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I had the pleasure of interviewing LeSean Thomas at Otakon 2016, where he was debuting his new animated short, Cannon Busters. Though we didn’t talk much about Cannon Busters itself, I was pleased to find out about his life as an artist, his philosophy on art and anime, and even his family.
Ogiue Maniax: So you grew up in the Bronx, and I assume that you had some sort of arts education. Could you describe what it was like to grow up as an artist?
LeSean Thomas: It was fairly okay. I stayed indoors quite a lot. I used to sketch a lot, sketch in school. You know, I grew up when hip-hop was growing up, and so a lot of stuff happened in the 80s in New York City. I thought it was cool. I had a lot of colleagues, a lot of friends in my apartment building, who I’d sketch with from time to time. I had a lot of friends in class who I could sketch with. I was into video games and sketching.
I think I decided to make it a career when I became a teenager. I moved to upstate NY for a period of time, to Middletown, and when I came back to the Bronx I decided to become an illustrator. I enrolled in a school that focused on the arts.
OM: Which high school?
LT: Julia Richmond High School. It was in Midtown Manhattan.
That was sort of my circle, and by the time I got back after I graduated high school I decided I wanted to become a comic book artist. But it was tough because there was a lot of competition in New York City—Marvel and DC. But I was also really influenced by animation, Japanese animation.
I landed a couple of opportunities that led me to work in animation production, and one thing led to another. I got onto a couple of big shows, and I was able to use that to build up momentum to work on more shows and create opportunities for myself.
OM: More and more young kids, teenagers, college students, are embracing anime and manga as part of how they get into art. I also know there’s concern that anime and manga are teaching the wrong lessons.
LT: What kind of wrong lessons?
OM: Like it’s teaching people to draw the wrong way or look at art the wrong way. And I’m sure already from your question to me you probably don’t agree with me.
LT: Yeah, I don’t.
OM: So I’m wondering, what would you think is the best way to use anime and manga in an arts education?
LT: I think you should do whatever you want. I haven’t ever heard anyone say to me that copying Picasso or Michelangelo, or Italian or French artists perfectly, is wrong. We get into this really weird, shaky territory where we start becoming ethnocentric towards specific countries and their art history. I think a lot of that is based off the fact that the US was a European colony, and our history is based off of European history, and our art history is European. What’s wrong with India? What’s wrong with Mumbai? What’s wrong with China. I think that, respectfully, it’s just the way it is, but I don’t think that a lot of thought is given into how we judge children who copy the styles of other countries, as opposed to what our curriculum forces us to teach, which is European art history.
I know a lot of graphic designers who are brilliant who don’t study European stuff, they study Japanese art. When you’re in a school, you’re programmed and taught to be an employee and not an auteur, and I think that plays a big role in how teachers choose to enforce their ideals onto students, who are very impressionable at a young age. I’ve also noticed, in my experience, that a lot of teachers are graduates who couldn’t find jobs themselves. You have this cyclical dynamic happening where teachers who don’t have a lot of experience are telling kids what they should and shouldn’t draw.
How did Murakami learn how to draw? When you’re telling kids how to draw, you’re telling them how to interpret art. It’s not right. When you’re telling them how to respond to art, you’re robbing them of the privilege of interpreting art themselves, and interpreting how they learn. So I respectfully disagree with the logic that a child shouldn’t learn how to draw anime because of the historic implications behind that.
OM: You worked on The Boondocks, and it’s clear from the comic strip that Aaron McGruder is also very influenced by anime and manga. Is your mutual interest in how you came onto the show?
LT: Certainly my drawing style played a big role in choosing me to help him develop the early designs with the crew.
OM: The Boondocks as a comic strip was pretty forward thinking, advanced, and progressive, but the comic strip medium is a pretty conservative place. So when moving the series over to Adult Swim and an animated setting, was it a very conscious decision on your part and the staff’s part to push the envelope much further?
