Friday, March 14, 2008

dawn of the dorks

Twenty-one years ago in the March issue of ANIMAGE (the number-one Japanese animation magazine) they ran one of their occasional features detailing how sometimes those crazy roundeyes get obsessed with cartoons from Japan and form their own anime clubs and dress up in costume and stuff like that. Apart from the two page spread of 80s Americans dressed like Lum, Jigen, Prince Zordar, and a foam-rubber Raideen (helpfully headlined "That's American Costume Play!") there was this photo:

It's some of the members of C/FO Atlanta, posing stiffly in a comic book shop, reaching out to their Japanese proto-otaku brethren! Back then we had more hair and were about 20 pounds lighter on average, and we thought nothing of taking a rainy Saturday to drive to the south side and get our picture taken wearing our Lum t-shirts holding MEGAZONE 23 LPs. How did this happen? Well, we had an anime club.

In the mid 1980s several things happened at once; I got a driver's licence and a part-time job, by virtue of tagging along with my brother to conventions and SF club meetings I had fandom contacts, and home video equipment was getting cheaper and cheaper. At an Atlanta Fantasy Fair in, let's say 1985, some Florida fans came to town and showed anime movies in their hotel room in the evenings. This set the stage for the next fifteen years of my life, more or less. At an SCA meeting I met up with Scott W. and Albert R., both of whom had an interest in anime. The head of the Dr. Who club had anime tapes along with his British SF shows, and he encouraged our talk of an anime-themed splinter group. We found out a guy named Bill S. had moved to town and was going to start his OWN anime club. We got together with THAT guy and joined forces and started the Atlanta branch of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization.

By 1986 we were meeting in library community rooms, basements, wherever we could set up a TV and a VCR, showing whatever 10th-generation VHS copies of whatever we could get our hands on - ORGUSS television episodes, YAMATO films, DIRTY PAIR, LAPUTA, LUPIN III, L. GAIM, PROJECT A-KO, VAMPIRE HUNTER D, GALAXY EXPRESS, SAINT SEIYA, URUSEI YATSURA, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, PRINCE PLANET, ICZER ONE, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, CRUSHER JOE, DANCOUGAR, CITY HUNTER, ETERNAL ORBIT SSX, DEVILMAN, AREA 88, ODIN, DAGGER OF KAMUI, LENSMAN, you name it. There would be two or three sets of VCRs in the back of the room copying whatever was available. Dues were ten bucks a year, which sounds like a lot, but we did print and mail a newsletter every month. EVERY MONTH! No wonder I did so poorly in college.

Most weekends we'd gather at somebody's apartment and daisy-chain more VCRs and copy anime all night long, marvelling at the artform that was so incredibly awesome and yet so unknown in the United States. Every few months there would be a convention and if the convention didn't give us a room to show anime in, we'd just get a hotel room and show it ourselves. We quickly learned which brands of videotape were the best, which VCRs to choose, how to wire it all up to your stereo to get stereo sound, and how loud you could get before the people next door complained.

C/FO Atlanta was a chapter of a national C/FO organization that grew out of Los Angeles and at its peak had chapters throughout the United States, Canada, and even in Japan. By the time we came on the scene the C/FO was beginning to feel the heat from swelling, itching ranks of new anime fans who had seen ROBOTECH on television and wanted more of this "japanimation" thing. The veteran C/FO members were old-school SF fans who were into old-school media fandom - giant fanzines full of fan fiction and pointillist fan artwork, typeset with an IBM Selectric and sold for thirty bucks each. While the new kids had a respect for the fanfic, they wanted tapes, and plenty of 'em. Meetings in Atlanta became daisy-chains of AV cable stringing decks together, fifteen TVs blaring at once, rowdy teenagers grabassing in the back, annoyed librarians kicking us out, and me going home with a stack of 30 blank tapes to copy PROJECT A-KO for everybody.

And let me point out that at this point - 1987 - you could not buy Japanese animation on videotape legitimately in the United States. Nobody was releasing subtitled anime. Nobody was putting the things in theaters. You could watch ROBOTECH on television, which was dubbed (horrors!) and edited (double horrors!) and you could rent dubbed and edited kids' movies in the kids' section of the local video store, and that was it. So if you wanted to watch Japanese animation, you HAD to come to the anime club and bug somebody. (Yes, there were video pirates selling bootlegs of anime in the dealers rooms of conventions, even back then, but we made a point of decrying their conduct in as offensive a fashion as possible). How were WE getting anime? By shelling out for the actual Japanese commercial tapes, by swapping with people through the mail, and by trading tapes with pen pals in Japan. There was a whole network of people mailing each other T-120 videotapes, keeping the Post Office busy.

