Monday, November 22, 2010

Teh Scott

Picture from Entertainment Earth

I finally finished reading the Scott Pilgrim series. It was pretty damn entertaining and addictive, though after the dust clears, it’s hard to find much to say about it except that it was fun to read.

You know the story: 23-year-old and nerdy Scott Pilgrim is slacking his way through life in Toronto, in a band, when he meets and falls for roller-skating, goggle-wearing “subspace delivery girl” Ramona Flowers. However, to have a clear field to date her, Scott must battle and defeat each member of Ramona’s League of Evil Exes, seven ex-boyfriends (well, one is a girl) who have joined together.

Scott bumbles his way into it, getting the job done in a world of magical realism, fourth-wall breaking, pop-up captions, and video game imagery. All this, and trying to deal with his own screwed-up past and present, and the people who live in it.

The “slacker guy gets the love of awesome girl just because” plot is pretty low on my totem pole of story ideas that I despite on sight, but it was still only seeing the opinions of trusted others which convinced me that Scott Pilgrim would be one of those series that transcended the icky nature of its premise.

It pretty much does—Scott isn’t particularly lionized, there is a reason why Ramona can’t defeat her Evil Exes by herself, and basically you forget about the cliché and just work with the characters. What is left is a very funny representation of slacker twentysomethings, the pitfalls of love, and “references to stuff the author obviously likes” that aren’t too grating.

I’m not a gamer, but I understood enough of the video game references to get by (so I hoped), accepted the odd nature of the comic’s world, and was at a lot of points on the edge of my seat. The over-the-top self-referential dialogue so liked by people my age is also out in full force, but that’s a good thing.

The series also gets points for allowing the world to see that explicitly Canadian works can be hilarious and eccentric too, and giving Canada some representation among the nerdy demographic, and not as the usual punching bag. (which I know is tongue-in-cheek, but come on, you guys!)

The books had some manga influence, but not in the aggravating, copycat way that you get when artists are trying only to copy some imagined “genre style”. Rather, the manga influence seems to be just an influence of many on the comic, whose art really looks more like American thick-line animation than anything else. However, while O’Malley tries to give distinctive features to his heavily stylized character designs, sometimes it is still hard to tell characters apart.

I’ll be sure to watch the movie version in the near future.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Their Ways Are Not Our Ways

I have such a deep reverence for the animated series Gargoyles that I will secretly bristle at any fan-made alteration to the canon series and its titular race. For that reason, I don't read a lot of Gargoyles fanfiction anymore, though I used to, back before this obsession with detail truly kicked in.

For what I did read, I’m not bitch enough to actually attack fanfic writers off, or even feel that they shouldn’t write anything I disagree with…it’s just that I do disagree with a lot of what happens in Gargoyles fanfiction, and there are trends which stand out to me in particular.

Many of these issues boil down to writing Disney gargoyles as, in my friend Greg Bishansky’s words, “humans with wings”. This means removing or ignoring a lot of the gargoyles’ distinct culture or inventing other aspects to it, in order to make them more like modern humans. I can understand the desire to do this, since humans are generally more to what is more like us, and fans could take it as a given that gargoyles would adapt certain things over time as they become more comfortable with the modern world.

However, when precious few American animated series try to develop any kind of culture for their fictional races, it’s annoying to see gargoyles, one of the rare exceptions, so often stripped of their distinguishing characteristics.

For your consideration:

Gargoyles learn to raise their offspring singularly rather than communally because humans taught them it enabled them to truly love their children

This is the biggest issue, though one whose resolution I partially blame the series for awkwardly communicating to the audience. Clans of Disney gargoyles lay their eggs at the same time, and raise their offspring collectively, with little regard for biological parenting. However, the last eggs of Goliath’s clan were raised by humans on Avalon, and there Goliath meets his biological daughter Angela.

Angela, under the influence of her adoptive human parents, starts asking for special emphasis on being his biological daughter, which Goliath is reluctant to give because of unseemly favouritism it shows, and because Angela’s biological mother is the now-villainous Demona. He is made to remember, however, that Angela is the only rookery child traveling with him, and all children demand special treatment from time to time--it’s really no big deal if Angela fusses over the biological connection.

The intent was that Goliath and Angela’s initial conflict is but an idiosyncratic hitch, not a revelation to the gargoyle species that collective raising is cold and de“human”izing. It’s an intent I agree with, because a positive portrayal of collective parenting shows initiative and imagination on co-creator Greg Weisman’s part.

However, a lot of fans seemed to interpret these events to be that sort of revelation I described above, and anticipate future generations of gargoyles to be subsequently raised in nuclear families. I party blame the series for communicating the matter awkwardly, and perhaps not pushing hard enough against the deeply-ingrained belief of the (mostly middle-class American audience) audience that nuclear families were the most loving option.

I’m not too inclined to be generous, though. Besides my preference for the canon, I dislike seeing one of the few attempts at a nonhuman fantasy culture in American animation undermined. It also seems ridiculous that an entire race, the race that viewers are supposed to consider mostly heroic, would then be written as having a culture devoid of parental love.

In addition, it looks completely wrong for a series that condemns bigotry between species and races to have a plot where one species’ parenting methods (humans) are Just Better, and they have to teach the poor, blighted gargoyles how to love their children.

Finally, if I could be Junior Biologist for a second, collective raising makes sense in a species like gargoyles, who live violent lives and can only lay three eggs maximum in their lifetime. It might thus have developed as a species instinct, rather than a preference, and so be difficult to “undo”.

Goliath and Elisa have a biological baby

While normally I dislike the pairing between a male non-human and a female human because of all it suggests about double standards, Gargoyles won my heart with the Goliath/Elisa relationship because, though it was obvious from the start, it took time to grow and be declared, and the story delved into the complexities such a relationship would have. Officially, Goliath and Elisa would always remain different species, and never be able to have children, yet it would be no barrier to their bond.

