Thursday, January 31, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Neon Genesis Evangelion/End of Evangelion

This series is still my number one anime, animated series, and television show. Even though it's been a decade since I finished the series, I'm always ready to wax eloquent about Neon Genesis Evangelion. Because I'm older and now swimming in notions of what makes good writing, I better understand the series's structural problems, but that doesn't change a thing.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a 1995 anime series produced by Gainax and created by Hideaki Anno. In the year 2015, Shinji Ikari is summoned by his estranged father to pilot the creature known as Evangelion-01, defending Tokyo-3 and the rest of the post-apocalyptic Earth from bizarre beings known as "Angels".

Angels always come one at a time, while among the human cast, other shadowy western religion-themed conspiracies abound. End of Evangelion is the 1997 concluding movie, although the television series also has its own concluding episodes. No one knows quite how the two endings fit together.

Why is Evangelion so lovable? Not because it's a series that unfolds with the greatest care, sophistication and detail. Looked at in terms of plot it's a bit of a tangled mess, a story told with the most minimal of details, some filler, and a finale that never wraps up neatly. But in return, it is also a series that is both very bizarre and very "real", with a strange setting that is nonetheless steeped in powerful human emotion.

These things make up for Evangelion's arguable lack of quality. This arrangement makes the series distinct,  and is a major part of the reason I consider it my number one. Other works may be better written, but they don't offer that same strangeness.

Evangelion has suffered from hype backlash in recent years, as many newer anime fans have never seen it, and others act like they were the first to see the "truth" of Evangelion, that it was a calculated attempt to gain the minds and wallets of fans who would latch onto any phony "depth".

For me, the very opposite is true: Evangelion is characterized by its honestly, its showing the human psyche in all its loud messiness, while still retaining a handhold on a conventional plot structure…usually.

We all know the religious references in Evangelion were just because they looked cool, and that a show might have weird crap and frenzied thought because that's what the director enjoys, not because they wish to swindle the audience.

But back to emotional dysfunction. Evangelion allows its characters, especially Shinji Ikari, to "lose it", to grind the plot to a halt because they have emotionally self-destructed, or, alternatively, are having strange visions, exploring their own psyches.

Some hate the series for this, but I love it. These scenes never feel calculated, though those few small rambles about rain and mountains are definite hiccups. In the wrong hands, these moments could be tedious, but as they are, they cut deep.

This appeal is shown in the original TV series ending, in which the larger plot is discarded in favour of characters talking to each other, either in a black void or over still frames, with a few surreal bits of animation and one alternate reality sequence where Shinji experiences a conventional (if a little bawdy) alternate reality.

The end game is that Shinji realizes he needs other people around him to confirm his own existence, and that is better to have that than to have nothingness. It was controversial, but one of my favourite things ever.

It would be lying, however, to say all this is a merely clinical appeal, and there is no real affection involved. I count Shinji Ikari as one of my most favourite characters of all time, and find most of the fanboy rage over him to be silly, especially since most of the cast is equally damaged, though somehow not as fascinating. Shinji and the one-episode humanized Angel Kaworu/Tabris are the only characters I say I "like", but all are entertaining.

Fact is, no matter how much you like a character or series for their emotional screwiness, eventually there has to be some genuine fondness underneath it all, or you'll abandon the series. And Evangelion may be bleak, but it's still tremendous fun to watch. Part of the reason is that the series also has some cute comedy in the first half, but also because it's all just so interesting.

That is not to say Evangelion is flawless, just that, for me, its particular appeal overwhelms these flaws. It breaks so many rules of good writing, yet it all works. For example, the discarding of the conspiracy plots, or the vague description of the Angels' nature and goals serve to unbalance some viewers, but I just don't care.

Shinji's school friends, all comparatively normal and functional, do leave off-screen after a great disaster and nothing more is heard from them, but that does contribute to increasing darkness of later episodes, so I don't mind.

The largest flaw, some would claim, is the character of Shinji Ikari. Amateur writers are encouraged to create protagonists who, while not perfect or without trouble, nonetheless soldier on through their world. They can't stop and agonize too much, and their perils exist to demonstrate their resilience.

And Shinji, it goes without saying, is not that sort of character. He inspires outright anger from people, as if they feel cheated. And I don't give a damn. You don't have to follow these rules, so long as the story is compelling.

Some have argued that Evangelion is emotionally unrealistic, which is untrue. It's just that, for various and very good reasons, emotional expression in fiction is usually more restrained. To show a great and ugly breakdown is unusual, but while it is not pretty, it is not divorced from reality. The genuine expressions of certain people can indeed look over-the-top, but that doesn't mean they are.

