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.

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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

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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.

 

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 2 – SABER RIDER AND THE STAR SHERIFFS

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Another gem I was connived for a long time I’d imagined from an amalgamation of different things was SABER RIDER AND THE STAR SHERIFFS, which was on TV and dubbed in Greek when I was a kid living in Athens for a while. I think I was 11 when I discovered it.

An anglicized version of STAR MUSKETEER BISMARK, which I’ve never seen or actually heard of until I did a little research (because for some reason I thought that this was a French creation? Long story), SABER RIDER AND THE STAR SHERIFFS  was another early Young Costa introduction to anime. Again, it was something I was exposed to when I was in Greece, another thing picked up for cheap to put on TV this show on Saturday afternoons.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really remember much about this show. They fought aliens, I think? One was a space cowboy, another had a racecar that shot rockets, and then the “leader” was an outer-space Scottish cavalier with a robot horse and a saber, and their shockingly-unoriginal looking giant ship could transform into a large robotic space cowboy. Or maybe an army or navy person? I can’t tell what his head is supposed to look like. It’s a combination of Voltron-esque giant-robot space battles and Power Rangers-esque different-color and different-personality characters that have to work together, with color-themed costumes. Depending on the episodes, they’d have to summon their giant ship to battle whatever kaiju-sized monsters or alien vampires or whatever, or they’d battle it out in a stock-footage harmless laser and sword battles. I couldn’t tell you anyone’s names unless I looked them up, or who the bad guys were, what anyone’s motivations were. I do know that each character was meant to represent a country from some kind of global coalition, so there’s the Scottish guy, the French pilot of the spaceship (the only female character and I think the love interest of one of them?), the American cowboy/test-pilot type, and Google tells me the racecar driver was Japanese. That’t he extent of my memories.

What I do remember is watching this for the first time in my aunt’s apartment in Greece. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about her, my maternal grandmother’s sister and her husband, who lived next door to us when we lived overseas. He was a doctor and a vocal Greek Communist Party member and party official. Their apartment was actually two apartments with the wall between them smashed, joining the two when the building was probably being upgraded in the 60’s after WW2 to create a more “house”-like feeling. He always joked about me becoming a teacher when I grew up (and I always think about him when i think about how I got to this place in my life), and she would get us deep-fried giant donuts with grainy raised sugar all over them when she’d watch us when my parents worked.

Her apartment had a fascinating style combining no central main light fixtures in the big living room with 70’s chic with the wall patterns, tiling (Greece is hot and everyone has ceramic tiles on apartment and house floors), and her furniture was mostly over-the-top velvet and drapes and almost-Baroque lamps and tassels on everything. The front hall/living room felt like a bordello that turns out to be a front for a Satanic temple in some 70’s Hammer movie, and we’d go over to visit and while my mom and her would chat in the kitchen in the front of the apartment, my brother and I would watch TV in the back, including SABER RIDER either dubbed in Greek or in English with Greek subtitles, depending on the day (because who knows where the TV station was getting their versions of it and if the history of Western anime is any indicator, shows going west was a mess of multiple versions being translated for rebroadcast depending on rights.

There’s been some comic adaptations of this series from the early 2000’s that I’ve never seen but apparently exist, and a video game has been in development hell for like a decade, but for a long time I really thought that I’d made this up, mixing up stuff in my memory along with a misread of root of the Scottish character with the sword, and thinking he was French. In my mind, it was a French/Japanese cartoon created for a European audience with a French cavalry space officer and then the other characters, I guess. It’s oddly relieving to realize this was was an actual thing.

That Late-Nite Animation Sensation, episode 1 – AKIRA

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One of the things that my wife and I bonded over when we first started dating was growing up and being into the late 1990’s/early 2000’s Japanese anime and manga boom. Being a kid into weird sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and niche subculture things, of course I was drawn to this sort of stuff. I grew up on genre fiction, and I felt like when I was 19, 20, 21 or so I was in a desert when it came to options I enjoyed  or I felt really pushed the limits of what could be done. Japanese comics and anime fell right into that gap for me.

Neither of us are really as into it as we used to be, but periodically we’ll return to a lot of these works from a pretty-crucial time in our lives, watching our old DVD’s or digging through the offerings that a lot of TV streaming services have surprisingly-offered (although, I shouldn’t be too surprised considering how much stuff I actually used to initially find during the early days of Netflix, when I was part of the early-wave of just-DVD Netflix users and all they had in their catalogue was horror movies and tons of anime).