However, fandom likes to undo this by declaring several possible scenarios that either have one character or the other temporarily or fully become each other’s species, or science/sorcery allowing them to reproduce biologically without shapeshifting.

This agitates me on a different level, since good stories work best with a minimum of free lunches. This gives the characters something to strive against, obstacles to overcome. In this case, we get to see how the couple copes with the fact that they cannot have children by their own blood, and the happy ending is their understanding that it does not matter. To provide Goliath and Elisa with biological offspring would undermine this miniature character arc.

Furthermore, both characters are said to have a strong sense of self, one that prevents either of them from adopting the form of each other’s race. The idea of either character changing species is played with in the episode “The Mirror”, but ultimately the word is that both Goliath and Elisa value their selves, and their other commitments, far too strongly to ever change their species.

Others have also been intelligent enough to point out that any method that would bypass the biological barriers between Goliath and Elisa conceiving would involve parties who could not be trusted, namely fickle magical beings and mad scientists. It only makes sense that the couple would not try these people and decide just to deal with the matter.

By a similar token, gargoyles and humans easily fall in love

A lot of fantasy stories rely on this conceit, but the background of Gargoyles establishes that human/gargoyle pairings are in fact very rare, with one other known besides the Goliath/Elisa pairing.

Gargoyles subversion lends gravitas to the relationship of Goliath and Elisa, if it is so rare; it makes the power of love even stronger. This discrepancy also seems like a more sensible thing when you look past the expectations of fantasy. While the real world has many fans that gladly profess attraction to humanoid supernatural creatures, none of these beings exist in real life, no matter how great the special effects, and so we cannot gauge our true reaction to them. The Gargoyles tradition seems to align more closely with reality.

In the future, either far or near, gargoyles interact freely and openly with humans, including going to night school

This one is a little trickier, since Greg Weisman actually did intend for gargoyles to enter into human education at some point in their future. What I have left to complain about, though, is that fanfic often presents such ventures in a way that is far, far too easy.

Any issues that gargoyles would face when revealed to the human world be much more intense than what other oppressed groups have already faced. And yet most stories that I’ve read make little reference to this, treating it as a matter of course that gargoyles would become part of the world without fuss or muss.

As I said above, stories need a minimum of free lunches to work. The gargoyles should eventually get a chance to venture farther outward into the modern world that eventually knew they existed, but it won’t be easy and it won’t be the same for them as it is for humans. I see a missed story opportunity there, and an attempt to sanitize the story.

Gargoyles wear modern/human clothes

A sub-trope of the modern-world integration is the idea that gargoyles will begin wearing skirts, pants, t-shirts, jackets, and blouses, with a sub-sub trope being East Asian gargoyles wearing the traditional garb of their human culture. There’s not much to say about this except that it further removes gargoyles’ distinctiveness and is unimaginative, and therefore is the enemy. It also seems highly impractical when certain types of clothing would inhibit a gargoyles’ movement.

And yes, I know Brooklyn liked wearing sunglasses and once dressed as a biker, and the young gargoyles love their Halloween costumes…gargoyles wearing modern outfits on occasion is canon. But that doesn’t meant that all of them will adopt that as a permanent style, and I would hate to see it happen.

Gargoyles have human standards of beauty

Disney gargoyles come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. However, some fans like to think that gargoyles of a less humanlike visage are shunned, teased, and bullied by their own kin. Generally, this takes the form of beaked gargoyles being considered hideous and having brutal angst about that. A sub-trope is implying that this is only true for female gargoyles, which makes even less sense than applying it to both genders.

While gargoyles probably have their beauty standards, to say that they would react to the less humanoid gargoyles as humans would react to similar features shows a lack of imagination. The “inhuman” features of gargoyles have been part of their race from the start, and are not abnormalities or deformities. Therefore, the only equivalent to gargoyles considering certain appearances among their own kind to be universally monstrous, would be a universal human prejudice against those with a certain hair or eye colour. It’s just very hard to imagine, and further blurs the line between gargoyle and human.


It’s easy to spot a common thread among all these posts: I like to gargoyles’ distinctiveness, preserved, and to have the series continue to subvert several fantasy tropes that I object to. Without these things, Gargoyles would not be what it is to me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

God Bless Gainax

Time for me to come clean…so to speak:

When I bother to catch an episode, I actually find the anime Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt to be pretty damn funny. I really thought I wouldn’t, believing the series would be more about fanservice than lulz, but…while there’s still a tonne of fanservice, you can almost (almost) believe the show is more about making viewers laugh, because less people (only less) would get off on the raunchy antics of stylized, super-deformed characters than realistic ones, and the show is extremely manic anyway.

What the show is about is, um, two girls who fight evil with their respective garments which transform into weapons. Oh, and they’re also sister fallen angels trying to get back into heaven, which they do by collecting the coins that appear when they blow up monsters. The be-‘fro-ed priest, Garterbelt, watches over them, and Chuck, a green thing that bears a suspicious resemblance to dog-suit GIR from Invader Zim, pops up to get dismembered or smacked around. A nerdy kid named Brief who dresses like a Ghostbuster also joins the cast early in.

So while I’m not here for the fanservice, part of what’s great about this show is how rude, selfish, and lazy the two heroines are. Panty loves sex, Stocking loves sweets (though of course manages to usually remain super-deformishly thin), and both of them spend a lot of their time just not giving a crap. For all the people like me who are tired of female characters being the nannies of the cast, this is awesome.

(And yes, I did see the Transformers parody episode; pure gold.)

P&S is also frankly, unrepentantly obscene and scatologica1. I’m not normally a huge fan of stuff like that, but I’m not really angry about that, either, and I can hack it when all the slapstick and comedic sociopathy makes up for it. I try to pride myself on flexible standards, y’know?

I just plain love the art style, because it’s so wild and colourful, and don’t find the actual animation as horriblbe as many seem to. Like everybody’s saying, P&S also looks like an American cartoon of a certain stripe, namely the off-the-wall weirdness and simple animation typically associated with Adult Swim, or the early Cartoon Network shows, though its content is more South Parkian.