In Evangelion characters do grow and change, but don't totally overcome their problems, do not give the audience that catharsis. For example, the power of Shinji Ikari choosing reality over Instrumentality is worth little to some viewers, since inEnd of Evangelion his only reward is a burnt-out world where he has not been cured.

In the TV series, Asuka faces her past and it undoes her. Rei Ayanami only trades loyalty to Gendo for loyalty to Shinji, and may not have had a chance to be an independent being at all. And so on. Nobody gets out unscathed.

This is only indefensible if one believes that the audience must get release, deserves a payoff for sitting through angst. And perhaps they do want it, but a story doesn't exist to make an audience feel good. It exists to be told. And Evangelion manages to succeed without offering a conventional release.

That is another reason why Evangelion stays memorable: its appeal can transcend all standard knowledge of how to handle emotion, plot, and character and still come out wonderful. Evangelion can serve as a reminder that nothing about writing is set in stone. That we all need to develop our own standards and formulas, but do not have to treat them as sacred, and that something good can be made while breaking rules.

Some say that Evangelion is only a series for a particular time in one's life, as it captures teenage angst and those nameless fears that exist regardless of actual social stability. However, the adult characters haven't overcome their problems either, and the suggestion is that age alone can't free people from the problems that haunt them. Again, it's part of Evangelion not restraining emotion and having it work out beautifully. It can still be a series for all seasons.

Neon Genesis Evangelion also just looks really good. The series is infamous for its limited animation, and I won't argue against that. There are many simple or flat moments in terms of expressions and movement. But the look of the series—the designs of characters, Angels, Evas, equipment, backgrounds, and surreal sequences—is so vibrant and eye-catching that I almost forget it. And sometimes, the limited animation manages to edge itself into a sort of elegant minimalism. Sometimes.

I'm only speaking of the original TV series and movies, not the new Rebuild of Evangelion series of films. While these have been praised for better plotting and more restrained emotion, even as signs of Anno's improved outlook on life (!), I find them choppy in construction, thin on emotional intensity, and embodying tropes I'd rather Evangelion didn't. Also, Shinji was worryingly annoying, which is the opposite of most viewer's reactions. I don't think he was as changed as much as others are claiming, but something just isn't there anymore.

I wish I could celebrate these movies along with the rest of the fandom, but I just can't. I can't get into them. It forced me to accept that sometimes, a work has such an intense impact on you, that no other version of it will do, no matter the objective improvements. There is no reason to apologize for these feelings, as long as you are reasonable about expressing them.

All of this, however, only applies to the first two movies. The third has only recently released in Japan at the time of this writing, and what I've heard of it makes it sound intriguing.

But whatever happens, the original Neon Genesis Evangelion is still great, something that stands above all others. It's weird, it's crazy, and it's poignant as all hell. Any flaws in its construction are overwhelmed by that truth.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Introduction

It's time for a new blog series at Pterobat. "Animation Appreciation" will be a series of short essays about my favourite animated works.

With animation, I have no interest in entering the profession, so I just address the media as a fan. My interest always comes from the writing and characters before the animation quality and art design, though I also take visuals into account when discussing a series's appeal.

At the same time, I have a little bit of critical thinking skill, so I'll only be naming those cartoons that I have actual respect for, leaving out some favourites of mine that don't have enough in the way of perceived quality. Distinguishing between love and respect is a useful tool, and both things can exist independently when it comes to interest in a work.

However, the series still won't serve as a professional or historical overview of the animated medium, as many personalized lists accidentally do. I'll be missing what I know are several important works simply because I don't have a personal preference for them.

I'll discuss my reasons for enjoying each series, and address some of the nerd debates related to each work. There will be a rough sense of rank here, but only rough: those works that demand a higher place will get it, but this won't be done in numerical order, except that there is a number one and a number two.

The term "animation" will cover cel, computer, and stop motion, include TV, film, and direct-to-video material, and cover works from multiple countries. I went through my "anime is superior" phase years ago, and now try to pretend it didn't exist. These days, I don't believe in focusing on the need for change in any country's animation at the expense of enjoying what's already there.

Unfortunately, I'm also seriously out of the loop on anime and manga, and have a list of at least fifty works that I haven't yet gotten around to seeing yet. So if it comes out that there seems to be a lack of anime for a geek talking about animation, that's the reason why. I also haven't gone far beyond Japan and North America, though I wish I had. Because both of these things will change in the near future, I'm leaving this series open-ended.

Any other writing projects that I've committed to will still continue to be written at their regular rate.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nothing Wrong With Just a Little, Little Fun: Turtles Forever and Final Thoughts on the 4Kids Series

I saw Turtles Forever when it first came out, and with my childhood memories of the Fred Wolf series, and my vague knowledge of the 4Kids Turtles and the Mirage Universe, I had a blast.

