Boardwalk Empires

I traveled a bit a few weeks ago. We went to the Jersey Shore, or we rather, as I was informed, we were “down on the Shore.” IMG_0726

I’ve been in New Jersey before (I have family in Jersey and in Pennsylvania), but I’d never been that far down into South Jersey, my only experience with this part of the state being reruns of reality TV and pop culture jokes/references…as well as reading the news in a post-hurricane Sandy East Coast watching first weather, then a fire, destroy huge chunks of the waterfront.

My wife is from New Jersey, and joked about it as “her homeland” in the way that she’s heard my family talk about where we’re from in Europe. It made me think a lot about homes, about the idea of a “homeland,” about a place where you’re from with its own culture and unique identity, and as much as we as Americans (and New Yorkers especially) tend to mock New Jersey, it (like so many places in the US) really does have its own unique culture that’s a lot more complex, I feel, than just tanning and corndogs and obnoxiously-bad club music for homophobic shitheads with bad hair. And that culture, despite how it looks, reflects (at least to me) an odd relationship where people who recognize growing up in toxic places nonetheless feel some level of nostalgia because there have been bright spots in there that have brought legitimate joy. IMG_0727

There’s a lot of toxicity, let’s get that off the bat, because that’s probably the best way to describe it. Not trashiness or just bigotry, but toxicity, because it’s a constant slow-seeping feeling that gets more and more obvious the longer you’re there. The amount of pretty-awful racist and hurtful novelty t-shirts was wild, and what was even wilder was seeing them on sale side-by-side with cheesy “I’m with him/He’s with me” shirts appealing to the June Gay Pride market also on the boardwalk and beach, two sides of the coin both feeding into capitalism, trying hard to catch and claim every single form of tourist dollar in any way, shape, or form.

It makes sense as places like Seaside try to continue rebuilding post-Hurricane Sandy, and you can see the newly-reformed and re-planted dunes created artificially to help shore up and restore the natural order and structure of the beach, and you see just how new the boards of the walkway are underneath you, how new so many buildings are, and the one taco place is a Brooklyn-transplant joint with bagged pork skins passed off as chicaronnes taking up space that could be served by an actually-good restaurant but hey, that’s how money works and gentrification, right? Even on the Shore. Try to hustle, try to make money and rebuild your life, better your life, stay alive, stay afloat. Not everyone can make it onto a cooking/travel cable TV show as a “local favorite,” so of course seasonal places pull out every trick in the book to try and pull in as many tourist dollars as possible. Capitalism is probably the one idealism that rises above all the “Punisher skull/Blue Lives Matter VS Rainbow Pride flag superimposed over a TV show superhero screen print” battles that seem to be raging on the front of the shirts worn by summer Shore temporary inhabitants.

It feels very wild and surreal to be a part of and even passively see.

At the same time though, I can understand the appeal even if, and especially if, you’re not the type to spend your days in squalor only go to out and party like it’s an approximation of 2005 in a European rave somewhere in a Cold War warehouse. We found the types of older Formica-top places I loved serving fried and raw seafood and drinks in the hard scratchy plastic diner cups that look cloudy but are just old with use and having seen a lot of ice cubes crackling against the inside of the cup. the drinks were cold and the boardwalk food…

…man, I love trash vacation food.

I finally had fried pickles and good fried Oreos, actually good stuff. Do you know what a really good fried pickle tastes like? It’s perfect. Somehow, the heat of the fried batter mixes with the sourness of a dill pickle to make something that almost but not quite tastes sweet, that really-fine line I’m constantly looking for with some foods, because the older I’ve gotten, the less I like “sweet” sweet stuff, although I ended up making an exception as we left the Shore, because we ended up stopping at an original Stewart’s for a Taylor Ham and cheese on a roll and a float, which on a 90-plus degree day, was absolutely perfect right before hitting the road back to civilization.

No, it’s not an Old-World European capital, or an obscure foreign tourist-friendly but not tourist-overwhelmed destination. Yes, it very much feels like and looks like the cliche of reality TV and every joke New Yorkers make about people from southern New Jersey.

So?

