Sunday, July 31, 2011

How I Get Animated

A few months back, Miss Polly and her gigantic brain thought of a fun participatory event for, and thus asked readers and groupies to write about how they get animated. Incapable of refusing the opportunity to compile a Top Ten list (the 4/4 pop single of information age discourse) and blather on about cartoons (I ONLY WATCH CARTOONS), I wrote a few (thousand) words about my favorite television 'toons and sent them her way.

And that's why today's update is about cartoons instead of stars, books, bugs, or any of the other nerd stuff I'm into. Yeehaw!


9. Downtown

In the 1980s, MTV aired music videos. In the 2000s, it aired asinine reality shows. Something had to fill the gap during the 1990s, and that something was original animated programming. MTV aired some killer cartoons between 1991 and 2003. While you could commend the network for funding and airing high-quality stuff like The Maxx, Oddities, and Clone High, it's pretty hard to admire the way it treated most of its cartoons -- underpromoting them, changing their time slots without warning every other week, and then cancelling them after they failed to attract as big an audience as Beavis & Butthead and Celebrity Deathmatch.

Downtown's thirteen episodes aired in 1999, during the twilight years of MTV Animation. The premise is simple: each episode follows a group of about seven teens and twenty-somethings through a day or a week or so of Manhattan life. It's both a slice-of-life sitcom and a period piece -- a time capsule containing a vision of New York at the turn of the century, before 9/11, Web 2.0, Bloomberg, and obscene living costs. Although pop culture, subculture, and NYC in-jokes are heavily featured, Downtown never really glorifies urban life. Its New York is simultaneously beautiful and disgusting; resplendent with possibility and lonely as hell.

Downtown doesn't just focus on dialogue; it makes conversation into its very subject. It's safe to guess that anyone with even a mild creative spark has occasionally found himself bullshitting with friends, listening to effortless exchange of stories and jokes, and wishing he could bottle it up and record it somehow. Downtown' creators do just this: collect the anecdotes and exaggerated stories from their friends around town and make fantastic cartoons about them. (Most of the voice actors are these friends; you won't see them credited for voice work anywhere else.) It must be emphasized that the writers/actors never glorify or congratulate themselves and their friends for being such hip cats. Pretty much every member of the main cast bears some glaring, self-destructive flaw, but we like and relate to them anyway, the same way we forgive our own friends for their quirks and shortcomings.

Downtown's dialogue follows curving tangents, launches into flights of fancy, and lapses into arguments; people stumble over their words and tell different versions of the same story. When the talking takes off, the animation follows suit, contorting and coloring itself to match the tone of the conversation. It takes the same jokes and stories we tell our friends and makes them as fascinating and funny as they are to us before the telling as is only possible with animation.

HIGHLIGHTS: Episode 6, "Graffiti." Chaka, Fruity, and Matt sneak into the subway tunnels during a service outage so Matt can do some tagging. Adventure ensues. I remember my friend's brother telling us stories about his days as a young scofflaw, when he and his buddies used to visit the subway "graveyards" in abandoned tunnels. This episode holds a certain vicarious nostalgia for me.

10. Megas XLR

I actually rate Downtown higher than Megas, but it helps to talk about the one before bringing up the other.

After MTV flushed their baby down the toilet (it never even bothered airing the final episode), Downtown's main creator, story editor, and lead animator regrouped and put together a pilot for Cartoon Network called "Lowbrow." It earned the most viewer votes during a 2002 contest, and was subsequently greenlit for a thirteen-episode run (followed by a thirteen-episode second season), redubbed Megas XLR.

The backstory is a bit complicated, but here we go anyway: Coop, a basement-dwelling twentysomething gearhead from Jersey City, discovers a busted mecha in the local junkyard. He takes it home, repairs it, pimps it out with sexy flaming 8-ball decals, and replaces the missing head with a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible. Unbeknownst to him, his new toy actually comes from a distant future in which humanity is mired in a losing battle against a ferocious alien empire. "Megas" was a prototype weapon built by the aliens and stolen by the human resistance movement, who sent it back in time for safekeeping. Its human pilot, Kiva, returns to the 21st century to retrieve it, but finds Coop unwilling to give it up. What's more, she can no longer operate it herself: with the cockpit missing, Coop jerry-rigged its control interface into the Hemi Cuda's dashboard with a complicated array of switchboards and video game controllers. Discovering that a lifetime frittered away playing video games in his mom's basement has turned Coop into a first-class mecha pilot, Kiva decides to remain in the 21st century and train Coop to be humanity's savior in the future war against the alien invaders.