Yet, just like American attempts to draw “anime style”, something feels a little bit off, so that P&S couldn’t quite pass as an American show if it was dubbed and you didn’t know it was Japanese. P&S owes at least as much to Gainax’s other show, FLCL, as well as to Dead Leaves in terms of cracked-out visuals. Still, it’s interesting to see the modern trend reverse itself, hearkening in an odd way back to American animation’s influence on anime’s early works.

So yes, I will be watching more of this. It threatens to cross over into guilty-pleasure land, but that’s okay.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Some time ago, I achieved a state of Zen: I came to enjoy and deeply love The Simpsons rather than "merely" respecting it as the American institution that it was.

See, when it comes to entertainment, I can easily divorce respect from love, without taking away from one or the other. I've never disliked The Simpsons except for a stupid phase in junior high, but I've never felt any deep emotional attachment to it, either.

Like most North Americans, The Simpsons has been a staple of my life from toddlerhood onward: I can name almost every character, identify every quote and catchphrase, and it seems like I have seen most of the older episodes a billion times, so I'm not sure what alchemical qualities combined to let me make it to my mid- 20's without gaining a real deep affection for The Simpsons.

I used to eagerly follow the show in my pre-teendom, then went through a shameful phase where I turned up my nose at all cartoons which weren't overtly fantastical, and then another phase where I absolutely hated watching newer episodes because they seemed garish and harsh, and then finally settling down into a state where I just watched older reruns of The Simpsons time and time again, not getting into it, but not really wanting to change the channel.

But it's true now that I really love and appreciate The Simpsons rather than just considering it an eternal object in my environment. That feeling that the newer episodes are awful and not worth my time has carried over, and even when others say the series is getting its magic back, I can't return the favour (I didn't like the movie, for instance). My current cut-off point is around Season 8 or 9, but I might re-think that.

What's the core strength of The Simpsons have been repeated ad nauseum, but there the are: being funny on multiple levels, being clever on multiple levels, being developed while still having little real continuity, and being at its best when there is some genuine feeling for the dysfunctional family. The later seasons feel like they've lost all their warmth, so that even when they may be equally clever and challenging, they don't have the same magic as the older episodes.

And just like with the first volume of The Sandman, I find the first season of The Simpsons enjoyable to watch even as other, more involved fans dismiss it as just a test drive. In both cases, there is a certain charm to the lack of sophistication seen in the beginnings of a great work, the contrast between it and what it later became, but at the same time, there's enough of the series' core strengths emerging that the early works are enjoyable for their own sake.

Also, I now declare that any nerds discussing "good American cartoons" must put The Simpsons on their list, instead of being dismissive of comedies or animated sitcoms by reflex. I know guys, I was there once too: but an animated series doesn't have to be a an action drama with moral ambiguity and strong continuity in order to be "good".

It's easy to name who would be my favourite characters in the series: Homer and Lisa Simpson, both of whom are also are also in some ways difficult characters for me to like.

Cliches can transcend their roots to feel special and original to an individual viewer, and several critics have made a strong case for the members of the Simpson family being able to achieve that, but part of me still bridles at the archetypes that both Homer and Lisa represent.

Others more cutting than me have wrestled with the issue, but I tend to agree with those who belive that the "bumbling dad" character type also does males some favours in perpetuating the idea that they are helpless and need to be coddled and catered to. But my problems with Homer are larger than that: in a way, he's the embodiment of a whole bunch of general male wish fulfillment theories: that he can be silly and wacky and self-indulgent and we'll love him for it, and Marge, being the female, has to remind him of morals and social obligations. While Marge might be easier to get along with in the real world, it's Homer who's ultimately more fun and appealing. You can see this dynamic played out in a lot of other cartoons which are very different from The Simpsons.

Homer was a really great and fun character before "jerkass Homer" syndrome set in, but that aspect of him can't totally be glossed over by ironic satire or moral sophistication. Yes, of course the writers knew when to dial back Homer's self-indulgence to show there are lines he won't cross (a technique which is beloved by cartoon male Id-dom but that "jerkass Homer" avoids), but the idea that appealingly self-indulgent = male remains.

Just like Homer, all the other fictional characters who amuse me because of their naked displays of Id have been male, and it bothers me a bit, the suggestion that female characters can't be funny, strange, quirky, interesting, or self-indulgent, at least and not have it treated the same way. A female character would be more likely to be judged harshly for blatantly pursuing crazy schemes or creature comforts, instead of being a hero.

With Lisa, she emobdies the opposite side of that notion: that women are to serve as the moral centre of a story, which is more of a burden than a lionization.

But I also wince a little bit when Lisa depicts a nerd's persecution fantasy, and feel a tad guilty about that, because I've been the Lisa Simpson in my life, so why I should feel uncomfortable, even a little contemptuous, with depictions of this kind of thing is...I don't know, a weird kind of self-hate. Especially since the series is also capable of taking the piss out of Lisa at one point or another.

And it also bothers me, even though it might have happened largely for the purpose of satire, that Lisa developed to fit that kind of generic "package" of what a progressive should be in terms of their outside habits, things that have nothing to do with how progressive a person is, but seem to have become required. Of course the politically progressive Lisa is a vegetarian, a Buddhist, and likes jazz. Those are, somehow, the interests and leanings that socially liberal people are "supposed" to have.

But at the same time, it's impossible to miss that Lisa has a lot of values and beliefs that I can get behind, and I appreciate intellectual characters as much as Id-driven ones (one day I hope to meet or create one who combines them both).

