep him down. And Bret might have patched things up with the WWF earlier but then they kinda killed his brother.

HER: Wait? How do you kill somebody in wrestling? I thought it was fake.

ME: No, he really died. They tried to lower him from the ceiling and the harness broke and he died.

HER: . . .

Of the myriad wrestling shows that weekend, we saw Kaiju Big Battle, which was great, and Shimmer Women's Wresting, which was AMAZING. Anybody whose only seen the mediocre women's division on WWE owes it to themselves to check out Shimmer. Here's a review of the weekend and all the shows that were going on.

Both events took place at Tulane University, in a ring on the edge of the stage. When one of the women wrestlers almost got knocked to the outside apron, people in the audience started shouting at her to be careful, because there was a good chance of falling to the theatre floor. I think both shows had the same announcer, a hard-working guy named Reese or Royce, something like that. 

The unsung hero of that weekend was Diamond Dallas Page. His yoga practice is credited with saving Scott Hall and Jake Roberts, both of whom were inducted to the Hall of Fame that year. A friend of mine went to DDP Yoga and said it was inspiring. It sounded to me like the aggro-yoga that’s popular in the Bay, but with a wrestler shouting motivational bon mots at you. Page is living proof that a wrestler can go gracefully into retirement, and build something for himself along the way.

We watched the Hall of Fame inductions before we went to Wrestlemania. Seeing Jake the Snake accept the induction was a moment no rambling Mister T monologue could diminish. The last time I saw Jake was when I was a boy watching Beyond the Mat with my dad and little sister. He was a wreck, an absentee father, a drug addict. Beyond the Mat was my introduction to the dark side of pro wrestling; Jake’s tragedy, Terry Funk’s addiction to the spotlight, juxtaposed with the limelight of the WWF. And even as I thrilled to see Stone Cold or Road Dogg or The Rock in a movie, I cringed as Mick Foley took all those chair shots to the head. Now, here was Jake, one of the survivors, getting a well-deserved accolade for all he brought to the business.   

I went with a crew of fans to the show. In our group was a Sensational Sherrie cosplayer, a Million Dollar Man, Vickie Guerrero, Jeff Hardy, and Jake the Snake. I had been watching a lot of 1980s Jim Crockett Promotions shows and wanted to do a Four Horseman-era Ric Flair costume, complete with feathered wig, but didn’t have the time or money. Maybe for Halloween, since I don’t see myself going to another Wrestlemania any time soon.

The show itself? Amazing. After all the twists and turns, the crowd was ready to see Daniel Bryan win the championship. But with it came uncertainty. They tried to bury him in real life. Would this insane company and its senile owner stick it to the fans one last time and destroy their own show just to prove they were in charge? This was edge-of-your-seat theatre and I loved it.

Hulk Hogan came out and thought he was in the Silverdome. No amount of nostalgia can make me cheer for Hogan. A few months before, he’d finished flushing TNA Wrestling down the toilet like he did WCW. That man is the boil on the ass of professional wrestling. However, I did sing along to “Real American,” which is catchy as hell. Anyway, Hogan said he was in the Silverdome, twice. Then Stone Cold came out, and The Rock, and it was a fun segment for us “old school” fans. Austin hardly ever does events anymore, so seeing him was a treat. When I heard that Hogan was going to be host for Wrestlemania 30, I was afraid they’d have him involved, but they actually played it smart and kept his bullshit to a minimum.

Bryan beat Triple H in the first match to earn his spot in the title match. Triple H is an egotistical prick but he has a good mind for wrestling, playing up his reputation of burying other wrestlers. He even said that, if he won, he’d put himself in the title match. In other words, he did his best to create uncertainty based on his real life antics. Do you, dear reader, know who Triple H is? All you need to know is he’s a douchebag second-tier guy who has a lot of backstage power and uses it to make himself look good. The match was really tense. Afterward was the obligatory beatdown to “injure” Bryan’s shoulder and create tension for the final match.

I loved seeing the Shield squash the New Age Outlaws in the time it took to take a piss. Good booking. If you're going to have the Outlaws in a match at all, don't even pretend they can hang with the younger guys. The Andre the Giant Battle Royal was the big surprise of the night. I’d always respected Antonio Cesaro for his strength and charisma, but didn't expect to see him get such a big win. Watching him body slam the Big Show out the ring LIVE was an unforgettable moment. I asked the person next to me when we were going to see Dolph Ziggler oversell, to which she pointed out that he'd been lying on his back, dramatically clinging to the bottom rope for, like, ten minutes. Gotta love Ziggler. I also liked how they let Kofi bring his Royal Rumble “do some acrobatic thing to stay in the ring” spot to Wrestlemania. He earned it.