LT: No, that was actually Aaron’s mandate. I may be wrong, but I remember a rumor from around 2004, 2005—from someone in our circle—that Mike Lazzo, the head of Adult Swim, played a role in having Aaron push the envelope. So when I came on board, that was already a demand that came from on high. I was pretty detached from that. I was more focused on the visuals. A lot of that envelope pushing was in the writing. That was the stat quo on the production; we knew what we were getting into.
But as far as the decision from Aaron going from the conservative comic strip to the extreme in the animated form, I’m not privy to that. But there is a rumor that Adult Swim was encouraging that as well.
OM: You worked on Cannon Busters, and you mentioned previously about your friendship with Thomas Romain. You come from different cultural backgrounds, but you seem to have a lot in common. So what’s it like working with him?
LT: Well, Thomas is a westerner, whether we want to admit it or not. He speaks English, and while there are some things he doesn’t get about American culture, he’s still a westerner. That’s part of our common bond, as is our need to collaborate internationally. I think we’re kindred spirits. I told him that that, because of him leaving France to go to Japan and me leaving America to go to Korea for pretty much the same reason.
I like to use Thomas’s phrase, “world animation.” It’s not anime, and it’s not American animation. It’s world animation because of the nature of how it’s put together. I really respect Thomas. I like him a lot. I think he’s one of the most talented guys. He’s an incredible draftsman, and one of the most incredible thinkers. I’m going to see him next month when I go to Tokyo. He’s one of my favorite people.
OM: You worked in Korea, you’ve worked with the Japanese studio Satelight [on Cannon Busters], and you’ve worked with American companies. What’s it like working with different studios in different countries?
LT: In America, it’s pre-production and post-production, and that’s it for most shows. There are a lot of shows that are being animated in Flash in America, but most daytime animated shows are done in Korea.
Korea doesn’t do pre-production or post-production, so they’re just main production, largely. And Japan does all of it. And that’s the difference, at least in my personal experience. I could be wrong, but that’s the gist of what I got.
OM: You spent time in South Korea in the animation business. I know that Korea doesn’t create a lot of animation in pre-production or post-production, but I know there is a desire by South Korea, by the government and the animation business, to be known as an animation powerhouse.
LT: It’s mostly service work.
OM: Do you think there is a strong potential for them to break out and become their own thing?
LT: I think so. I don’t know if the problems that were there when I was in Korea are the same as the ones now, but I know the trick is to find venture capitalists who are interested in and see value in animation production beyond government funding and subsidization. I’m not sure if that’s something they’re risk-averse towards. When I was there back in 2009, 2010, there was a massive aversion towards taking a risk on animation over video games. And I’m not sure if that’s still an issue, but I definitely think they have the potential to stand out. I mean, why not? They animate most of our shows, and I think a lot of it has to do with just finding alternative revenue streams to finance original properties and projects.
It seems like there’s a slow coming back at the feature level, but it seems like everything sort of fizzled out once Wonderful Days aka Sky Blue died. I think that scared the industry in general, made everyone say, “Well, we’re not going to take this risk anymore.” I’m just waiting for a resurgence.
There are a few animated feature films that have come out in the past one or two years, like King of Pigs. It’s like, wow, they’re doing features now. They’re in film festivals.
Overall, do I think they have the potential? Of course. If they can do Sky Blue, they can do anything. I just think they have to figure out internally within the industry, within their government and culture, how to create a platform for creating original content. And they also need to motivate young kids. A lot of kids are going into game design instead of animation because of work labor and pay and all that.
OM: My last question is this: Your little brother is Sanford Kelly, the fighting game pro. Growing up, did you notice that he had a talent for fighting games?
LT: Yeah, he learned all his gaming from me [laughs].