The "monster of the week" format is much simpler. Coop does something stupid with Megas and invites some horrible alien terror into Jersey City. Kiva yells at him. Coop fights off the aliens and levels Hudson County in the process. Rinse, repeat, delight.

Like its ill-fated older brother, Megas XLR exhibits a keen fascination with subculture, local color, and the accessories of geek life -- science fiction, anime, video games, etc. Downtown's reality-grounded setting restricted it to only referencing the latter in conversations, but the science-fiction/comedy format of Megas allows for direct parody -- Coop and his pals actually live out the stuff Alex and his friends at the comic book shop can only fantasize about. Everything from Mobile Suit Gundam to Sailor Moon to Transformers to Endless Odyssey gets lampooned, and frequent nods toward video games, comic books, and American "guy" culture are the norm for each episode.

One thing that doesn't get much love from Megas is MTV. In almost every episode, some fictional representation of the network gets the shit blown out of it. Clearly the crew was still smarting from MTV's treatment of Downtown, and it's really hard to blame them for bearing such a grudge.

HIGHLIGHTS: The episode in which Megas gets impounded, forcing Coop to jump through the hoops at the DMV before he can get it back and rescue Kiva from an alien bounty hunter. Another episode has Coop rigging a DDR pad into Megas's control system. And, all throughout, we have more of those delightful flights of fancy we've seen in Downtown.

Oh, and there's also the fact that the only character from Downtown to reappears in Megas as a member of the main cast is Goat -- the last person from the Downtown crew who belongs in Y7 programming. (Goat in Downtown; Goat in Megas XLR.)

8. Neon Genesis Evangelion

I think I love this show. It's hard to be certain. I've only run through it once, and I'm not sure I can ever do it again.

Every family has its own Christmas traditions, and mine is no exception -- but our yuletide ritual, unlike most peoples', involves special psychoactive holiday brownies. (I'm told it goes way back to when my father and mother were dating. They did a surprisingly good job keeping it a secret from my sister and I until we were both in our twenties.)

One Christmas day a few years back, I had just swallowed a brownie and was wondering what I should do with myself when my sister appeared. "I got the Neon Genesis Evangelion box set," she said. "Wanna watch it with me?"

"Evangelion?" I said. "I guess I've heard good things about it before. Yeah, let's check it out."

Marathoning through Neon Genesis Evangelion on a heavy dose of mind-altering drugs was either the best thing I ever did or one of the worst. I can't decide. We watched the whole bloody thing in a thirty-hour span. My mind felt like melted rubber afterwards. It was the most mentally and emotionally draining cartoon I had ever watched in my life.

I don't recall many specifics, but I do remember how at some point -- about halfway through -- it made this surprise turn from "really clever and well-made anime about giant robots" into "harrowing self- portrait of a chemically-imbalanced anime director's nervous breakdown." Evangelion becomes less a show about brilliant and special people defending Earth from mysterious alien invaders than one about brilliant, special, and hopelessly damaged people defending Earth from mysterious alien invaders while doing horrible things to each other and themselves.

I don't think I have the emotional wherewithal to watch it again. I'm also a little afraid that it won't be quite as intense as I remember it, and I'd rather that Evangelion retain its dark mystique for me. Everyone else, however, should watch it immediately if they have not already done so.

HIGHLIGHTS: Rei's reflections from Episode 14. The only part of the show I've watched more than once.

7. Batman: the Brave and the Bold

Batman is everybody's favorite superhero because he's the darkest superhero.

Everybody liked Batman Begins because it was more serious and realistic than other comic book movies. Everybody liked The Dark Knight even better because it was serious and realistic, and also very dark.

