Sunday, January 30, 2011

Making the Most

I forgot to mark the third year of my unusual relationship with Robotech. This is unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, given that I’ve just been recovering from a bad patch with the fandom.

Over recent months, the many contradictions and disappointments in my fandom and Macross fandom had started to wear on me, leading to a phase where I spent more time wishing that my fandom experience were different, and mulling over my critical feelings towards the same, than enjoying what reality had given me.

I began to be overwhelmed by my (still valid) critiques of the Robotech novels and comics that had once been the building blocks of my interest, and by several other things that I won’t get into right now. I never considered turning my back on the novels, but I subconsciously tried to downplay their importance in forming my own fandom.

Thankfully, my friend John “Zen72” Thomas then released the last episode of his Robotech podcast, The Protoculture Times. Much, much longer than the other episodes, it contained re-run interviews and new ones, and was a great way to go out with a bang.

Zen is far more enthused about the Robotech novels than I am, and hearing him wax poetic about them brought back the feelings I had once had, before critical analysis kicked in. It brought my “spirit” back, even if my criticisms remained.

This was despite the fact that when he interviewed James Luceno, one half of the writing group which penned these novels. When Zen opened e-mail questions for Luceno, with the disclaimer that Luceno didn’t remember much, I tried to put forth a general question, to look like I was not one of those who expected the writers to remember everything. I wanted to understand some of the decisions made about the portrayal of the Zentraedi, the good choices and the bad ones.

Still, the response I received was what I had expected: the plots which had had such an impact on my fandom were strongly suggested to have been decisions made off the cuff, or ones whose motivation was lost in the mists of time. Given the speed at which those books were written that’s not surprising, but it’s still sobering to be reminded of the difference between authorial intent and my reaction.

What that in turn might mean is that, more than any other fandom, I’ve been left to my own devices, to make the fiction I wanted to have out of the stuff I’ve been given, for official material alone always bothers me in some profound way. It’s a sad state of affairs, when usually I’m a shaking canon junkie, but that’s the truth.

Still, somehow, taking a dip back into the McKinneyverse was needed to rejuvenate my nerddom. It’s a figurative dip, though. My increased critical sensibility didn’t vanish, and it does

What the novels gave to me was an extension and completion of certain characters. You know that I like Exedore, Breetai, Rico, Bron, and Konda the best, and the novels, no matter how clumsily, or inaccurately, showed these characters had hearts and minds worth delving into, and could complete their character arcs from the original series. Most of the rest of fandom seems to treat these characters as plot devices, but it’s not unreasonable to see them otherwise.

I later began to realize that their treatment was in truth not entirely rosy, but there are still moments worth preserving. I can spend my time thinking about what I would have done, or I could take what is given, but it is much easier to call back those positive feelings for the novels, and their strength has returned.

No matter how disinterested I am in the rest of the Robotech continuations, it would be stupid to put on a stoic face and pretend I was never energized by these books. This kind of thing is hard to explain to other fans, but it’s good to remember how true it is for me. I still want to be that person who waxes poetic about Sentinels Exedore, or who thinks Kazianna Hesh is her favourite female Zentraedi character, and thought parts of End of the Circle were actually fascinating.

Friday, January 21, 2011

About Two Girls -- A Year-Old Review of "Strangers in Paradise"

Originally posted January 15, 2010. I've since bought the entire Pocketbook collection.

Here's another "backburner" work that I'd been carrying around a desire for over the course of several years, but just now got the chance to explore: Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise. I took the first pocketbook out from the public library, and downloaded scans of all the rest...but I do plan to buy all the pocketbooks, and hence the complete series, now that I've finished reading it.

Strangers in Paradise is about the love between Katina "Katchoo" Choovanski and her best friend Francine Peters, a love that takes them several years and several false starts to realize, especially with Katchoo's shadowy past showing up to ruin things at the worst possible times. Part soap opera, part crime thriller, SiP spans over a hundred issues and is by turn humorous and heartbreaking.

Now, you know this blog is about exploding mechanical dragons and shit, but I really don't have a prejudice against works without fantastic elements. It's just that I started out liking genre material, and in the circles I travel in and the sites I visit, it's SF and fantasy which gets the most exposure. So I ventured into Strangers in Paradise without the sense that I was doing something unusual or personally transgressive.