Every place is a homeland for someone, regardless of how they feel about it, about what sort of relationship they have with it. Ultimately, the conversations we need to have are not about who comes from what place or how faraway it is, but what we took from it that shaped us and what we left behind that we knew was wrong, was toxic, was not needed to grow as a person. Yeah, in comparison to where my family is originally from, New Jersey isn’t quite as exotic, but it’s a place that has just as many less-than-desirable traits and problems and social/cultural baggage I don’t care for and actively push back against.

Any place I’ve never been is a new adventure for me, because any place that offers something new to see, to eat, to interact with and mark down as another edge of the map that I can confirm exists and is full of actual people, that it’s a place where people go and enjoy themselves and take a weekend or a week during the summer. It’s what we did, its what others do, it’s what I like to do, and it’s what I feel I could definitely do again.

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Anthony Bourdain, Dirt, Amends

Writing about Anthony Bourdain has been something I’ve been really trying to avoid.

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Of course the obvious reasons are that it’s ghoulish, to immediately try to attach someone’s incredibly tragic death to something about “me” and my own sphere. I’ve never really been someone to ultimately invest myself emotionally in famous people, mostly because of the level of disconnect I feel from that sort of thing, but his passing was something incredibly sad and depressing and it really knocked me for a loop, which leads me to the other reason. He was not only someone who lived in a manner and with an attitude that seems almost enviable but at the same time, the reasons that I felt a connection to his work was not just that attitude and work, but also the willingness to be wrong, to learn, and be vocal about how bad he’d been before. It was a model of masculinity that I’ve recognized I should aspire to, especially given my own personal history of struggling with my own ideas of what manhood should be and what and how masculinity as a positive thing to try and build up should be based on.

It takes a bigger and better person to admit to not just having been wrong, but having been a bad person, which is what I always appreciated about Bourdain. Yeah, he was an excellent writer and had good taste in movies and books and liked to talk about that stuff, but more importantly, he was someone to look at and say “There’s someone who knows he contributed poorly to a larger social space and structure, and has been trying to fix and undo that damage however he could.”

I went into a casual re-read of Kitchen Confidentialunsure then, worried about how I could ultimately see a clash or a confusion between what I know now and have read by Bourdain about his own earlier work versus my own nostalgic feelings towards it, one of the earliest examples of nonfiction writing and travel writing that I actively felt not only entertained by but also engaged with.

You can imagine my disappointment then, oddly, in going back and simply finding what was always there. I was so sure of it, so sure of this book containing elements of the sexism and bullying on almost insidious levels that’s so pervasive in ANY workplace, not just the food industry itself.

In fact, I’m simply confronted with far less, which makes me really think even moreso about how Bourdain frames this period of his writing and the period of his life it reflects. It showed some in his later writings (like the shockingly-candid confessionally aspects of Medium Raw, which felt incredibly different and almost morose compared to the by-the-balls aspect ofKitchen Confidential), but I think the way that it showed up the most was in his later actions and how he talked about the world around him. He was still blunt, still forward, but also curious and, at the same time, repentant about his personal contribution to toxic masculinity. That level of candid personal awareness always struck me as a really honest move, because it’s a direct implication of not just someone admitting to being more educated now and recognizing the importance of feminism and in fighting against toxic masculine behaviors. It’s a level of self-recognition in having BEEN a part of those things, of toxic behavior and shittiness that contributed to the elements in culture that feminism works hard to overcome and fight back against.

When I think about my models of masculinity and the problems around modeling oneself as having to rely on an incredibly-small pool of male “heroes.” I mean, besides our fathers (which aren’t guarantees for a lot of people), who do we have? Who should we have and should we even have any in this day and age?

Too often as a young man with no role models because you feel like you’re pushing back against against “the system” and patriarchal structures, you end up falling into so many bad pre-existing traps of behaviors anyway, which compounds your own feelings of self-worth and self-loathing even worse. The explosion of critical looks (too-late, but anyway) into the toxicity of “incel” culture is a great aspect that, honestly, could be expanded on even moreso by pointing out that when you don’t allow boys to foster friendships (not relationships, friendships…and then also mocking close friendships like this as homoerotic) and don’t allow boys to have role models they really want that can reflect a wide range of behavior BESIDES traditional masculinity, you just create these pits that are so incredibly fucking hard to climb out of.