I've also recently read Chris Turner's book Planet Simpson, which seems to finally be making its round on the remaindered and used book store circuit. It was a great read, and helped to articulate and elevate the true power of The Simpsons, though I disagreed with him on a few points, and he'd likely find ways to disagree with me on any criticisms of Homer and Turner's eyes, the characters seem to be fully above such concerns, able to  totally transcend the problematic cliches which they sprang from, if only through mocking them. But even a great show like The Simpsons isn't above the spirit of its times, and even a great show involves earnest but unexamined assumptions.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Passing Grade

Slowly, steadily, I am becoming comfortable with admitting that I do like the Monster High franchise--Mattel’s attempts to create a multimedia franchise about cute monster girls in high school, starting with the dolls but also including animated shorts and novels--a little bit. It started with seeing that other geek girls were getting into it, followed by trying to resist the temptation to buy a Clawdeen Wolf doll, then eventually giving in and admitting I really did want it, a werewolf that looks more like a beautiful girl with fangs and wolf ears, sporting platform shoes and a minidress.
 I’m still confused as to what Clawdeen is doing here in my apartment. Ever since I was a nerdling, I’ve held an undying grudge against the concept that every female monster must be pretty or a pretty version of a male monster. Furthermore, fashion and what’s called “beauty” these days just isn’t my thing.

Any larger-reaching complaints about either of these things are more about them being the only options available for girl’s toys or (almost for) female monsters, and not being intrinsically bad themselves. If this weren’t true, I’d have less of an issue with pretty-girl monsters or fashion-focused toylines when they did appear. I’m particularly irked by the suggestion that the werewolf girl must shave her entire body, ensuring she’s freaky, but not too freaky, y’know?

(This is not an issue of making monsters “wimpy”, either. It’s not really possible to “damage” the reputation of a fictional creature by providing softer depictions of it.)

Monster High does try for some equality with two monster boys that also look nearly human. It deserves points for this, and it’s probably more than a male-targeted toyline would do. However, all things are not equal, as the background of the animated shorts, you’ll find plenty of more conventional male monsters inhabiting the school, while all the female students still look pretty.

There’s also a bit of a “bad fanfic” vibe to the premise that someone not steeped in fandom would probably not recognize or react to: not only are the MH characters in (dramatic voice) HIGH SCHOOL, but they are meant to be the children of “legendary monsters,” in some cases naming their progenitors as the exact figures from movies and mythology. It’s so danged subcultural of me , but I can’t help my knee-jerk response to this, thinking ill thoughts about the many fictional characters have been transformed into high school students or saddled with bastard offspring.

And then there are the puns; oh my god the puns. Help!

Despite these criticisms, I decided to give the issue more consideration. Besides pretty-girl monsters, “Monsters in high school” has also been done a lot, including Gravedale High, which I grew up with, so what made it different? Well, Monster High isn’t exactly different, but I’ve observed a few things about it that are a cut above.

First of all, loathing of pretty-girl monsters aside, I like the art style of the packaging and the webtoons. I have this weird, moth-like attraction to bright, colourful objects, and on this it delivers. The colour schemes of the characters are striking, even if their shoes are painful. And sometimes, the cartoons do get a chuckle out of me.

Secondly, No matter how much I bemoan the lack of true female grotesques in popular culture, Monster High is still unlike most girls’ toys. I’ve always been disturbed by that most girls’ toylines deal with “normal” (if privileged) life instead of anything supernatural or fanciful, and those that do involve fantasy elements are relegated to an even younger set, as if being a girl leads to only thinking about what is possible in the real world.

Monster High is only just a little dissimilar to this, but I might have underestimated the power of geek girls and women seeing something “freakish” targeted explicitly towards them, rather than having to eternally piggyback off boys’ toylines if they want to deal with anything behind the glitzy mundane.

I also get the impression that many fans consider the storyline behind the dolls to be more considered and positive than the usual “shopping, flirting, fashion” mien of girls’ toys, but that doesn’t right true. Yes, Mattel did put some work into defining the characters’ profiles and personalities, but so do a lot of toys, and these are still “normal” high school girls organized into neat archetypes, despite their exteriors.

Overall, the reasons I have for being interested n Monster High are only small ones, stacked low against my difficulties with it. I don’t believe Monster High is really all that subversive, but at least it can be an entertaining diversion in small doses.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Reflections on Macrophilia Part 8: Conclusion

To recap: I love the Zentradi because I found that their original story resonated with me in a peculiar way, unintentionally touching on some of my personal ideals and desires. This was filtered through some appealing characters with their own stories to tell and their own initiative to take. Above all else, I grew attached to the human-friendly male Zentradi from the SDF-1 era (Exedore, Breetai, and the spy trio), with Exedore being at the forefront, because they were the characters who most strongly embodied the themes and ideals of the Zentradi. Exedore was the one I liked with the most, because I empathized with him the most obviously, and continued to  like him even when he was re-imagined as a new character. Anything else related to Macross or Robotech was a distant interest at best.

It might be argued that being primarily a Zentradi fan makes me a Macross fan by default, and I’d agree: I am a Macross fan. However, it doesn’t logically follow that I must be a Macross purist, too. It’s easy to say that Robotech offers nothing once one discovers the three separate original series, and I’d argue that is true for most when you strip away the nostalgia for Robotech. Yet it’s not that simple for me. Certain small things that Robotech once did with my favourite Zentradi are essential to my personal fandom, and I can’t give those things up, regardless of the crude, fake nature of their material.

Furthermore, when I’m involved with Robotech there is this sense of assurance that I can act on my automatic impulses and desires, be myself, spread my wings, have fun, rather than rework and twist my perceptions to try to fit the radical alterations made by Macross. I understand that the quality of the Macross stuff is better, and overall more supports the themes that drew me to the Zentradi, but those are not the only issues. The mishandling of my favourite Macross characters will always be a black mark.

Because of this comfort, early on I mistook myself for more of a Robotech fan, before reconsidering the complex issues surrounding this assertion. However, because I still allow Robotech to come into competition with Macross and in some ways win, such as in preferring Sentinels Exedore to Neo-Exsedol (strictly on a level of personal fondness rather than artistic legitimacy) , I can’t be a simple Macross fan.

Yet Macross is what originated the Zentradi. The first series is even better in its original presentation, and there are good things about Macross’ handling of the race. If I had the option of tweaking one universe or the other to contain my “ideal” Zentradi treatment, it would be a hell of a lot easier to remake Macross to my own standards.

