Sunday, May 15, 2005

Ed Dorn, Graphic Novels, and Anime

It's been a week now since I watched the final episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a 26 episode anime series based on the Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell. Simply put, Ghost in the Shell, which debuted in 1991 as cyberpunk manga (it begins in 2029), follows the activities of Japan's Public Security Section 9, a mostly cyborg, mostly ex-military, law enforcement assault unit, led by Major Motoko Kusanagi.

Stand Alone Complex seems set in an alternate universe to that established in the original Ghost in the Shell (manga and anime), Ghost in Shell: Volume 2: Man-Machine Interface (manga), and Innocence: Ghost in the Shell (flash-heavy anime movie site, IMDB entry, also released in manga form using stills from the movie). The SAC world is one in which they never meet the Puppeteer.

Any way, I've been enthralled by SAC it. Like the other Ghost in the Shell works, it mixes good narrative with philosophical issues, and I am happy to learn that SAC 2nd GIG will start showing on The Cartoon Network this fall. (SAC, I should note is often less philosophical than the others, but I'm still trying to sort out the whole last episode which makes use of a number of philosophers and theorists, including Frederic Jameson.

Reflecting on the last episode of SAC has also got me thinking about my relationship to comics and anime. While I've had many friends who were or are really into comics for much of my life, I've never been what one would call a huge comics fan, but rather one who has been exposed to and become a fan of some great comics. I learned a few years ago that many of my cousins, who range from the late teens to the late 20s, thought that I was some hip manga and anime aficionado. In the early 80s, a friend introduced me to Elf Quest, which I thought was really cool for at the time. My oldest cousin, who's some seven years younger than I, found them one day when he was about 8, and I gave them to him a few years later. His younger brother also fell in love with them, as did some of our other cousins. They're all in Colorado and most of them are in college or just finished, and as they were all growing up the books got passed around. While Elf Quest is American in origins, it's clearly based on manga, and that's how all my cousins see it: me reading and introducing them to manga well before manga and anime hit it big in the States. While I'd read and even collected a few comics (mostly Star Wars related), Elf Quest would be my first exposure to graphic novels.

My next exposure with graphic novels came as an undergrad. About 7-8 years after reading Elf Quest, a friend introduced me to Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Allan Moore's The Watchman and V for Vendetta. Over the years I've read various Dark Knight Batmans, including Miller's Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Strikes Back. While I really liked all three, it wasn't until I started grad school that I began reading other comics/graphic novels, including the other Dark Knight-inspired Batman titles. It was the Black Mountain poet Ed Dorn, my creative writing professor during both semesters my senior year, who pointed me toward them.

During one of our last conversations, what may have been our last conversation, Dorn asked me if I'd ever heard of graphic novels, and I said that I'd had. Dorn told me I needed to keep an eye on them because he thought they were going to become the future of narrative fiction. This would have been during the summer of 1993. I had been given a temporary staff position in the library after graduating to hold me over until I moved to Portland for my first round of grad school, and I walked past Dorn's office every afternoon on my way to the bus stop. Dorn's building, I think it was called Hunter, was an odd one. It's a two-story building, wide enough for a hallway and a row of offices on either side. Dorn was on the first floor, and each office on his side of the building had a door to the outside. Dorn was the only one who ever opened his door, and one day as I was walking by it was open, so I stopped to say hi. We sat out on the grass and talked for a while, and that's when he mentioned graphic novels.

My next round with graphic novels came in Portland. An art student with whom I worked introduced me Frank Miller's Sin City when she saw me reading one of the countless Dark Knight inspired Batmans, and another Portland friend, one who I went to school with, tried to get me to Ghost in the Shell and a number of other Dark Horse titles. I read the Sin City books, and I'm not sure why didn't read any of the others. My grad school freind dropped out of school when Dark Horse hired her as an editor, and it is because of her, more than anyone else, I think, which lead me to read more graphic novels even though her first attempts failed. Every so often, you see, I'd check out the Dark Horse titles to see if I could find her name, and from time to time I still do.

I didn't read Ghost in the Shell until after the anime movie came out. I think it was a time thing, mostly. At that point I was still trying to be a diligent Ph.D. student and "for fun" reading was limited and precious. I loved the movie and finally bought and read the graphic novel. My UFL friends convinced me to read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and think about comics more seriously, though I've not yet tried to do anything overly academic with them yet.

Over the last few years, I've read more, and got obsessive over Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, which I read in the fall of 2003 when both my parents ended up in the hospital while visiting. I'd picked up the first issue late that summer, along with Allan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I wanted to read before I saw the movie. I'd read Gaiman's Neverwhere and American Gods and I'd first come to Gaiman through Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett. It's because of Terry Prachett that I finally stopped reading as a good grad student should, but it's not all my fault as Shippey ended one Alliterative Poetry class with the words "Everyone should read Terry Pratchett." Like a good graduate student, I take my dissertation director's reading suggestions to heart.