And I really, really enjoyed this comic. There were a lot of tropes and ideas which usually annoy me or at least bring out my inner cynic, but somehow Moore usually manages to pull things off, though sometimes only by the skin of his teeth.

Normally I have difficulty reading stories where romance is the central element. A lot of the time, I end up frustrated, flabbergasted, and finicky about the characters' interactions and decisions, there seeming to need to be extra stupidity needed to move the plot along or create obstacles in a love story than in any other...or worse, no reason why the characters should like each other.

Somehow, though, I found the long build-up and frequent detours in Francie and Katchoo's relationship to be a pretty fun and interesting read, though with a few eye-rolling parts. It helps that there is the rough transition from being best friends to admitted lovers, their contrasting personalities and backgrounds, and the stigma against lesbiansim, makes for a set of pretty believable reasons why they two of them would have so much trouble getting together, even with their behaviour towards each other sometimes seeming outrageously flirtatious right from the get-go--though on the other hand, North American women can apparently get away with a lot more and remain "just friends" than guys can.

Katchoo in particular I was surprised that Moore pulled off so well, given how hard a character she'd be to write: glamourize her toughness and explosive anger as a "bad girl" thing and her painful backstory seems suddenly flimsy; overemphasize her pain and she'd seem too much like a woman in need of "rescuing", but mostly Moore gets the balance right.

Francine is a really fun character, too, although I curse her more than a little bit for being Genre Blind (dammit, TVTropes....) enough to realize that marrying a doctor would lead to many lonely nights, and having Brad Silver cheat on her was a little too easy of a way to remove him from the picture.

The times Moore seems to hint that Katchoo may be right about men, save for the sense that David is "one of the good ones" is unsettling, and it's a sense that, if I recall correctly, has lead to some accusing David of being Moore's self-insert character. David is fleshed-out enough that if he's a self-insert, he's the rare "good one" (again), and there are several other "good" male characters in the books.

A parallel plot (that I thougth was a dream sequence before it went on longer) in which an older Francine is depicted regretting leaving Katchoo behind for a "normal" life but eventually-ish fixes that, felt a little cheap to start with, since I usually don't like time-skips which spoil an ending (though they can also create suspense in and of themselves). But then, these fast-forward tales were contradicted by the actual storyline and the comics' proper ending, leaving me wondering what the point of was. Did Moore change his mind about the ending halfway through? Or was it a deliberate misdirection?

Blending the aspects of crime thriller and sometimes downright cartoony slice-of-life drama isn't done seamelessly, yet the thriller elements, as ill-fitting as they somtiems be, are so important to Strangers in Paradise that I almost can't imagine the series without them.

Darcy Parker may be a nasty villain, but she's also horribly cheesy at times. Having an incestuous attachment to David was pretty much the epitome of gratuitous over-the-topness.

That little fat guy with the curly hair and glasses who keeps showing up is a pretty irritatingly transparent shot at the "other" comics readers. We've all known people like that, but to have basically the same joke told over and over again, just with him in different jobs, gets tiring fast.

Likewise, the "SiP draws REAL women" back-patting is something I could do without. The art in SiP is fantastic, and I truly wish more female characters in comics were drawn (in all the ways that means) like Moore's cast, but you've got to let some of this stuff speak for itself, you know?

And as I said, the art is fantastic. Moore is great with facial expressions, both the realistic and the cartoony variety, and just draws everything well in a realistic but distinct style. This makes the comic's brief ventures into prose and script all the more annoying, though, and I wish he would have avoided that. I don't mind experimental layouts, but switching to prose in comics has always bothered me.

The only real problem I had with his art was that even with all the attention to detail, sometimes it was hard to tell certain characters apart before they spoke speaking. It often turns out that those characters are related by blood, but not always. I know I still mistook Casey for Katchoo, or vice versa, a whole bunch of times.

In short, love the comic, love the plot, and I'm getting the whole collection.

Friday, January 14, 2011

I Have No Heart to Lie – I Don’t Want an SDF Macross Remake

It seems I’ve had the bad luck to be caught in a fandom where the fans actually want a remake of the founding series. I’m talking about the fandom for the anime series Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, originally released in 1982 but with several spinoffs and a long continuity. In recent years, many hardcore fans have been crying for a remake of the original series.

Macross fandom is already in a rare position, because later works in the franchise rely on an ambiguous continuity. In 1984, a film adaptation called Super Dimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? was released, and this film changed a lot of the original series’ visual details and plot. Later Macross productions draw from a vague background which hints at elements from both the television and the movie, though the movie has also been declared an in-universe film on top of that.