When I follow this example, when I look at my own background and the privileges I’ve had and the behaviors that I’ve indulged in while always seeing myself as “not one of those guys”, it’s honestly shameful. I’m ashamed at those moments of shitty behavior, of shitty things I’ve said and done even in casual ways that I now recognize as being cruel and in their own small ways continued contributing to “nice guy” behavior, cruel casual homophobia, all of it. I contributed to a bunch of it, and knowing THAT, more than any abstract ideas I can spout, is a model of manhood I want to be like. I want to not just be fearless, but also be open about how much I sucked without self-pitying and self-aggrandizing in the name of trying to somehow “redeem” my personal narrative.

It’s hard to be a man without falling into traps, especially the ones you dig for yourself in the name of “being better” or “different” that really aren’t that better or different than the walls and chains that patriarchy and toxicity keep you limited with. But sometimes we do have models that manage to try to get past it, and do better.

Not just saying what’s right, doing what’s right to make up for what you know you’ve done badly in the past. That’s what I saw in looking up to Bourdain as a model of manhood and masculinity, and that’s what I’ll miss about him and his work and impact the most.

In A World Gone Mad (on going to l.a.)

So Chontel and I went to California for a short vacation. We like to travel and try to do one or two small trips a year (or one big trip). It’s about going somewhere new, eating new foods, seeing places and things we wouldn’t usually in our day-to-day lives.

We both tend to document our trips in diary form for ourselves and on Instagram (we are those types of people), mostly inspired by our love of food-oriented travel shows. We were both huge fans of Anthony Bourdain’s work and he was probably the biggest influence on how I viewed travel, writing about travel, journaling, and seeing the world just for the sake of seeing something different I’d had in a while. I was obsessed with his prose when I was in graduate school. I’m pretty sure Chontel’s friend living out there and having watched Bourdain’s TV shows about California, combined with our desire to get the fuck outta town once in a while to clear our heads made this a trip we were looking forward to.

First impressions;

  • The smog thing is totally real and not, as I felt before we left, some sort of set dressing leaned heavily on in Predator 2. It wasn’t persistent every day, but it was when we arrived, making the trip from the airport to where we stayed.
  • Also, the issue of homelessness is all over in this town. “Skid Row” is 100% a real thing, comparable to the serious homelessness issues I’ve seen in ethnic minority shantytowns in Eastern Europe. It was honestly shocking.

Beyond that though, I did have a few moments of realizing I was the land of James Ellroy, Too Late, and Agent Orange (OK, not exactly but close). It’s so different from New York city-wise, spread-out and sprawling compared to the tall and dense aspects of my hometown but, I kinda like it. It’s a bit like Athens, Greece, especially when viewed from above. It’s unevenly-spread, beautiful, growing and shifting and changing at different rates. We went to the Griffith Observatory and looked out at the city below us, the cliche huge HOLLYWOOD sign in the distance up the mountain, and it was nice to get a sense of scale, self, and how just how huge the world can be.

 

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We ate tacos from a place on the side of the road and Oaxacan-style Mexican food that was like nothing else I’ve ever had. Everywhere I go I want to go to bookstores and museums, which means that The Last Bookstore, the La Brea Tar Pits, and the Griffith Observatory were places I had to see as well (I think I’ve been casually dreaming of the Tar Pits since I was a little kid obsessed with dinosaurs, so this felt oddly comforting to do). We found a diner that felt like it was right out of LA Confidential, and of course, being the dirty old tired punk I am, we went to Amoeba Records, where I bought…no records, but two movies instead. One was on VHS.

Don’t ask.

We weren’t there for long and it was easy to see what someone meant by telling me how the city was probably bigger than NYC, but less concentrated and spread out over such a drastically-uneven space. Some parts of the city felt frozen in time, a weird beige of late 1970’s/early 1980’s attempts at modernism in the face of needing to appear clean and efficient as a modern metropolis. Others were almost decidedly-dystopian in small depressing fragments, while even more felt like frozen in-between moments of economic redevelopment that were teetering on the edge of gentrification.

