Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Selfies – “Electronic Masturbation?”

Written and posted for new blog, Fanny Pack, on 19th November 2014. Please head over there and follow them for more of the same Feminist articles written by myself and others!

Today’s technological advances have made it possible for us to make as many self-portraits as many times a day, hour, or even minute, in any place, and then exhibit them instantly for public exhibition and judgement on the Internet. For women, who have long been models on which to project fantasies of the ideal rather than the real, the significance of this has perhaps been undervalued. Gaining full control over the capturing and displaying of one’s own image today – especially in an image-obsessed digitalised culture – is no small achievement or freedom. Prior to this, the portrayal of the female form as a passive image rather than active participant has been an enduring cultural tradition. Instead of being directed, caught, degraded, positioned, posed, or manipulated by someone else with or without your own permission, the Selfie truly reclaims the autonomy to take a picture on your own terms and decide who your audience is.

“Electronic masturbation” – Karl Lagerfeld’s provocative dubbing of the Selfie – was clearly intended as a slur. After all, the solitary act of masturbation is for self-gratification only, and there is nothing more self-gratifying than a self-portrait, right? Of course it makes perfect sense that an icon of the fashion industry – an industry that makes it’s money telling us what to wear and how to look – would disapprove of a medium that undermines this power. Lagerfeld is right – the Selfie is “electronic masturbation” – and just what’s so wrong with a little self-gratification?

The backlash against Selfie ‘culture’ boils down to this:

We question why the taker of the portrait has chosen to take a flattering picture of themselves. We question why their self-gratification has to be acknowledged in a public forum. We question why women continue to present an image of themselves that they have been culturally conditioned to present – idealised, sexualised, and for the viewing pleasure of others.

If all women went against this idealism in their Selfies, would we applaud their honesty, though? In a culture we have constructed for ourselves that continually over-values physical appearance, why are we so irritated and surprised that the majority of women are still more comfortable covering their faces in layers of foundation and mascara, taking a self-portrait from a flattering angle, and then distorting it with an Instagram filter rather than share a brutally honest one and risk attracting negative judgement?

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Idealising beauty is certainly damaging, but that doesn’t mean we should always demonise vanity. In every image we create or capture there is an automatic disconnect between the person and the portrait of the person. In a sense, we create an alter ego of ourselves in every one of these portraits. Every time we digitally adjust these portraits – even as little as a change in brightness – we are confirming that this alter ego not only exists, but that it is the ‘better’ version of us. This is not vanity, but wish-fulfillment. Yet, for women in particular, vanity is a dirty word. The cultural twinning of vanity and sin can be traced back to the artistic tradition of depicting women with mirrors in classical portraiture, which itself can be traced back to Biblical lore. This is vanity punishment; a concept that teaches us that a woman is supposed to be effortlessly and naturally beautiful for the pleasure of others, but not for her own pleasure. It has helped mold our definition of feminine beauty in art and pop culture as one idealised through the eyes of male heterosexuality, and conversely both elevating and condemning female vanity.

If we change our perception of vanity, then perhaps we can change the way we perceive Selfie culture – as wish-fulfillment, as self-gratification, self-definition, and ultimately self-empowerment. Take pride in your own unique image, beauty, and sexuality, and feel empowered by the autonomy to capture, share, and immortalise it. If digitalism has made us the photojournalists of our own lives, why should we feel ashamed in being a bit vain about it?

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Comics, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

Superman Returns & Man of Steel: Man vs. Myth

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“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Regions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth.”

–       Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A few years ago I got a book for my birthday from my parents about the life and work of the comic artist Alex Ross. It was called Mythology. They are both great art fans, so I presume they picked it because of the fine art quality of his illustrations, or perhaps because it had been favourably reviewed in whichever left-leaning broadsheet they were reading at the time. Whatever the reason, I remain eternally grateful that they made that probably random purchase as that biography came to fundamentally change not only my view on what comic art could or should be, but what the entire concept of superheroes means to pop culture and our society in general.

Through the eyes of a child, these characters and stories feel very much ‘of the moment.’ Incidental and individual. I used to travel back and fourth from my local library borrowing as many comics as I could. It didn’t matter who the character was, who the writer or artist was, which year it was from, which publisher it was, or even if they were age-appropriate or gender-targeted. It was just the love and curiosity of discovering a new world for the first time, but a world that I felt was somehow aimed at me alone. Mythology changed everything. Suddenly, the bold and zappy characters I loved from the DC, Marvel and Dark Horse universes had a weight behind them: a sense of history, a sense of evolution, a sense of myth. Like the fables and fairy tales of old, I discovered that these characters had been passed down through generations of storytellers charged with the task of keeping their legends alive and preserving their histories.

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 “A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance – And the myths that actually touched you at the time – not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses and Aeneas – but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman.”

–       Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Although Ross has worked for nearly every publisher out there, Mythology focuses on his work for DC, whose characters sparked his initial love for the industry as a kid (same for me, too.) Whilst Marvel comics’ universe can be broadly characterised by modern, witty, street-wise and usually ‘accidental’ heroes, DC’s universe – as the only publisher with claim to the originals – is populated by characters of inherent myth, purpose, and God-like stature.

Superman, more than any other character in the DC or any other comic book universe, embodies these qualities. He is our modern-day Hercules. He is biblical, mythological, and iconic. He is the original, the most enduring, and without parallel. No surprise then that he is also Ross’ favourite. 

“I very much wanted to create the new standard by which Superman should be drawn […] Of course, that didn’t happen […] Superman should never reflect any fashionable trend or other affection of a specific era – hairstyle, speech patterns, etc. He is beyond that. He is out of time.”

–       Alex Ross, Mythology

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 With all this in mind, let’s turn to his cinematic appearances. I must confess first of all that I am a huge Christopher Reeves fan, and he will forever cast a very long and caped shadow over any actor having to follow in his red-booted footsteps. This is both impressive and unfortunate for subsequent films. Even if you are not fond of the original Superman films in the 1970s – 1980s that he starred in, I don’t think you can deny how brilliantly Reeves portrayed not only Supes, but also his alter ego Clark Kent. Bumbling, awkward, but deeply well meaning and sweet, Reeves pitched his performance as the Daily Planet reporter with superb comic timing. It also made his transformation into the man of steel that much more dramatic. Right down to the little greased curl of hair on his forehead and that glint in his blue eyes, he was completely believable. The first two of that series of films certainly capture the spirit of the comics faithfully whilst expanding their appeal out to the wider less comic-literate audience. They set the benchmark right from the start to which all superhero movies should strive to reach.

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Now let’s skip forward to 2006 and the release of Superman Returns. I have to say I felt negatively about this film before it had even been released. It took director Bryan Singer away from the X-Men movie franchise that I loved so much, and the result was an unforgivable mess of a finale to an otherwise great trilogy. However, when finally seeing the film, I understood why he had chosen to jump ship. Returns is bright, bold, and…apparently controversial. I have had countless arguments with friends and seen many, many angry reviews about it, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. I really love that film, and while everyone is of course welcome to hold his or her own opinion, I almost get a little tired of continually having to defend it. The hatred for it seems to be grounded in several things: one is that it pays homage to the original film series too much; another is the casting of Brandon Routh as Supes, but perhaps the biggest complaint is the love-triangle between Supes, Lois Lane, and Lois Lane’s husband Richard, as well as with their son. And by ‘their,’ I very much mean all three characters, as the film would have us ponder over.

As a fan of the original series (well, the first two at least…) I wasn’t bothered by the unmistakable nods that Singer gave to them. After all, there is a significant gap between 2006 and 1987 when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released (the less said about that one, the better) so I don’t think it was unreasonable to remind the audience of not only the history of the character, but also of his history as a pop cultural icon. In our postmodern landscape, self-referential stories are as much about depicting the context of a myth as they are about its content. As for the casting, I will begrudgingly agree that Routh is unfortunately too youthful-looking for the timeline that the film sets itself in. This is a film that is a sequel, not a reboot, as the premise is that Superman has returned to Earth after he left to search for rumoured remains of Krypton at the end of Quest for Peace. Therefore, this is the same Superman from the Reeves movie-verse. It is also true that Routh is eerily similar looking to Reeves…I mean, like, spookily similar. However, the themes of returning, of time passing, of change, and of maturity, calls for a slightly more weathered and older-looking Supes, which Routh’s pretty-boy face just doesn’t possess. That being said, this is merely a cosmetic weakness. I genuinely thought his performance as Supes was believable and empathetic whilst still retaining that inherent weight of otherworldly strength, wisdom, and conviction that we associate with the character. In fact, with the exception of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (ugh), the rest of the cast is also stellar – especially Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey as his comical sidekick with her sneering red lips and yappy fluffy puppies.

