Colony of the Wild
by Brian Ruh,
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris may not seem like the typical otaku movie, but I think it has a positive message to those of us who spend a lot of time in our fictional worlds. In the film, an American named Gil is briefly staying in Paris with his fiancée and her parents, but while out on a semi-drunken walk one evening he encounters a vintage Peugeot that transports him back to the 1920s. This suits Gil just fine, though, because this is just the era he has been fantasizing about; it is the place and time when he feels he would have been most at home. He encounters the famed literary expatriates who live in Paris at the time, but also falls in love with Adriana, a beautiful young woman who herself pines for the era of pre-World War I Belle Époque France. Although this could have been an effective tale had the film not decided to have its characters clumsily give voice to the main theme, it's still a valuable one to keep in mind – regardless of our choices of fictions, we still need to live in the present moment and time. Admittedly, this is sometimes hard to do.
This is true in anime fandom as well. When I first began attending an anime club in college, one of the group's regular series was Maison Ikkoku. This was in the late 1990s, at which point the series was nearly ten years old, but just watching it gave me a sense of longing and nostalgia for the Japan of the early 1980s. It was an odd feeling, since at the time I hadn't yet traveled to Japan, and of course it was a time period that I could never reach. The longing for the past also crops up in discussions of anime fandom itself – take the self-proclaimed otaking Toshio Okada for example. In one interview, Okada says that there are no 100% pure otaku anymore; otaku identities have certainly become more widespread since he was active in fandom, but it seems like his complaint is that individuals just aren't as dedicated as they used to be. Of course, there isn't a reason for people to be so passionately devoted to the minutiae of an anime series anymore, not with such information so readily available to everyone on the Internet. In a way, otaku-ism has become more democratic since Okada's day, but he laments that the same sense of dedication just doesn't seem to be there.
This isn't a feeling that's restricted to Japanese anime fans. There's certainly a current of nostalgia that runs through a certain segment of the anime population for the early days. This may sound like a ludicrous thing to wish for, since we are undoubtedly in one of the best period in anime's history if you measure it by the sheer availability of anime titles. It would be a very rare these days to hear of a show and then have to wonder if you'll ever have the opportunity to see it. Sure, if it's something very rare or an incredibly niche title you may have to watch it (gasp!) in the original Japanese without subtitles, but even if it's not licensed for your region you'll almost certainly be able to find it online. (Not that I would ever encourage such behavior of course. However, sometimes the drive of a fan to see a show is beyond such petty concerns as law and morality.) In such an environment, why would one ever wish for a return to the bad old days when it could take months or years for anime information to trickle out from Japan? On top of that, in order to get your hands on the really good stuff, you had to have connections with the right people and the right anime clubs. From all accounts, it seems much more difficult than searching on a torrent aggregator site and clicking on the title you want to download.
This is all leading up to the fact that for this column I'm going to be discussing an honest-to-goodness anime fanzine. That's right – a hardcopy amalgam of words and pictures printed on actual paper, all focusing on anime and produced by fans for presumably no pay, other than the satisfaction of a job well done. This particular fanzine, though, it produced by none other than the lovable scamps over at the Colony Drop website. Now, when I entered anime fandom, the whole fanzine aspect bypassed me completely and for a while I was content with the plethora of tapes that could be found on the shelves at my local Blockbuster (even though they were all labeled with “unrated, not for children” stickers regardless of their actual content). It's only been within the last few years that I've gone back and taken a look at a tiny fraction of these amateur magazines produced with such devotion by anime fans back in the day.
In the short two-paragraph introduction to the zine, the staff of Colony Drop state that they similarly came of age when anime was more readily acquired, that “The trials and difficulties of those first and second generation fans were something we read about, but never actually experienced.” The whole idea of making a print fanzine in this day and age could be seen as wallowing in nostalgia, since there are far more rapid and convenient ways of getting your ideas out there. More than anything else, though, the Colony Drop zine seems like a fun exercise in contrarianism. They say they're “not trying to bring back the past,” just “trying to remind people of it” and admit the whole idea to put out an anime zine came about because nobody was making them anymore. When you open the page and see the bold declaration, “Colony Drop presents the Last American Fanzine,” you know they're taking their role as the standard-bearers of old school otakudom and running with it. Okay, it's kind of ridiculous, and they acknowledge that. But at the same time, there's always something special about producing such a fine-looking, superfluous object.
And the fanzine does look very nice, certainly many steps up from the mimeographed and photocopied fanzines in the days of yore. The pages are glossy, which shows off the detail on the contributors’ illustrations, and the whole thing looks pretty darn professional. In keeping with the overall design aesthetic of their website, the Colony Drop guys even sprang for some pink spot color. (However, the color on the printed product is quite a few shades darker than it appears on the website.) In terms of content, there are five articles and ten interior illustrations, as well as the cover image and a short comic on the back. There are also reproductions of covers from some fanzines from anime's North American history to go along with one of the articles.
