Monday, 31 December 2018

The State of Anime 2018


Here we go again.

Those that are unaware, I have been watching anime for over two decades at this point. I don't do this because I'm a "Glorious Nippon" type who hates anything western or because I'm obsessed with animation, but because unlike other mediums it is one of the few that managed to keep its core intact. Anime tells fantastical stories using 2D animation, a format all but ejected by the west, and has no real limit on what can be achieved through it. This means you get a lot of terrible messes, but also some classics you would not get elsewhere. Nonetheless, because of this I have tried to keep an eye on the industry through its darker moments.

There have been a lot of darker moments. Starting in the late 00s, around 2007, the medium began sacrificing imagination and energy for fetishism and low effort works that did not take advantage of the medium they were in. This continued a bit into the '00s, but series such as Tiger & Bunny and Psycho Pass did prove that there were those who didn't forget what it was about. The decade took a while to regain its footing, and I believe it finally did by 2015 with works such as One Punch Man, Ushio & Tora, and Blood Blockade Battlefront going back to its roots.

I've been recording the upswing in the anime industry in recent years on this blog. 2015 marked the first year in some time to try for more mainstream appeal again by remembering what made the medium great, and 2016 was an even better improvement over that with the most series worth seeing since near a decade. However, 2017 was a step back as if they were not sure about themselves. There were good series, however there were not as many and bad habits began to resurface. Despite that lesser year, 2018 was a definite improvement, returning to the high that was 2016. It definitely looks like they have decided on the right direction.

The industry still has its troubles. Home media sales are falling and piracy is as big a problem as ever, not to mention working conditions for animators and a reliance on fleecing a shrinking audience with low effort garbage. However, there are bright spots.

So let us have a look at the past year in anime and what is coming for the year ahead.


Winter

The winter season starts in January and runs until April. Usually this is the dumping ground for series that didn't make the much hotter Fall or Spring seasons for whatever reason, however there are sometimes high quality hits hidden here. Erased is one from 2016, and this year there was Megalo Box. But some new seasons of Seven Deadly Sins, Saiki K, Overlord, and Gintama also premiered here thereby making this season quite good for a winter season.

Carryovers from last year such as Garo: Vanishing Line, and the movie Mazinger Z: Infinity also added to make this a good season. On top of it Netflix exclusives such as AICO the Incarnation and Devilman Crybaby were surprising additions. This was also the season the controversial Trigger series (but I repeat myself) Darling in the Franxx premiered.

One also can't forget about the absurd Pop Team Epic which took the anime world by surprise and confounded stuffy shirt critics. It was quite the winner. But, as mentioned, the highlight of the season, by far, was Megalo Box.


Megalo Box was made for the anniversary of Ashita no Joe, one of manga's seminal series and a classic anime on top of it. It's an original series that takes the concept and themes of the original series and does them homage by telling a brand new story with those elements. So while the original is about a young punk struggling to find his place in an unforgiving world, this is about a down on his luck man in a cyberpunk future struggling to find his purpose in a world where humanity is slowly being deconstructed and replaced with better parts.

This was one of the best anime I have seen in years with an ending that is surprisingly controversial considering the conclusion of Ashita no Joe. But its themes are perfectly congruent with the original, and it added enough of an original spin to make it both a perfect tribute and totally fresh idea. It was accordingly ignored by the anime media.

That was only the first season of the year.


Spring

Spring of course was buoyed by My Hero Academia which already is a great start to build a series around. However, it wasn't alone. New anime of classics like Captain Tsubasa, Gegege no Kitaro, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes were welcome additions, but new seasons of old shows such as Full Metal Panic: Invisible Victory and Gundam Build Divers also existed. These were all worth the watch, being more than just remakes of old series.

But there was new material, as well. Chief among them being Golden Kamuy. This show suffered from having nightmarish 3D (that was used sparingly, and was actually effective given what the CG was used for) and a more lax pace near the start, but its pulp gold rush adventure story was something very fresh for the medium. It even got a split cour release this year--the first being in Spring and the second in Fall where it remained a highlight in both.


Golden Kamuy was also embroiled in controversy, as a side character who is a man took plastic surgery to disguise himself as a woman. This was apparently not acceptable by the anime media though nobody watching actually cared. Thankfully their influence appears to be dying as watchers realize the absurdity of their complaints. Yet another item to add to the list of this year being an improvement.

Other new shows included Lupin III: Part V, Piano no Mori, Hinamatsuri, and Steins;Gate Zero which were all really popular additions to make this season better than you would expect. This isn't including holdovers from the last season, either. Instead of hanging its hat on My Hero Academia there was plenty here worth watching.