Me, him, my older brother Kelby, and my two sisters Valtvaia and Shavon, we all lived in the same apartment with my mom and my grandmother. So we all came up, and video gaming was one of our major bonding aspects. We gamed hard. We played everything, PlayStation, Dreamcast, Turbo Grafx-16, Super Nintendo. That’s all we did. So by the time Sanford turned 18, we were so hardcore into it, we would go to the local arcade shops—back before there was only Chinatown Fair, in the mid-90s—and hit the sticks.
He just got really good, and he built up a circle in Chinatown Fair, in that area. I kind of moved on to animation and left the city to move to LA. I used to get on him about it. “You need to focus on other stuff.” But then when I started seeing him winning money and awards and stuff like that…
Gaming culture’s still relatively brand new. Talking about the early 2000s, where there were legit funded tournaments, he came up in that circuit where the Justin Wong and Daigo era was pretty much coming up. Now it’s a big thing. It’s on ESPN.
When he was coming up, I was a bit nervous about it, but then when I saw how well he was doing, and how he was creating a name for himself, I embraced it.
I get that quite often. “Oh my god, you’re brothers with Sanford Kelly, that’s so cool.”
OM: It’s kind of unlikely—well maybe not unlikely, but it’s interesting to have two different, talented brothers in two very different fields.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been forced over the years respect the game circuit. Because, like many people, if it’s not sponsored or it’s not on TV, then it’s still a subculture. And now it’s a major thing, so now it’s common for kids that I run into to say that they love Street Fighter and that they know who Sanford Kelly is. It’s still kind of weird, but it’s still really cool.
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I’m generally not a fan of yandere characters, but I feel that I can understand why some people love them.
In a lot of my favorite characters there is a kind of intensity that emanates from them. Whether it’s Ogiue from Genshiken‘s withering stare, or Urabe Mikoto’s eccentric behavior in Mysterious Girlfriend X, it’s like their very beings pierce my soul and linger there for a while.
From there, it’s a hop, skip, and jump towards tsundere, and then eventually yandere as well. In other words, yandere characters exist on a spectrum where powerful emotions (sexual or otherwise) are valued, and their feelings are so overwhelming that it warps their minds. “Deep love” they call it.
This intensity has gotten me to think more broadly, past the typical labels, such as yandere, genki girl, Kansai native, etc. What I’m beginning to form is a theory of character attraction that takes a lot of these categories and places them into two distinctions: “push characters” and “pull characters.”
Push characters are like many of the ones stated above. It is as if the characters’ attitudes, visual look, and other qualities invade your space. They pierce and break down the barriers in your heart. Kurosaki Rendou, creator of Houkago Play and other racy titles, specializes in this type of character for both guys and girls. Akashi from Kuroko’s Basketball is also what I’d call a “push character.” They can perhaps be called aggressive characters as well, but I don’t think that it fits entirely neatly. Rather, in shounen terms, it’s more like they’re the “strong fists” of Rock Lee from Naruto or Raoh from Fist of the North Star.
Pull characters, then, are more like the “gentle fists” of Hyuuga Hinata (Naruto) or Toki (Fist of the North Star). Rather than striking actively, their auras are passive and receptive. It is as if they have a gravity or magnetism that draws you to them. Softer, kinder characters would fall into this category, such as Daidouji Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura, Maetel from Galaxy Express 999, or Teppei from Kuroko’s Basketball. It’s as if their warmth envelops your being.
Now there are a few aspects I’m thinking through as I bring out this half-formed way of considering characters. The first is that, many characters probably don’t fall into one category or the other. Sort of like a Myer-Briggs personality test, the “lesser” quality still exists. For example, I’d consider Koizumi Hanayo from Love Live! to be a “pull character” because of her typically shy personality, but the excitement of her two main loves—rice and idols—is enough to transform her into a “push character.”
Second, perhaps this distinction is actually entirely subjective, and one person’s “push character” is another person’s “pull character.” Does this render the terms meaningless, or is it more like moe where a broader understanding exists but the minutiae can get incredibly personal?
