Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Psychic Girls and Superdimensional Fortresses

Up until now my blog posts have focused on American comic books and animation, but there was something else I discovered back then – Japanese manga and anime.

Like others, I rushed home to watch the continuing story of the Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. I even collected all the Comico issues of the Macross Saga and the novels and the art book and even the original LP soundtrack. (I wasn’t nearly as fond of the other parts of the Robotech series.)

I was dimly aware that there was an original Japanese version, but I was too young to know about anime clubs or fansubs. The closest I came to the anime clubs was the George Mason Anime Festival. For the whole day, they would take over a big room at the university and play anime all day. I saw all kinds of odd programs at those festivals, like Black Magic M-66, Dirty Pair and Bubblegum Crisis.

A little after my initial interest in Robotech, manga came into my life by way of Eclipse Comics. As a test of the market, they released three manga series -- Area 88, Legend of Kamui and my favorite Mai the Psychic Girl. I can hear the purists groaning and sighing already, because these were not the standard little squarebound paperbacks we’re used to seeing today. These three titles were released bi-weekly in standard comic book format, their contents “flipped”, so American readers didn’t have to learn a whole new way to read. These days most stuff is unflipped in Japanese format so you get those cute “You’re reading the wrong way” pages stuck at the front/back of every manga.

I do think it’s a little ironic that the first manga I picked was basically a girl superhero title. (I also note with amusement that Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows of the Queen” was released a scant few months earlier, so maybe it’s not so surprising I picked up Mai.)

Mai was a very reluctant heroine though. Gifted with telekinetic abilities, she was drawn into a great conspiracy when she comes to the attention of the Wisdom Alliance. They want to control the world, using other gifted children. Mai spends a good chunk of the series fighting off other psychic attackers, including a very prepossessed German girl named Turm Garten. She was lovely and blonde and Western and utterly evil, reminding me a little of Heroes’ Elle. She had none of Mai’s compunctions about using her talents. I recall hating her when I was younger, but she was a fascinating character. I do wonder if I’d think differently of her now.

The series was anything but sanitized. There was plenty of violence and destruction. But perhaps because it was in black and white, or maybe I was too young to really get it, it didn’t bother me so much. I do have an easier time with comic book violence, compared to the movie equivalent, too. While they didn’t tame down the violence, they did take out a shower scene in the first or second issue of the series, mostly innocent in of itself, but the heroine was a teenage girl, so I suspect there was some concern. I also remember they had a hard time creating standard comic book covers. Only a certain number of color Mai art pieces existed for them to use, so they wound up refitting some of the artwork from the series. It made the covers very stylish and easy to spot in the stores.

Aside from Robotech, Mai the Psychic Girl was one of the earliest complete stories I remember reading. I was used to the American model with the endless adventures of superhero characters. The idea that a comic book could have a set conclusion and there was no more was rather novel.

Other manga series soon followed, including Nausicaa and Appleseed. I even wrote a high school English paper on Japanese manga & anime using Frederick Schodt’s “Manga! Manga!” as source material. I missed the whole “magical girl” phenomenon with Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura that came a little later. And nothing really prepared me for the explosion of manga and anime choices that came later. Before I’d have to scrounge around in odd places to find anything anime/manga oriented. Now I could walk into the average book/music/dvd store and find a dizzying array to choose from.

But nothing quite captured the magic of those original months back when a teenage girl could dream of having special powers.

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