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That leaves us with the final controversial element: the plot. How can there be a Superman movie where Lois is married to another guy? How can Superman have a son? Again, I find myself referring back to Mythology:

“Writer Jerry Siegal and artist Joe Shuster’s creation was nothing less than the Golem of their time – an all powerful mythic being brought into our realm to solve our injustices, to defend the defenceless. In this sense, Ross takes the next logical step by rendering him in what appears to be actual flesh and blood […] The effect was like finally meeting someone you’d only ever heard about.”

–       Chip Kidd, Mythology

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In this quote, and in the plot of Returns, the interesting tension between myth and man is revealed, as well as the overarching rule in storytelling that a myth must always evolve or be re-examined to survive. How do we connect with a man who is essentially a God? By giving him human frailties. In flesh and blood Kal-El is an enhanced Kryptonian warrior, but in spirit and emotion, Clark Kent is a sensitive and loving human. He is an alien immigrant living the life of an American man, and as such, it makes sense that his cultural heritage and destiny conflict with his sense of adopted human purpose. His militaristic call of duty forces him to abandon his human life with Lois, and in the intervening years, like a war widow, she is forced to move on and continue with her own life – not unreasonable, really. Upon his return, Superman finds that his world is not as he left it. He has lost a companion, yet gained a son. I found this idea radical and refreshing and would have loved to see where Singer would have taken it should he have had the chance to helm a sequel. ‘The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,’ Routh as Superman whispers to his sleeping son, echoing the words of his birth father, Jor-El. This is very much the heart of the film: the preservation and transference of legacy.

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Whilst I have been speaking of the ‘weight’ of his myth, that is not to say that the world of Superman is a particularly ‘heavy’ one. On the contrary, Metropolis is a city of gleaming urban modernity from the 1930s, and Superman – who draws power from the sun – is a being of supreme lightness in every sense of the word: Both in his charming charisma and unwavering belief that humanity is a species capable of great and good deeds, and, physically, in his soaring and effortless movement through the clouds. In Superman Returns, through Singer’s signature vibrant palette, snappy dialogue, and tentative inter-character relationships, this lightness undeniably shines through.

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This leads me on to the comparatively darker tones of 2013’s Man of Steel. First of all – I enjoyed this film. Unlike Returns, this film was very much a reboot of Supes’ cinematic legacy, and I was certainly very excited for it before its release, especially knowing that Christopher Nolan would be heavily involved in its production. It’s almost a given that everyone is a Christopher Nolan fan. The man is a master of the cerebral blockbuster, which sadly cannot be said for his partner on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder. Certainly though, Snyder is a great stylist, and luckily their partnership on the film seemed to work well – Snyder’s lightening-fast and heavily-saturated visuals tempered by Nolan’s Arthouse sensibilities in storytelling and mood. Again, it does well in establishing the mythic qualities of him as a superhero and counterbalancing them with the relatable qualities of him as a real man.

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I recall the trailer – a young boy racing through the cornfields of Smallville with a red cape fluttering behind him. It was so subtle and so poignant that I distinctly remember a fluttering in my stomach akin to what I felt during that after-credits scene in Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson uttered the words ‘Avengers Initiative.’ I also really loved the opening act set on Krypton – we have never been able to really spend a long time on his home planet in his cinematic outings, so this was a real treat for hardcore fans.

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The cast is also strong: Henry Cavill is powerful and convincing, yet weakened and emotional where he needs to be; Amy Adams (who I adore) makes a pretty good Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are believable as Kal-El/Clark Kent’s fathers. Michael Shannon is perfect casting as General Zod: cold, imposing, and unforgiving, he wears that Kryptonian armour like he was born into it. (The only thing that lets him down is some occasionally clunky dialogue.) What I was surprised about in terms of the audience’s reception of this film was how uncontroversial everyone seemed to find it.

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Unlike the waves of animosity aimed towards the ‘secret son’ plot of Returns, the most controversial part of Man of Steel – the death of Zod – has not attracted any of the same kind of hatred that I expected it would. This is not the first time Superman has been forced to take a life in his character’s long history. However, it still shocked me to see it. After an epic and ridiculously destructive brawl, a quick and brutal snap of the General’s neck ended it all. Superman let out a cry of anguish and dismay at what he had done, and what he had had to endure. It haunted me for days after seeing it. Not because I am hyper squeamish or adverse to violence, but because I couldn’t work out how I felt about it. Or about Man of Steel in general. Was it totally brilliant or just had moments of brilliance? Was it the right direction for a reboot? Clearly, the decision to bring Nolan on to supervise proceedings was due to Warner Bros.’ trust in him to produce a great superhero film after the phenomenal success of his Dark Knight trilogy, and what made this trilogy so spectacular was his ability to rightly ground Gotham in gritty reality without losing the comic book larger-than-life punch of the characters. Stylistically, the Arthouse aesthetic he brought to the Batman films was something he was expected to bring the Man of Steel, and evidentially did.

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Personally, I see no problem with DC films to start being more stylistically linked as this enables the audience to connect the dots between different character’s universes better, as well as separate them from the colourful and witty Marvel style. It is almost as though the two are attempting to create differing auteur personas in their approach to on-screen adaptations, which makes sense from a marketing perspective. My only issue with this being done to Superman and Batman is specific to their characters as a duo.

I wrote a blog a while back entitled Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity in which I discussed why these two opposite sides of the same superhero coin are both inextricably linked by their polar disparity. To summarise: whereas Batman is a being of darkness and unflinching realism, Superman is a being of light and romantic fantasy. Every single subsequent superhero ever created is an ancestor of one of them. In this respect, I feel that Nolan’s darker brushstrokes didn’t fit as well into the mythology of Superman as they way that they fit with the mythology of Batman. In recent years there has been a resurgence in all things gothic and existential, which – with the dark knight as my favourite superhero – I am a great fan of. However, there is an often-misplaced expectation that if something is ‘dark’ it must be automatically more mature and intellectually weightier than something comparably ‘light.’ Compared to Superman Returns, the action in Man of Steel is more brutal, the characters seem older and more grounded, and the style is faster and bleaker. The whole thing is heavier and grittier and the level of devastation to both Metropolis and Superman’s usually sunny disposition is far greater. The idea that Superman is forced to take a life to save the innocent is supposedly a more mature theme that what has come before. This is how Snyder and Nolan think that his myth must stay relevant in the current zeitgeist.

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But, although lighter in temperament and aesthetic, the theme of eternal struggle between myth and man and the wedge that this drives between Clark and Lois, as well as the painful estrangement from his son, should not be discounted as an equally mature and logical evolution of the Superman franchise and of his character. The love triangle dynamic of that film is realistically tense and complex, with no ethically right or wrong way to solve things. Lois’ heart is split both ways, and Clark must bitterly respect this as the noble personality he is. The glimmer of hope comes from the revelation that her son is also his. Even if they cannot be together romantically, they are bonded forever by this physical result of their past relationship. This subplot, to me, is incredibly adult and oddly domestic for what we expect from most superhero films. It is the interruption of modern life in an otherwise romantic and soaring myth. The neck-snapping moment from Man of Steel is still shocking and interesting, but it is just that: a moment.

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“I often wonder, Clark: Do you know what you are? You are the original myth. The one we’ll always believe. What would we ever do without you?”

–       Batman, The Trust, Chip Kidd & Alex Ross

Myth vs. man, the fact is, one cannot live without the other – Superman cannot live without Clark Kent. The myth of the God-like saviour collides with the myth of the American dream. This was one of the great successes of Reeves’ portrayal: he understood and embodied both the polarity and unity of Kal-El’s alter egos. Alex Ross also understands this. In his unique, hyperreal painterly style, we can see every wrinkle on Superman’s forehead, every fold in his cape, and count the lashes around his eyes, and yet, the sweeping dynamism of him in flight, the proud way he holds his head up, the clenching of his wrists as he bursts through metal, and the effortless strength he uses to rescue victims from beneath fallen buildings also shines through. We believe in him as a man and we believe in the myth and fantasy he exudes. If one is overplayed at the expense of the other, something crucial is lost. This is the balance that any live-action interpretation should strive to achieve, and I look forward with baited breath to the next instalment.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

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Pop Culture, Sci-Fi, Visual Cultural Theory

Godzilla vs. MUTO vs. Humanity: Who are the real monsters?