Lastly, to what extent do these terms match up with the idea of “seme” and “uke” characters in BL. Would “push characters” be those who tend to be seme, while “pull characters” are more commonly uke? If that’s the case, could this be a way to translate those terms to other types of relationships, such as heterosexual, yuri, or whatever other combinations can exist?
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I have an optimistic view of pop culture. I believe it to be a resource of creativity, a space for people to explore, and an interaction between different groups. While I acknowledge that pop culture can have deep ties with capitalism and that customers are just as often viewed as bags of money as they are people (if not more), I do not think of pop culture as a controlling force designed to influence our very way of thinking.
But what about when it is?
I’ve been taking a cursory look at North Korean pop culture recently, and generally speaking its main purpose is to reinforce the ideology that dominates the country. From television to film to music, the purpose of North Korean popular culture is propaganda. What could be considered an implicit effect of pop culture in other parts of the world is a very intentional utilization of media.
Given how obvious the elements of propaganda are in North Korean media in particular, it is very easy to draw a line between “our” popular culture and “theirs.” Their performances come across almost as outdated to our sensibilities, and the fact that they show images of missiles being launched in the middle of concerts says just about everything. However, what if I were born and raised in North Korea, or were somehow indoctrinated into its culture? Given my optimism, would I be defending North Korean pop culture the way I defend anime and manga? Would I ultimately view the cultural output of North Korea to its people as something benevolent?
That question has been with me over the past few years, mainly because I’ve had to really reflect on my approach to popular culture and its effects on people. It’s easy to champion interesting works and to point out how fans can engage with media actively, but even if these actions are possible does that mean an actual de-fanging of the controlling aspects of having what’s considered the “conventional” way of doing things appear in media (appearance, mannerisms, etc.)?
The biggest danger of optimism towards pop culture to me personally is the point at which it becomes blind faith, and it’s what I seek to avoid even as I look at it in an overall positive light. I think it’s very easy to fall towards cynisim in the process, but my hope is that I never do.
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In a recent blog article on the site Wave Motion Cannon, blogger tamerlane laments two aspects of how we talk about anime. First, he discusses lack of appreciation (one might even say disdain) that many American fans and experts of animation have towards anime. Second, he argues that sakuga fans (essentially fans of especially expressive, dynamic, and powerful Japanese animation) aren’t doing enough to help spread appreciation of the animation in anime. On these general points, I completely agree. Whether it’s anime or manga, the technical skills of Japanese creators are often unfairly get derided, labeled as being full of shortcuts and cop-outs. Anime defies the rule books of animation that people take as gospel, so critics prefer to point a finger at anime rather than the rules themselves. Similarly, I also find that sakuga fans can often sabotage themselves, but one thing that tamerlane might not realize is that in his very post are those risky elements, that which makes sakuga fans, perhaps unfairly, seen as an insular group.
To start off, I want to highlight a couple of lines from the article:
That is, strip away all those aspects of animation that have superior alternatives elsewhere – story, music, draftsmanship – and look at what’s left. That is animation.
Animation shouldn’t exist for its own sake, certainly, and there’s no shortage of animated films that are as vacuous as they are pretty, but without any way of meaningfully differentiating itself from other forms of art it might as well not exist at all.
In other words, animation should do what is uniquely suited to it, otherwise there’s no point. It’s simple… or not.
The problem with such a sentiment is that, while it might seem like the proper way to view animation, there are serious limitations to pinning a medium down to what is unique to it. Granted, it’s not a bad way of viewing things. An artist might want to push the boundaries of the medium, and in doing so create something great. However, it leads to what philosopher and scholar Noël Carroll refers to as an over-reliance on “medium essentialism,” where in trying to emphasize the qualities of animation that cannot be replicated elsewhere one ends up ignoring the “common” aspects that can also empower a form of artistic expression. Comics scholar Thierry Groenstein describes comics in general similarly, that it is because comics are a mixture of elements found elsewhere that it can create interesting outcomes. Try telling someone who plays visual novels that they should either read a book or play a real game. Try telling someone that they shouldn’t enjoy Inferno Cop because of its intentionally terrible animation (though I have to acknowledge the possibility that one only begins to appreciate Inferno Cop if they are a fan of the act of animating itself).
