Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Hey guys, the new BOOKS NIPPAN catalog showed up! It's 1984 and the only way to get Japanese animation books and magazines is through the mail, and that means catalogs!

Books Nippan was/is the American branch of Nippon Shuppan Hanbai, Japan's largest book distributor! At some point in the early 1980s, they figured that there might be a little money to be made out of re-routing a bit of the gigantic tidal wave of anime books and magazines currently submerging Japan towards the United States, where a small but devoted audience of what would one day be known as 'otaku' waited, cash in hand, for their chance to buy Roman Albums and This Is Animation books.

Earlier Books Nippan catalogs were xeroxed and had a charming punk rock cut-and-paste aesthetic that resembled the fan pages of your better anime magazines.

Even though Cat's Eye isn't about three detectives, somehow the friendly clip art and hand-lettered copy makes you want to shell out $3.30 for "black and white comic novels". This is back when the word "manga" wasn't a overused tagline and the yen-to-dollar conversion was a lot easier to calculate.

But even the friendliest of graphic design has to move with the times and soon Books Nippan's catalog got all professional-looking with screentones and set type and everything.

When you're back in 1984 be sure and pick me up some Roman Albums, okay? I will gladly shell out $7.10 for the Brygar Roman Album! Publisher Tokuma Shoten's guides to the anime world, "Roman Albums" were/are thick paperbound magazine size books jam packed with production art, story notes, character designs, color pages, posters, stickers, and other bromides, and were absolutely vital for the informational needs of anime fans circa 1984 and beyond.

Another "thank you" goes out to Books Nippan for introducing us to the world of "black and white comic volumes" based on our favorite anime! Turns out it's the other way around, that many of our favorite anime series were based on the comics. Or "manga" as we later learned to call them. All your favorites are here - Urusei Yatsura, Space Cobra, Dr. Slump, Locke The Superman, Golgo 13, and Patalliro. 24 years later, however, and I am still unsure what "Star Boy" is. I'm pretty sure they don't mean THIS "Star Boy."

The Keibunsha Daihyaka books are great little bricks of data; written for grade-schoolers, the Japanese is simple, the kanji are all ruby-equipped, and the photos are big and grainy.

I find myself hauling out my "All Animation" volume for reference a lot more than you'd think. Okay, so it's only updated through 1983, but who cares?

This is what's left of the first book I ever purchased from Books Nippan, a Keibunsha Cyborg 009 book that demonstrates how well the binding holds up after thirty years of reference usage (hint: not very well).

Probably the best part about the Books Nippan 1984 catalog is that it was, for many of us, the very first place to ever advertise Japanese Animation video tapes for sale. And I use the word "sale" very loosely, because HOLY CRAP CHECK OUT THOSE PRICES!!

Do I LOOK like I have ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY UNITED STATES DOLLARS to shell out for the first Space Cruiser Yamato movie? Minimum wage back then was $3 an hour. Do the math. Prices on commercial releases of anime remained high for most of the decade, leading to a thriving bootleg video market and the sad spectacle of little clubs of fans pooling their money to buy Crusher Joe or Urusei Yatsura Only You or Final Yamato at the bargain price of $202. I think these days you could fill a cargo container with anime VHS for two hundred and two dollars and hand them out on Halloween like circus peanuts. Beta - TWO cargo containers.

But that's not all Books Nippan offered - they carried a full line of fashion magazines, the charmingly censored Japanese edition of PLAYBOY, and a full page offering glossy color magazines all about your favorite British pretty-boy bands.

Decades pass and the teenage girls have abandoned Duran Duran for the manga - sorry, the "black and white comic volume" section at Barnes & Noble! And thus, the great circle of life... continues.