 SPOILERS AHEAD.

Ye have been warned.

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I love the Fantasy genre and I love the Sci-Fi genre.

But….Sci-Fi holds a special place in my heart. This isn’t because I think it is inherently better than Fantasy, it’s a personal opinion. A personal opinion that I think stems from the general but fundamental difference between them: Fantasy is usually rooted in the past – in pre-technological worlds than are either alternate or parallel to our own. Sci-Fi is rooted in the present or future with a heavy preoccupation on technology and the quasi-scientific grounding of the seemingly impossible. Both are fuelled by highly creative imaginations. But Sci-Fi, which endeavours to predict or forewarn the future, for reasons I can’t explain, captures my imagination far more, and lends itself to highly conceptual and deeply philosophical human quandaries far better than Fantasy seem to.

(Again, this is my opinion. I like The Lord of The Rings and I like The Matrix trilogy. It’s just my genre-bias makes me predisposed to like The Matrix a little bit more even though I concede that LOTR is a more solid film trilogy.)

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Godzilla is an icon of cinema in the same way that Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse are. You don’t have to have seen any of the films that they appear in to recognise them instantly or know something of their origins. Unlike the latter two, Godzilla is seen also as a Sci-Fi icon. That being said, there are certainly touches of the Fantastical about him – the monstrous, ancient, and the mythic. Indeed, the films of his franchise are so old and loved that they have passed into pop cultural lore – the modern equivalent of myth and legend. Gareth Edwards’ latest reboot understands this, which is one the reasons I enjoyed it so much. The title sequence plays ingeniously with both the footage of the 1954 original version (Gojira) and the true events that it was inspired by – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as other subsequent nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s – and skews them with added SFX to present a ‘real’ covered-up version of events to provide the set-up for the new film.

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Despite this, upon discussing the 2014 version with someone recently I hesitated before describing it as Sci-Fi, which caused me to wonder why. On paper, it seems to tick all the right boxes – giant monsters fuelled by radiation, humanity’s impending destruction, questioning human arrogance etc., etc. However, on closer inspection it is not in fact very ‘high’ Sci-Fi – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. As I stated earlier, an almost self-defining rule of Sci-Fi is preponderance on technology – normally futuristic – but the raison d’être of this film seems to be the obliteration or redundancy of technology.

‘It’s going to send us back to the Stone Age!’ Bryan Cranston’s character shouts at us.

This seems to widen the story out from pure Sci-Fi into the broadly Fantastical, which is perhaps refreshing given that blockbusters still seem so rigidly intent on remaining ‘in genre’ these days.

The general plot centres on primordial forces that have been wrongly resurrected out of their own allotted time period and inadvertently (I’ll go into my use of that word later) threatening to destroy hundreds of years worth of careful and daring human technological progress in the blink of an eye…or the crash of a giant moth-leg. All of our current most powerful weaponry – which is nuclear based – is quite literally food for continued devastation. We are rendered powerless by the sheer size and brute force of these creatures. These are creatures which predate us, and it seems that the reverence and fear of the ancient – for all of our modern innovations – stills holds powerful sway over us, both for the version of us on-screen, and as members of the audience.

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Another interesting debate I found myself having with someone about the film was the overall message of it. Now, without seeing the original Japanese Gojira you might think of the franchise that it spawned as not taking itself all that seriously. And with titles like Godzilla vs. King King, Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla I wouldn’t really blame you. As I mentioned earlier, the original was in fact an allegory for Japan to convey the terror of the traumatic and horrific nuclear weapons assault in 1945 without fear of censorship post-WWII. It is a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking watch with very sympathetic and believable human characters at its centre, and I would highly recommend you watch it if you liked the 2014 reboot, which has clearly chosen respectfully to carry the essence of the original through into its own new storyline.

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Having said that, it is also careful not to ignore the other integral components of the franchise as a whole, which – however ridiculous – have become part of the monster’s enduring lore. Those components being all those bizarre and laughable sounding titles I mentioned. As much as fans of Godzilla love and respect the serious anti-nuclear message of his origins, we also really love seeing him beat the crap out of other monsters. In Gareth Edwards’ version, his monstrous nemeses take the form of a male and female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). Fans will undoubtedly spot the resemblance between the MUTO and Mothra (or Kaiju) a recurring Godzilla foe who is basically a giant Moth from the Amazon. (Godzilla’s design, incidentally, is a combination of a Gorilla and a Lizard.) This is a both a strength and weakness of the film. I knew this version would be big and loud, and so I chose to see it on the most appropriate screen possible – at the BFI IMAX in London (boasted as the biggest in Europe, the slightly nervous announcer told the audience before the film started). It didn’t disappoint on either of these fronts. It was most certainly big and most certainly LOUD. So much so, that the one and only time I flinched (as the 3D did bugger all to do that, as usual) was when Godzilla first opened his mouth and let out that iconic battle cry.

With not one but three giant monsters on offer you would expect to be shrinking down in your cushioned cinema seat frequently. However, I have to say that even though I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was impressed by the look and feel of it, I never felt threatened. This is a significant weakness for a film that has one giant Lizard foot quite clearly placed in the apocalyptic genre of storytelling, and with large parts of Hawaii and San Francisco being spectacularly eradicated. Trying to determine the cause of this, my explanation came down to the simple fact that none of these creatures were specifically targeting humans for attack – they were targeting each other. The wanton chaos that ensued around them came from them merely stomping around and, well, being very big whilst doing it. The MUTO prey on nuclear weaponry, not the blood of the innocent, and Godzilla in turn preys on the MUTO. Humans are merely accidental casualties of their sparring.

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So what is the message of this reboot? Why does Godzilla target the MUTO? Who are the real monsters?

Godzilla began as a metaphor. Then he became a myth. Myths survive by their continual retelling and also their continual re-contextualising. Slowly, they are twisted and adapted to suit whichever zeitgeist they have been passed into. Today, the analogy of Godzilla I’ve heard seems to be that of a ‘tragic hero.’ He seems far more rooted in the myth of the lone Samurai warrior than atomic arms. There is certainly a sense of unsung nobility about him in the 2014 version that seems almost more human than the human characters themselves. It seems stupid to say it, but the real star of Godzilla is Godzilla himself. Towards the climax, this is brought out by paralleling his actions with those of the titular human character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As he falls, so does Godzilla. As he battles, so does Godzilla. United by a common enemy. There is a lovely moment when they both seem to stare into one another’s eyes and an unspoken understanding of the other seems to form. In the climactic end to the battle, it is left open as to whether Godzilla purposefully saves Taylor-Johnson’s character and his mission or whether his intervention (and WHAT an intervention it is) is coincidental. Godzilla, for all his monstrous qualities, is extremely likeable. Perhaps it is his slightly chubby stature, his T-Rex-like arms, his lumbering movement, or his amazing RAWRRR, but he somehow emits a surprisingly empathetic personality. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he is a beast we can connect with. I suppose that seals him as a true Sci-Fi icon.

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If Godzilla is the hero of the story, then that surely make the MUTO the villain, right? Well, let’s examine their villainous credentials: They do look big and scary. Their insect-like appearance makes us predisposed to dislike them the way we are predisposed to dislike spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Their origins are that they lay dormant underground until our deep mining disturbed them. First a male, and then a much larger, female emerged. When we found that they could not be destroyed, we instead tried to contain one of them, feeding it nuclear energy until it let out an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) wiping out all electronic devices within its radius, which enabled it to escape. It then began hunting first for nuclear devices to consume – in Russian submarines, for example – and then its female mate to reproduce with.

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Let’s recap: humans wake up two ancient hibernating animals who then fly off, eat stuff, and then have freaky bug sex. True, they cause a lot of inadvertent damage to human cities, but that’s the key word here – inadvertent. They are animals. They are nature. As an advanced species, we have for quite some time considered ourselves to be separate and even above the rest of the natural world. Our consciousnesses’ have long since outgrown our constricting flesh. In this separation, we increasingly see nature as either an enemy or an alien entity by default. We live artificially dependant lives. Yet as I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the natural and the ancient still inspires us with both fear and wonder. The MUTO are not villainous because they are out to kill us (intentionally, anyway); they are villainous simply for existing in our world.

