Saturday, June 26, 2021

I Was A Teenage Anime Club President

As a former teenage anime club president, I spend a lot of time these days sitting on my porch in my rocking chair with my elderly cronies, sneering at the kids today with their hair and their clothes and their streaming video and their instagram influencers. Actually, I don't do any of that. Instead, occasionally I pull some stuff from my files and use that junk to write about our anime club experience. Like now!


The 1980s were tough for anime fans. Streaming video on the internet didn't exist. The internet pretty much didn’t exist. Funimation, Sentai, Nozomi, and Discotek weren’t around to sell us DVDs or Blu-Rays, which also didn't exist. Sure, there were video rentals on every corner, but their anime selections were limited to Ninja The Wonder Boy or Chatterer The Squirrel or Jim Terry compilations of super robot cartoons shoved into the kiddy section. If you wanted anime, you had to know somebody who had it and was willing to copy it for you. In practical terms, you either cultivated a network of Japanese pen pals with whom you'd trade off-air American TV for Japanese anime, or you bought bootleg anime videos from a dealer at your local comic-con, or you joined one of several anime clubs, hoping they’d put you in touch with somebody who'd copy tapes for you. It was a complicated process.

In Atlanta I'd been attending comic conventions and Dr Who club meetings since I was 14, trying to get a line on somebody who knew how I could get my hands on anything with those big-eyed Japanese cartoon characters. The people I met at those conventions and clubs were grownups from places like Florida and Michigan with tapes of Lupin III and Space Cobra, and most were members of something called the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization.

C/FO New York meeting flyer from 1980

There were two other guys in Atlanta also trying to find anime and find others who liked anime. Eventually we put our heads together and decided to start our own local branch of this Cartoon Fantasy Organization. We'd meet once a month in whatever community room we could reserve, we'd screen whatever anime we could find, and we'd generally nerd out. That was our plan and we're still kind of following that plan, some of us.

C/FO Atlanta newsletter 1,3,4,5 (#2 is lost)

For us in Atlanta, those two or three years of C/FO activity were busy times. We had a meeting once a month, we went to every comic con, Trek Fest, and fantasy fair that would let us in the door, and we were constantly meeting at somebody's house to daisy-chain VHS decks and copy Vampire Hunter D or Project A-Ko or some other future Blu-Ray release over and over again into the wee hours, at which point we'd adjourn to Denny's for bad coffee and heartburn.

April 1987, for instance: we watched Time Stranger in somebody’s apartment, we’re going to defy the Omni Hotel’s ban on in-room VCRs, here's some fan art, who wants a button.

Screening anime at meetings meant borrowing the library's Media Cart - a big metal wheeled cart containing a 27" CRT TV and, if we were lucky, a top-loading VHS deck. Eventually we began bringing in our own TVs and VHS decks, and we began splitting the TV signal to secondary monitors and running the audio out to a boom box or somebody's stereo. It got kind of complicated up in there.

C/FO Atlanta newsletter #6-8

March 1987's news featuring Harlock, Gundam, Urusei Yatsura, Dirty Pair. Sounds like my Twitter feed. It only took us eight years to get that proposed anime con off the ground!

C/FO Atlanta newsletter 9-12

Our club screened pretty much whatever turned up that month; a lot of members were swapping VHS with people all over the country and the world, and usually there would be two or three decks in the back of the room copying something for somebody. I'd come home from anime club meetings with a stack of blank tapes that needed Dancougar or Dirty Pair or Yamato copied onto them. The soft whir of the Toshiba M-7850 was always in the background of my life at that time.

tips for home tapers from July 1988

The monthly newsletter we published was a lot of work, but it had benefits. Most importantly, the newsletter told the members where and when our next meeting was. C/FO Atlanta met in a wide variety of locations, including private homes from Smyrna to Stone Mountain, libraries in Little Five Points and Virginia-Highlands, and even a few community rooms located, for some reason, in banks along the Buford Highway corridor, one of which is now a restaurant called “Shaking Crawfish.”