The first piece of prose in the zine is by David Cabrera and is succinctly titled “You, Me, Bubblegum Crash on the PC Engine, and Everything that Makes Us Want to Cry But then Hold it Back Out of a Misplaced Sense of Dignity That's Really Just Petty Childish Arrogance: The Same Emotion that Will Eventually Destroy Humanity or: ~Bye Bye My Crisis~.” It's nominally a review of the Bubblegum Crash game for the PC Engine, which came out in 1991. However, from the title you can probably tell that Cabrera doesn't quite play it straight, telling a tale that begins with the narrator drinking in Shinjuku with Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, getting in a fight with him, and then telling the story of how he met and fell in love with Nene Romanova, one of the Knight Sabers, the power-suited heroines of Bubblegum Crisis / Crash. In the process of telling his tale, Cabrera manages to include critiques of many of the levels of the game, and from the sound of it reading Cabrera's story is far more fun than playing the game actually was.
The second article in the zine is an appreciation of Carl Macek by Matt Schley. For some of us who grew up in the 1980s, Macek's work to create Robotech out of three separate anime TV shows was one of the foundations of our cartoon-viewing lives. However, as Schley points out, there were plenty of fans who hated Macek for what he did to the three original anime series in order to meet the 65-episode requirement that a TV show had to meet in order to be syndicated. Not only that, but when Macek founded Streamline Pictures with Jerry Beck after his work on Robotech, he continued to anger some in the core audience of anime otaku by only releasing their films and OVAs dubbed in English. However, Macek knew what would sell in the American market, and he was willing to endure the scorn of small minded anime fans in favor of exposing some top-notch animation to a larger audience. Overall, Schley gives a solid overview of Macek's life and work, although there probably aren't any revelations that would take a fan by surprise. Sadly, Macek passed away in April 2010. If you want to hear an in-depth interview with him a few months before his untimely passing, I highly suggest listening to Zac and Justin talk with him on ANNCast.
The third and fourth articles are on different aspects of English-speaking anime fandom. The first, by Dave Merrill, is a detailed look at the anime fanzines of the 1980s, to which this Colony Drop zine is paying homage. In his article, Merrill traces the explosion of publishing in anime fandom from the Cartoon / Fantasy Organization's “Fanta's Zine” in 1980, through its growth throughout the decade, and then its decline in the 1990s as electronic communication (BBSes and Usenet groups, for example) began to take on some of the duties that the print fanzines had filled. I probably found this article the most enthralling of the bunch, since I'm fascinated by anime zines and this little corner of anime fandom that people seldom talk about any more. As Merrill says early on in his piece, though, “The definitive history of Japanese animation fandom in North America has yet to be written. And when it is, Fred Patten will be the one to write it.” One of these days I swear I'll make it out to the Eaton Collection at UC Riverside in order to view the zines and ephemera that anime scholar Patten donated to the library.
From there we hop across the Atlantic for Tim Maughan's brief history of the development of anime in the UK. He states that his original plan was to try and present a comprehensive history of how anime was received and popularized in his country, but that fact that fandom is “a group of individuals, each with their own opinions, interpretations, and histories,” he didn't want to pretend “UK anime fandom can be nicely organized into a chronological history.” Instead, Maughan presents the words of his interview subjects, two of whom – Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements – will probably be familiar to anime fans in the US (and if they're not familiar to you, I highly recommend seeking out their work). The third interviewee, Darren-Jon Ashmore, was involved in anime fandom in the 1980s and ‘90s, and is now a professor living in Japan. Unlike the US and a lot of the rest of Europe, the UK really didn't get much anime until the 1990s, when Akira began to take off. Throughout the article, Maughan lets McCarthy, Clements, and Ashmore really drive the narrative, interjecting only when needed to add a bit of context. Overall, my main disappointment was that the article didn't go on for longer. It really read like it could have been an excerpt from a larger piece. I really hope Maughan continues on with this project because it's a fascinating one.
I wish I had better things to say about “The Road Buster” by Mark Aspillera, the last piece in the fanzine. Oh, don't get me wrong – it's pretty well written, and it gets points in my book for cribbing from the lyrics of The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” at one point. And although I love Riding Bean, this work of fanfic is, from what I can tell, an embellished retelling of the events of the OVA. It also takes up thirteen full pages of text, unbroken by an illustration or graphic flourish, which gives it a different feel from the rest of the zine. It's not bad, but I just couldn't get into it.
In addition to the five authors, there are eight artists who contributed to the fanzine – Tim Eldred, Exo, Greg Lane, Eoin Magee, Marc McKenzie, Matt Peter, Switchco, and Wah. Unfortunately, the only artist credits occur where the artist has left his signature in the piece. Maybe I should know these artists’ styles a bit better – the only one I could unmistakably pick out is Wah's, although, really, who else would draw a picture of Char from Gundam sitting on the toilet reading an issue of Comic LO?
The main downside to the Colony Drop zine is the price. You know how I mentioned the quality of the printing? I guess that doesn't come cheaply, especially if you go with a print on demand option as they have. This makes sense – it means there's reduced initial cost for them, and they don't have to keep track of mailing orders out. However, the 43-page anime fanzine will run you $10 plus shipping, which can start getting up there once you venture outside North America. Is the zine a good value for the price? Honestly, I don't think so. But I'm still glad that I ordered it. Putting out a fanzine like this was an intriguing exercise, and I think it went off really well. They've said that they'll probably do another issue and that they may even take fewer than two years to get it out next time.
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