I don’t believe tamerlane means to come across as so completely essentialist, and at the very least he points out that the two schools of thought discussed in his article about animation (anime vs. Disney-esque animation) are equally valid. However, I think it’s still important to focus on the idea that to be a fan of animation (or anime) is to be a fan of the construction of animation, that it is of the highest priority for anyone who calls themselves a fan of animation. In response to this, I would argue that, while it might be impossible to just ignore the act of animating outright, one’s interest in animation can rightfully be defined by elements outside of appreciate of technical or expressive skill.
I’m going to use myself as an example. I am not the average anime fan, and I have what I would call a fairly passable understanding of sakuga and animation. I can’t necessarily recognize an animator’s work just by seeing a cut in isolation, but I appreciate Kanada, Umakoshi, Itano, and so on. However, appreciation of animation is but one facet of my interest in anime, which I would more generally describe as a fascination with the interaction of ideas and emotions across Japanese animated cartoons and their narratives, and given limited time I do not prioritize it above all else. I leave that up to the experts, whether certified or self-proclaimed, because even if they’re the latter their passion leads them further.
In fact, the reason I started looking into animators is because of Ben Ettinger, the guy behind the blog Anipages. Based on his writings, he is very clearly a fan of animation in the same sense that tamerlane and other sakuga fans are. He knows the names of the animators. He can recognize their work. He looks into the most obscure and even uninteresting shows to find strong animation. However, most crucially, I don’t sense hostility from his writing, or the idea that his way of viewing things is the right way or the only way.
The problem comes when sakuga fans, as ambassadors of quality animation, deride the uninitiated for not “getting it,” or not understand the values of others. This can only serve to push their potential audience and potential comrades further away. If there is not an actual inability to relate to non-sakuga fans, it can appear to be the case.
It’s not my first time reading what tamerlane has to say about anime or animation. A couple of years ago, he commented on some Kill la Kill posts of mine, and expressed that one of the issues was that the characters weren’t fun to watch, tying this into his passion for the act of animation, while also stating that those who enjoyed the series only had weak reasons to do so. I disagreed on the simple basis that, while I could recognize some of the weaknesses he mentioned, they weren’t a deal breaker for me, and what I valued in Kill la Kill was still very present and very strong. However, this also gave an image of tamerlane as someone with a very specific and at times contentious point of view, so much so that I almost chose not to read his post.
I want to emphasize two things based on what I just said. The first is that, if I had ignored his article based on past interactions, I would have been the stupid one. It would have been an example of me judging someone purely through some brief internet talk where communication was marred by a number of factors that weren’t just on his side. I think it’s more than possible to see both sides, or to disagree about one thing while agreeing on another, but most importantly I believe it’s possible to respect the other side.
The second point is that not everybody can ignore their initial impressions, and how one communicate to others as fellow human beings can be just as important as what you have to say. I know, because I struggle with this to. I understand what it’s like to be frustrated that others don’t share my point of view, or to not be able to express myself well. However, at the end of the day, positioning one’s own reasons for liking a show as just inherently better will always rub people the wrong way.
Even if accusations against sakuga fans are unfounded, the impression one gives when communicating can plant that idea in the reader or listener’s head, and whether you’re talking to hostile skeptics or people eager to know more about animation, driving them away by telling them to get on your level is only going to convince a few. Sakuga fans have to speak to other fans on their own terms and empathize with them. And if not, they have to at least let their passion come across in a way that is not confrontational. Sakuga fans need more Carl Sagans, and if not him, then at least some Neil deGrasse Tysons, who can be both snarky and personable.