The Wyatt Family was popular in New Orleans, as Louisiana is the center of all things swampy/supernatural/bearded. Seeing his song played live was awesome and the crowd clapped along. This match was the one stumble of ‘Mania. Windham Rotunda put a ton of effort into reinventing himself from his Husky Harris days. He remade the way he talked, how he moved in the ring, and made a truly compelling character in Bray Wyatt. And there was even great psychology in the match, with Wyatt trying to bring out Cena’s inner monster. Jesus vs. Satan stuff, but Satan should have won. John Cena is more famous for resting on his laurels than any wrestler who ever lived. So the stalest guy beats the freshest guy. A guy in his late 30s goes over a guy in his 20s. It sucked.

Undertaker. The first thing I noticed was how, when the camera was going over the “caskets” of people Undertaker had beat, they skipped CM Punk’s. Burn. Not much to say about the match that hasn't already been said. The people I came with were PISSED about Undertaker's loss. I didn't mind, as the streak was never realistic and he should have retired years ago. If he was going to keep coming back, eventually he’d have to lose. The reason they were mad was because he lost it to Lesnar. Somebody who has stated repeatedly he's in it for the money, the quintessential overpaid part-timer with no respect for the art form. Real life antipathy is legit. I dislike Randy Orton more for him calling Kofi Kingston “stupid” on live TV than for anything he does in his boring matches.

Yes, Lesnar’s mystique from breaking the streak is about to be wasted on Reigns. But I think it was a cool "Your childhood is over" moment. Undertaker doesn’t actually have magical powers. And it was strangely positioned the night after Paul Bearer was inducted posthumously into the HOF, and two days before Ultimate Warrior died. To see Undertaker lose in a match where he looked so obviously old, and his younger opponent was going easy on him, was a nice closing chapter for the zombie sorcerer of the early 90s "New Generation." And if everybody in the Superdome looked speechless on TV, believe me, that’s how it really went down.

I love AJ Lee but went to the bathroom during her match. Next was the title match, where Bryan won in a victory straight out of a Rocky movie. Orton and Batista were in the best form I've seen them, Orton the ruthless heel, Batista the crybaby heel, playing their roles perfectly. The moment Triple H went down to ringside, I pretty much expected a screwjob ending with the whole Kliq swarming in to ensure Bryan lost. But that is what wrestling should do. It should leave you uncertain, on the edge of your seat, like a real sport. And when he won and got the confetti shower, it demonstrated the best of pro wrestling. Bryan Danielson won in the story, but he also won in real life, working his way up to the grandest stage. My crew was a group of 30 to 40-year-old jaded smarks with far better things to do with our lives than watch guys pretend to fight. But we were on our feet chanting “Yes!” if you give people something to believe in, they will believe.

I’m glad I spent my money on a good Wrestlemania. ‘Mania has been bad these last few years, but ‘Mania 30 was a tightly scripted, no frills wrestling show with a clear, well-told story. The Monday Night Raw afterwards was pretty good too. It was long. I can see why nobody watches Raw, which is three hours of commercials. Really wore me down.

The Raw after Wrestlemania has become famous for fans hijacking the show and doing chants that distract from the matches and storylines. What was different this year was the overall vibe. Wrestlemania 28 was a bad show with a bad Raw afterwards. The fans were mad about the company seemingly trying to bury Daniel Bryan so they took over the show. ‘Mania 28 was even worse, with Cena beating The Rock in a match nobody cared about, and a Raw filled with boring and pointless matches. The fans came up with random chants and cheered for Fandango to keep themselves entertained.

‘Mania 30, however, was a good ‘Mania followed by a good Raw. The WWE booked aggressively. They used internet fave Zack Ryder and Wade Barrett for the British fans. Gosh, making your audience happy? Whoda thunk it? They had a long Cena match to tire the fans out from booing. They kept the Orton/Batista/HHH crew limited to short bursts so the fans wouldn't hijack. There were markout moments like Paige winning the championship off of AJ. And they ended with a Shield face turn and Daniel Bryan triumphant.

I decided that would be the WWE “series finale” for me. Freeze frame it on these images. The Shield standing strong as good guys. Daniel Bryan with the crowd behind him. AJ screaming in the middle of the ring, having finally lost the title to a woman just as good as herself. Antonio Cesaro smiling as the crowd hummed his theme song. A happy ending. The WWE could feel free to drop the ball on these wrestlers (as they did), but I wouldn’t spend my time or money witnessing it.