Now I'm here again, with a surprising re-ignited interest in TMNT, that owes to re-runs on Teletoon Retro and not the new Nick series, to a sudden fascination Baxter Stockman, and an old fascination with Splinter. It lead to watching the 4Kids series, all of which gave me a more solid foundation to go into Turtles Forever than before.

And Turtles Forever remains wonderful. It's blatant metafiction and vigorous fanwanking but made with enough love and conviction that its goofy premise goes down smooth. I've noticed the controversy, but many of the people making these complaints don't seem to "get" the idea of affectionate parody, or to realize that Turtles Forever lets the old characters do plenty.

I enjoy the way this movie starts with the FW Turtles already in the 2003-verse, to excite viewers and save explanations for later, which is often a good way to begin action stories. But there's not much to say about the "plot", because the plot is thin. That's okay, since the movie is mostly just for having fun with a meta crossover.

This is a Turtles/villain show, paring the universe down to its most well-known and action-driven characters, so I wasn't disappointed by the shortness of FW Splinter's cameo, even if he was a childhood hero of mine. Instead, inside my head I made a high-pitched noise that only dogs would have heard.

In true Splinter fashion he, and 4Kids Splinter, take it all in stride, which was lovely. It suggests to me that my inner child might not be lying when she tells me that FW Splinter is strong, intelligent, and respectable.

Turtles Forever also ties up some loose ends from the 4Kids series. It's good to see Karai back in action, and I can temporarily forget all the bullshit that's been done with her—however, she is an extremely tertiary character, and it's a little disappointing that we'll never know where she goes from there. I also didn't care for her young-looking redesign. Turning Hun into a mutant turtle was a pretty fun idea, and Ch'rell has an appropriately powerful return and death.

Ch'rell is notably more manic than before, but it makes sense. This guy has been frozen in ice for several seasons, has awoken in a strange new situation with some guy that has "his" name--of course he's pissed.

Then the story becomes even more obvious that it's fiction about fiction, when the universe fades out, it becomes blue pencil lines before it disappears. At this point the joke can get to be a little much, but never enough to make me falter. Including the Mirage Turtles was excellent, and I can only imagine how much joy other fans must have felt.

I also love the character animation here, with an upgraded budget that allows for characters like mutant Hun or FW Shredder to pull some great facial expressions, as well as a lot of shading and lighting that had been absent from the previous seasons.

A lot of people of my generation complained about the portrayal of the Fred Wolf Turtles and prime FW villains, claiming that the special made them look stupid or wimpy. However, having watched that same cartoon recently, I'd say the portrayals where accurate (new VAs notwithstanding), and most importantly, not at all mean-spirited.

There are plenty of things in Turtles Forever that would have gone differently had it been a mean-spirited parody. If it were mean-spirited, we would not have had FW Shredder taking the imitative to find Ch'rell in the first place, the FW Turtles's exploring shurkien and dimensional scopes being useful, and Bebop being instrumental to Ch'rell's defeat.

Yes, there were a few times when the believability was stretched a tiny bit, such as FW Leonardo being a little too flippant, or the FW Turtles suddenly becoming goofy in the middle of a scene where they'd been acting stable, but I don't believe that was mean-spirited, either.

No, the writers were making a joke, and to make a joke, sometimes you have to exaggerate things, and you never stop to explain it. Turtles Forever was largely a light-hearted piece, and one of the gags was the difference between the 4kids and the FW characters. Acknowledging and then playing with that difference for the purposes of comedy is not bashing.  For me, for my money, the characterizations were pretty much accurate. They especially had that "old married couple" dynamic between Krang and Shredder down cold.

(That being said, a small part of me did get a kick out of the times FW Shredder got whaled on. You could guess why, knowing my favourite Fred Wolf characters are Splinter and White Baxter; the lower brain is a vicious thing.)

Oh, and about the mutant bowling balls, mutant pizza, and also leprechauns: sure, none of them literally existed in the old cartoon, but they sure as hell would be in line with it.

Even the Mirage Turtles, though they make a few jokes at the expense of the "Sellouts", work together with their counterparts, proving again that Turtles Forever is not meant to be an attack on anything or anybody.

However, this was the beginning of my realization that Fred Wolf April was the damsel in distress, or hapless, and possibly unlikable, when I had never thought about whether she was or not. No big loss, though, and I'm still certain this wasn't the reaction the writers intended.

At the very least, it's hard to believe that a crossover with this much effort put into it would exist only for the purpose of scorn. I was astonished by all the references to the old cartoon they snuck in, such as making crowds in the FW universe out of human character models from many previous episodes (I noticed the "eat your vegetables" mother from "It Came from Beneath the Sewers"), or using the phone elevator or the nose-vacuum thingie from the same cartoon. At this point, I'm willing to believe the giant fly that Hun accidentally makes and for some reason keeps in his office is a homage to FW Baxter. (Neat.)