Travel always feels weird to me in moments, a weird recognition of privilege in being able to just say “fuck it, we can just go somewhere for the sake of it.” It’s not necessarily an incredibly extravagant thing, but at the same time being able to pay for it, to take some time off work or have a schedule with that flexibility, and have friends and connections in places to give us recommendations, a couch to crash on, or a ride to the airport, plus not having a child or anyone really other than the cat who is counting on us and being able to arrange for someone to watch her for a bit…it all can sometimes feel a bit too good to be true. You hear a lot about the importance of travel, but that importance is, of course, dependent on the ability to do so in the first place.

Going to LA just to be able to go to LA, on the other side of the continental US, really felt like that. And it’s not a guilty feeling, but definitely a feeling of awareness that really makes me feel like appreciating and learning and pushing myself as I try to expand my world, be it through basically going on vacation to eat new things and buy books in places I’ve never been before, or simply see fragments of the daily lives of others.

I definitely need to go back. We barely scratched the surface of a city, let alone a whole state, and there’s still more to see, more to do, and more to be aware of. There’s always more to try to be aware of.

Hey so I have a Patreon now!

Short but sweet today, everyone. So, I took the dive.

You can find my nonfiction and some fiction work, as well as even writing advice, at my new Patreon.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of how much free work I give away, try to sell, and whether or not I even should bother, but I want to give it a try and see where it goes. Please, check it out, sign up or share, there’ll be various levels of engagement to get nonfiction essays, short fiction (a serialized sci-fi novella I’ve been working on, Bold, is the first offering), as well as my almost-15 years of writing/teaching experience and advice.

See you on the battlefield, everyone.

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 7 – Fruits Basket, and the end

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And here we are, at the end.

I think this is the first time I actually have a solid cap to end one of these little series of blog posts, instead of just stopping doing them, and it’s because of a discussion that my wife and I actually have whenever we watch old anime.

Art in animation, both in terms of what’s available to do and what’s the popular style, is something that changes over time, and that’s an inevitability. Still, it does break my heart a little bit at times to watch older works from the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s, and even early 2000’s that did a lot with amazing backgrounds and character designs across a broad spectrum of art styles…and then look at more modern works all blend into a single mess of the same too-bright coloring, too-bland and blank backgrounds churned out in CGI, or works that are done entirely in clay-like CGI for the entirety of the work, which is a look I cannot stand at all.

That being said, my wife loved a popular series (based on an incredibly popular manga) that I was vaguely-aware of simply because it was so huge, 2001’s Fruits Basket, which last year popped up on Hulu (which has a surprisingly-big swath of older anime works with both dubbed and subtitled audio/dialogue). A sweet teenage girl ends up as the live-in housekeeper of the family of the school’s dreamboat, when he and his family discover her living in a tent on their property after her mother dies and she is unable to live with her elderly grandfather. The series is a supernatural romance/humor story, because the twist is basically that the large extended family is actually cursed to randomly transform into animals representing the Chinese zodiac if they’re touched (“hugged” in the manga) by members of the opposite sex who aren’t family members, leading to all sorts of slapstick.

It’s cute, and it’s funny. In a way, it tries to play with the tropes of romantic comedies (a popular anime subgenre), and it keeps the almost too-much dramatic moods to a minimum. It’s also one of the better looks at the mundanity of daily life in terms of being around the house and day-to-day living, something I find sort of fascinating in fiction (obviously filler episodes to kill time and make space between larger narrative arcs, though the narrative arcs within the show itself are much smaller than the long-running manga, created by Natsuki Takaya that ended in 2006.

Anyway, we watched it and I enjoyed it, especially since news of a new batch of episodes was announced as coming this year, and we’re both pretty excited for that. I guess in a way, somehow, anime still has its claws in my brain and gut, despite how I might feel about how it looks now versus how it looked “back then,” and I’m not entirely sure if it’s nostalgia, a disdain for nostalgia, or just acceptance of how my brain and taste work in weird ways.