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Ken Watanabe’s character – the scientist tasked with studying and destroying the MUTO – is instrumental in feeding us these ideas. At one point, he tells the military commander guy (I can’t remember his name…) that Godzilla is supposed to restore ‘balance’ and perhaps rather than fighting him or the MUTO, we should simply stand back and let them slug it out as they are intended to do so. There are multiple ways to read this as I was debating with the friend I previously mentioned. You could see the message being simply that humans shouldn’t meddle in nature and are being punished for doing so; a theme that runs right through Sci-Fi from Frankenstein and further back than that to the story of Prometheus, from which Frankenstein takes his subheading. My friend’s view was that the message was more complicated than that: we – humanity – are the implied imbalance to be re-balanced, and perhaps that Godzilla was targeting the wrong enemy. If the MUTO were here first, she argued, then they can’t be the imbalance. My own reading was that the imbalance had been caused by the MUTO surviving beyond their own time period – a time when the Earth was still radioactive, as Watanabe’s character explains. Cranston’s line about being ‘sent back to the Stone Age’ also echoes the idea of timelines being misaligned. The MUTO are also referred to as ‘parasites,’ which has inherent negativity, and also backs up the idea that they should no longer exist as the environment that sustained them no longer exists. Certainly, our creation of nuclear devices also contributes to the imbalance that has enabled them to continue to feed and breed. Godzilla seems to have magically awakened to fix our mistake.

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You could go so far as to argue that a comparably neutral force scooping up the world’s nukes might not be such a bad thing, too. It might have even been the answer to a lot of long-lying global political problems.

In the tradition of great Sci-Fi, Godzilla asks ‘Who are the real monsters?’ and then turns a mirror slyly towards the audience. Human progress is continually scrutinised as arrogant, destructive, but always necessary in our constant pursuit to speed up evolution. For reasons that are never made clear, Godzilla fights – on this occasion – for us. A champion we did not nominate, or call upon, nor could we find a way to thank in the end. As much as nature threatens and baffles us, it seems to have our back too, whether we deserve it or not.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve also enjoyed the classic Godzilla posters I chose for this post 🙂 I love great movie poster art, and Godzilla has inspired some of the best.

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

The Problem with Graphic Novels

 

I have loved comic books right from when I first learnt how to read. It started with Tintin and Asterix and Obelix as a child, which my mum introduced me to. I later discovered superheroes as a teenager – Batman and X-Men were (and still are) particular favourites. Not long after that I started to widen my reading list to include series’ like Hellblazer, Sandman, Lucifer, The Authority, Phonogram and Watchmen, as well as many popular manga titles like Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura, Neon Genesis Evangelion, D-Gray Man, Black Butler and Ouran High School Host Club. So that’s me: nowhere near an expert, but very much an avid fan-girl.

There were of course more innocent times when I pondered things like, ‘Wait, is that guy Marvel or DC?’ And ‘So what is the difference between manga and anime?’ It’s all part of the learning curve. It was while reading the blurb of Watchmen (and very much still curving the learn) that I first remember coming across the term ‘graphic novel.’ It was used in a quote from Time magazine: “[Watchmen is] one of the greatest graphic novels of all time.” ‘Graphic novel?’ I wondered. ‘So this isn’t just regular comic I’m reading then…’ I mean, the word ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘book’ somehow sounds superior doesn’t it? Coupled with the sheer strength of Moore and Gibbon’s work I naively believed that the formula must be:

graphic novel > comic book

As though ‘graphic novel’ was a higher title bestowed upon a higher quality of comic book. Like a knighthood or something. I also found out that Watchmen was the only comic book to have made Time’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time list, which cemented all this further in my mind. ‘Wow!’ I thought, whilst probably brushing my hair into a frizzy hell. ‘This comic book is so good its ranked among real books!’

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Of course graphic novel is not any determining value for quality. What ‘graphic novel’ is actually defined as is merely collected issues of a continuing storyline of a particular character/team/franchise. It’s a volume, really. I don’t know why they didn’t use volume as the name for it in the first place as they do in Japan for manga collections. According to Wikipedia (because I’m a lazy researcher) the term first appeared in 1978, was thrown around a bit for similar titles to Watchmen,and eventually become popularised enough to be inducted as an official category in bookshops and publishing companies. I suppose the thinking was that as the stories became longer, each issue served as a chapter, and so to collect all of these chapters together meant that the volume resembled a regular book…but with pictures. So yes, the term makes sense. (Certainly in my mind, a graphic novel is a more fitting description for the format that most illustrated books take – particularly children’s books, in which image and word are separated rather than integrated.)

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I’m not certainly not against collecting issues of comics together – my comic book consumption these days is largely centred around waiting for collected volumes to be published as I simply do not have the time, space or money anymore for every individual issue of every millions of titles that apparently are necessary for every bloody character…*SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH* Long story short: I like volumes. (Manga titles are collected as ‘volumes’, FYI.) My problem is that the term has become so ubiquitous that comic book and graphic novel are used as interchangeable names now even when the technical definition is incorrect. In the same way I thought a graphic novel was a fancy word for a comic book as a kid, nowadays it is commonplace for people to use the former rather than the latter for one of two reasons:

  1. They genuinely think that the comic they have read is ‘too good’ to be classed ‘simply’ as a comic.
  2. They don’t want to admit they enjoy reading comic books.

The first point I think I’ve talked about already. If you are reading a collected volume of issues, then yes, you are technically reading a graphic novel and I’ll let you off. If not, there’s no excuse: It’s a comic book. If you enjoyed it then you enjoyed it because it was a well-written and well-drawn comic book.

The second point is what I call the Harry Potter factor. Do you remember when Harry Potter started to emerge as really big thing? Like a massive-all-consuming-religious-behemoth-of-literature thing? It was enjoyed by millions of children everywhere (myself included) but it was also enjoyed by millions of slightly ashamed adults. They were ashamed because they actually enjoyed reading a kid’s book on the train to work. So rather than these poor ashamed adults just removing the dust jackets, the publishing company came up with an alternative solution for them: they published new editions with fancy-schmancy ‘adult’ covers. I’m guessing this was also quite handy for the sales figures (as if they needed help…)

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This issue is to do with elevation. Usually when a product has to be ‘elevated’ it means that its original form is not deemed palatable enough for consumers beyond the product’s normal fan circle. So it has to be re-branded. You can also see this exemplified in the re-release of old films in 3D – same content; different jacket (and more money to be made). A more complex example is the elevation of graffiti to street art. Where graffiti or tagging is illegal, certain examples by certain artists – Banksy, for instance – are now protected and treasured by the communities of whose walls they adorn. Of course in the case of Banksy a conscious decision was made by the artist to elevate his own work by exhibiting it in gallery spaces and selling it, and in doing so I don’t think he intentionally meant to dilute the graffiti art genre away from subversive, transient and – most importantly – free pieces into the massively fashionable and collectable commodities that they have become. It’s hard to get on a bus these days without seeing some dude or lady-dude sporting the ‘Obey’ motif by Shepard Fairey on a beanie, for instance. Now, as a commercial artist I of course recognise and understand the need and want to make a living from doing what you love. However, donning my critics’ hat (which is covered with coffee stains and glitter in case you were wondering) I can’t help but see this tale of a rebellious medium being eaten up and then spat back out in glossier, commercialised packaging as an all too familiar and cautionary one.

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Comic books, however, were born into commercialism. They began life as satirical cartoon strips in newspapers and magazines, where they still survive today, and morphed into the form we know them in today through fantasy, sci-fi and Superheroe stories. (I am ignoring the history of manga here, which is far older and culturally rooted in classical Japanese art.) Comic books never had to worry about the whole ‘selling out’ thing. That’s the beauty of them in a way: crude, intelligent, arty, surreal or serious; as long as they found a fan base, big or small, they could survive. They had no formal rules of content or conduct really – aside from the obvious self-defining ‘must integrate pictures with text’ one. Comics are a true art form for the masses. Comics were born to be sold. In the same way that retro-fitted 3D doesn’t improve a film and a fancier dustcover doesn’t improve a Harry Potter book, calling a comic book a graphic novel doesn’t improve the comic book. If we make the mistake of assuming that a graphic novel is an elevated comic then we could make the mistake of thinking that a comic book is a downgraded graphic novel by default, in the same way we could assume that a black and white film is a downgraded colour film.

Let’s not forget either that comic books were once – and sort of still are – aimed at children and teenagers. The fact that these kids grew up and continued to enjoy them speaks for the strength of the storytelling in having universal and enduring appeal, not for the strength of the marketing campaign or the category it can be found under in a bookshop.