I've heard people talk about more T.F.-style crossovers, something we don't need, because this finishes all of what it sets up and leaves you wanting more, as a good production should. Turtles Forever is one of those things that transcends all individual preferences to appeal to all fans of a media franchise. Well..."all" might be a stretch, but the complaints lobbied against this movie feel almost ungrateful, since it is made with such care, and is tremendous, tremendous fun. It just made me so goddamn happy from start to finish.

And with that, what do I think of the 4Kids Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I like this series for the times when it was good. It's true that I had much higher hopes for it, hopes that were eroded by the last three seasons--as well as some of the filler in the previous four. I expected something nearly as good as Gargoyles or Avatar the Last Airbender, and did not get that. But there are many things worth holding on to, even if this series won't make my personal list of best cartoons.

Despite the misfires, I loved the way that this TMNT helped to bring some of the older Mirage stuff to other media and make new connections between them, and the way it tried, as so many shows do, to be "dark" within the confines of a kid's series, and often succeeded.

The greatest strength of this series during the good times was its villains. Ch'rell successfully blended two disparate concepts (the Shredder and the Utroms) and re-ignited an old villain. Karai used to be great, and I wished she had been handled better. Before he was degraded, Hun was also a pretty effective antagonist. Bishop, as I've said, was the best new character introduced, and its Baxter Stockman is the best Baxter we've gotten.  (note: I haven't read the IDW comics, but Baxter Stockman without self-destruction sounds so uninteresting it's easy for me to jump the gun; also, Mirage Baxter is boring)

On the heroes' side, their characterization is pretty good, though the increasing stupidity of Casey and Michelangelo was disappointing. It's fine to have your characters be comical, but you can take it too far. April still never had much to do, but at least she became easier to define as a character, though still wasn't very interesting.

All in all, it was not something I regret seeking out and watching. When it was on, it was on, and certainly better than the old show at being what it tried to be (as in, I think it's more successful as an action series than the OT was as an action-comedy). I will be the first to try to focus on the good bits without being told to.

From the Power of a Super Brain: Solely about Seasons Six and Seven of the 4Kids TMNT

This time, there will be no ancillary Turtles stuff. I've been busy, and the brightest blip on my radar are the old Archie comics, which I feel are fun enough to deserve a proper overview once I'm finished with them.

With that out of the way....

I am a dirty cheating bitch. An awful capricious harpy. I couldn't, just could not tackle Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward in full.

Instead I went through other fans' lists of the "good" Fast Forward episodes, looked some up on the TMNT Wiki, and decided which ones I would try for. And even then, I got through very few of them. And I don't regret it.

We've sailed to calmer waters of irritation, and there's nothing so aggravating as Karai's story in "The Lost Season", but few that's gratifying, either. This rebranded season, naturally, reeks of executive meddling and so on and so forth. It's dumbed-down, garish, and ugly.

I really disliked the character of Cody Jones. Yes, it's cliche the old nerd to hate the child sidekick, but I don't care. "Just like yoouuuu" characters are such lazy creations, and Cody's character arc is founded on good ol' American hatred of introversion--it's not quite as bad as the anti-intellectualism that underlies a lot of entertainment for children, but even so, it's grating. Cody's desire to stay inside is presented as a Bad Thing, the product of manipulation and sheltering.

And of course, because a series set in the future can't abide new characters standing on their own, Cody's robot butler turns into a mech with a hockey-mask face on its chest, and a laser hockey-stick weapon thingamagoober, because Casey is his great-grandfather.

I don't at all mind putting the Turtles in a more overtly science fiction setting. I liked the earlier seasons' take on that sort of thing, the Mirage comics they were based on, and all the times the Turtles went into space in the Archie comics. Changing the setting helps to keep things fresh, and there are many potential new stories. But this was not an organic outgrowth of the story. This is just a mess of a mess, one that never hides the executive meddling that motivated its creation.

In addition, all the Turtles act like morons, or double-plus-morons. I don't care for another set of obviously toyetic redesigns. I don't care for the new villains or anything....

Except that President Bishop is here to class up the joint. Bishop is simply the best new character created for this series: a stoic, driven man who believes he is doing good but who is ruthless, and whose original occupation is a natural fit for the Turtles franchise.

His new job as Earth president, still looking the same as he did before, was a fun surprise, and the best of all the twists in the FF series. However, the season's explanation for Bishop's change of heart was a howler: having his life saved by an alien once, that was all it took to turn him around. I don't know where it actually would have fit, but such a radical transformation needs at least an arc.