Since the reality is what it is, I have to adapt. When neither the Macross nor the Robotech franchise alone can give me the basic whole of authenticity, quality, perpetuation, and pleasing treatment of my favourite characters, I have to choose both in the end. Despite the difficulty this causes, I do truly enjoy what I did get out of the experience.

Reflections on Macrophilia Part 7: General Portrayal of Post-SDFM Zentradi

When considered beyond the annoying treatment of my favourite characters, the status of the Zentradi in the post-1982 Macross productions looks like a gift: they live human lives, with human bonds, and none of Robotech’s messiness. Yet despite the race’s general happiness, I just don’t find much that is compelling about later Zentradi characters, and there are a few additional difficulties I have with it. In this discussion I include hybrid characters, though some of those characters of course are portrayed as more “Zentradi” than others.

At this point in the timeline, the thematic appeal of the Zentradi passes on to other characters and antagonists. It up only to the characters’ individual appeal to create an interest in them, which they can’t seem to do. Instead, Zentradi introduced after 1984 trigger a variety of responses in me: they are mildly objectionable, or good for a few laughs, or fulfill my personal ideals for Zentradi-dom but without much characterization. I don’t want to take up a great deal space in this essay discussing them; I do genuinely like a few of the newer Zentradi characters, but not as deeply as I did the original ones, not enough to have any strong emotional investment in their respective anime.

Human characters remain the primary driving force of all new Macross narratives, with full-blood Zentradi as secondary, tertiary, and background characters who may or may not be treated poorly by the plot. Sometimes part-Zentradi characters receive major roles, but they also never turn out to be very gripping, and their heritage has superficial or negative relevance.

That’s not to say I’m not cheered by Macross 7 and Macross Frontier depicting crowds of Zentradi (now distinguished by their retconned pointed ears) dressing and acting just like modern humans, because that represents their freedom in the most obvious, immediate way. However, there are more complex possibilities than choosing between an image like that and a monotonous life of war.

Another bugbear is that strong double standard of characterization when it came to the Zentradi genders, going right back to the original series and then extending it. Male and female Zentradi are treated very differently by the narrative, and seem to both fit into separate but dubious moulds.

Male Zentradi characters are usually depicted in either a purely military or a purely pleasure-seeking/civilian context, and are side characters without much development. When they are full-blood male Zentradi, there is also a tendency to recycle or riff on their predecessors’ obsession with female pop stars, as if being a pop star fanboy was part of the Y chromosome.

Minmay was important to Zentradi, yes, but it’s strange to think that her image still dominates their lives to that uniform a degree. For one thing, it seems to suggest that male Zentradi characters are underdeveloped and unchanged, instead of being the product of generations of societal change. That they'll always look at her the same way.

It further suggests these characters are not to be taken seriously, as the writers reference the older “Minmay cult” but take away the heart in it, leaving just the comedic aspects. The original Minmay fanboys balanced being goofy fanboys with some characterization, and the high command had different reactions to her. The newer characters do not possess this range, and seem to be acting like fanboys because the writers want a homage, never mind how little sense it makes. There were reasons why male Zentradi loved Minmay, but they just don't apply anymore, and shoudn't transfer to any pop star.

One of the worst examples is probably the episode Fastest Delivery of Macross Frontier, which reduces the Zentradi characters appearing in it to grim threats or ineffectual “good guys”, almost all of whom are total fanboys anyway, and swiftly killed even after they avert a crisis situation. It looks like they're not "real" characters and don't matter.

In the same series there was also Richard Bilra, whom, despite his name, was a full Zentradi and a powerful mogul in his own right. He also had a dream to create a galaxy-wide communication network, showing just the kind of ambition, intelligence, and initiative that I wanted to see out of the latter-day Zentradi characters.

However, the end of the series shows that Bilra may have wanted this only as a method to find Minmay, who in the Macross continuity was literally lost in space. It is never made clear if this really was Bilra’s only reason for wanting what he did, and I’d really like to believe it wasn’t, because it makes him defined solely by Minmay, and not as a character himself.

Whenever there is danger from rogue Zentradi, it is usually from males. And it is Guld Goa Bowman, a male part-Zentradi character, whose heritage is shown to make him tragically dangerous; viewers are obviously meant to sympathize with Guld, but judging him as a character rather than being under the “fault” of anything, I disliked him intensely. Later male hybrids such as Michel Blanc or Brera Sterne at least mitigate this by having some Zentradi blood but being heroic and likeable, but their heritage gets less of a mention at all.

It often seems like male Zentradi characters can be slotted into a few character types, with difficult implications throughout, and are usually not given as much prominence as characters. Yet for all this, the series also depicts them in a wider variety of occupations and character types than female Zentradi.

In contrast, female Zentradi characters are often part of the main cast, and have lives with both military and domestic aspects. Nonetheless, most female characters that have Zentradi blood are either “perfect” hotshot warriors, happy, bouncy cute girls, or some fusion of the two types. Exceptions are rare: Milia certainly fit this mould in her youth, but her older self is a different sort of character. Stoic, muscular Veffidas Feaze of Macross 7 is a more notable exemption, but she is a character who rarely speaks and is not well-developed.

Danger from female Zentradi is also rare; when they display wrath, it is usually righteous. Most part-Zentradi characters are female, but they are all tractable as well. “Fleet of the Strongest Women” provides some exceptions to this trope, but it’s not enough.

Both of these portrayals have their bad points. On the male side, I wish that the Zentradi gender populated by what is in some ways a more varied range of characters would get more prominence, and that there would be some challenge to certain memes about male Zentradi. On the female Zentradi side, while “strong female characters” are a good thing, here such portrayals seem driven by a desire to idealize women instead, and you get a sense of dull standardization rather than something worth cheering. Female Zentradi characters are not interchangeable, but they often seem very close in looks, personality, and roles, which makes them uninteresting.