“[I write graphic novels not comics books?] Meant as a compliment I suppose. But all of a sudden I felt like someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker; that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” – Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Companion (1999)

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Disability Visibility in Comics & Manga

 

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Roughly a year ago now I started reading a manga called Gangsta online and became pretty much hooked from the first few pages. I lapped up every chapter that was available, and every subsequent chapter that was painfully slowly uploaded by the scanlators (I would explain what a ‘scanlator’ is, but the clue really is in the title.) A year later (the present) the manga has FINALLY had its first volume released in English and I didn’t hesitate to order it, despite having already read the first 20 or so chapters, and I can’t wait to re-read it again in print.

What is it about this manga that grabbed me so much? Honestly, I can’t put my finger on one single thing. Gangsta has just got that magic formula of great characters, plot, artwork, and writing that sing off of the page for me. Overall it tries very hard to keep away from the usual trappings of its genre, but there is one element that I find particularly unique: it has the first deaf character I’ve ever encountered in manga.

Disability, whilst still hugely underrepresented, is by way no way unheard of in comics and manga. The most obvious example is Daredevil – the blind lawyer by day and the blind superhero by night. His is the classic tale of turning what most would view as a disadvantage into an advantage – his lack of sight is compensated (or overcompensated, perhaps) by superhuman hearing. And he can also kick the shit out of you. Another is of course Oracle. Oracle, aka the original Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordan, was dealt horrific spinal injuries by the Joker and rendered unable to walk ever again. Again, rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up entirely on superhero life, she became Batman’s technological eyes and ears as Oracle.

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There is also the alternate tale of continually struggling with disability. Cloak – of the superhero duo Cloak & Dagger – suffers from a terrible stutter which, as a teenager, prevents him from being able to warn his friend of the oncoming car that hits and kills him. His ability to literally engulf himself in darkness represents his own longing to disappear in silence from the world.

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Other examples are more allegorical. Bruce Banner’s ability to transform into a raging green giant when angry can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a mental health condition. Maybe he is just a guy who loses control over his emotions so extremely that he also loses control of reality. The Hulk could all be in his own head, and we see what he sees because the story is told from his point of view. I doubt I’m the first person to make this point either. The X-Men, who have been born with their abilities rather than gained them, are classified as Mutants, which automatically has an inherent linguistic negativity.Image

They are the embodiment of every feared and misunderstood ‘abnormal’ or minority group in our society, and similarly vary between defensive separatism and active outreach. Every single mutant has a unique mutation in the same way that every disabled person has a unique disability. There may be some general similarities or common characteristics, but ultimately the severity and the effects of that mutation/disability depend on the individual.

Returning to manga, I have to say I can think of far less examples. Very often, if a character is in a wheelchair – which is the most common visible example I’ve seen – they are very much defined by that disability to the detriment of their characters. Nanalie in Code Geass, who is both blind and in a wheelchair, is presented as being so emotionally and childishly weak as direct result of her disability that she borders on being pathetic. She cannot go anywhere without being nursed by someone. It infuriates me so much I wish she wasn’t in the show at all. Sometimes just being representative isn’t enough when that representation is so profoundly negative.

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Implied mental health problems are a bit more common in manga. Light in Death Note is quite clearly a high functioning sociopath and – by the end of the story – develops megalomania to boot. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion is an undiagnosed manic-depressive who happens to also be trapped in the most bleak and apocalyptic world imaginable. His frequent declarations of ‘I might as well be dead’ and ‘I really don’t care about anything’ seem to enhance the intense melancholia and crushing sense of hopelessness that hangs permanently over the story of Evangelion. Luckily his initial reluctance is slowly purged by a latent heroism that develops partly thanks to his confused yet affectionate feelings towards one of his co-pilots, Rei. Shinji is a protagonist who discovers the will to live as the world around him conversely ebbs closer to destruction. Never mind, Shinji.

So… in light off all of this waffling contextual analysis, how and what does Gangsta do differently to represent disability? In the first few pages in which the two central characters – Nic and Worick – are introduced, there is nothing to suggest Nic’s hearing impairment. And why would there be? The only way you would know if someone was deaf would be if there was a physical indication – you might see that they have a hearing aid, for instance. Nic’s physical presence is that of the strong, silent, and vaguely disinterested type. The revelation of his disability is not revelatory in the slightest. So much so that I actually missed it on the first reading – which I think is a good thing. Rather than being the be all and end all of his character, it is simply presented as a different way for him to communicate. This is partly due to the constraints of the medium itself. If it were moving images, or perhaps even a book, his deafness might have been instantly apparent in the scene in question. As still images it is a little harder to grasp.

This is how it goes: Nic taps the hood of the car he is sat on to get the attention of the other characters around him who are all having a verbal conversation. His hand gesture is drawn to suggest movement. His speech bubbles are black with white text – the inverse of everyone else’s speech bubbles. As this is the first time I have ever seen a deaf character in a comic/manga, I don’t think there is a standard method of presenting one – I had no reference point to think ‘ah yes, he’s signing’ in the cartoonish way that you often see a blind character drawn with sunglasses and a stick and get that they are blind, for example. I think I just assumed his speech bubbles were different to make him seem cooler or something.

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It is not until much later on that his disability is specifically made reference to and that was when I clocked it and the ‘Wha-?’ moment happened. In the scene, Nic becomes angry, and his speech bubbles suddenly became white with black text. But the shape of the bubbles is jagged and the text is all in capitals and differently sized.

 “Wait! Nicolas, did you just speak?” One of the male characters asks him in surprise. “Say something again!”

Nic taps his chest.

“Sorry I…don’t know sign language.” The man replies.

“He says he’s too tired to do it again.” Worick interprets, and he exits the scene with Nic.

Given my ignorance in realising that Nic had been signing the whole time, I think it was good that the creator – Kohske – added this little bit in for other thick people like me, but I was also impressed that she managed to avoid being too expositional. Nic chooses to verbally speak only to vent his frustration directly to the characters that are non-sign language fluent, but refuses to indulge them again, completely fitting with his ‘fuck you’ character (which I am completely in love with, btw.) Without going into too much detail, Nic does have superhuman abilities in strength and speed, but unlike your average Daredevil or Hulk or X-Man, these have nothing to do with his disability. He is a superhuman assassin who just happens to also be deaf. It does not define his character, but merely adds another ‘FYI’ layer to it.

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In fact, the only time in the story so far when his deafness is central to his characterisation is possibly my favourite bit of the manga so far. The word ‘bromance’ gets thrown around a lot lately, and very often is used to comic effect with not-very-subtle-and-borderline-offensive-gay-jokes scattered around, because how else can heterosexual men express love for each other without it being (tee hee) a bit gay? Well, let me introduce you to Nic and Worick: a truly legit bromance. I don’t want to give too much away because I genuinely want people to go out and buy this manga, so all I’ll say for context is that Nic and Worick share a pretty traumatising childhood together. At first, Nic is totally alone – silent and illiterate (which I ironically just misspelt about 5 times…). He has absolutely no way of communicating with people other than vaguely miming, and none of the adults around him are remotely interested in making an effort to understand or reach out to him. He is emotionally blank. It is Worick – an equally isolated child of similar age – who teaches him to not only read and write but to sign (he discovers the language in a book). It becomes not only Nic’s communicative liberation, but also their own private language, and this special world of two stays with them into adulthood and remains beautifully impenetrable. Worick is also Nic’s connection to the outside verbal world, but there isn’t any point that you get the sense that Nic is dependant on him. He stalks rooftops alone, disappears around corners, and sneaks down alleyways while Worick struts his stuff down main roads and runs his prostitution racket – (yep, Worick is a gigolo) on the side of their delivery business.

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Before writing this I did a quick Google search on the author and manga but failed to find much on either of them unfortunately. Specifically, I wanted to know why she had decided to make Nic deaf, but then I realised that just by asking this question I was being discriminatory. Why shouldn’t Nic be deaf? It would be the same as asking why a character was a woman, why a character was gay, or why a character was non-white. The answer is they just are. There could be a reason why Nic was an assassin. There could be a reason why he decided to only wear black. There could be a reason why he possessed superhuman abilities – and all of these are answered in Gangsta (except the black clothing thing, I think its just to make him look like real dude tbh.) There doesn’t have to be a reason why he is deaf unless it is a crucial factor in understanding his character – which it isn’t. The proof of this is that I read the first few chapters not realising he had an impairment and still understood his character; still empathised with him; and still wanted to read more. When I became aware of the impairment, my feelings towards him did not change. If anything, I warmed to him even more. This is a real testament to the story-telling abilities of the author, Kohske, and if Gangsta gets popular enough, will hopefully encourage the creation of other more positive and well-balanced disabled characters in this medium.