By the time AKIRA came out - I mean, made it to us in America - things had come to a head. The national C/FO Organization was going through a painful and spite-ridden reorganization that would smash its national power forever, and the local club was basically me loading all my tapes and my parents old television into a car and driving across town to show cartoons I didn't care that much about to strangers. I came to the realization that I wasn't getting paid enough for this crap. In fact I wasn't getting paid at all! So I quit.

C/FO Atlanta failed to meet the requirements to remain an offical chapter of the actual offical C/FO (not enough members of the national organization) and so, realizing that affiliation with the national org at that point was not worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit, the club changed its name to "Animated Film Association". Most of the other C/FO chapters across the country did the same thing, and the late 1980s were littered with three-initial anime clubs of guys meeting in library basements showing cartoons to each other, like Britons continuing to use Roman law after the Romans went home.

By that time I had quit the local club and had started a mail-based organization called the "Prince Planet Foundation" reflecting my personal obsession with Japanese anime and manga of the 60s. I mailed out newsletters when I felt like it and corresponded with people who shared my interests and I amassed a prodigious collection of Prince Planet episodes which I then copied for everybody in the flipping world. Holy cow, did I get sick of Prince Planet.

After six or eight months I got together with former C/FO member Lloyd C. and we started a brand new anime club with no newsletters, one-time-only dues, a tape library to prevent me from copying PROJECT A-KO all the time, and a total lack of rules, constitutions, officials, or any of the red-tape BS that so annoyed us with the C/FO. Also I was not going to haul my television any more. This new club - Anime-X - lasted for about ten years and formed the nucleus around which grew Anime Weekend Atlanta, which has lasted for 14 years as of this writing. I still see C/FO Atlanta members at AWA every year and it always astounds us how a club that started out with 5 people in somebody's basement watching a really terrible copy of GUNDAM III somehow became a convention of 10,000 people in a giant convention center. Well, as long as I don't have to haul my TV or copy PROJECT A-KO for anybody, it's all good.


Unknown said...

That Animage picture? I wouldn't let any of those long haired hippies in my basement.

You know, this sounds stupid, but I've always wanted to go around and find a bunch of the old fans and sit them down with a tape recorder or a video camera and let them talk about the way things used to be. Sort of an oral history of anime fandom.

ferricide said...

it's funny. by virtue mostly of my age, i didn't get into anime until (pretty much the moment) it was commercially available in the US. the first "anime" i ever saw was a commercial VHS of akira, dubbed, in 1991.

though i did attend several anime clubs, gatherings and cons, and manage to surround myself with people who enjoyed anime and watch it in big groups, mostly that was just my friends and how they were. i never went to any club too many times, or the same con two years in a row.

i did kindasorta join the film society at college so i could run an anime night with my friend dave. we did our own posters.

but in general, fandom wasn't an organized activity for me. it never really needed to be because i could always find access to anime without having to devote myself to being involved. that and, upon reflection, i moved around a whole fuckload as a teen, and went to several different schools.

also, for most of my anime fandom there was online access -- dialup BBSes at first (got a lot of my fansubs from a benevolent guy, god knows where, who just mailed me about 20 VHS tapes for free, that i talked to on a networked BBS forum) and then the internet (starting with usenet, which is how i got most of my gundam tapes.)

for awhile i had a decent (at least IMO, nothing compared to you i'm sure) collection of VHS fansubs, most of which i've either given away or pitched because the shows have come out in the US, or i lost interest in the subject matter.

Chris Sobieniak said...

That Animage picture? I wouldn't let any of those long haired hippies in my basement.

I wouldn't mind fitting in with those guys!

it's funny. by virtue mostly of my age, i didn't get into anime until (pretty much the moment) it was commercially available in the US. the first "anime" i ever saw was a commercial VHS of akira, dubbed, in 1991.

Heh, I got into it around my high school years in the early 90's (having been too young to get into it in the 80's). Of course for living in my podunk part of Ohio, I didn't expect really anyone else of being in the same interest I had about it.

Anonymous said...

It's really fascinating to read about this stuff. I really had no idea that there were such devoted anime fans back before I was even born!

I grew up with a lot of Japanese shows, but didn't really get into anime until I saw Sailor Moon on Toonami in 1998. I was 15 at the time.