I know that a part of it was being an impressionable kid who found the “exoticism” of foreign media fascinating, because some of it looking back is…not that great. Still, at times the ideas and concepts compared to what was available for someone like me who was into horror and fantasy and sci-fi, anime and manga comics were an incredible plethora of new stories and perspectives when it came to genre storytelling. The epicness and strangeness that I was looking for at times was there, and I dove headfirst into it.

Still, my very first exposure to anime was actually when I was much younger. I have a distant memory of coming across 1988’s anime adaptation of the hit manga AKIRA about psychics, post-nuclear war Japan, youth gangs, anxiety and teen angst and rage against the backdrop of military rule. I was living overseas, and for some reason (actually probably because they could get a lot of stuff for cheap and to appeal to the then-growing base of English-speaking expats and cash in on American culture in general), Greek television did tons of rebroadcasts of American cartoons and movies. The country was struggling to modernize and take advantage of all that the EU and a healthy American economy had to offer to bolster what tourism did for it mostly, and that included a ton of new channels that needed content. This also, for some reason, also covered dubbed anime shows and movies, like a late-night broadcast of AKIRA I stumbled across one evening while the rest of the family watched something else.

It horrified me.

Seriously, I think I had nightmares about it for a little bit, about just how monstrous and weird and visceral it felt, especially the nightmare of flesh that is the end. When you’re 12 or 13, the mix of brutal violence and body horror in an almost impossible-to-follow story about teenage angst, a post-apocalyptic world overrun with nothing but confusion and angst and a complete lack of actual support for anything, not to mention the completely-bonkers ending that, if you’re unaware of just how complex storytelling can be. It’s still one of the heights of the medium, and now when I think about it I feel kinda lucky to have stumbled across it at a pretty-impressionable age, when I was basically absorbing any and everything I could, fiction-wise. This wasn’t the tipping point, but it’s definitely where I first came across it, and ti was etched into my brain for a long time before I finally saw AKIRA again and realized what i’d been exposed to all those years ago in front of the TV in the back bedroom.

Sometimes I think about what else I might have come across when I was that age, in that place, with that kind of TV access, and I just don’t remember seeing it, what other 80’s/90’s animation gems of weirdness that gave me mutation techno-flesh nightmares as a kid. Also, I think a lot about who was and those time periods in my life when I was 11, 12, 13, and then when I was 18, 19, 20, in the glow of strange foreign cartoons from the TV while everyone else was asleep.

The Pine-Scented Heavens

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So we finally saw Mandy (2018) back in December, and I’ve been having a low-key but constantly-running train about it in my mind.

Painted a bit in advertisement as some sort of arthouse-homage to 80’s grindhouse revenge, it is that, sorta, but is also part of another 80’s tradition that’s somewhat subtlely-alluded to in the film, the vaguely-fantasy/proto-“urban fantasy” laid out in works by authors like Stephen King. Mandy herself is even reading a King/The Dark Tower-esque novel at the beginning of the film, and she paints surreal fantasy landscapes out of Robert E. Howard’s wildest Frazetta-esque dreams. The elements surrounding the drug-addled monster bikers summoned from deep in the woods by a  mystic horn, the power of belief turning a burnt-out Manson-esque rockstar into a callow creature like Jeremiah Sand, and the clear allusions to Nicholas Cage’s Red being some form of traumatized “warrior” feels incredibly reliant on the horror tropes of 80’s paperbacks that drew heavily on fantasy and supernatural elements.

A lot of those fantasy elements in horror are the threads that arguably are the roots of more modern “weird fiction” and “urban fantasy/horror,” utilizing the deliberate blurring of the concrete real world and the mythical/legendary world beyond immediate perception (that arguably exists in tandem with us). It’s that more than the hyper-violent aspects of the film that define it arguably here, because so much of the film feels like a dream, blending lucidity with fantasy, reality with inner thoughts and monologues.

And yet, it’s not a dream.

mandy-2018

If anything, the 80’s heavy metal overtones of the film (music, t-shirts, background, etc) make this film feel like the manifestation of a concept album, where story is good, but light, and in the background compared to the themes that the film/album is attempting to convey here. Mandy conveys the theme of the point-of-no-return that revenge stories seem to skip over, especially when it comes to hyperviolent ones that we enjoy and immerse ourselves in. In a way, Mandy reminds me of one of my favorite comics, Grendel, by Matt Wagner (and a veritable cabal of artists and cowriters).