Ultimately, the best thing would be for a range of Zentradi characters of either gender. There would be some room for aggressive male hybrids, shameless Minmay fanboys, sexy female pilots, and adorable hybrid girls. But I just wish that they did not dominate Zentradi portrayal. They are restrictive images, and some of them were expressed better in the original series.

The issue of internal danger from seemingly assimilated Zentradi was also a difficult thing in itself. I do not want the Zentradi to be portrayed as saintly, but I want characters to be responsible for their actions, instead of making them out just poor things that can’t help it. If the Zentradi are always dangerous, never able to overcome their warlike urges, why tell a story of their escape? It’s just as bad when Macross implies it as when Robotech states it.

I interpreted Super Dimension Fortress Macross’ depiction of some Zentradi turning on humans to be attributable to the Zentradi’s personal failures to adjust to a new world, something that humans would have experienced in similar situations of radical transformation. However, later Macross works seem to spin it into a “natural” Zentradi predisposition towards aggression that makes them dangerous. An uncomfortable subtext, it undermines the optimistic themes of the TV series, not to mention the complexity when Exsedol once implied that humans and Zentradi may be more alike than they thought. This phenomenon’s virtual restriction to male characters also damages its credibility.

I could tolerate these things much better if I had strong emotional investment in later Macross productions. I simply don’t enjoy anything as much as I did Super Dimension Fortress Macross. Yet the strongest reactions I have to anything post-SDFM, positive or negative, frequently end up tied to my pet interests from the original series, with my being largely superficial or spiteful towards anything else.

Some might attribute it to hurt feelings over how the franchise handled my favourite characters, and that is part of it. Yet it is not the only reason I feel detached from the Macross franchise as a whole. To detail more would go beyond the Zentradi parameters of this essay, but there are many issues related to individual series that all accumulate together and make me “less” of a Macross geek than I should be. I just gotta think that it's not me, it's them.

However, in more recent years, I at least found some interest in the Macross Frontier films, which were more enjoyable than the TV series. Not for the Zentradi characters, but for presenting the storyline out in a more palatable way, with some amazing concert visuals and triggering a liking for Sheryl Nome, who is now my favourite human character in the franchise. It wasn't a matter of being open to liking different things, but for something just coming out that I happened to like. None of my opinions have actually changed.

And, though I didn't get to see it, Macross: the Musicalture, an original Macross story represented as a stage musical, sounded like it offered up some of the diversity for Zentradi characterization that I was looking for. It makes me hope that more interesting and different things will come out in the Macross franchise in the future.

Reflections on Macrophilia Part 6: Regarding Neo-Exsedol

Yet the biggest shock when venturing further into the Macross universe was the apparent retconning of Exsedol Folmo into a completely new personality and design, which in the process removed many of the qualities that had captured my interest and seemed to terminate his character arc, transforming him into little more than a device.

Neo-Exsedol appears as a minor character in the sequel to the original TV series, Macross 7; physically, he is essentially his DYRL design, though with some minor colour differences. At full Zentradi size, he sits (?) underneath the bridge of a ship, his giant (in more ways than one) head sticking up Whac-A-Mole style through the floor to be beside the captain’s chair, a captain who just happens to be Max Jenius from the original series. Later episodes show Exsedol leaving the ship and moving around, but he remains in that certain position until more than halfway through the series, and even then usually does not go anywhere much.

This depiction confused some anime fans in 1994, with them demanding to know how he had gotten that way. These days, most Macross fans seem to accept Neo-Exsedol as a matter of course, with the confusion being instead over why he is still an issue. However, Neo-Exsedol is a major snag for me, a major reason why I can't view Macross as a "complete", ordinary media franchise, but always look at it with some twitchiness.

I’ve already made my preference for Classic Exsedol’s physical appearance clear, and that’s certainly one of my issues with Neo-Exsedol. But Neo-Exsedol also has a new, less appealing personality, with a reduced emotional range, limited mobility, and just a different texture. On top of that, there’s no explanation as to why he is virtually a new character.

 In addition to barely moving, his bearing is flat and deadpan, and he sports a nearly perpetual frown. Sometimes this is broken by sudden comical fits of terror, but overall Exsedol remains at this one level setting. When the fleet is in crisis, he also has a tendency to fall into bleak pessimism. Though still voiced by Japanese actor Ryunosuke Obayashi, in Macross 7 Exsedol even has a different voice: deeper, slower, more resonant, and, contradictorily, younger-sounding.

Neo-Exsedol also often seems more like a device than a full-fledged cast member. He is too big and too stationary to have much of in the way of meaningful interaction with the other characters. Even when he is showing some kind of friendliness towards them, there is a sense of distance because he is merely a Big Talking Thing in the Background.

The promotional art for Macross 7 also suggests this remoteness, because Exsedol is usually absent from these images, even in shots that are otherwise crammed with rest of the cast. Though his size would prevent appearance in some of the more standard group shots, some acknowledgement of his existence would be welcome.

(An “extra” episode of Macross 7, "Fleet of the Strongest Women does show a slightly more involved Exsedol. He isn’t that large a departure from the way he is in the rest of the series, but slightly more appealing nonetheless.)

Now, none of his traits would be objectionable on a completely original character, but they are a tremendous departure from the reasons I was drawn to Classic Exsedol. Neo-Exsedol may have that same basic role of “geek on the bridge”, but that is only a small part of what endeared the character to me. The design and personality of Neo-Exsedol are much less fascinating than the original, and all we see is that he is static.

His physical inertness is partially out of necessity, because of he is a giant character in a place built for humans, but there’s no explanation as to why he remains in that state, and his emotional inertness remains. I’m also put off by his blanket pessimism, since crises in the fleet always prompt him to lament that none of them are going to succeed, in contrast to his quick response to the looming threat in SDFM.