The first episode of "Fast Forward" I ever saw was "Head of State", when I took a crash course in 4Kids Baxter Stockman because of my new interest in the character. I'll be talking a lot about 4Kids Baxter Stockman and comparing him with the FW version in the near future, but I must talk briefly about "Head of State" now, to complete the review.

On the second viewing of "Head of State", the same problem came up: Baxter's change of heart and situation was too rushed. I don't know how long it was between the end of season five and the flashback in "Head of State", but Bishop's genuine concern for Baxter in that flashback is very different from the callous way Bishop last handled him. I can buy the regret of the future Bishop since he's a changed man, but the material in the flashback feels like it was made to be more kid-friendly.

The promise of a resolution for Baxter is nice, but it comes at the tail end of the episode, and the way the other characters talk Baxter down from his rage also feels rushed. If there was any sense that Baxter had grown more mellow or resigned over time, it could have worked, but Baxter acts as he usually does, and after all he's been through, it doesn't seem like one episode would be enough for a resolution.

"Head of State" simply feels hasty, as if it were made simply in service of the moral that the Turtles' evil clones could turn out to be good, because, hey, these other pre-established villains made good, right?

I loved the design of the ambulatory Baxterbrain (though it looks a little condescending when Bishop pats him), and the "Organic Mousers", which were giant one-eyed dinosaurs/wyverns, some with retractable wings.

Honestly, I hate feeling like I'm only talking about my favourite character to the exclusion of everything else, but nobody is giving me anything to work with, here. I understand this was always a children's series always meant to sell toys, but I had high hopes for this show, and a lot of the time it met them. Now that it becomes more blatantly marketed to children, it's irritating.

I can't help but compare Fast Forward to the World Tour arc of Gargoyles, which focused on four characters traveling about the world, rather than in the regular New York with the rest of the cast, though we looked in on them from time to time.

While not all of the World Tour episodes were great, even the worst was miles ahead of...this. They broadened the Gargoyles world, laid foundations for future stories, and above all, the brief transformation of the series felt organic and natural--not to sell toys. Hell, the one time the World Tour arc introduced a potential "toyetic" device (Goliath enhanced with the Eye of Odin), nobody followed up on it. :P But Fast Forward serves no purpose, and just isn't fun.

And now we're on to:

Season Seven

Somehow, I managed to sit through all the episodes for this. I've heard it was bad, and while it's not good, at least it's more digestible than seasons five and six.

I remember what I said about it being lazy to use another Shredder instead of creating original villains, and I stick by that. However, establishing a principle doesn't meant you accept all examples. Khan is a dull new villain who shows up out of nowhere, and he just ends up being Cyber Shredder's minion, anyway.

The "cyber" theme of this season was unexpected and pretty silly, especially when you have Turtles on TRON cycles, or engaging in a parody of World of Warcraft. And there are more ugly new outfits designed to sell action figures.

A lot of the characters are redesigned to be reminiscent of the 2007 Turtles film, which was current at the time. I love Splinter's new design, with the Splinter sagely facial hair always reminds me of Nicodemus from The Secret of NIMH (the film version), and I can only nod my silent approval.

April looks off, though. She looks de-aged, and too blatantly "anime", even more than the Turtle's big, shiny pupils.

And now we have Another Damn Shredder. At least this one is a copy of the original, but still, it's derivative.

And Hun is still stupid, which is still disappointing.

While I've said before that it's hard to get attached to 4Kids Splinter, I winced at the idea of Splinter being sundered into computer data and becoming a mere MacGuffin for the Turtles to chase. He deserves so much better.

So April and Casey are getting married, eh? I never thought their relationship had much substance, and I really dislike the "childish husband, responsible wife" dynamic they're running nose-first into. However, it's cute that they're deciding...even with the idea that you must get a woman a huge rock for her engagement ring. And look where it got you, eh? A low-rent version of "Eye of the Beholder", that's what!

Baxter Stockman's latest robot body doesn't look right with a perpetually frowning, Bruce Timm-esque face, even if it's a fake faceplate. It's also strange that he can apparently leave Bishop whenever he likes, working for Hun in "Hacking Stockman" like it's no big deal.

(By the way, is the title "Hacking Stockman" some kind of tortured pun? I'm glad to have found something worse than the one I came up with, "Cracker Stockman".)

4kids Baxter needs a delicate balance: darkly comedic but never without a fundamental sense of pride in himself, or at least some emotional seriousness. Giving him one-liners like offering to make Cyber Shredder a body with "all the razor-sharp features" and saying, "Sorry, but I just had that back panel servo installed last week" just sounded too corny, even for a character who isn't "cool".