Which doesn't make it any less sad that they de-pushed Bryan upon his return. Right now, he is in the Chris Jericho role: the guy who the fans love, who can be used to build up the next big guy, and plugged into the main event whenever there’s a hole. It’s a lucrative position that will make him a lot of money and security.

But he was meant for greater things. Ironically, even Chris Jericho never deserved the Jericho role. They should have built the company around him at the turn of the century. For political reasons, they built it around the boring Triple H. Viewers tuned out by the millions and the WWE never got them back.

It has been years since I’ve seen a wrestler connect with the crowd like Daniel Bryan. Not since Austin. Benoit was a small, technically gifted guy like him, but he never had Bryan's charisma and mass appeal. I watch wrestling because of performers like him, people who can create the spectacle. Despite his being a draw, the WWE decided to leave all that money on the table because he didn't fit their mold of what a champion looks like. And that's sad. I don't watch wrestling to hear the audience boo supposed faces, or hijack the show with chants about how they are awesome. I watch it to see Austin spray the Corporation with beer. To see The Rock battle Hogan in a clash of titans. The WWE hasn't had a true mega-face since The Rock. Cena hasn't been a face in years. He gets booed in his hometown. After years of mediocrity, they finally had a superstar who everybody could believe in. Old, young, aficionados, and casual viewers. Everybody loves him.

Bryan will be fine. He can do the Jericho role until he retires, with a Bella twin on his arm. If he gets bored, it will be New Japan or UFC. But as a wrestling fan, I will miss the chance to cheer on a megastar in his battle against evil. Witnessing a wrestler who is so good he transcends wrestling. No one in the last 15 years has risen to that level. No one on the horizon will do it. The opportunity was wasted.

After Monday Night Raw in New Orleans, I sat in a ramshackle house in midtown New Orleans, telling my friend about my feelings.

ME: I think I’m finally over wrestling.

HER: I’ve been watching you all weekend. You’re not.

That weekend, there was a sense of the passage of time. Pro wrestling is a sleazy business. It was designed by carnies to scam people, to make money from the self-destruction of young men. And women, as the Fabulous Moolah’s forced prostitution ring shows. My boyhood hero Chris Benoit didn't survive the industry. He was a man who cared little about his well-being, and found promoters who cared even less. The rest is history.

But I saw the best of independent wrestling at Shimmer, women giving their all to entertain in a wrestling ring on a stage at Tulane. I saw the best of the new breed, Bryan Danielson, rise to the top of the heap. And Antonio Cesaro, another indie guy, was right alongside him. These young guys have learned from the mistakes of their 1980s elders and hopefully keep a clear head through their hardships.

A friend of mine went to Jim Ross’ talk at the House of Blues and had to endure his “entertaining” story about Dick Murdoch punching a transsexual in the face because he was insecure about his masculinity. I can’t say I’m upset the WWE fired JR. His time is done. But for every anachronistic redneck like him reflecting on the “good old” territory days, there’s an old guy like Diamond Dallas Page doing something positive. There’s Scott Hall and Jake the Snake overcoming their demons. There’s the Undertaker passing the torch to the next phenom, Brock Lesnar.

A few days after ‘Mania, everybody started with insincere memorials for that fascist the Ultimate Warrior. When the guy was alive, he was an unprofessional egomaniac who was impossible to work with. He wished death upon the city of New Orleans because of homosexuality, which is ironic, as he was the gayest wrestler of all time. But the moment he dies, the rose-tinted glasses come on. The man was a politician who made life miserable for those who had to work with him.

I've never been ashamed of watching a “fake” sport, no more than for watching “fake” action star Harrison Ford run from a fake boulder. What shames me as a wrestling fan is financially supporting the horrible people who populate the business. I honestly believe that pro wrestling will only improve when everybody from the territory days is dead. That includes Triple H, heir-apparent to the WWE. Once all the sexual predators, steroid pushers, bullies, racists, egomaniacs, and guys with raging masculinity issues are gone . . . things won’t be perfect. Nothing is. But maybe the culture of death and exploitation will make way for something better. And if wrestlers like Bryan Danielson are an indication, it will.

Recently, I found a ticket stub in the bathroom at my dad’s house. It said, “Super Soaker Presents: WWF King of the Ring 1998. Civic Arena. June 28, 1998.”

I saw Owen Hart wrestle. I saw The Rock. I saw Vader. I saw Taka Michinoku. I saw Ken Shamrock and Jim Cornette. I saw Kane beat Stone Cold for the championship and I was PISSED. That was the show where Undertaker threw Mick Foley of the cage. I remember watching it from the cheap seats, that moment of terror, excitement, followed by . . . disappointment. I came to see a match and now they were wheeling out Mankind on the stretcher while Undertaker stood on top of the cage like some malevolent god. At that age, I couldn't comprehend what Mick Foley just did to entertain me. Then Mankind fought his way off the gurney, and the match continued, and from then on it was pure awe.