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We’ll see later this year, I guess.

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 6 – ESCAFLOWNE

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You guys know I really like fantasy novels, right?

Fantasy was, as a genre, one of my earliest loves in fiction. Looking back on the first thing I really tried to write in college (gone now thank fucking Christ, it was awful), and what the bulk of my reading was as a kid, not to mention what a lot of my comfort re-reads are/have been, it almost always comes back to fantasy.

In 2000, a film adaptation of the popular anime The Vision of Escaflowne was produced, simply called Escaflowne (though it’s sometimes also referred to/promoted as Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea). The Vision of Escaflowne had been brought to the US at one point but not done that well in terms of TV broadcast, though I remember catching it and falling in love with its embracement of two elements I adored;

Giant mecha suits, called “Guymelefs,” (ancient anti-dragon units that resemble colossal knights) and swords ‘n sorcery (the TV series had a connection to tarot cards and divination rituals in particular).

The series went into its lore far more surrounding the ancient myth of Atlantis and how collective will literally formed an earth-like world full of magic for the remnants of that oceanic city to flee to and rebuild, but the 2000 film instead took a different turn, far more darker and, in my mind, better. The story itself is a compressed version of the show’s main conflict between the exiled prince seeking to harness the power of the ancient first-generation Guymelef called the “Escaflowne” (built by the original refugees from Atlantis) to fight his exiled older brother, now returned to conquer the entirety of their world at the head of a more technologically-advanced army of alchemists and raiders. The film makes the giant mechanical warrior aspects far more rare than the show (which even dove into the cultural differences between different sizes, classes, and generational models)*

The film fascinated me when I discovered it at the Blockbuster in my old neighborhood. I must have rented it a dozen times, and even ended up springing to buy a very-fancy special edition that came with the original score on a CD, part of a 3-disc box set in a very cool package (I think it was one of the things I got with a whole cashed paycheck I blew at the dissolution of my local music/movie store). I ended up selling it when I really needed the money years later, which upset me greatly, and I think a lot about trying to re-find it.

It was so clearly a fantasy epic, with elements of steampunk aesthetics within a larger non-Eurocentric fantasy world. Exposition regarding various elements of the world didn’t occur, not only because it was a film and therefore had limited time, but also because it expected the viewer to not obsess over those elements of world building, but rather to simply enjoy the story itself within that world. Everything else was up to the mind and imagination of the viewer, and that felt so refreshing to me at the time.

This movie was also, thinking about it, one of the first times i really dove into Internet fandom, in particular haunting one fansite in particular that archived Escaflowne fanzines and had high-quality scans of artbooks from both the film and the TV series. I’d read it in my off-time at my office job in college, absorbing lore and designs, seeing how the world had been formed, reading bits and pieces of production notes that were in English.

This was before fan wikis, before social media, and again, I think about how I didn’t have access to fan culture for a lot of things I liked, relying on my own imagination and limited means and access. Whatever I could get, I grabbed onto. A lot of the stuff in there was from the giant box set I had, but there was also material that wasn’t and I pored over it all over and over.

I wish I remembered the site’s name so I could thank the person who ran it for years, it seemed, satisfying my curiosity and love of this little fantasy gem I still think about fondly and still consider a foundational work in the genre.

*) You can tell I’ve got a lot invested in this show/movie

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, (interlude) – The “M” Word

str2_wow2803ghost_major_cnI think it’s impossible to talk about the period of my life when I was into cable TV’s new love affair with anime without also addressing the other metaphorical elephant in the room about that, manga.

At the peak of me watching various stuff on TV, buying and renting DVD’s, I wasn’t as much into comic books as I’d been as a kid. In general, I’d never just been a “comics” kid, because since I could read, my parents had encouraged me to read, and I read everything and anything, including comics. But I didn’t actively pursue them and had dropped off from reading them by the time I was in college. Watching a lot of this stuff though and in the trade pubs I’d occasionally get, I got swayed to look to manga to get more of the stories that I was enjoying, so I dove in.