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You can buy Gangsta Volume 1 now from Amazon and Forbidden Planet. And you really should.

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Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Sparkly Vamps vs. Groggy Heroines: A possibly controversial Twilight/Hunger Games analysis.

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It seems like decades has passed since I stayed up all night to read the entirety of New Moon in my room, lying on my bed on my stomach, legs crossed in the air in the manner that all teenage girls seem to read books in films. My mum came in at about 6:00am and asked me why I was awake so early on a school day. “I just couldn’t stop reading this book,” I replied guiltily, but completely honestly.

Why was I feeling guilty that I’d become so desperate to find out if Bella and Edward managed to reunite? Well, because even at 16 years old I was well aware that the vampire romance series I’d become obsessed with was extremely…uncool? Fan-girly? And before you start sneering – Yes, I did laugh out loud when Edward revealed his sparkly chest to Bella whilst proclaiming that ‘this was the skin of a killer.’ Yes, I did become continually annoyed at Bella’s pretence that she was some sort of ugly, friendless outcast when every single male character – human and non-human alike – aside from her own father seemed to be desperate to invite her to the prom or take her home to meet his family of supernatural monsters. Yes, I was well aware that Stephanie Meyer’s descriptions of Edward were both ludicrously gushing and often contradictory. If you want proof of this I highly recommend the parody novel from The Harvard Lampoon, Nightlight, which as well as being a brilliant spoof is a surprisingly surreal book in its own right.

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Actually, on the subject of spoofing, I think the reason why I enjoyed the parody so much was because I did genuinely enjoy the books so much. As I said before, there is a lot to mock and gripe about, but I can’t lie and say that I didn’t connect with some of the characters, I didn’t believe in the romance, and I wasn’t drawn into the storyline. (Well, for the most part… I mean one of the most negative aspects of every single book in the series – aside from the third one – is that the conclusions are disappointingly anti-climactic. This is actually something that the films do better: for instance, the build-up to the climax of New Moon promises an epic fight scene between Edward and the Volturi – the Head Vamps of all the Vamps. The film manages to give you this, but the book gives you…tense but polite discussion with mild threats that you doubt will be followed through on. I mean if Edward has ‘an Adonis-like physique’ I would like to see him put it to practical use PLZ. Also, FYI: Jacob’s character is completely ruined in the second book. Let’s move on from that though.) What I’m getting at is that parodies normally work best when the spoofing comes from a respectful or affectionate place. That’s why the Family Guy spoofs of Star Wars work so well.

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So, as much as I acknowledge and agree with a lot of the deluge (and it is an absolute tidal wave) of criticism that has been vented towards the Twilight franchise, and I certainly wouldn’t claim it is a piece of literary genius, I can’t say I’m not a fan of the series. I’m not a ‘Twihard,’ but I’m definitely not a Twihater. Is that a thing? It is now.

Now that a considerable amount of time has passed from the publication of the first book to the release of the final film instalment on DVD, it is safe to say that the dust has finally settled on the whole Twlight thing. Except it hasn’t. Because the current fan-girl fantasy franchise kid on the block is The Hunger Games, and for some reason, it seems to have been hailed as the ‘antidote’ to Twlight. Now, as I am currently only part-way through the third book (yes, I am bit a late to the party on this one) so I know it’s a bit unfair to judge it completely at this stage…but hey, I’m doing it anyway. Or at least, partly doing it. My probably controversial opinion is this: Having discovered Twilight through little fan pockets of sites like deviantART  – i.e when it was still under the radar of mainstream pop culture – I don’t think Twilight is as bad as everyone says it is, and, having been convinced to read Hunger Games after hearing so much adulation for it, I don’t think Hunger Games is as good as everyone says it is. There. I said it. I’ll admit on the Hunger Games front that this might have a lot to do with hype and heightened expectations, and despite reaching this opinion recently I would still recommend Hunger Games over Twilight to anyone after an easy-to-read fantasy series. I mean, Hunger Games is generally better written with a much deeper and more interesting storyline and less predictable character development with a more likeable female lead and is just generally a bit more head-scratchingly thought-provoking.

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However, I would only say this if asked to choose between those two series’ specifically as they are strikingly different, and to hold them side-by-side so closely is unfair. The only strong lines of comparison are quite vague: they both have a plot that is carried by a young female lead, and both of these leads are thrust into fantastical situations and fall into love triangles. Those are quite general similarities. But because of the female leads, and because it is a fairly new idea to market a fantasy-action franchise at a young female audience rather than a young male one, their comparative positive and negative impact on their intended audiences has been assessed intently. I do find Katniss’ character a great deal less problematic than Bella’s, but the line of argument that a lot of critics – particularly feminist critics – use is that whereas Katniss is physically and emotionally tough as old boots, Bella is comparatively weedy and mopey. Okay, she does spend a lot of New Moon moping around, but I wouldn’t ever describe her as weedy. The idea that if you put a bow and arrow and a scowl onto a female character’s face she is automatically a satisfyingly feminist presence is completely reductive. Just because Princess Fiona can do karate in the Shrek series, it doesn’t mean that Dreamworks completely revolutionised the princess genre for the modern kick-ass cool girl age. It’s a good place to start, if nothing else. (If you want to know who I think is a genuine feminist icon for the kick-ass cool girl age I would happily point you in the direction of Lisbeth Salander of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series.)

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Having made my way through most of the Hunger Games series now I can’t help but feel a tad disappointed by Katniss’ character towards the end, who seems to become physically and emotionally weaker as the story progresses. From her bold decision to take her sister’s place in the games in the first book to the groggy and wounded state the we find her in wandering around in by the third. It is very much a world that seems to be happening around her rather than being lead by her. She is continually manipulated, paraded around, or concealed, with both predominantly patriarchal sides of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ preferring to use her as a symbol rather than a physical presence to achieve their own ends. If you want to compare this to Twlight, which is what most critics choose to do, then this character arc is again strikingly different; oppositional, in fact.

If you examine Bella’s character arc she is presented in the first book to be a normal, introverted teenage girl and by the end of the final book is transformed into a super-powered young mother. The mother thing is also key here because – and I write this as a pro-choice supporter – when met with rigid opposition, including from the person she loves the most, Bella fought for control over her own body and fought for her right to choose to have that child…even though I was kind of on the side of the nay-sayers at the time when reading it…but still, it was her decision to make. Bella drove the entire plot of that final book and for the most part does so in all of the previous instalments too. On the surface, I think it is easy to miss this and see her as a feeble lead, just as a think on the surface it is easy to see Katniss as being a consistently strong lead when actually her strength and direct impact on the plot – although satisfying at the start – continually diminishes.

This is a very general observation, although none-the-less one I think people should consider if they want to compare these two. I would also add that Katniss’ waning control in the story is not something I think is necessarily a weakness of the story itself. It makes perfect sense within the genre that it has clearly been written in – dystopian quasi-science fiction in which doom and gloom abound, and social and political upheaval suck its character’s into a spiralling trap of helplessness and frustration. Similarly, Twilight inhabits its gothic, supernatural melodrama genre perfectly well. In terms of science fiction, Katniss represents the typical human element that becomes helplessly swept up and subsequently powerless in a futuristic world. In terms of fantasy, Bella represents the typical human element that actively seeks out and is ultimately empowered by an ancient world.

On a side note, it is also interesting to note the parallels between the main male love interests – Edward and Peeta, who are both refreshingly caring, sensitive, artistic, and convincingly admire and adore their female counterparts without question. The hint at reversed gender stereotypes in these two relationships – which is admittedly clearer in Hunger Games than Twilight – is actually far more progressive than simply having a strong female lead alone, and far more important for a young audience to be influenced by today.

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Perhaps a lot of the flack that Twilight receives is flack towards fangirl culture in general, which I think is more sexist than people accuse the series itself of being. Yes, there are some ridiculously obsessed fans out there who happen to be mainly women, but surely there are far worse franchises out there that appeal to fan-boy culture. The Transformers series, for instance, offers a far more damaging view of women, who are really just curvy ornaments around the orgy of explosions and shiny things with wheels. It is also interesting that none of these male-angled franchises’ feel the need to directly appeal to women in the way that the Hunger Games and Twilight marketing campaigns felt the need to by saying ‘thank goodness boys will like them too because there’s some fight scenes and CGI stuff going on.’ Not that I think fight scenes and CGI stuff isn’t appealing to girls and romance isn’t appealing to boys. I enjoy both in equal measure, and quite frankly could have done with more action in the Twilight series and less romance in the Hunger Games.

