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.