I’d already had an inkling through early Internet chatter and trade pubs/fansites that Ghost In The Shell offered so much more as a manga than the first original film (which eventually got much more accurately-represented in the excellent series Ghost In The Shell: Stand-Alone Complex), but then Dark Horse released an uncensored version of the original run of the manga with English translation, which tipped me over the edge into reading the manga collections of the stories and worlds from stuff I watched like Hellsing (from Kouta Hirano), Berserk (by Kentaro Miura, one of the best fantasy worlds/stories I’ve read in general, which is another story for another day) and Trigun (by Yasuhiro Nightow).

Despite the fact that I was reading more and more comics again eventually, still, the manga I was consuming felt like it was just more fulfilling in terms of the bonkers storytelling I craved at the time. Of course that sort of thing isn’t exactly the exclusive purview of manga, and there were a lot of great Western comics at the time doing really good things, but to me, it didn’t feel like that, either through my own narrow-mindedness, or just the outlets I had access to. Regardless, there was a chunk of time when I read a lot of manga, and probably would have read a lot more if not for two big things that slapped me in the face one day;

A) It was really expensive in the US. Translation costs and rights costs are obviously a thing on top of the labor of reprinting/relettering ON TOP of the original labor, but at the time I definitely struggled with “is this really worth how much I shell out every month or so?” It was a comic that I’d breeze through, despite the fact that I’d re-read it multiple times, which meant that after a while I struggled to justify it because it was B) turning out to be an expensive reading hobby compared to comics or prose. I mean, I had a job, but they cost more than I felt they might have been worth, despite the excellent digest size, which I still feel is a perfect size for a paperback, and were starting to take up A LOT of space in my limited shelf space at the time. It was, when I look back at it, the start of my annoyance with decompressed storytelling and serialized narratives, which aren’t inherently bad per se, they just happen to only work really well about half the time, and in a physical sense, can’t be sustained when you’re one of seven people in a house full of book hoarders.

I think about it sometimes nowadays, of digging up some manga, of grabbing older works in big phonebook collections or early American attempts at bringing manga to the US in a more westernized comic book form (I periodically look for the old Eclipse Comics “single issue floppies” of Appleseed that they did in the late 80’s/early 90’s before Dark Horse started to be the home of Masamune Shirow’s output in the English-speaking world), and I know my wife still has some of her old giant manga collections that we reclaim from her younger sister.

I mean, we’ve been diving back bit-by-bit at times into anime again, so why not, but at the same time, I think that my obsessive reading of this stuff was a moment in a larger growth in my interest in odd and out-there genre storytelling. I barely read comics anymore as it is, so wanting to read manga, especially anything new (another story, another thread of thought), just feels like an exercise in frustration and futility, a failed attempt at nostalgia.

Still, it was nice at the time.

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 5 – WITCH HUNTER ROBIN and WOLF’S RAIN

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Alright so this one is a bit of a double-header, mostly because it’s less about each individual series per se, but rather that particular time period itself, at the peak of my freelancing during graduate school.

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I’d settled in college into a comfortable routine of work, school, going to punk shows, going to the movies, and occasionally a party, but I still spent a lot of time at home at night watching TV, and by this point, [adult swim] had turned into the first iteration of the cultural juggernaut it would become in my 20’s. The gut-punch of intense drama (to the point of being almost overwrought) and bizarre fantasy/sci-fi of Wolf’s Rain, and the soft perpetually-rainy goth of Witch Hunter Robin were both in my brain and on my TV at night.

Wolf’s Rain, portraying a depressing futuristic world wracked by some sort of environmental failure and bereft of wolves due to some misguided supernatural belief that wolves (literally, the animal) were to blame for it was both confusing but also excellent. To this day I don’t completely understand the plot other than it’s about wolves that look like people (but not werewolves) searching for Heaven, but not the metaphysical Christian Heaven, it’s a real place (or is it?), and there’s like, other stuff going on. Some form of semi-feudalistic fantasy elements in this bleak post-apocalyptic vaguely-sci-fi world.