I am now going to go back to reading the final Hunger Games book and hope that Katniss gets stuck into more of said ‘action’ by the end.

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Comics, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity

 “As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique…Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Bill, Kill Bill Volume 2

 

So far so good, Bill. Except I would dig a little deeper into this.

Superman’s origin story is so cemented into pop culture history that I know I needn’t even bother re-telling it…but I’m going to anyway. Superman, as you’ll know, was not born Superman. He was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton. He did not have super special powers on Krypton. He was just your average Kryptonian baby. It was not until he was (luckily) jettisoned into space just before Krypton exploded and arrived on Earth that he started the transition to become super (due to the effects of our yellow sun on his physiology, as opposed to the red son of his birth planet). He did not, however, become Superman. Not right away anyway.

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His identity as Kal-El was temporarily lost as he grew up. Instead, he became Clark Kent – a human identity – the adopted son of Martha and Jonathon Kent. He eventually rediscovered his original identity as Kal-El from the ingrained knowledge within his fortress of solitude from his birth father, Jor-El. Kal-El is what evolves into Superman: the human translation of his Kryptonian heritage. And what does Clark Kent become? A caricature. As Bill rightly says – the suit, tie and glasses are the mask. Bumbling and stumbling around the Daily Planet by day and soaring through Metropolis’ skies by night. The mortal vs. the God.

But what happens when neither the Clark nor Superman personas are needed? Which role does he play when he is sitting at home reading Lois’ articles? Or buying dog food for Krypto? Or visiting Ma and Pa back home on the farm? Clark Kent the country boy becomes Clark Kent the reporter; and Kal-El the fallen alien becomes Superman the world’s first superhero. This fracturing of two identities leaves behind a third persona that could be the true identity of the character. This is his private self – Supes with his guard down that only his nearest and dearest will see.

We can see this puzzling trinity of identities in one other comic book character. And it so happens to also be Superman’s direct counterpart – Batman (Who is also my favourite. Sorry Bill.) Again, his origin story is well imprinted into pop culture lore. And again, I’m going to re-tell it.

Bruce Wayne was the son of Martha and Thomas Wayne – Gotham City’s foremost philanthropists and gothic mansion-dwellers. Just like Superman, their sudden deaths triggered the birth of Bruce’s superhero persona – Batman: a physical manifestation of his childhood fears. But unlike Superman, Batman witnessed the death of his parents firsthand. Their killer was not the natural demise of an entire world. Their killer had a human face. Something to punish. Whilst Superman learns of his birth planet’s death in a history lesson, Batman’s knowledge of his parent’s murder is a memory he can never forget. Hence the dramatic contrast between their identities as crime fighters. Justice vs. Revenge. Light vs. Darkness. This binary opposition between the World’s Finest seems to always bind them together like Yin and Yang at the forefront of DC Comics’ empire.

This mysterious third identity draws a distinct parallel. Because just as Clark Kent becomes a secondary costume to Kal-El, Bruce Wayne projects a fabricated public persona of himself to protect his identity as Batman. The Hugh Hefner style billionaire playboy. Clark Kent was created to assimilate, but Bruce Wayne was created to hide in plain sight. And the Bruce Wayne that returns home to the mansion where Alfred is always on hand with a sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate (or a first aid kit) removes the mask or the tuxedo and becomes…what? The third persona. The face beneath the mask beneath the mask. The real Bruce Wayne.

Another option is one that has probably been argued before: That Bruce Wayne’s identity died with his parents. The Bruce that could have been if they had lived. Batman becomes his true identity and the version of Bruce Wayne that shows up to all the charity galas with a model on his arm is the costume. I believe this is interesting but too simplistic. What about all those times that Batman has ‘revealed’ himself to those he trusts? When the mask comes off, Bruce Wayne – the real Bruce Wayne – is what is underneath, very much alive. Not a promiscuous rich kid or a psychotic detective, but a world-weary man.

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But does the celebrity face of the Bruce Wayne identity have hidden depth as well? Is it the way Batman thought he would have turned out should his parents have lived? Or could it be seen as a form of escape…from his original form of escape? Batman was the coping mechanism that gave a grief-stricken child a purpose to go on living for. But as time goes on this mechanism becomes bigger, heavier, and darker. Sometimes it even seems like a burden. This certainly makes the lazy and debouched costume of Bruce Wayne certainly seems like a lighter and easier one to play. But the fact that he constantly returns to the cape and batarangs tells us that – even if it is the harder road to walk down – it is one he can never turn back from.

These two characters, as I hope I’ve shown, are far more complex and intricately built than first meets the eye. As our oldest comic book superheroes, they could have faded into obscurity, but thanks to the strength of their characters and unique origin stories they instead became the two templates of practically all subsequent heroes. The first being those who were born with powers, and the second being those who were given/created their own. The stories of their creation have become our modern day myths and folklore – continually re-told and re-packaged in hundreds of different voices, pens and languages but never straying away from their original formulas.

(And yes, Batman is a superhero. Could you do any of the cool shit that he does? I don’t think so.)

* More of my illustrations and arty stuff can be seen on my tumblr page*

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Anime, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Anime and Cartoons: East vs. West

So, this is all started when I tried to find a DVD of the brilliant but sadly forgotten anime series The Big O. I say ‘tried’ because to my surprise I discovered that not only were there barely any copies up for sale on both eBay and Amazon, but the asking prices ranged from £35 – 70…for two measly series’. I hadn’t encountered this much trouble finding an anime series on DVD since my fruitless hunt for Neon Genesis Evangelion last year (which was even more distressing – yes, distressing. Point of interest: the Evangelion manga is actually far easier to buy – and makes a heck more sense than the show. You can even get these handy 3-in-1 volumes, which I’ve been collecting, that also include neat stuff like full colour art pages and bizarre interviews with the writer and voice actors…if you’re an Evangelion junkie, I can’t recommend them enough.)

I did have some idea beforehand that Big O was a bit of a cult series, but the fact that the DVDs were so rare piqued my interest, so I had a nose around the show’s Wikipedia page (when in doubt…Wiki it) and found that the critical response to the show was sort of like…Marmite. Some people (like me) thought it was slick and clever with some pretty awesome mecha fight scenes, but others found it far too derivative. One guy from IGN said it seemed like

“the creators had watched The Matrix and The Truman Show one too many times.”

Yeah, I can see that. Most interestingly, however, was the fact that the show did very poorly in Japan, but was largely received positively in the West by the three people that actually watched it.

There isn’t really much reason given as to why that is online, but from what I remember of the show I could hazard a guess at why. The first thing I – and probably many other viewers – noticed when watching Big O is how similar the animation style is to Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series of the 90s, a show which took its artistic cues from film Noir of the 30s and 40s, as well Art Deco of the 20s.

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In fact, the similarities between these shows are so similar, it’s about as hard to not notice them as it would be as hard not to notice you were being wacked in the face by a giant robotic arm coming out of the TV screen. Not only is this true of the animation style, but the entire colour palette, design, atmosphere and characterisation draw parallels: Big O’s protagonist – the dashing Roger Smith – is pretty much Bruce Wayne, but with a giant mecha suit instead of a human-sized Bat-themed one. He even has a British butler, for Christ’s sake.

This leads me on to another obviously Western influence – the names of the characters. Roger Smith, Dorothy Wayneright, Norman Burg… the list goes on. Of course, this is not a unique trait to Big O. Full Metal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, D-Gray Man, Hellsing and a tonne of other anime have used Western names for their characters and also are clearly set in Western countries (the most popular being America, the UK, Germany and France.) However, all of the shows I just mentioned differ from Big O in that they have all been critically and commercially successful in their home country – Japan. Why? Well, the only difference I can see is again in the animation style – the other shows I just mentioned all look like Japanese home-grown anime, whereas Big O has the paw-prints of foreign influences (Bruce Timm’s Batman) all over it.