I’m going to leave off with some screencaps from Episode 3 of Aoi Honoo, a J-drama about the school where many future luminaries of the anime industry came from. Though obviously different from real life interactions and conversations, I think it’s worth nothing how Anno Hideaki (or rather the actor who plays him) is shown to express his love for animation, in spite (or perhaps because) of his lack of social skills.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans and Gundam Thunderbolt seem to be the Gundam anime a lot of people are looking for. Whether it’s the story of child soldiers of the former or the hard SF feel of the latter, they both capture in different ways the idea of Gundam as that realistic war story with a science fiction twist. While I’ve been enjoying both of these quite a bit, I wanted to step back and look at the previous Gundam anime, 2014’s Gundam: Reconguista in G, because I think it was a legitimately strong series whose merits went underplayed and under-appreciated.
Gundam: Reconguista in G has a reputation for being confusing, convoluted, and nonsensical. Even the writer and director himself, the original Gundam creator Tomino Yoshiyuki, considered G-Reco a disappointment. I disagree. While the series is rife with Tomino-isms that make the narrative and its characters’ decisions hard to follow, one thing rings out loud and clear: G-Reco is the story of people who, for better or worse, have no true connection to war.
G-Reco takes place many years after the end of the original Gundam timeline. In this new era, the Regild Century, voyage into space is restricted, and energy resources are rationed out to prevent the world from falling into the same catastrophes which scarred previous generations. Over the course of the story, characters frivolously and repeatedly switch sides, the ones most eager to fight have the least conception of war’s effects on humanity, and ultimately even as soldiers die left and right, the consequences of their warfare, if you can call them as such, are vague and ambiguous. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be a story worth following, but I believe that it all emphasizes a central point, which is that the more humankind is distanced from war, the less they understand its repercussions.
Tomino was born during World War II, so it should come as no surprise that the original Mobile Suit Gundam had a strong anti-war message. While the children of that generation weren’t born in an era of conflict, the adults knew full well what post-war reconstruction was like, and many anime and manga creators have strongly believed in the dedication to pacifism stated in Japan’s constitution. However, G-Reco debuted in a different era, in this current time when forces in the Japanese government have clamored and have now even successfully reduced the influence of the Japan’s official stance on pacifism. Similar to Gatchaman Crowds Insight, G-Reco argues that, while there are merits to a world where large-scale global conflict is a distant memory, namely because it means people don’t have to suffer to the same degree, it ironically pushes war and violence even further into the realm of appealing fantasy. It becomes about heroes and villains, about glory and pride, rather than death and destruction.
At the same time, the characters in G-Reco are largely positive and optimistic, and while its ending is rushed and its final scene is undoubtedly the most confusing part of the anime, it also speaks towards a great deal of faith in the youth of today. They make plenty of mistakes, and they’re in some ways just as guilty of treating war as play, but they’re also not beholden to the manipulations of adults and the older generation. In this respect I get a vibe from G-Reco not unlike that of Evangelion 3.33, though the unique tendencies of their respective directors make for different overall presentations.
I think it’s fitting that the last battle in G-Reco concludes with no clear winners and no real fallout, but also has some notably unceremonious deaths. It pushes the idea that war is both meaningless yet full of things that cannot be undone, and it is up to the current generation of humanity to take advantage of our distance from war by keeping it there, while remembering that such distance comes with its own perils.
Last year, I forgot about my anniversary for about a month. Always looking to improve Ogiue Maniax, I decided that it wasn’t enough, so this time I’ve over a month and a half late for the annual retrospective.
Eight years sounds kind of crazy for anime blog, doesn’t it? A lot of old friends and comrades have set aside their keyboards while others keep marching on, but of course that doesn’t mean anything about their passion for their hobbies. Blogs are just one way of doing things, and it’s the format I’ve come to prefer the most. It’s just informal enough to feel comfortable, while also providing plenty of space to get serious if need be.