The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke are the best Batman stories of all time because they're the darkest, the most grim, and the most serious.

People like Batman: the Animated Series because it is a dark and gritty cartoon show -- doubly in the case of Mask of the Phantasm, its foray onto the big screen. People like Batman Beyond too, since it is dark, gritty, and futurepunk -- doubly in the case of Return of the Joker, its violent direct-to-video movie. They also like Gotham Knight because violent and dark.

People who talk like this don't know Batman -- or, at least, not very well. They seem to be unaware that the grim and tortured urban avenger is only the character's most recent (and therefore most popular) incarnation, and that he spent two decades as a jolly cartoon character who traded fisticuffs with villains like Kite-Man and Crazy Quilt in various museums of giant props. This version of Batman may be out of vogue, but you can't call it a bastardization (as have several YouTube commentators) because it was the and only Batman for many years.

Batman: the Brave and the Bold, which resurrects the lighter, happier Batman, anticipated a fan backlash and actually took a few minutes during one of its first batch of episodes to address these viewers directly.

As you can see, the caped crusader featured on Batman: the Brave and the Bold is definitely not Tim Burton's, Frank Miller's, or Tim Nolan's dark knight detective. This Batman comes out during the day, is almost never seen out of costume, does very little brooding, and regularly travels through time, into outer space, and between dimensions on his crimefighting beat. In the spirit of the Silver Age, The Brave and the Bold happily throws any pretense of plausibility out the window. When the fifteen-year-olds complain about how ridiculous it is for Batman to fly around in a spaceship equipped with an "alien nullifier beam," they're sort of missing the point. Of course it's ridiculous. It's intended to be.

The Brave and the Bold is designed with two target audiences in mind:

1.) Boys between the ages of five and thirteen.
2.) Comic book geekazoids in their twenties and thirties.

Either the writers are Batman fanatics themselves, or they did a lot of homework. As you might have noticed, nerds are always happiest when the television/film take on their favorite comic book makes obscure references only they can pick up on, and The Brave and the Bold is bursting at the seams with DC Comics esoterica. Up until the third season, the show's creators make a concerted point of pairing Batman up with the DC heroes you don't often see outside of the comic book store, like Bronze Tiger, the Metal Men, and Kamandi. When the more familiar superheroes do appear, it's frequently in one of their lesser-known incarnations: Jay Garrick as the Flash, Ryan Choi as the Atom, Guy Gardner as Green Lantern, and the Justice League International instead of the Justice League of America. In the late second season and the third season, the more familiar DC mainstays start popping up. After forty episodes of a superhero all-star cartoon without Superman and Wonder Woman, their belated appearances have the taste of a rare treat.

But this isn't like a superhero version of Family Guy by any means. You needn't understand any of the nods to comic book obscura to enjoy The Brave and the Bold, though it does mean you'll get more of a kick out of it. What makes it such a fun show is its earnestness. Even when it pokes fun at superhero camp, it never treats its material with any smug derision. As silly as they were, the comic books of the 1950s still flew off the newsstands, and not because of their appeal to anyone's jaded sense of irony. They weren't particularly deep, but they certainly weren't unimaginative or boring either. When you listen to Two-Face pun on every possible variation of the number two in a span of ninety seconds, see Batman teaming up with Space Ghost to battle aliens, or watch Aquaman express such irrepressible glee at being such a muscly good guy, you sometimes wonder why superheroes ever got so damned serious to begin with. They can be just as much fun when they're trying to be -- well, fun.

HIGHLIGHTS: The episodes written by Paul Dini, of Batman: the Animated Series fame. These include the ultra-meta "Day of the Dark Mite," the vintage Scooby Doo team-up in "Batman's Strangest Cases," and "The Chill of the Night," the one "serious" episode of the whole series. And though it's not written by Dini, the Superdickery-inspired "Battle of the Superheroes" episode is mandatory viewing.

6. Æon Flux

When I was in my "tween" years -- which elapsed before the word "tween" entered the lexicon -- late-night MTV cartoons were an indispensable part of my sleepovers with friends. The two-hour Beavis & Butthead blocks were great, sure -- but there was also the other stuff: the arrestingly hip and hypnotically bizarre cartoons that were nothing like any others I'd ever seen. My favorite of these, then and now, is Peter Chung and Howard Baker's Æon Flux.