Anime, after all, seems quite strict in its self-classification. It’s kind of like a tin of baked beans: instantly recognisable from the label, and you know exactly what you’re getting in the inside (I can’t believe I just equated anime to baked beans…is that really the best analogy I can come up with? ) Even if you’ve never consciously sat down (or stood up, you can watch things how you like…) and watched any anime since Pokémon when you were 10 years old, I bet if I showed you a picture of any anime character you would most likely be able to say that the drawing style was certainly not Western. In fact, a perfect example of this is the hugely popular (and deservedly so) cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel Korra (which is currently airing as I write this.) This show is CONSTANTLY being misclassified as anime due to the obvious Eastern influences on its style and over-arching themes, when in fact both of its creators are American and the show’s network is Nickelodeon. (It looks like anime, it smells like anime, but it just ain’t anime. I will tell you why in a bit…)

This is not to say that all anime looks exactly the same though. In a similar way that different fine artists and film directors have individual and identifiable styles, anime (and manga) artists have different styles that suit different types of anime. Some shows that have stuck in my mind over the years for their outstanding and unique artwork include Soul Eater, Ghost in the Shell, One Piece, Blood Lad, Samurai Shamploo and K. Different anime studios also have a collective ‘house’ style, just like Western ones. Production I.G, which is famous for producing some of the best anime series’ and films in recent years, can be easily recognised by its super crisp and almost impossibly detailed digital rendering, not to mention its ethereal use of light and colour in post-production. Of course, the most recognisable ‘house’ style of all the Japanese studios has to be Ghibli, which has been hailed as the Disney of the East (although I think it equates better with Pixar. No offence Disney.). Ghibli’s style is probably the most Westernised of all come to think of it, yet its popularity in Japan – and internationally – cannot be overstated. It seems to be a troublesome anomaly in the context of what I’m talking about, but hey, exceptions prove the rule, right? (The answer is yes.)

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All of this is not really about me accusing Japanese anime creators or fans of being closed-minded or even xenophobic, but more to do with what I mentioned earlier: the strict parameters of the medium itself. A strictness that I consider largely self-imposed. Last year when I managed to wrangle critical anime texts into my dissertation research I read one Film Professor’s (his name escapes me now) definition of anime as an animation style that can only be produced in Japan (discounting the fact the much of the more menial production work in modern anime is actually done in South Korea, but never mind…) This definition certainly gives credence to my theory as to why heavily Westernised shows such as Big O get such a lukewarm reception in their home country.

So, is there a problem with a cultural medium being so insular?

Well, let me get one thing straight first: as a Western fan, the things that first attracted and fascinated me about anime were their distinctively Japanese qualities – not just stylistically, but in terms of cultural in-jokes, references and stereotypes. They feel – without meaning to sound patronising or tourist-y – like a tiny window into an exotically different cultural landscape to my own as told right from the mouths and pens of its inhabitants. There’s a reason why there is no such thing as a ‘casual’ anime fan in the West. The fans (or ‘Otaku’ as the Japanese call them, a derogatory term similar to the American ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ meaning someone who is obsessed with manga or anime) put the fan into fanatical. And speaking as one of them, I can tell you that I reckon this is firstly because of the medium’s unmistakable uniqueness, and secondly because – as an outsider – you really have to commit yourself to watch it to actually understand all of the…well, Japanese-ness.

I’ll give you an example: when a character (usually male) is aroused (usually at the sight of a female character’s skirt being blown up by a convenient blast of wind…trust me, this happens more than you’d think) they have a nosebleed. This is because of a Japanese ‘belief’ that having a nosebleed is linked to sexual arousal.

Anime Nosebleeds

Here’s another example: you know how we in the UK and US (and possibly in other Western countries) have the phrase ‘my ears are burning’ when we think someone is talking about us somewhere? Well, in Japan, this is signified instead by a single, random sneeze. Without translation notes (which some subbers helpfully provide) these little quirks are lost on us Westerners, as it would be vice versa for a Japanese audience watching some Western shows. Visually, anime has its own language that you have to learn as well: sometimes characters will shrink into ‘chibi’ mode, and sometimes thoughts that are visualised and become mingled with reality, and another character can see what the other one is thinking and interact with that ‘thought.’ Yeah. There are a lot of quirks to get accustomed to, but it’s all part of the charm.

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Going back to the mention of subbing though (or subtitling) – this opens up another kettle of fish for the Western Otaku. As I’m sure anyone who has ever tried directly inputting Japanese into Google translate has discovered there can be some hilariously terrible consequences of mistranslation in fan subs. Of course, I completely recommend purchasing official releases on DVD for professionally done subs (and to support the creators of the shows), however, as any seasoned fan will know, these English releases are too few and far between. (Not to mention overpriced…£16 for 4 episodes of Vampire Knight? I don’t think so HMV.) Only the most popular shows will get a Western release, and usually quite a bit longer after their Japanese release. Remember how you would have to wait, like, a whole YEAR for the next Pokémon game to come out after its Japanese release? Well, anime still feels like that for me. Even worse, the only anime that is shown on TV (that I can find) has had American dubbing wacked onto it – which can sound HORRIBLE (cases in point: Ceil Phantomhive in the dubbing of Black Butler and Sakura Kinomoto in Cardcaptors. Awful. Just…ugh.)

Saying that the American intro is just too catchy to be forgotten…

Even worse than this, anyone who has ever watched the American production company 4Kids ‘interpretations’ of anime such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and One Piece and then compared them with their Japanese originals will know just how heavily censored and fiddled with they are. (Cardcaptors is another good example of this, as I explored in my Tumblr blog – An LGBT Guide to Anime – in which 4Kids carefully cuts out every scene where it is evident that Sakura’s older brother has the hots for his male best friend. This results in one episode only being half as long as the rest, and so they have to fill time with flashbacks to the previous episodes. Really 4Kids? You think that two guys holding hands is a worse message to kids than a preteen girl sneaking out of her room every night to supposedly fight magical monsters and lie to her friends and family about it every day?)

TOUYA_AND_YUKI_motivator_by_purpletiger

This issue of censorship also makes the intolerance two-fold: just as Japanese audiences have little taste for Westernised shows; there are plenty of elements of Japanese shows that Western companies such as 4Kids deem unpalatable for their audiences. I have often been dismayed at the Western cultural practice of snubbing anything animated as being ‘just for kids.’ Now that I’m in my 20s * shudder * I have to admit that I’ve started wondering if I am just too old to be watching stuff like this. But then I remember that in Japan, most of the shows I watch are not aimed exclusively at kids – anime is a billion dollar (or yen, I should say) industry with a firm cultural foothold in the country’s heritage. Anime and manga are serious business and lots of it has some serious content – and by that I mean adult with a capital ‘A’. Anyone who has ever seen Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Akira will know what I mean. Even more ‘kid-friendly’ shows such as Bleach have a fair amount of blood spurting around the place.

Aizen_cuts_down_Komamura

I suppose from Japan’s standpoint there’s also the argument that – as such moneymaking behemoth – why should this localised medium bother to try harder to extend its reach globally? And how could any foreign shows possibly compete against such overwhelming competition? With such a comparatively small international market there just doesn’t seem to be enough reason for most anime production companies to make that extra effort to cater to fans beyond the East. Or even just beyond Japan.

I think it’s about time I summed all this up. To begin with, I talked about how The Big O was not widely accepted in its home country seemingly due to its heavy use of Western influences; similarly, despite its popularity increasing from the mid-1990s to now, anime as a whole still enjoys only cult fan status in most of the West. As a Western fan, I find this a great shame – largely because of the availability issues I mentioned earlier, and also because I really feel that anime as a distinctive and imaginative creative medium is massively underrated in our mainstream visual cultural landscape. Though, perhaps I am just seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of a foreigner…

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Let’s end things on a good note though. The existence of shows such as The Big O and Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel Korra, prove that cultural ‘borrowing’ from the West to the East and vice versa are not only possible, but produce some brilliant results. In fact some of your favourite American cartoons over the years may be a bit more Japanese than you realised: ever seen Totally Spies, Batman: Gotham Knight, The Matrix: Animated, Ben 10 or Teen Titans? All were heavily anime influenced. (In fact, Teen Titans creator Glen Murakami was so conscious of this that he purposefully picked Japanese pop (or J-pop) band Puffy Ami Yumi to do the show’s opening theme song – in both English and Japanese.) So perhaps the way forward is more of a cocktail, rather than a straight spirit. Yes, more food analogies…

(What do you mean Totally Spies was not one of your favourite cartoons? They have lipsticks disguised as lasers! What’s not to love??)

Anime and Cartoons: East vs. West

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