-Dave Merrill

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

paging dr. black jack

While visiting Toronto's finest comic arts establishment the Beguiling last week, I picked up Vertical's new edition of BLACK JACK, Osamu Tezuka's medical suspense manga starring the mysterious unlicensed surgeon with the two-tone hair. Published in SHONEN CHAMPION from 1973 until the mid 1980s, BLACK JACK was Tezuka at his best; moving beyond his comfort zone, away from licenseable children's robot characters and cute animals into (for him) uncharted gekiga manga territory.

Black Jack is a renegade doctor with inhuman skill, a high price tag, and scars the envy of every modern tribalist. Seemingly detached and uncaring about the rest of the world, his true feelings are betrayed by a constant struggle to end human suffering. This usually takes the form of some sort of bizarre, painful, and incredibly disfiguring make-believe disease. At least, I hope these diseases are fictional, because some of them are pretty frightening. However, Black Jack fights back with outlandish and drastic surgical procedures that no other doctor on Earth would approve, let alone attempt to perform. When he's not deep inside some poor slob's intestines (rendered in slightly-too-realistic detail by real-life doctor Tezuka), Black Jack can be found uncovering criminal plots, revealing embarrassing lies, and generally behaving like a scalpel-wielding Columbo. Several times he manages to both fulfill his Hippocratic Oath and nab evildoers at the same time, winding up with stories that read like a cross between Rex Morgan M.D. and the twist-ending E.C. crime comics of the 1950s.

Vertical's new release is not the first time Black Jack manga has appeared in English - Viz released two volumes of manga in the 90s and serialized Black Jack in their MANGA VIZION anthology - but this new Vertical edition is certainly the classiest. A direct reprint of Akita Shoten's 1987 BLACK JACK collection, Vertical's version is printed slightly larger. The Diamond Comics Exclusive Hardcover release - available only in your local comic book shop- contains an additional story, which until now has never been reprinted. Why? Because it's freaking depressing, that's why.

The book includes the first Black Jack story, "Is There A Doctor" - a class-war tale of exploitation and revenge - and rolls right along through the first appearance of the doctor's assistant Pinoko, a story about Black Jack's lost medical school girlfriend, one tale reminiscent of a sushi-themed version of the Michael Caine horror movie "The Hand", and the intriguing tale of the beautiful ice-queen lady surgeon who specializes in amputations, paging Dr. Freud. Some of the stories go a little deep into science-fictional territory; one sequence about a hospital run by a super-computer is a bit Crichton-y. But here's where Tezuka's loose, cartoony style shows its advantage. The outlandish and the mundane are both given the same big-eye treatment and the reader is left not really concerned about the reality of brain transplants or computer-doctors. Anyway, when these stories were written, limb transplants were a hope for the future, and now they're performed regularly. Who can say mix-and-match surgical hijinx aren't coming?

The one minor detail missing from the Vertical editions are the slick, ultra-realistic covers sported by the Akita Shoten volumes. I love seeing manga characters rendered in photorealistic style, every pore and (in Black Jack's case) stitch scar glistening and making us all just a little queasy. I don't think these covers would sell at all in the American market, so it's probably a wise move to have Peter Mendelsund design new jackets. So here's my treatment regimen; hie yourself down to your local comic shop and pick up BLACK JACK VOLUME ONE from Vertical. For a full dose I recommend the hardcover version. You don't need a doctor's prescription and there's no complicated follow-up medication or painful physical therapy - just some serious entertainment from the pen of one of the world's masters of comics.

-Dave Merrill  

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Monday, October 13, 2008


Cosplay... in the before time.
(warning: this column contains blurry, low-res images. Please do not adjust your eyes.)

Before "cosplay" was a household word, before cosplay.com and the culture of tribes dressed as anime characters wandering from one hotel ballroom to another, like slightly-more-liable-to-have- bathed-recently Deadheads, had permeated every aspect of anime fandom, in the dark mists of prehistory, even then cosplay still existed. Only recently has documentary evidence come to light, enabling us to finally visualize these anime costumer pioneers.