Witch Hunter Robin is a pretty standard cliche of the medium and the time, involving a semi-covert governmental task force using a combination of technology and supernatural weaponry to battle a hidden world of supernatural threats, in this case, a subspecies of human known as “witches” who have genetically-latent super abilities. Of course there’s a precocious “witch” protagonist who is pitted to hunting “her own” and of course there’s romance, intrigue, double-crossing, pseudo-science, and pseudo-mysticism.

I absolutely ate both of these up, as I wasn’t really attuned to anything going on in terms of sci-fi and fantasy literature that felt that fresh and insane to me, and being the genre glutton I am, felt that they were cutting-edge as examples of genre, further cementing my love of this type of material (anime). I felt inspired, and I think back on the early works of writing I did then, how they tried to incorporate what I’d loved as a kid and what I was consuming as a young man.

Then I started grad school and things started to change for me. I was out a lot more, I was drinking a lot more, and I started writing for others outside myself (that terrible fantasy novella I did and deleted eventually because I couldn’t bear it existing in its cliche shittiness) and my own blog at the time (thankfully gone from the face of the Internet). I tried a few times to do more fiction, but I couldn’t. At the peak of my freelancing, grad school and working on my master’s thesis was taking over my life, there just never felt like there was enough time. I felt like shit constantly, I was tired and writing and researching until 12 or 1 am before I’d go to bed and repeat over again. It drained me, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t summon the brainpower to engage in fiction on my own.

And even though I haven’t watched either of those two in a long time, I still think of how they broke my brain in terms of being “peak anime” to me, with almost-but-not-quite-incomprehensible plots and lore, high drama and angst, obscure theological and faux-scientific language to dress it all up, and something indescribable that hooked a the brain of someone at a transitionary point in his life, craving something more when it came to his fictional genre, something extra, something just a bit more weird.

I’ve been half-thinking it, but maybe I’ll revisit one of these again soon.

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 4 – MS GUNDAM 0083: STARDUST MEMORY

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Hey now, what’s this? More anime? More giant robots? More dusty half-muddled memories? Boy, and how!

Despite my childhood exposures to a lot of it, I didn’t really get into watching a lot of Japanese anime until I started college, when Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” late-night block began, stylized as [adult swim]. This coincided with when I finally got cable, because before that the only thing going was broadcast TV’s takes on Pokemon (which I was too old for, honestly) and Dragonball and Dragonball Z, the perennial cultural favorite. But then 9/11/01 happened and we got cable and non-dialup internet for the house we all lived in, myself, my brother, my parents, and my grandparents…at this time I think my dad’s brother as well.

He lived in the basement, but was at work and out all the time, so I’d spend hours down there, eventually more or less moving in down there when he moved out. It’s cliche now, but to a college student, your own door, your own fridge, a shitty sofa bed, and late-night cable TV to watch weird obscure shit was heaven.

I dove headfirst into watching [adult swim]’s Saturday night block of anime. I’d go to work, go to class, and before I started going out a lot with friends I’d make in college, weekends were me and cable TV in that basement, a brief illusion of living alone, in the dark in my “bachelor pad” with takeout or some swiped beers. There was the now-famous Cowboy Bebop, bizarre cult-favorite FLCL, and of course, a cycling change in various parts of the Gundam franchise. Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memories is one of the ones that immediately stands out to me from that era, mostly because of how utterly different it was from any sense of what storytelling could be to me.

To this day, Sunrise’s Gundam franchise continues to live on with various timelines, universes, sequels, and reboots of itself and off of itself, almost all of which focusing on the larger theme of the futility of war and the ways in which idealism can either help someone live through these sorts of conflicts of morality, or they can utterly drive someone to despair as they see ideals uses as tools for horror (well, if you don’t count the infamous but hilarious sorta-Street Fighter G-Gundam, or the semi-metatextual Gundam Build Fighters). As a result, most Gundam series tend to come across less as “action shows” per se than war narratives and criticisms of various aspects of social structure, “progress,” nationalism, all that good stuff.

Also, the franchise as a whole has, when the story demands it, not been shy about depicting not only true shittiness in its characters, but also actual measurable growth. I remember being somewhat in awe that the “hero” of Stardust Memories (the Earth-based Gundam pilot versus the Zeon space colony-based stolen Gundam pilot) actually sucking quite a bit. He is a terrible pilot shoved into this mission because he happened to be there, and it takes time for him to come into his own.