C/FO newsletter volume 2 #1-3

Assembled at first using a law firm’s then state of the art word processing software and laser printers, we later downgraded to a dot-matrix printer, markers, glue stick, and scissors. Producing the C/FO Atlanta newsletter was a crash course in graphic design and guerrilla publishing. Print runs happened wherever and whenever we could get access to somebody’s copier, and this usually meant abusing the hospitality of whoever in the club worked somewhere with a photocopier. But the newsletter was all for a good cause, documenting what the club had been up to for posterity (that’s us now) and cluing members into what was happening in the world of anime. Sometimes the news was even accurate!

your "trusted" source for anime "news"

You might even have been lucky enough to live in a town with enough of a Japanese community to support retailers that sold imported Japanese home goods, Japanese groceries, and Japanese media like magazines, books, comics, and videos. Atlanta was one of those towns, and in our part of town Satsumaya Oriental Grocery was our headquarters for Pocky, Zeta Gundam coffee candy, and rental tapes featuring Dragonball, whatever Sentai show was on the air that season (Choushinsei Flashman), Dragonar-1, Maison Ikkoku, Saint Seiya, Metaldar, City Hunter, and Red Photon Zillion, which seemed to resemble a game some members were playing on their new Sega Master Systems.

Satsumaya rental VHS

Occasionally we'd pack up our VCRs and get a hotel room at one of Atlanta’s fantasy or SF conventions like Dixie-Trek or the Atlanta Fantasy Fair, and we'd screen anime on the TV in our hotel room for our friends and whoever happened to wander in for free snacks.

Thanks to our tapes and the hunger of convention organizers for programming, by 1988 we were running the anime room at Atlanta's largest fantasy convention, the Atlanta Fantasy Fair. Most of what we screened was in Japanese without benefit of subtitles, with a smattering of off-air English dubs and a little fan subbing taking up the slack.

How many people were awake on Sunday for Cyborg 009 Legend Of The Super Galaxy? I don’t know. I can confirm that we had a full house for the Fist Of The North Star movie and Project A-Ko. That’s a room full of non-Japanese speakers watching entire films entirely in Japanese, a testament to the storytelling power of the medium.

C/FO Atlanta newsletter vol. 2 #4-7

C/FO Atlanta newsletter vol. 2 #8-11 (end)

big news for Dec. 1988

Eventually the C/FO would skid to a halt. Leadership devolved to the San Antonio club, which basically decided to game the system, set the national org up to fail, and then act surprised when it failed. Our Atlanta club let inertia decide for us; the national C/FO left us behind in its headlong rush towards oblivion and we decided our new name was going to be the "Animated Film Association" and our newsletter was going to be called “Anime-X”.

the three issues of "Anime X". Look at that great Josh Timbrook Akira cover!

The club kept going under this name for a few months, but after a few years the never-ending cycle of monthly meetings and monthly newsletters and manhandling televisions across town so a room full of slack-jawed strangers can stare at Akira proved too much for me and in early 1989 the club petered out. Was this the end of Atlanta’s anime club scene?

meet the new club, different from the old club

Absolutely not. After an eight months cooling-off period, Lloyd Carter and myself started a new anime club. This new club didn't have a newsletter, wasn't part of a larger club, and wasted no time on bylaws or elections. “Why waste a great name?” we figured, and so we dubbed the new club "Anime-X." This group lasted all the way until the early 2000s, leading to both the print "Let's Anime" and Anime Weekend Atlanta. So we must have been doing something right. More about Anime X later. In the meantime, why not haul a CRT television, a top-loading VCR, and some VHS fansubs to your local community center and start your own anime club? Tell ‘em Dave sent you!

-Dave Merrill, with special thanks to Scott Weikert, Jim Reddy, Shaun Camp, Newton Ewell, Ted Delorme, and a host of C/FO Atlanta members. You know who you are.

we'll let this pencilled-in editorial comment have the last word


aniMayor said...

"Store your tapes upright, rewound, with the full spool of tape on the bottom."

I can remember a few big back-and-forth arguments between those who considered this a scientifically-proven absolute necessity and those who felt it was silly superstition :P

d.merrill said...

I can remember hearing authoritative experts state with confidence that consumer grade VHS tape wouldn't last ten years. Thirty years later my experience is that if a tape makes it through the first five or ten plays & rewinds, it's in for the long haul.

MarlinsMafia said...

What was it like hosting an anime club meeting in a bank? That’s wild. I wonder what the reaction would be today if this was proposed to a local bank manager.

d.merrill said...

The meeting room had its own separate door, and it didn't connect to the teller or lobby or any secure area. I remember at the time thinking that the bank was being really trusting, but hey, they're FDIC insured!

Rev. Dr. Jellyfoot said...

Love this sort of fandom history.