Once Baxter ejects his head container from his robot body, though, he's more like he used to be, including a self-aware joke about knowing that a current body is never long for this world.

Serling really is annoying, but I feel a tiny bit sorry for him, just being stuck there. That's because I've always had a soft spot for fussbudgets. It's why Cogsworth was one of my favourite characters in Beauty and the Beast. Still, why the hell did the writers bring him there?

Oh, and I did watch the "Mayhem from Mutant Island" shorts, because I couldn't resist Baxter Stockman and dinosaurs, but it was dull. More silly outfits for the Turtles, and Baxter as a generic "Curses, foiled again!" villain who is to all appearances working alone feels extremely unnatural. (He might've been replaced by the Mirage comics version while we weren't looking.)

Next up, Turtles Forever (to cleanse the palate and how!) and final thoughts on this series.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Brief Thoughts on "Marceline and the Scream Queens"

It's also been hard for me to get back into single-issue comic collecting after so many years of concentrating on trades. To me it always makes more sense to wait for the issues to come out first, but at the same time, I know I'm missing out on a lot as it comes, while the nerd Joneses are always ahead.

To change that, I decided to start small and pick up all six issues of Marceline and the Scream Queens, the Adventure Time
miniseries about Marceline the Vampire Queen and her rock band: vampire Keila, shapeshifter Guy, and ghost Bongo.  And Princess Bubblegum is along as manager while they go out on tour. There will be spoilers here, so tread slowly.

Once again, I have to admit I'm not as up to speed on Adventure Time
as I want to be, so take my impressions lightly if you like. Marceline and Princess Bubblegum (or "Peebles", or "P.B.", and other assorted nicknames), are two of my favourite characters on the show, so it was fun to read a story about them. Furthermore, I just enjoy reading stories about artists, since whatever they actually do, I can relate to a lot of their experiences.

Marceline and the Scream Queens naturally includes some of that, with Marceline's insecurity and rage over getting a bad review being a major plot thread. Her feelings are not overblown or overdone, and there are plenty of other things that happen along the way, so no one needs to worry about Marceline being too angsty—not that I ever would have.

Like everything Adventure Time this comic is fun to look at, with there being so many weird settings and creatures. Meredith Gran's pencils have an appealing childish scrawl, and each issue has a short backup strip illustrated by a different artist, and it's also fun to see their takes on the series's art style.

The previously-established characters act and sound in-character, though I was surprised at the presenting Marceline's father as a stereotypical "goofy dad", when he and Marceline have had such a strained relationship in the TV show.

Where it really does start to come unglued are the lines that seem a little too knowing, a little too adult, like the comic is trying to bring those subversive parts of the TV series closer to the surface to excite older fans.

Writing is a tricky business, but I'm usually not in favour of giving a fan-favourite aspect of a series more attention in order to delight the die-hard audience. Marceline and the Scream Queens just has these moments that make me laugh, but also squirm a little at how much they seem like playing to the older audience. Like this exchange from the final issue, in which we found out who wrote the review that upset Marceline so much:

Princess Bubblegum: Then why couldn't you write a positive review?

Lumpy Space Princess: Um..because that's not how you like something. You like something by telling everyone you hate

It so obviously sounds like something for nerds, for we who have seen so many of our buddies hate what they claim to love, or vice versa, that it makes me roll my eyes a little. I mean, it's funny and on-the-nose, but it just doesn't quite fit with Adventure Time as we know it.

(As proof of my nerd bona fides, I'm the same person who wonders whether Marceline technically being Keila's sovereign has any effect on their relationship. I suck.)

You could say all of this is not as bad as Ice King writing "fanfiction" in the TV show and having it become an entire genderswapped universe, meaning that the TV series is really the leader in fan pandering. However, the famous genderswap universe worked as a neutral experiment, before that "in-story fanfiction" explanation was trotted out. Some of the stuff in this comic doesn't stand out well enough on its own.

(And now the genderswap universe is getting its own comic series, too. Huh.)

The other biggest example of fan pandering I can think of is the Earl of Lemongrab back-up strip, which is largely about the character screaming his catchphrase  "UNACCEPTABLE!" over and over again as he goes through his day and runs into various annoyances. Look, I've clapped like a trained seal at the recitation of nerdy catchphrases, too, but doesn't mean there can't be anything else. Lemongrab had a pretty interesting story they could've played around with.

Besides all that, I couldn't quite buy that Princess Bubblegum would cast aside her royal duties and put Finn and Jake in charge of the Candy Kingdom so that she could follow Marceline on her tour. I realize Marceline and P.B. have a complex, conflicted relationship, which I do enjoy, but I still tilted my head a little.