The Civic Arena is now the Melon Arena. Super Soaker, I hear, is back. The WWF is gone. They no longer produce the King of the Ring pay-per-view. I asked my dad if he remembered the show.

“That’s where Mankind went off the cage,” he said. "WWF was the only thing you and your sister could agree on. Glad you had a good time.”

It’s been years since I've spoken to my sister. But watching Wrestlemania live with friends was much like seeing King of the Ring with her. The awe, the spectacle, the storytelling. And hopefully in this boondoggle of a ‘Mania they’ve set up for 2015, there will be something to put a smile on somebody’s face. The best of wresting does that.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chapter 113: In Which I Report on FogCon 5

About two weeks ago, I attended the Friends of Genre Convention. It's in Walnut Creek, a suburb which is FAR from where I live in Oakland. I've never been that far north in the East Bay and the BART ride is fascinatingly desolate. It felt like I was commuting to San Jose or something. And the town itself straight up looks like Beverly Hills. There's no doubt I was in Wealthy California Land.

Anyway, I had a great time. FogCon is sort of like a western WisCon, coming from the whole "don't be a self-entitled asshole" school of con organizing. It was pretty small, and offered an interesting conundrum, as there appeared to be more people than programming for them. Thus, I ended up meeting and talking with a lot of folks. Even the simple act of grabbing a sandwich in the con suite was a great way to start up conversations with other writers and fans. I can see why the con is going strong four years after it began, because the atmosphere is so friendly and chill. I believe "relax-i-con" is the fandom word for such a thing.

I did four panels. Stories Within Stories on Friday was good. It was about, well, the title. To prepare, I read bits of The Canterbury Tales, a book I hadn't touched since AP English. When I was a teen, it was hard to get past lines like "Eek well I woot." Sounded like baby talk. Since speakers of the English language are unaware, I now declare that Canterbury Tales has literary merit, even if the poetic meter felt strangely like I was reading an extended version of the Vincent Price rap from "Thriller." From "The Wife of Bath's Tale":

I shall seye sooth, tho housbondes that I
As three of hem were gode and two were badde.
The three men were gode, and riche, and olde
Unnethe mighte they the statut holde
In whosoever shall be founde.
Without the soul for getting downe
Must stande and face the hondes of hell
Or rot inside a corpse's shelle . . .

To prep, I also reread significant portions of 120 Days of Sodom. You have to do your research. Problem: no one wants to be the guy on the panel to mention de Sade first. Thus, we went through the whole topic mentioning every author but de Sade even though we were all thinking it. All the other panelists were good and way more versed in books than I am. It was nice to do a panel with Cat Valente, a writer who did a lot to change the way I look at fantasy. I'm a big fan of Palimpsest.

After a few hours of the typical scifi con dillying, dallying, and dithering, came the Focus on Ferguson panel. This was the panel that earned me a book full of pictures of naked men. More on that later. It was about the Black Lives Matter movement that's been going on in some way, shape, or form for the last 400 years. The other panelists were Shayna Cureton, Laurie Edison, Michelle Murrain, and Na'amen Tilahun.  This was the one I was most excited about, as I've never been to a scifi con with an explicitly political panel, let alone one dealing with such an important topic. I was surprised at how abstract a lot of the questions were, such as, "What would your ideal future look like?" (We pretty unanimously agreed it wouldn't involve capitalism.) And several questions about the role of art in subverting white supremacy, which kind of threw me for a loop, as I had come to discuss politics. At one point the audience questions turned towards "What can white allies do to [whatever]?", to which the moderator said all the would-be white allies should talk to each other about that. As I stay away from a lot of online race debates, I forget how discussions of black pain are often co-opted to be about white pain. So, yeah. Best Moderator Ever.

The reason why I stayed away from the endless online debating following the Mike Brown lynching was because it seemed pretty fruitless. I already know how black people feel about it. To debate it with white people goes like this.

WHITE GUY: You should be dead.
ME: Well, actually, good sir, I would contend that I do deserve to exist as a life form.

Only black people are expected to go on public forums and justify to racists our right to exist. It's maddening and I refuse to do it. So it was nice to talk about these tragedies in a room full of adults.

