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 . . .

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