Since Peebles's decision kicks off the story, I'm not ready to dismiss it as fan pandering, but I can't accept it as something neutral, either. Marceline x Princess Bubblegum is a very popular fan pairing, and I can see why, but it's still not canon, so this comic can't help but feel like it's courting the internet. Nothing explicit happens between the two, but once you know the background it's impossible to not think Bubblegum was written into the story to excite shippers.

But all in all, this is a good comic. Fun characters, fun art, and I'd love to see a trade. Please?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Brief Thoughts on "Jake the Dad"

I haven't been keeping up with Adventure Time as much as I'd like. In fact, far less than I'd like, mostly because it's difficult to bypass that part of my brain that wants to see things on TV or DVD instead of torrenting them. I really should, especially with all the famous tear-jerker episodes that have everyone talking. I have been diligent and avoided (most) spoilers, really.

I love this show, I really do.

But I managed to remember to find a copy of "Jake the Dad" online, and I was impressed with this episode. Yes, it does almost the exact thing Bloom County did, but I'm not accusing Adventure Time of ripping off Berkely Breathed. Besides, the rest of the story was good enough that I didn't care.

What I liked about this episode was that, before the status quo was neatly resolved, this was one of the few TV programs I can remember where a male character is actually happy to be a parent and tries his best to be a loving, caring father.

I don't want any kids and I'm a lady, but it's always struck me as incredibly disturbing how one of the major activities of the human race is perceived as undesirable and scary by male characters, while female characters always accept it unconditionally. Such representations are annoying for both genders, and for different reasons.

While it's true that Jake loses his babies while taking them for a walk, it's only because he's overstressed from worrying and falls asleep, and those little beasties discover the ability to teleport away from him. Jake actually worries about his kids instead of himself, and his anxieties feel genuine and heartfelt, like I'd imagine a real new parent feels, though it's tempered with Adventure Time's weird humour. It just feels so much more honest and generous than a lot of other cliches about television parenting.

Which is why comments about Jake being a "deadbeat dad" had me expecting  much, much worse. Shame on everybody for calling him that.

(And the same episode also had Finn, a goshdarned young boy, excited to see his brother's babies and trying to accept Jake living in a different place, instead of whining about not being able to hang out anymore.)

I suppose it's no big deal that Jake and Lady Rainicorn were capable of breeding, since Adventure Time is funny like that. I liked the bizarre designs of the puppies, although the face design for Jake Jr., a diamond-shaped opening surrounded by wrinkles, with the eyes (if there were any) covered by hair, was unsettling. She reminded me of something Daniel Clowes might draw, like that dog without orifices from Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Brrr.

Still, fun episode.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Shoulda Stayed Lost: Season Five of the 4Kids TMNT and Other Stuff

I could make an overblown speech about making the world burn with the sheer force of my nerd and not-nerd rage. I'm not gonna, but that's the state of mind I was in towards most of season five, the "lost season" of the 4Kids TMNT series. And after thinking it over…my complaints were totally legitimate.

No, nothing was ever bad enough to destroy the goodwill of previous episodes, but it was one hell of a firewalk. It started out mildly annoying, then went straight on to making me angry. Thank God it was half the length of a regular season.

I know this might sound odd coming from someone who loved Splinter so much, but I've never been all that excited when full-blown Martial Arts stuff comes into play in a Turtles universe, when it's all fantasy ninja stuff, all the time. So then, the Ninja Tribunal parts bored me to tears. Even the appearance of nicely-designed dragons couldn't help.

Apparently there is now this huge backstory involving the Ninja Tribunal and the Foot Mystics--and while it doesn't come out of nowhere, the support for it still feels weak. Furthermore, you push all these new characters on viewers, along with the Turtles' fighting companions, and expect us to care about them in such a short timeframe, and it doesn't work. What they tried to sell, I wasn't buying.

To make it worse, there are such blatant toy advertisements here, character redesigns and new characters that scream, "action figure variant!". The Turtles with their mystical patterns, Karai with her "Proton Pack", Bishop with his red circuitry suit, and so many of their enemies—it just looks silly.

I hated the idea of Tengu Shredder from the start. First off, his introduction starts as a cheesy McGuffin chase, and it results in a villain that has no panache, no style. He's just a roaring megalomaniac, without the cool air of Ch'rell. Even though Ch'rell eventually goes nuts, there's the principle to consider. 

Furthermore, while there's precedent for Shredder being a mantle, it still feels a little silly to hype up this powerful new villain, only to have him be one who looks and sounds like the former main villain. Calling him the "True Shredder" makes it feel even more fanfic-y, and I say this as somebody who's indulged.

And then there is Karai...the point at which my nerd rage tipped over into something stronger. It seemed that no one involved understood how terrible it looked to have the series' only female villain be completely at the mercy of the new Big Bad, especially when she had had barely any time to shine on her own.