I’ve written about Grendel before and how it manifests a unique view on the true nature of violence as a solution, and how Wagner’s magnum opus’ greatest feat is painfully illustrating how “might makes right” only in short term, and it ultimately collapses into pathetic anarchy and bloated excess destined to dissolve into nothing. But in the moment, in the heat of it?

It’s good, it feels good and righteous.

Mandy feels confusing, it feels like how Red’s mind must be in the aftermath, and how he’s not thinking. He’s not considering what to do next, because he’s perpetually in the heat of it, like a horror-movie monster or a fantasy-epic barbarian, a character in the world(s) that Mandy would paint, a world that maybe they’re living in right now, fantasy and magic intertwined with reality. The Black Skulls bike gang, for example, are a great example of this, a cunning combination of Mad Max-esque post-apocalytpic biker gang crossed with an eternal and preternatural, almost eldritch wild hunt band forever roaming the dirt roads of the Pacific Northwest.

There are definite nostalgic elements to Mandy that I appreciate, because they’re controlled, a slow deliberate burn instead of a gush of fuel and fire all over the dry grass like a lot of nostalgia-heavy works that you see these days. Seen through the sensibilities and lens of Panos Cosmatos too, the film is less an ode to a particular genre and time period.

Instead, it attempts to tap into the atmosphere of several genres’ aesthetics, intertwining into something less like a film and more like a wild experience. It is a wild hunt, in every sense.

Whiskey, Women, & Blackguardin’

(A version of this showed up in my email newsletter)

As the kids say, let’s jam.

2018 has been weird, rough, tough, but also tumultuous in a good way. The news is full of garbage, but at the same time there are bright spots. I got married, which was definitely a party. I went to Iceland and Greece, one of which was new, and the other familiar.

Also, I got a bunch of stuff written;

  • There’s a lot of semi-regular nonfiction and miscellanea at the blog, which is still the primary look into my head and whatever I’m reading/thinking about/doing.
  • I hit 100 on the email newsletter, which I’m unnaturally proud of.
  • The Means At Hand went live, something I’m proud of putting together and trying to keep going, which feels like…not a job, but interesting schoolwork.
  • I wrote and put Some Girls Wander: Two Short Stories out. I haven’t been doing a lot of fiction this past year, so I’m glad this is coming together.

I didn’t do as much writing and publishing and submitting as I wanted to (planning a wedding and a lot of teaching and travel and learning how to relax has clashed with that), but at the same time, I did do a lot of writing that meant a lot to me, and anything out there that people read is counted as a victory as far as I’m concerned.

Doing The Means At Hand has been a singular long-running project that I put a lot of energy into and want to push far along, and I’m very proud of it so far. I wish there was more there (I know I promised that there’d be one more post for 2018 in there but I just don’t have the brainpower to get to it right now so my analysis of John Le Carre is going to have to wait, sorry), but what is there feels good to be able to show off as a basic idea. Also, I try not to stress myself out about “how much” gets written, because so much of that pressure is tied into whether or not I’m doing anything of “worth” in the world, which honestly, is a bullshit train of thought.

Write whatever, whenever. The only rules for writing that matter is that it has to be available for someone other than you to see it, and it has to be yours. “Voice” and anything like that is secondary to material itself. I know that “writing rules” are things that get discussed once in a while, and while I do love Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing and adore Stephen King’s book On Writing, rules about how to do things like write, which are odd combinations of art, craft, black magic, and self-flagellation, are mostly junk.

It’s so odd to see the field treated like a code that can be cracked, like a line that can be jumped if you just know this one certain thing, this one unique trick. There are no tricks, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I did the math recently about how many free downloads I’ve given away, added that up to how many books I’ve sold digitally, and then added that to the traffic I get to my blog and that I’ve gotten from getting work published outside my own avenues with other sites and outlets…and it’s OK? And the sad part is that “OK” is better than any focus I got from making and self-publishing comics. Blogging and nonfiction and prose might be a hard wasteland, but it’s better than the actively-hunting-you jungle that is comics.

And yet, I’m also a writing teacher. I should be writing more, I feel, I should have more published material to show for it, at least that’s what my brain says. That of course is also tied into academic imposter syndrome, to the feelings of inadequacy surrounding an academic career, all that. Then the other days I look back at the material I’ve done and what’s out there by me, and tell myself “You know what? I’ve done OK.”

I did OK in 2018. I hope you look back and realize that this year, you did OK too.

That’s it, this is probably the last work I’m writing for the year. Enjoy your holidays, enjoy little things and big things, don’t be ashamed or afraid to feel joy.

Stay sharp, stay proud, stay hungry, stay defiant. See you next year.