Cosplay, or masquerade, or costuming, or dressing up like your favorite SF/F characters, or whatever you want to call it, is a new thing only on geological time scales. Back in 1939 at the first Worldcon, fan pioneer extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman was sporting cosplay (or as he called it, "futuristicostume") designed and sewn by Myrtle R. "Morojo" Douglas.  But this is an anime blog and we're here to look at anime costuming, aren't we?

The March 1987 issue of ANIMAGE gave the Japanese audience a glimpse of what their American counterparts were doing with fabric and foam core. Yes, Virginia-san, there are American anime fans! And they cosplay, too, as was seen in a photo spread helpfully titled "That's American Costume Play!" The Jigen and the Raideen are unidentified, but the modified Gatchaman outfit was created and modeled by Pat Munson-Siter , whose work in the field of pre-1990 anime fandom has rarely been matched.

March 1987 Animage photos; my scans

This was not the first ANIMAGE to highlight the champions of foreign otaku (even though the word "otaku" was still in the infancy of its usage) and it would not be the last. Three years later Project A-kon came into being - perhaps the first American anime convention, depending on who you ask and what time of day you ask them - and ANIMAGE was there, in spirit if not in flesh, with yet another look at those crazy Americans and their fandom for cartoons in languages they can't understand.

As captured on film by Jack Thielpape, the Dirty Pair pose provocatively as the looming spectre of Captain Harlock ensures a complete absence of any funny business, pal. In the late 80s-early 1990s there were several sets of Dirty Pairs costuming throughout the fandom convention world - one or two in California, a few on the East Coast, and the pair pictured here, who hailed from Georgia and who were actually real-life sisters. Their dedication to the Lovely Angels led them to create several sets of costumes based on the differing suits seen in the TV series, the film, and the OVA releases - even the silver suits from the Takachiho novel (and the Crusher Joe film).
Security camera footage of the Lovely Angels escorting a suspect to their space ship.

As A-Kon flourished, the culture of costuming permeated fandom, and even in late-night after-parties the cosplay spirit can be seen.

The latest in Arcadia-crewmember off-duty loungewear is sported by "S.H." as he digs through a pile of cassette tapes. Yes, cassette tapes, the year is 1992 and Project A-Kon is reeling through the teething pains of its third, crucial year. Meanwhile a Vampire Princess Miyu wonders who these people are and why they're in her hotel room, preventing her from sleeping. As these images were culled from private videotape, identities of our models have been concealed to protect the innocent.

Three years later in Atlanta the first Anime Weekend Atlanta would sport anime costumers from a wide variety of genres and shows. Though we were a few years away from full-blown Sailor Moon Fandom Explosion, the show's effects were being felt even then, as sets of Sailor Scouts competed for the attention of the male anime fan demographic, which had yet to be joined by legions of squealing yaoi anime fangirls. Here we see the first ever Sailor Moon costumer to take the stage at the AWA costume contest, as well as a friendly Sailor Mercury; the two would later entertain the crowd with an improvised Radio City Music Hall style kickline.

A wide variety of cosplay would be seen at the first AWA. Cyborg 003 and 001, from the 60s and 70s series Cyborg 009, would make an appearance, highlighting the lingering influence old-school anime had (and has) over certain of the surviving otaku of the area. 003 is portrayed by L.H. while 001 is portrayed by a stuffed doll. Neither possess cybernetic powers.

Other cosplayers would portray Yamato crewmembers, Slam Dunk B-ballers, and Ranma 1/2 characters, an example of which is the near-ubiquitous Ryoga. Ryoga was a character from Ranma 1/2 who got lost a lot, and sometimes turned into a pig. It was a great costume for regular-looking guys who wanted something colorful to dress up as, included a backpack so they could carry their stuff around, and had a ready-made comedy skit that could be rolled out at a moment's notice - run into any crowd of people and holler "I'M LOST!" Boy, that didn't get old AT ALL! Not in the slightest! It's as fresh today as it was back in 1995 when we were already thoroughly sick of Ranma 1/2 in general and that character in particular! Also seen - Princess Kahm from Outlanders, about to cut somebody's head off.