While I read the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemenbefore seeing the movie, it wasn't until late September or so that I read the first volume of Sandman. The first night I had to take my dad to the ER after his quadruple bypass, I was already near a breaking point from exhaustion. I remember thinking and saying that I just needed to crash before I fell apart ,and went to bed at 10:00 pm after returning from the visiting my mom in the hospital. My dad, who'd had his bypass just some 7 or 8 days before, got a nose bleed shortly after I went to bed, but knowing I was at the point of physical and emotional collapse, he waited a few hours before waking me to take him to the ER. I knew I was in for a long night, but I also knew that I was in no condition to do any academic reading or even grading of student papers. So I grabbed that Sandman volume and was hooked. Those helped keep me sane through all the trips to the doctor, ER, hospitals, and nursing homes that fall.

I'm still not a big collector of comics, but since then friends have given me Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Back, I've picked up the second volume of cite>The League of Extraordinary Men, Sandman spin-offs, and other Gaiman titles including Marvel 1602, which has to be the most brilliant thing to hit the Marvel universe since Miller's Dark Knight. But I'm not an expert and I don't follow the standard superhero comics other than some Batman, so it's likely I don't know what I'm talking about.

But now, watching Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has focused me on manga and anime. SAC is really one 26-episode serial, though some of the episodes break off from the main story arc. As I watched, and usually rewatched, those 26 episodes, I got pulled in more and more. I went back and reread Ghost in the Shell, I picked up Innocence at the video store when I saw it, I bought the soundtrack, and I've begun Ghost in Shell: Volume 2: Man-Machine Interface, which I hadn't read until now because it's not about Section 9 but is about Major Kusanagi post-Puppeteer (though I can't say for sure yet that the members of Section 9 don't get involved. I'm pretty sure Aramaki, the head of Section 9, is part of a group in a meeting at the beginning of the manga but he's not identified as such. But no one in that group is identified.). While Man-Machine Interface follows Kusanagi post-Puppeteer, Innocence follows the post-Puppeteer Section 9, mostly through the characters of Batuo and Togusa. Beautiful movie, and much more like reading one of Masamune Shirow's manga than either the first movie or SAC. Masamune Shirow's part of the heavy-on-alterity school of cyberpunk that sort of leaves you off-center and rewards (or requires) many, many rereadings. I think William Gibbson founded this school of cyberpunk, though if I'm wrong please let me know.

I've also started watching Cowboy Bebop. During the fall of 2003, my friend Graham kept asking if I wanted to watch a few episodes of the show as something to help take my mind off the pressures of my sick parents. I didn't then but finally did catch the Cowboy Bebop movie, before I started watching SAC, and I finally watched the first few episodes with him last January. I've been keeping my eye on The Cartoon Network's offerings since and caught the series as it restarted about a month ago.

And all this has gotten me some manga-anime cred again like I had with my cousins. Last Monday, I was talking to a friend of mine and somehow or other mentioned Ghost in the Shell. Debbie repeated it and her daughter, a high school freshman who's big into manga/anime and helped found a manga/anime club at her school, overheard her mom and went crazy and wanted to know if I'd heard of Samurai Champloo, which is apparently the big new hip show all the kids are excited about (first episode was yesterday, taking SAC's slot. I had seen a commercial for it and said "Yeah, it's by the same people as Cowboy Bebop, right?" and that did it. I was the first adult she or any of her friends had met that knew anything about it. Not sure what that says about me, but it's earned me back the hip adult cred I once held with her for being up on Harry Potter before the movies came out but lost after taking her to the zoo four years ago when her regular day care fell through. Who knew a precocious ten-year old would be so jaded as to not like the zoo? It was even her mother's suggestion!

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At 5:32 AM, Anonymous Brendan said...

Your comic history sounds much the same as mine, but at about half the speed and twice the manga. And you hit three of my five "anything" comics writers. ("Anything" meaning I'll buy anything, like the geek I am, with their names on it.) The other two are Brian Michael Bendis, who has become a bit Marvel-heavy lately (check out his earlier graphic novels JINX or GOLDFISH) and Warren Ellis. You've gotta check out Ellis' Magnum Opus (so far)—Transmetropolitan, which essentially asks what Hunter Thompson would be like in a bleak, shiny, cyberpunk future.

At 5:52 PM, Blogger John said...

Cool, thanks for the tip on Bendis and Ellis. Transmetroploitan sounds like a must read for me.


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