Though I think it a bit obvious, by far the biggest change to Ogiue Maniax this past year was the launch of my Patreon. Thanks to my patrons, but also everyone who reads and shares and even just thinks about what I have to say, I’ve managed to make a decent chunk of change from blogging. It’s not a full-time career by any means, but I think it shows that good written content is appreciated for the ideas contained within, even if the tendency in “content creation” is often towards simpler things like lists. Just the fact that my longer posts garner greater attention gives me a little more faith in the world.
I’ve been looking at the idea of being a “content creator” recently, and one thing that’s crystal clear is that written content, especially given how much time and effort is required of it, is often viewed as a losing battle. Video and podcasts are where it’s at. Of course, it’s more than possible to create quality work on YouTube or wherever, and the convenience is something even I take advantage of as a viewer, so I’m not knocking people who focus their energies in that direction. Rather, in light of this, I actually feel pretty good that there are so many people who think my writing is worth something. While I don’t need a confidence boost to keep writing, it at least is comforting to know that the energy I’ve put into Ogiue Maniax can be felt by so many.
Thanks for 8 years, everybody.
In recent years, diversity in representation of peoples has become a frequent topic of debate among fans of animation and comics. Whether it’s the rise of Steven Universe and its positive portrayals of strong female characters, or the increase in panels on women in comics, minorities in comics, and more at New York Comic Con, there has been a strong move both from fans and creators to make sure that tokenism is never a thing, and that the Rule of Three (see the video below) doesn’t stop any group from finding themselves in cartoons.
In 2014, at a Women in Comics panel at NYCC, one of the panelists mentioned the importance of learning how to communicate with the old, white men who run these companies if people want to make a difference up top. The following year at NYCC, a Diversity in Comics panel had multiple industry members talk about how management across multiple companies are realizing that other groups besides the white, male demographic are customers and are worth appealing to. Ultimately, people are communicating in the language that executives understand most of all: money.
However, while the net result seems to be in favor of a strengthening of cultural diversity, there’s a question that nags at the back of my mind as I see the talk of a changing tide. Are those executives, those old, white men, actually learning why cultural diversity in comics is important, or are they simply seeing it in terms of potential sales? Part of the reason why comics appealed to that white, male demographic for so long, aside from latent racism, was that it was seen as a reliable market, but catering too much to that aging audience has stymied its growth among the population at large. This means more attention is paid to women, LGBT, racial minorities, and more, but does it just all come down to the bottom line?
My fear is that, if diversity is simply seen as the latest ticket to profit, that if comics and animation start to be less successful, will the companies and their heads be just as quick to jettison the desire to bring different groups of people to comics? Are we ultimately beholden to entertainment media as a product of popular culture in a capitalist society?
What is good character design?
Different people will have their own ideas about what helps the design of a character (including myself), but over the past few years I’ve begun to consider more how the elements often described as contributing to character design are a kind of double-edged sword.
Take the idea that a character should have a unique look achieved through simple yet elegant means, and that they shouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else in the cast. This is ideally achieved through stylization, and to some extent exaggeration. For example, I find the character designs in Heartcatch Precure! to be fantastic, and part of this is achieved because the girls are varying heights, and that their distinct personalities come across very clearly in the way they look. However, that same dedication to simplicity and really conveying a character’s particular characteristics through their appearance are the same tools that can be used to, for example, create harmful stereotypes. How do you make a character look more Asian? Give them squinty eyes and buck teeth, because that will immediately communicate their Asian-ness.
Of course, there’s a significant difference between making a character that expresses their uniqueness through their design, and drawing to conform a character to a general stereotype in that one is about individualizing and the other is about generalizing, but I think that the two ideas exist on the same spectrum. Take for example a political cartoon mocking a particular politician through the use of symbols and signs meant to represent that individual. A large hooked nose in this case might become the symbol of a racism against Jewish people in another context. The very tools artists use to express ideas of love, equality, and growth can also be used to spread hatred, discrimination, and regression.