AWA would grow from a few hundred at its first show to over eleven thousand attendees at its most recent gathering (2008 numbers - 2015's attendance was 25K), but at the early conventions you could easily fit the entire costume contest and its judges and audience in a medium sized ballroom in a small-to-medium sized airport-area off-ramp hotel. Even the judges got into the act.

Lorraine "Anime Hasshin" Savage here sports a Yamato crew uniform as she sits next to future Dark Horse Manga editor Carl Horn, cosplaying as future Dark Horse Manga editor Carl Horn. Costuming at the second AWA was of an order of magnitude more impressive than the first year - most notably the Tatarek-built Patlabor Ingram, which was constructed entirely out of space-age foam-core and was mobile enough to enable the wearer to navigate fairly well. The handgun, however, was non-operational. Other, more recent cosplayers, attempting to add functional handguns to their regalia, have attracted the bemused attention of the police department. Other 1996 costumes would include Street Fighter II characters and the ever-popular Sailor Moon.

As we pass the mid 1990s, we move into a more documented world of cosplay - email mailing lists, digital cameras, and the world of the World Wide Web, which as we all know was created to facilitate the distribution of high quality images of sexy women - would all lead to anime cosplay becoming one of the dominant forces in anime fandom. Gatherings of anime fans today are a swirling mass of strangely garbed people taking photos of each other, the need of otaku to document their strange behavior an irresistible force of nature. But was it always thus? Yus, it wus. These recently unearthed images from 1983 are proof.

As we see from these images - captured in 1983 A.D. at the Baltimore Worldcon and New York's Lunacon  - anime fandom was alive, relatively fit, and could stand sunlight for minutes at a time. Representatives of Gundam's Zabi family peacefully co-exist with characters from Space Battleship Yamato and several different Captain Harlocks, while Leader Desslok battles Darth Vader and gets cozy with Endor-camo Princess Leia.  Early 1980s camcorders were also on the scene to capture the excitement of this photoshoot.

Here we see Leader Desslok working his Leader Desslok magic on all the females within reach, to the outrage of our various Harlocks, Zordars, and Yamato crew.

It may be difficult to conceive of a time when Matsumoto characters were the mainstream of anime fandom and not some kind of atavistic throwback, but pictures don't lie, even if they're low-res video captures. The influence of classic anime continues to linger in cosplay, as the recent AWA attracted Saint Seiya costumers, Yamato costumers, Harlock cosplay, and even 1984-era Macross crewmembers. Is anime costuming moving full circle, back to segregated rooftop gatherings of different Harlock iterations? I hope not,  though after a long convention season, lord knows we could all use a little sunlight and fresh air.

-Dave Merrill   

Space Battleship Yamato High School students chat in the halls before class

(images used in this article courtesy Animage, Jack Thielpape, R. Fenelon, K. Sewell, and promotional AWA videos produced by M. Murray.)

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Thursday, October 2, 2008


Here in the smoky aftermath of the "anime boom" we're digging ourselves out from under piles of $1 clearance manga and unsellable VHS tape, wondering just what the hell happened. And as we survey the hits and misses, we start to wonder about some titles that, to our creaky old school eyes, are conspicuous by their absence...

CHOJIN LOCKE! The immortal teenager with immense psychic powers, an enormous shock of green hair, and a constantly-frustrated desire to just be left alone. For more than thirty years his story has unfolded in manga from more publishers than I can count and four separate animated adventures. Along with other dreamy ESPers with curious hair colorings like COSMO POLICE JUSTY and TOWARDS THE TERRA's Soldier Blue, the image of Locke decorated the bedroom walls and the fan artworks of many an anime fangirl, carving a vital niche between more manly space operas and the other, girlier side of the spectrum. Even the American otaku scene of the Reagan years was lousy with those giant-haired psychic prettyboys.