This is shown without question, accepted without hesitation: a naked contempt for Karai's skills as a warrior and her strength as a villain. Every character accepts it, every character tries to tell her how futile it is, making Karai look ever more stupid for trying.

It's not about her being defeated by Tengu Shredder, really, but how she gets so little a chance to stand up to him, and after so short a career as the Shredder. She is frozen in mid-attack, fleeing in terror from a giant serpent, calling on her minion for help—and Tengu Shredder pins her to the wall and causes her armour to fall off and talks about making her his "slave".  Yeah, she's wearing a black body stocking underneath, but does that really make a difference? There is just no way to see this but that Karai being the damsel in distress. And it is absolutely awful. 

I've had my issues with this franchise's treatment of female characters before, but this takes home the prize. None of the blows that Karai manages to deal in the aftermath of the Tengu's attack  on her, nor the Turtles treating her as a threat, can do anything to change this.

The final twist of the knife is that Dr. Chaplin's attachment to Karai is valourized, treated with gravitas, is a romance in all but explicit name. This, from his introduction as a creepy Nice Guy who made robots in her likeness but never could be honest about what it meant, and who never had any positive traits at all.  

In short, Chaplin is living every creepy nerd-boy's fantasy of being given a hot chick without doing anything. There is enough of that disgusting shit in media made for adults; we don't need it here.

(Next time I see someone compare Dr. Chaplin to Fred Wolf Baxter, I'm probably going to twitch a little.)

The goofy style of the earlier episodes never quite disappears, and in the end, it all seems like it's cribbing from children's anime in the worst way, with all the silly glowing doodads and garish, over-designed costumes. And you know what? I love dragons, but we still don't need 'em here.

Also, when did Hun become so stupid? He's acting like the meathead lazy writers would have already made him into.

It therefore is no surprise that I felt no sense of suspense, no sense of tension, when all of this came to a head and there was a huge battle between Tengu Shredder and basically the entire cast. I just watched, fuming in silence. The arrival of Hamato Yoshi's spirit was pure deus ex machina, made worse that it happened multiple times.

There were only a few things to cool the fire. A story with Splinter and the younger Turtles is always a treat, and the design of the Bone Demon was really cool (hey, Playmates, where was the action figure of that?). I'm also always happy to see Baxter, even if he's never happy anymore—at least his robot body has "put on some pants". The Baxtertank was sure unexpected, and I'm glad he didn't get eaten by a dragon.


Ancillary Turtles Stuff

Naturally, with such a short period of time, there isn't much of a chance to build up things. But, I have to talk about something else, so let's get this circus rolling.

Hearing that the IDW comics series has dark and edgy Neutrinos made me laugh so hard that I've come the closest ever to going to pick the series up, though I still haven't.

I am still taking it slow going through the Fred Wolf series, watching more of the third season. I guess I sometimes need to prep myself before watching this series, which I still feel weirded out by. Where the heck are my nostalgia goggles? I remember many of these episodes from when I was a child, but I'm looking at them like I would a show airing today, with a sharp adult cynicism.

Some of them are still too annoying to finish, and I give myself leeway to stop any time and not finish every episode.

I let myself do that, because out of the almost two hundred episodes, there are none I actually need to see. With the 4Kids series I want to be a completist, because I still respect it, and there's continuity and things.

However, there was one goddamn episode I hated but forced myself parts of, because I needed something in it for something. That was "Raphael Knocks 'Em Dead", which didn't have the prime Fred wolf villains, but, it was basically the "giggle ray" episode. It centers around the characters telling jokes, and I don't have to paint a picture of how horrid an episode like that for this series is. Stick to sass, Raphael.

And somebody got the brilliant idea to recycle human Baxter Stockman's model sheet, give him orange hair, and say he was "Barney Stockman" still voiced by Pat Fraley, and make him the mad scientist of that particular day.

Naturally, Baxter Stockman is irreplaceable, but I found the execution really funny, because Barney acts like Baxter on crack, constantly yelling and screaming and always showing his malicious side. He also seems to be more confident and competent a mad scientist, and treated like an equal by the gangsters who hired him. Despite his making the usual jokes you'd expect, hating to be mistaken for his brother and pitching a fit when it happens again and again, these are still hilarious contrasts, and I wish Barney was in an episode I could sit through.

I don't know how much of Barney's different personality was supposed to be different, and not just something the writers came up with at random, but it works. Hell, it even unintentionally suggests a reason for Baxter becoming insane and evil—it just runs in the family. Baxter might've wanted to go legit, but the little guy was a powder keg.

Depressing, ain't it? Heh, heh, heh.