Aeon Flux defies analogy. Except for maybe the artsy action shorts from The Animatrix and Gotham Knights (and maybe the ultra-wacky Reign: the Conqueror anime), there's not much to which it can be compared. It began as a series of Liquid Television shorts about a silent leather-clad female spy in a strange future world, whose adventures always ended with her own violent death. When the first (and only) season of full-length episodes rolled out, a few things changed: the characters spoke, the plots had a bit more substance, and the heroine (usually) got out of every episode alive. What remained unaltered was the show's disorienting lack of context. Though we're tossed hints, we know next to nothing about the the characters or the world they inhabit. Watching Æon Flux as a twelve-year-old, I stayed glued to the television just because I thought if I watched long enough I would figure out what the hell was going on. I've watched the whole series now -- more than once -- and I'm still not entirely sure. But everyone and everything in Æon Flux is so strange, dangerous, and nasty that, really, we're all probably better off not knowing more. (Speaking of nasty, it's fascinating how ugly these people are. Anime, by contrast, likes to smooth out creases and make everyone sparkle. Peter Chung highlights the wrinkles, bumps, folds, and fluids. Æon Flux's sex scenes are some of the least wankable in adult-oriented animation.)

At the heart of Æon Flux is the yin-yang dynamic between its main characters. The "villain," Trevor Goodchild, is a brilliant but sinister head of state with a genuine desire to improve humanity and its quality of life in the nightmarish metropolitan labyrinth it inhabits. Trevor represents order, intellect, and the desire for control. The titular "heroine," meanwhile, is an agent of desire, freedom, and anarchy who wants to screw up Trevor's big plans -- despite their irresistible mutual attraction to one another.

Most episodes adhere to a basic formula. Trevor hatches a scheme of some sort. Æon moves in to foil it. Chaos ensues. Lots of people die. Twelve-year-olds have hard time sleeping. The experience of marathoning through all ten episodes of Æon Flux leaves you just as exhausted as ten hours of Evangelion. While Evangelion can be quirky, funny, and cute when it's not being mentally and emotionally wracking, Æon Flux is consistently dark, dirty, and confounding. Whenever a story actually gets an unambiguous resolution, it's rarely a happy one. Betrayal, death, dismemberment, mutation, and collapse are the norm.

Nevertheless, Æon Flux is still a whole lot of fun to watch in moderate doses. (I find it's usually best to stop after three episodes to give your psyche time to recompose itself.) "Avant garde" animation doesn't get much better than this, and I wish more American outfits were putting forth this kind of effort today.

HIGHLIGHTS: Trevor's monologues. It's hard to call the guy a villain when he can make such an elegant and compelling case for himself -- and the virtuoso VA performance don't hurt much neither. History will also show that he dropped the "that which does not kill us, makes us stranger" line thirteen years before The Dark Knight's Joker made it popular. Unfortunately, I can't find any quick links to Trevor's better speeches on the You Tube. If you care to look into it, some of his best are in Episode 5, "The Demiurge:"

Light, in the absence of eyes, illuminates nothing. Visible forms are not inherent in the world, but are granted by the act of seeing. Though the world and events do exist independent of mind, they obtain of no meaning in themselves: none that the mind is not guilty of imposing on them. I bid my people follow, and like all good equations, they follow; for full endowment of purpose, they do submit -- in turn, they resign me to a role inhuman, impossible, and unaccountable. But I can no longer stand the sleepless nights...

The height in tension in any game occurs when the rules allow for the influence of human judgement. The advantage in this instance is held by the player who drops the ball to allow the opponent a hollow victory. Half of eternity is still eternity. Infinity and Zero are different degrees of the same value. Pain isn't real beyond the individual who feels it. But the nail is real.

If but the cosmos could possibly have come about innocent of history, and not wholly ignorant of all its potential -- unprejudiced, but aware -- rather than that its only trial be performed at the mercy of all its error.

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