However, in the subsequent wave of manga translations of series both popular and obscure - an avalanche of imported Japanese comics destined to strain the shelving capacities of bookstores from coast to coast - our ESPer friend and his 38 volumes of manga were neglected. The LOCKE THE SUPERMAN animated film from 1984 was released here, after a fashion, and the LORD LEON and NEW WORLD COMMAND videos got American anime-boom releases, but manga? No way.

But why not? It's a no-brainer. It's a classic, reader-friendly space adventure series with appeal to Americans from both a "manga is cool" angle and a "X-Men meets Star Wars" approach. Yuki Hijiri's artwork plants one foot in the high-tech world of the future and another firmly in the delicate linework and soup-plate eyeballs of Shoujo manga. His art style is breezy, uncomplicated; yet manages to seamlessly integrate the outer-space computers, blasters, and starships aesthetic with that of beautiful youths and their rose-petal strewn melodrama, and sophisticated enough to make us believe in both. (Fun fact: Hijiri designed characters for COMBATTLER V, VOLTES V, and DAIMOS as well as drawing manga for the tokusatsu series NINJA CAPTOR.)

Even though the story of CHOJIN LOCKE spans a thousand years and the aforementioned 38 volumes - a heft that might scare your more chicken-hearted manga publishers - LOCKE's saga is conveniently spread out over dozens of separate, moderately self-contained stories set amid the backdrop of Earth's discovery of star travel and colonization of the galaxy.

Locke the Chojin (don't call him "Superman" when DC's lawyers are around) is - well, appears to be - a teenager with long green hair and a gentle manner. But in reality he's at least a thousand years old and is quite possibly the most powerful ESPer in the universe. His youthful looks hide a world-weary soul whose desire to enjoy the simple life is constantly being frustrated by the space criminals and secret organizations who attempt to conquer the galaxy and the Earth Federation who, backs to the wall, is forced to ask Locke for help. In spite of his wishes Locke is frequently forced to take an active part in events; his innate, almost childlike sense of right and wrong driving him to seek the truth and fight for justice. And tragically, even though he's the most powerful ESPer in the galaxy he can never have the one thing he wants most - a normal life.

The stories themselves are dense - packed with supporting characters who frequently take the spotlight from Locke, they jump from era to era over a thousand years of space history,leaving the reader with a colorful tapestry of mankind's journey to the stars. Events or people mentioned in one story will be expanded upon in another, and blank areas are filled in piece by piece casually, as part of a natural storytelling technique. The anime versions of Locke follow this tradition with flashbacks of Locke's time with the rebellion on Lonwarl or by inserting friends and foes into the opening credits of the OVAs.

(fan translation of the first Locke story courtesy L.G. from the "Mind's Eye" APA)
There has always been a Locke contingent of American fans who collect the manga and write fan fiction about Locke, Justy, Soldier Blue, Takeru and Marg from GOD MARS, and other angsty future psychics of manga. The 1984 feature film not only was one of the screen's earliest (and most restrained) uses of computer animation, it recieved two video releases in the States, an edited version courtesy Just For Kids (titled "Locke The Superpower") and a later uncut release from Best Film & Video. Locke's always been in the background of the Western anime fan scene, but unlike other contemporaneous titles like SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA, LOCKE's manga never made the jump. And that's the surprising part, considering the volume of Japanese comics that have been thrown at us over the past few years.

I'd like to think the success (or not - see comments) of Vertical's TOWARDS THE TERRA and Tezuka manga has proved there's interest in elaborate 70s SF shoujo action. While LOCKE perhaps isn't as philosophical as TOWARDS THE TERRA, it's at least girl-friendly, with enough spaceships and blasters to keep the guys reading. And that's my challenge to Tokyopop, to Viz, to Vertical, to CMX, to Del Rey, to whoever is still mining that manga vein - use your super psychic manga powers for good, not evil, and deliver LOCKE THE SUPERMAN to America!

-Dave Merrill

(Locke fanart by D.V. from the "Mind's Eye" APA)

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