Nevertheless, one of my major interests in Exsedol was his potential character development. In Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, there were brief hints dropped about Exsedol’s interest in Earth culture, and these fuelled my interest in his character growth. On hearing the spy trio’s first testimony of human life, Exsedol expresses an interest in going to Earth. He finds the drinks served at the peace talks to be surprisingly delicious, and seems to adjust well to being at human size for the remainder of the series.

At that time, I could picture Classic Exsedol becoming part of the human world to a degree on par with Milia and the spies, an image that was essential to giving him that complete arc. As I’ve admitted, the writers did not need to show this completeness, but it was a potential possibility.

With Neo-Exsedol, however, I have no room to play, since he is the absolute antithesis of his original portrayal. Though Macross 7 took place thirty-three years after the original series, my instinctive response was that Neo-Exsedol does not seem to follow logically from the TV series even if I looked at his characterization and not his body…unless you wanted to be really dark and think that the events of “Satan’s Dolls” drove Exsedol into that static, distant position, and I’m not willing to go that far.

Now, I’ve relented slightly on this position, at least when I’m in the mood to. One could say that Neo-Exsedol’s characterization is the product of a more realistic aging process than consumers of popular entertainment are used to. While most series try to keep aged characters familiar, in real life people can change radically over their lifetimes. So Exsedol, though he showed some interest in human culture in 2012, might have by 2045 been more comfortable just sitting somewhere, especially since he refers to himself as an “old man”. Theoretically, this leaves thirty-three years of a “blank” period in which I could have my own fun.

However, I can’t do this, for several reasons That Exsedol is a fictional character makes all the difference; I cannot shed that expectation of consistent depiction across a character’s lifespan, making it hard to try to make the most of what I’ve been given in replacement. A fan grows attached to what a character is as they first see them, and is less willing to
follow along with radical change than they would be with a real person.

Neo-Exsedol is too different, and whatever happens to him, he would arrive at that position where he had been drained of almost everything interesting. Besides, Macross, as a universe, did not set up any expectation of realistic treatment of anything else, so was might have been a realistic attempt at aging characters comes off as jarring.

An additional problem is that the past events of the new Macross canon can never be truly known, and hence neither can Classic Exsedol’s existence. Later Macross anime make references both to the TV series events and to the events of Do You Remember Love? by turns, with DYRL being an in-universe movie on top of that. There has never been any outline published of what exactly is canon and what is not.

This created a specific dilemma for me. While with most other characters, they could have their same events with their retconned designs, with Exsedol it left some huge questions open. Have the appearance and traits of Classic Exsedol been lost with time or had they never even been present? Did he have the personality of Classic Exsedol, or of Neo-Exsedol? Any of these prospects would radically change the way Exsedol worked in SDFM. You cannot simply replace Classic Exsedol’s scenes with Neo- Exsedol and have them come off the same, and therefore more specific details are required.

Furthermore, because Macross and Exsedol are someone else’s creations, my own imaginings can never substitute for an official word from on high. I don’t expect one anymore, but it is the ideal circumstance; being left to figure out things on my own is disorienting, not because I’m stupid, but because I usually try to respect the boundaries and authority of creators. I might be able to make up theories about Neo-Exsedol, but will never actually know if that was the intent. I may complain about Neo-Exsedol, but I could never just dismiss his existence because I didn’t like it; he’s canon, and I must engage with his portrayal rather than pretending he never happened.

Neo-Exsedol’s body is even harder to explain away. I did not like the way he looked in comparison to the original form, but things were worse because I then had to contend with several red herrings regarding his current state. Early on, I was willing to assume that there was some in-story explanation involved, that Classic Exsedol had somehow become Neo-Exsedol. It looks absurd to be now, but I was operating on expectations formed by the majority of popular entertainment, where radical changes were explained in-story. I still prefer their methods over Macross’ ambiguity.\

One possible explanation for Neo-Exsedol involved a quote from the Macross 7 DVD liner notes: “Although he [Exsedol] was Micloned at one time, he purportedly returned to his former Zentradi size and realtered his body makeup for fear of losing his cerebral capacity and memories.” While my automatic response (and those of other fans years before), was to interpret this as meaning that Exsedol had been modified in-story from the TV series design, maybe due to some dreadful illness, I slowly realized that this didn’t work as an explanation for several reasons.

First, nothing else was ever said to supplement or clarify this lonely liner note, either published or inside the stories. Exsedol also appears with the DYRL design in flashbacks in Macross 7, and is part of a larger display of DYRL aesthetic in later Macross anime. Because of these last two things, it is impossible to believe that there was anything “special” about Neo-Exsedol’s physical appearance. And in the next TV series, Macross Frontier, an apparent clone of Neo-Exsedol’s Zentradi type was seen, finally killing the modification theory that was already gasping for breath.

 In the face of all this, I decided to assume that Classic Exsedol never existed in the current Macross continuity, and that Neo-Exsedol in Macross 7 is consistent with whatever came before him, having never acted or looked like Classic Exsedol in the past. Of course, this didn’t go down easy: on top of essentially erasing that character and necessitating new and likely less-compelling versions of his primary scenes, it was still an informal, unofficial explanation.

Sometimes I wish instead that Do You Remember Love? was established as the official background for all new Macross anime, since it would have neatly solved the Exsedol Question. The result would not have been pleasing but it would have been clear, for the Macross 7 version of Neo-Exsedol works much better as a continuation of his DYRL self than of Classic Exsedol, and not only on physical terms. DYRL Neo-Exsedol has nothing that creates the expectation that he’ll do anything else beyond transferring his current role to the human army, and the Macross 7 version seems like a much more pleasant individual in comparison to him, making for adequate character development when the character wasn’t all that fleshed out to start with.

Another, more recent theory, was that Neo-Exsedol somehow takes the shape of Classic Exsedol when micloned, which would allow his scenes from the original series to remain intact at least in terms of physical action. From here, we could go back to the infamous liner note and assume that Exsedol chooses the impractical condition of remaining at his natural size because he has some physiological difficulties with being micloned. The theory of a more realistic aging process would then be employed to explain his new personality. His “new” voice may even be what he sounds like when at his natural size, and so on and so forth.