In this new millennium, Macross fans largely consider this contradiction no big deal, with many also seeing DYRL to be the superior rendering, with the primacy of its visuals in later productions cited as proof. In the most extreme cases, it almost seems like the original Macross TV series is treated as a test run, with Do You Remember Love? being the concept’s ultimate refinement, perhaps Macross’ Platonic ideal. In a climate like this, perhaps a desire for an SDFM remake becomes inevitable.

Recently there have appeared two works which have further whetted fans’ appetites for a remake: Macross Fever and Macross the First. Macross Fever is a pachinko game featuring re-animated scenes from the TV series, in the style of the TV series, while Macross the First is a manga retelling of SDF Macross using much of the style of DYRL, though with many original or previously-unused elements.

I’ve seen many Macross fans be utterly certain that these retellings, as well as the recent wave of reboots and remakes in Japan and America, should herald a remake of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, with an adaptation of Macross the First often specified. It’s all very startling, when the traditional picture of fandom is that it is hostile to any such re-imaginings.
 As well as being startling, it’s a personal aggravation, since I just recently discovered Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and love it to pieces. To suggest that series is a problem that needs to be fixed, a mere aperitif, is unsettling, especially since I’m left almost entirely cold by the rest of Macross.

I certainly have more generalized objections to remakes, but there are also idiosyncratic issues I would have with a remake of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, or even this strong desire for one. In essence, I’ve been disturbed by the post-SDFM Macross’ transformation of some of my favourite characters into new designs and personalities without an in-story explanation, something which started with the film versions.

They are the Zentradi, and I go into more detail with the Zentradi re-imagining here, and here, and it’s been a bee in my bonnet for quite some time. While Macross Fever did stick with the TV series Zentradi, Macross the First has largely not, and it is the one everyone is asking for.

It’s anybody’s guess whether the portrayals of the Zentradi in this theoretical Macross remake would draw more from the old versions or the new ones, but I don’t have much confidence in the former appearing. This is why I’m not interested in a Macross remake: more than any other fiction, there’s a strong chance of my favourite characters being changed beyond what is normal for this sort of thing, and nothing else could compensate for that.

Furthermore, I feel something has “gotten into” the Zentradi portrayal since SDFM, creating a situation where the Zentradi are largely a set of broad archetypes based on simplified versions of the original characters, along with the belief that only female Zentradi characters are worth caring about. I also worry about seeing this new dynamic being reflected in a possible SDFM remake.

I’ll confess the appearance of the TV series Zentradi in Macross Fever, though you only saw them for a few seconds, was tremendously exciting when these designs had been all been but forgotten. I do have eyes, recognizing that modernized animation can be more electrifying than older works, and that the original Macross was plagued with animation errors, from painting mistakes to characters going horribly off-model. Yes, on a visceral, immediate level, it is thrilling to think of my favourite Zentradi animated in a slick contemporary style, even with minor tweaks to their character designs, which do not upset me the way wholesale redesigns do.

Yet that immediate thrill can’t become actual desire for a remake, and not only because there is no guarantee the TV series Zentradi would be used. I am so attached to SDFM that the thought of a remake causes immediate dislike. I’m stubbornly sure that all my favourite moments in SDFM, and their larger context, would not be replicated in a way that could be better than the original.

I’m probably trying to now compensate for all this remake enthusiasm by being more the typical nerd about it. It would be nice to see my favourite characters re-animated with the right look, but I just don’t disagree with anything so strongly in Super Dimension Fortress Macross that I would want it to be fixed with a remake.

Yet if I were to push myself to be more open-minded, what could a remake of SDFM gain for me? I have already said I see flaws in the animation, and those would surely be fixed, but what else about SDF Macross do I find imperfect? Lots of things, in terms of plot. I wish that Max and Milia’s getting together wasn’t so creepy. I wish there was a more explicit understanding of what kinds of lives Exsedol and Britai going to lead, instead of their virtually disappearing in later episodes, though beforehand their prominence was satisfying.

Yet I always come back to this: everything has flaws, and the perfect form of a work cannot be achieved. Whatever is fixed in a remake, new problems will crop up, and some good things will have been left out. For anything gained, something is lost. So, when considering the issue in a broader context, why bother remaking something when you can never perfect it?