I am pro-freedom of expression, so I do not believe in restricting even the more negative and harmful uses of art, but I do understand that a price is paid as a result. Images persist that can strip young people of confidence, make them feel as if they never have a chance in the world. While one way to combat it is to provide even more positive images, the inevitable difficulty is helping them to navigate all of the disparate messages without necessarily forcing them to be blind to everything that’s out there. When the strategy to helping others out is to block their access to material that might change them, then that itself can become a problem.
I myself don’t entirely know the point I’m trying to get at, but I believe it’s something along the lines of “artists have a lot of responsibility.” Whether you use your art to fight for a cause, against one, or just want to draw things that are cute, cool, gruesome, even actively traumatizing, that is a decision to be made, and to be felt, and you it is good to be prepared for the consequences that arise.
I’m a fan of characters who support. Whether it’s Dominic Sorel in Eureka Seven, who stands by the long-suffering Anemone or Aida Riko in Kuroko’s Basketball, who coaches and manages the Seirin High School Basketball Team, often times my favorite characters are those who care less for being the “hero,” and who try to make a difference in their own way. Generally speaking, I’m of the belief that there are many ways to make a difference, and that you don’t need to be the one chopping the monster’s head off, nor should we fault others for not aspiring to be that mighty warrior. Indeed, even more recent main characters like Kuroko Tetsuya in Kuroko’s Basketball and Onoda Sakamichi in Yowamushi Pedal are protagonists whose powers are primarily based on “support.”
However, I find that, as much as I enjoy that character type, they potentially are a source of complacency, and one might even argue that they teach people to settle for less. Case in point, while I think Riko does a lot for her team and is just a great character in general, she derives from an archetype that is basically a sideline cheerleader. They’ll either be the newbie who needs things to be explained, or the informative expert who does the explaining, but when the chips are down their purpose in the story is to stare longingly as the hero goes into action. There’s some sexism historically at work here, with female characters being created to serve the male leads, but I don’t want to make the issue purely about sex and gender, especially given all of the work that’s been done to play with and expose those tropes, like how Witch Craft Works essentially genderswaps the typical shoujo heroine and shoujo ideal love interest. I also don’t want to deny the ability for a “sideline cheerleader” to be an interesting character in their own right. Rather, it’s more about the idea that “everyone is the hero of their own story,” and how there are positives and negatives to it.
On the one hand, the notion that everyone is the main character in their own lives, be it reality or fiction, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy of confidence, where one imbues oneself with agency and ambition, and accomplishes their goals. At the same time, it might cause people to seek out “glory” without necessarily finding their own definition for the word, instead conforming to what their society (or what readers supposedly think) are parameters for success.
On the other hand, if one believes in supporting others, this might afford them a point of view that could go unnoticed otherwise. Glory for oneself is unimportant, because what really matters is doing what one can. However, this same mindset carries the risk of encouraging passivity to the point that people might inadvertently lose opportunities to better themselves. Perhaps it even becomes an excuse for why they remain in their rut.
Obviously these are in a way two extremes, and that there is a full spectrum between light and shadow, to borrow a phrase from Kuroko’s Basketball. Characters like Riko and Dominic essentially work in opposite directions towards a center, with Riko coming from the manager character and Dominic defying what it means to “rescue the girl.” There’s a lot of interplay and room for interpretation, and it opens up paths for artists, be they professional, amateur, and/or fan, to explore and defy what they’re told is “normal.” I just find myself thinking about how simply saying that I prefer support characters can carry a lot of implicit meaning.
The last thing I want to leave off with is a scene from Game of Thrones, when Tywin Lannister, the patriarch of the powerful House Lannister, asks his grandson what makes a good king. When the grandson replies correctly with “wisdom,” Tywin is ecstatic and explains that wisdom comes in part from knowing what you don’t know, and heeding your advisers who are experts in their fields. In this case, though the king is supposed to be the one with all of the glory, is it the case that being a king is perhaps the biggest support position of all?