There’s a lot more going on in the series, which was a bit of a prequel/fill-in miniseries created to fill in a time gap between two earlier Gundam series and justify a story point in the latter, but what I always remember about this is seeing an animated war drama that didn’t portray itself or its characters as inheritly noble, heroic, or the natural “good guys.” Gundam as a franchise, especially in its early days and then-primary timeline, utilized post humanism as a long-running theme to root its somewhat “hard/predictive sci-fi” about inevitable conflicts over rights and resources between space-born people being nudged into evolutionary steps forward but still thought of as rude provincial colonists, and Earth-bound governments and people who were more than eager to exploit their colonies for resources and military purposes but had no real sense of what the new wave of warfare would “make” them do.

Spoiler alert, they’d do it anyway, as Stardust Memory‘s twists revolve around, from what I can remember, forbidden nuclear weaponry and plans to drop whole space colonies on planetary colonies and Earth’s indifference to sacrificing them to protect themselves.

Totally unbelievable, right?

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 3 – TEKNOMAN

teknoman

Oh boy oh boy, TEKNOMAN.

At one point we were visiting my grandmother’s place and TEKNOMAN, America’s answer to 1992’s TEKKAMAN BLADE (itself a loose followup to 1975’s TEKKAMAN: THE SPACE KNIGHT, known by the same time when it briefly came to the US in 1984), was on TV. We stayed with her for a week due to a snowstorm, and this was on TV.

I absolutely loved it. It was a complete hodgepodge of transformation-sequences, giant robots, space and alien battles, and enough drama and double-crosses to make me feel like it was somehow smart and mature, a hidden gem. The protagonist, Blade, was a mutated human/alien hybrid who transformed into a humanoid mechs-type thing, a result of having been captured by evil alien space crabs or whatever. But  he returns to Earth and helps fight his former captors.

There’s other robots/suits/whatever’s that show up later, everyone’s got space swords, it’s wild, and definitely incorporates several now-familiar artistic aesthetics about characters and backgrounds/giant robots and technology that were popular at a particular period of time. I’ve always had a soft spot for giant mecha/robots and vaguely-fantasy ideas in sci-fi settings, so it hit that spot.

What stands out to me the most about this show is that I remember adoring it despite my short exposure to it. It stuck with me, and then, like a memory of first love, disappeared completely off the face of the earth. No one I ever talked to after who liked anime knew what I was talking about, and even if they had, all I had going for me was that it was on TV in New York in the 90’s on channel 9 one winter.

This was the early- to mid-1990’s, the Internet as a home for pop culture reference and collection was almost nonexistent, and completely unknown to me. If you didn’t watch it when it was on TV, cartoons, were nonexistent, and only word-of-mouth and TV commercials were the only way to stay up to date on things. I also lived overseas, which meant that I just didn’t have access to cable, to fan circles (if those were a thing when you were 12), to anything really. I had my imagination and memory, which was (and still is) notoriously unreliable. Like our last entry, for a long time no one else knew what I was talking about when I’d mention it and I partially thought that I’d somehow made-up huge swaths of some TV show I’d passingly-seen at one point and then attached devotion to.

It took me years to remember what this went by on American TV, and then to find out that of course it was better-known by its original name and edit before being changed for young American audiences. TEKNOMAN was my first experience with that huge bridge between what I knew and remembered versus what was out there, and also in terms of just how big the changes between foreign and American versions of these cartoons. I was on no position to be part of fanzine worlds and circles with tape trading, which meant that this was knowledge I came to relatively late in my watching of this stuff.

When you’re just a kid, you don’t think about that, you just sort of consume whatever’s in front of you, accept it at its face value, and either continue to consume, or move on. It feels so strange to look now at others who talk about being so young and active in these sort of sidebars of fandoms, of being conscious of being in fandoms. I’m glad people have them, but sometimes I wonder if anyone will ever have that sort of moment, a short bright light that you never really forget, not for decades.