No, I’m firmly in the camp that would rather see those of Macross make something new, than remake SDFM.

Of course, there are other reasons why someone might take interest in a Macross remake. There is Robotech, the series that combined the original Macross with two other series in dubbing, leading to a Robotech/Macross fandom rivalry today (though Macross has been far more successful). If handled a certain way, an SDF Macross remake could jettison Macross from Robotech, since the first Macross series would be de-canonized and left to “belong” to the chimera series instead.

Typing this sends chills up my spine. While I’m not upset by Robotech or feel it an infringement on the original Macross, the idea of exiling SDF Macross solely to Robotech, in order to either “save” Macross or plug up this fandom rivalry, is abhorrent. It’s the highest extreme of the mindset that SDFM was just a rough draft, if it can just be given over to Macross’ “enemies”.

In addition, while Macross fandom is mostly calm about issues of continuity, perhaps this theoretical remake could realize exactly what the modern Macross material is drawing from. I once had those longings for explanation, but I eventually understood that any such clarification would create a world where my favourite designs were made secondary, if not entirely non-canon. Therefore, I prefer to have SDFM sit in its position as an indefinite part of the continuity, as long as it meant the entirety of the TV series Zentradi were on some level canon.

I’m not saying every Macross fan has to like SDFM or even afford it any respect as “the original”, but it’s a great show, and is not in desperate need of a updated gloss in order to be respectable. In the end, I can’t understand this desire for a remake, even if I try to see outside my own knee-jerk response.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Animation of Sally Cruikshank

I’d already become aware that independent animator Sally Cruikshank was responsible for a beloved childhood short from Sesame Street, and that she had produced other, stranger animation, but going back to her catalogue for a second time made me realized how much I loved her material.

It’s entirely unsurprising. After all, her art is very brightly-coloured and extremely surreal, with a penchant for reptile-people…how could I not like it? When I have some extra money, I’m definitely going to buy the DVD of her shorts that she offers from her website, though the Sesame Street ones won’t be on there.

For me, it started out with the Sesame Street animation, “Above It All”, about an alligator-girl and her flight-enabling beanie. Normally I’d boo and hiss at a reptile with hair and lipstick, but the short was so good I really didn’t care. It perfectly captured (and may have triggered) some of my childhood dreams of flying.

Going through her catalogue reveals other Sesame Street shorts I remember/or are memorable. “From Your Head”is a great adventure in dreaming and thinking, and “ “Beginning Middle and End”   is another something I do remember from childhood; it’s about storytelling, and has a pterodactyl in it. Good times, and there are many more of such shorts, instantly recognizable.

When it comes to her independent work, the ultimate standout is the short “Face Like a Frog” an innocuously titled short which is the most bizarre cartoon I’ve ever seen. There is a bit of a plot, but it’s really just an excuse for weird shit to happen. Driving on a night road, a frog-man is lead by a frog-woman named Gluey to a hexed house that she thinks he can un-hex. The house turns out to be filled with her weird frog family. He does manage to escape with Gluey on a subway that goes to hell but “makes one stop in Miami Beach”. With the visuals it’s even weirder, and even the bland, brief dialogue becomes a window to strangeness once put in context. There’s also a cameo by Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo, as a lizard who tells the protagonist in song to avoid the house’s basement.

Two of her other longer shorts, “Quasi at the Quackadero”  and “Make Me Psychic” don’t quite match that level of strangeness, but they are pretty strange. The first thing you’ll notice is that the protagonists of these shorts are called “ducks” but like some kind of strange Muppet, with long muzzles in place of noses and mouths, and yellow colouring for the male characters, being their only presumably avian features. Cruikshank even admits that, “they came out looking like ducks only her, which is a wonderfully strange statement. One short is about a trip to a fair, the other about a device that allows its owner to have psychic powers, though both are given innumerable bizarre twists.

However, her more recent shorts are sadly disappointing. They lack the vibrant colour and detail of her older works, and instead look like crude MS Paint facsimiles of the same. The use of text-to-voice software over actual voice actors is also very off-putting, and the attempts at satirizing consumer culture (in shorts like “Whinsey on Your Phone”and the “Charbucks” series) also fall flat.

Still, her major material is worth checking out, and needs to be seen to be believed. Find most of her work at her personal YouTube channel, Sally Cruikshank Films, or her website Fun on Mars, through which you can order her DVD.