Another interesting question turned to whether the internet makes these killer cops celebrities. Edison pointed out that racist assholes have always been celebrities. Back in the day they were the town sheriff or mayor. Now they're the millionaire Darren Wilson. The reach is farther but it doesn't mean shit because white supremacy is not new. From here, we talked about the white supremacist icon, the American Sniper, whose real name I can't be bothered to look up. Na'amen said the movie they added moral conflict to a guy who bragged in his book about how much he wanted to kill brown people. I find this think mind-boggling. People who worship the American Sniper do so because he killed brown people. He protected the master race. They could have made the movie character explicitly racist like the real guy and it wouldn't have mattered to the people who showed up with their American flags. But Eastwood chose to sugarcoat it. White supremacists refuse to be honest about their icons' racism, making it okay to kill browns-skinned people by the score as long as you don't enjoy it, I guess. They have to believe their heroes are actually morally righteous like He-Man or something. Meanwhile, the poor, PTSD-afflicted vet who shot the sniper got sentenced to life without parole. So much for supporting the troops.

Good panel, receptive audience. And I heard a lot of hopeful, articulate words from the other panelists that were pretty inspiring. I was not so eloquent. Somebody asked me the next day if I was uncomfortable with the topic, since I visibly was. I have a hard time putting up a mask, or collecting my thoughts to say something pretty when discussing the state-sanctioned murder of black children. Hopefully somebody got something out of my commentary. Afterward, I gave Edison a copy of my book, and she was kind enough to mail me hers. Male nudes. I'm hyped.

Did I mention I got swag? Free book table! I am most excited to read a book of Mexican science fiction short stories. I know next to nothing about Mexican SFF, unless lucha libre movies count,

I also got some Paul Tremblay and Yves Maynard, and The Couch by Benjamin Parzybok. Can't wait to read.

I also went to the polyamory panel. Four panelists talked about their vastly different experiences in poly, an the only consensus seemed to be that there's barely any poly representation in popular media. Also that TV sitcoms suck. It was a pretty loose panel with the audience chiming in the whole time, so at times it seemed like a bunch of people all talking over each other. A perfect encapsulation of polyamory.

I kid. I really enjoyed hearing different poly experiences. Lots of funny stories. Though I identify as poly, I haven't been in a longterm relationship in a long time, so navigating it with a partner is still very new to me.

On Saturday, I did a panel on space opera, "It's not over until the big spaceship sings..." I prepped by reading Flash Gordon.

The Flash Gordon strips are insane. They move at such a relentless pace it's wearying, with Flash meeting lion-men, fighting snake-men, suplexing dragons, and falling down pits all on the same page. The poor guy never gets a break.

The other panelists were Cliff Winnig, Michele Cox, and Chaz Brenchley. I did a reading with Brenchley at Baycon back in 2011, and hope to get randomly assigned to panels with him for many years to come, 'cause he's a delightful guy. Or delightful bloke, as they would say in his homeland. I liked that all the panelists had different experiences of space opera. For instance, Brenchley and Winnig know a lot about the genre in contemporary scifi lit, while I was the requisite anime guy. There was a good mix of lit and TV/movies talk. The prose genre of space opera grew up alongside radio and film, so I feel Flash Gordon was as instrumental in its birth as any novel. And I got to namedrop Robotech, Harlock, Yamato, Gundam, and Bebop. I haven't seen Firefly but I have seen Outlaw Star! The questions mostly came around to "Is ____ space opera?", which is fine, as these panels exist only to let us talk about X, Y, or Z story we like. "Is Harlock space opera? Sure! And here's why I like it."

Improvised folklore was fun as hell. The panelists did a series of round robin tales. Bawdy, ribald, good old-fashioned storytelling. Loved it. I also did a reading that went pretty well. In keeping with "stories within stories," I read the part in "The Elvis Room" where Junie tells her Elvis tale. This particular reading had four authors, a nice diversity of steampunk, dark fantasy, science fiction, and Elvis.

As far as panels went, my dance card was pretty full, but I had time to meet folks. Caught up with J. Malcolm Stewart and got a copy of his book, The Last Words of Robert Johnson. Talked a lot with Espana Sheriff about the history of fandom and cons from the 1990s onward. By then it was about midnight and I had to go home before I turned into a pumpkin, or the BART shut down, whichever came first. I need to start renting cars to go to these things.

Glad I made it to FogCon. My next convention is Tekkoshocon, the Pittsburgh area anime convention I used to volunteer at a decade ago. Anime as an art form is important to me so I'm glad to be a panelist; I'm also happy Tekko has become so big since it's humble origins out in some hotel by the Pittsburgh Airport. I'm running four panels (!) and should probably go prep for them. I'll do that now.