But it is still not good enough. This is just the imagination of fans, which is not the same as something official. I resigned myself to never being able to get anything more, just before finding out that Shoji Kawamori, one of the men involved with Macross, went on record as saying that since all Macross works were fictional, they could be treated as altering takes on a non-existent “real” event, similar to how all WW II movies were different from the real war. Hence, perhaps, Neo-Exsedol and Classic Exsedol were to be perceived as two different actors playing the same role in different versions of a war drama. Or, more simply put, there was no need to worry about stability when it was all fictitious anyway. There was no “real” Zentradi war, so why stress consistency?

Yet it is not too much to expect stability and clarity from fiction, instead of going off and doing anything because it’s “just fiction”. Even if very few viewers were as invested in the portrayal of Exsedol as I was, they were still left confused and for no good reason, so I failed to have much sympathy for Kawamori. This “official” response also had me thinking that Neo-Exsedol was a writer’s whim and not “meant” to be thought about in the same manner that fans did.

Writers can have their whims, of course, but it all bothers me anyway. Exsedol was my favourite character in the series, and virtually replacing one character with a new one is an unpleasant thing, no matter how minor he is. Some clarification on how much of his original SDFM appearance and portrayal were still canon to the mainstream Macross would have eased my difficulties, but I realize that that is not going to happen. Ultimately, Neo-Exsedol cannot be explained in terms of anything but fan theories: he simply is.

This extreme case of retroactive continuity and its related lack of “growth” is especially conspicuous when weighed against the portrayal of Mila Fallyna Jenius in Macross 7. I did find Milia a problematic character in that series because she often comes off as a petty, petulant harpy who is comic relief because she is an older woman who is sexual and outspoken. But it is also clear that Milia has lead a rich, full life, taking a variety of jobs and moving about freely in the human world.

She also looks almost the same as she originally did, apparently ageless, with only cosmetic differences in dress, hairstyle, and modernized art design. While Exsedol and Milia were obviously different in how prominent they are in the story, it still stings a bit. It is not that Milia’s life is more directly explored (that is to be expected), but that she has one, while Exsedol is written in a way that cuts off the possibility of being anything more than a big talking head, when both embodied the changes in the Zentradi.

Besides being so different from what I enjoyed, Neo-Exsedol also seems to be a largely useless character in Macross 7, to the point where I find it hard to imagine why he is part of the cast of at all. Allegedly, his purpose is to inform the characters about the enemies in the series, called the Protodevlin: energy vampires in the bodies of humans and genetic constructs, who are ancient enemies of the Zentradi. Exsedol, being a veteran Zentradi, lends the enemies’ existence some gravitas, for he can tell you just how badass they are, though largely through his own terror.

Exsedol’s vast knowledge appears to be largely useless. He has a few scenes of translation and analysis, but they seem like things that other educated scientists and personnel could have done by themselves (though perhaps accessing databanks filled with knowledge he gave them), and Exsedol and the other scientists are usually one step behind the truth, too.

Exsedol is also terrified of the Protodevlin, an apparently reflexive fear that drives him to retreat into his floor opening for several episodes, crying “Protodevlin!” The image of Exsedol sinking away, only his shivering braincase visible, doesn’t feel right either. The character has never been macho, but the Protodevlin turn out to be such ridiculous villains in their goofy appearance, cheesy personalities, and method of defeat (being repelled and then pacified through rock music) that his paroxysms seem unjustified.


Click to enlarge image

The way that Exsedol expresses fear makes him look even more comedic, without the integrity and the vivacity that Classic Exsedol had to balance out his humorous moments. Furthermore, because there are other reasons to fear the Protodevlin besides Exsedol’s own terror, his looking ridiculous is unnecessary to drum up fear of those enemies, either.

Otherwise, Neo-Exsedol’s role in Macross 7 consists largely of needless exposition or pointless dialogue. It would be easy to “stitch up” the scenes where he is supposedly needed and then to cut him from the series. There would still be enough offhand references outside of Macross 7 to suggest that Neo-Exsedol had been retconned, but it would be better if he was not put through the rigmarole of Macross 7. Why make him a cast member, and re-create him as a new character, if you are going to do nothing with him?

Yet I suppose I ought to be clean about it and say that, despite all this, I do have a certain love for the Macross 7 version of Neo-Exsedol. I find him to be rather likeable, and take more of an interest in him than anything else in the series. He’s also a nice contrast to just about every other giant-brained character in fiction, looking like a B-movie monster but actually a nice guy, if rather deadpan. It is only the knowledge that he is “replacing” a much better character, with little interest in explaining how or why, that agitates me. At best, Neo-Exsedol is a guilty pleasure, and at worst, he is the main reason why I cannot become a pure Macross fan. What is a minor quibble for most viewers is a deal-breaker for me. Not only was his design changed, but his entire personality and manner, too.

This handling of Exsedol, Warera, Rori, Konda, and Britai was a real kick in the ovaries, especially when it was reasonable to expect that the Macross universe would be nothing but superior to Robotech when it came to handling the characters who originally came from it. Unlike many other fans, I do not feel the urge to “protect” my favourite Macross characters from representation in Robotech, because Macross has already done a fair job of screwing up these characters on its own.

I’m aware that these five are secondary characters, but it doesn’t follow that I should expect them to change at the drop of a hat, and never grow attached to any aspect of them since it may all disappear.

The question about my favourite Zentradi that always lingers in my head is, “What about afterward?”  It is essential to be able to picture those characters experiencing the fruits of human culture, finding broader experiences, greater emotions, and new successes. Unfortunately, this is not what happened.

When such things are only restricted to Milia, I get the nagging feeling that the human-friendly male Zentradi from the original TV series end up forgotten by the Macross universe: written poorly, drastically altered, and never allowed to develop fully. Set against this, the happy fate of the majority of Zentradi becomes a little more of a distant interest, though I have some problems with that portrayal as well.