Those CG bears will replace the whale in my nightmares, however.


Summer

Typically the second weakest season of the year aside from the Spring holdovers, Summer was a tiny bit better than usual.

This season had the woefully misunderstood Banana Fish (looking for portrayals of positive relationships in this series is missing the point of the overall theme of corruption) that was needlessly modernized setting-wise but remains violent as all get out with quite a lot of disturbing content. The bizarre High Score Girl about arcade games and romance in the early 90s was far more accurate than American fare like Everything Sucks. Then there was also Planet With and the third season of Overlord.

Oh, and the third season of a little known series called Attack on Titan started. This season was not wanting for content.

But there was also a release of the My Hero Academia movie which came out of nowhere to surprise. Not only was it a hit, but also succeeded overseas on a scale not seen in a while proving just how much gas still remained in the franchise despite being three years in on it. It also shows how anime, and theatrical 2D animation, are still viable choices for studios. The western industry does not have to be as terrible as it is.


All in all, Summer turned out better than expected. Not bad at all.


Fall

This is usually the strongest season of the year, and this year did not disappoint. First thing to mention is a little show called Goblin Slayer which ended up blowing the landscape to pieces with controversy after controversy and managing to bring in a lot of attention to both the series and industry at the same time. Double Decker ended up being an action comedy that was quite a bit weirder than originally expected. Hinomaru Zumou was a sports anime with a lot of hot blood and spirit. Karakuri Circus was wonderfully weird and exciting but too fast paced and "dated" for anime journalists (they really had some bad takes this year) and will continue over into 2019. Then there was Trigger's somehow controversial yet better received SSSS.Gridman. The new series were off the chain, and remarkably well received.


The season was packed. New seasons of older series included Fairy Tail, Golden Kamuy, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, A Certain Magical Index, and even Sword Art Online for anyone still into that. All the heavy hitters short of a Dragon Ball series were here. There was something for everyone, and not much in the way of low points.

There was also Zombieland Saga as this year's pointless fanbait show, but I'll mention it just for its popularity. Don't expect to hear much about it next year. Just as always they quickly vanish from memory. Though this one did have yet another controversy because the western anime journalists have nothing better to do.


That was 2018. It was quite impressive considering 2017's step back and shying away from its improvements. There still remained crap, as there always will, but what was there did not reach as low a level as one would expect or were as plentiful as some in recent years. There was no Handshakers in 2018. Moe and idol shows did not have as big a presence as they had in recent years. As a whole the year worked.

That's all well and good, but how about 2019? That is the real question. How is that looking? Will it be an improvement like 2016 was over 2015, or will it be a letdown like 2017 from 2016? Thankfully we know a few series ahead of time. Let's have a look at a few highlights coming down the pike.

First let's mention sequel series, as they are always announced first. Mob Psycho 100, One Punch Man, and My Hero Academia. are all getting new seasons. This already puts the year over 2015 and matches 2017. There are also new series for Boogiepop, Dororo, and Ultraman. Oh, and again, more Attack on Titan.

However, we must also discuss what is new and what might get overlooked for more trash that the industry will try to push over the quality. Not everything airing has been announced for 2019, but there are a few series I can mention.


The Promised Neverland (Winter)

This was the most recent big hit to come from Shonen Jump, and you wouldn't know it from the trailer. It's not the sort of series you might expect. The Promised Neverland has more in common with a Death Note or a Naoki Urasawa manga than it does with Dragon Ball or My Hero Academia. Since this will probably only be 12 episodes or so (if it were 24 it would end in the middle of something else in the story) it will cover a very riveting and tense drama that builds to an explosive finale of things going sideways. The first part of this one is intense.

The series has a small cast which develops remarkably well throughout this arc of the story as they learn to adapt to new information and use their heads to think their way out of a bad situation. Should you want something different then this is what you will want to see. This isn't a lighthearted series.


Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (Spring)

Speaking of Shonen Jump, the magazine recently had its 50th anniversary and had many anime adaptions announced. The one that peaked my interest, and anyone who had read been reading the series, was the one announced for this one. Being adapted by the studio behind the Fate series, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba stars a boy who loses his family due to a demon attack. He joins the demon hunters to find his revenge and to prevent what happened to him happen to anyone else. Along the way he discovers allies, monsters, and a battle between good and evil that has been going on for centuries.

In my opinion, this is the second best series currently running in Shonen Jump behind My Hero Academia, and well deserves whatever popularity I hope it gains from this anime adaption. This is the most bloody, intense, and violent, series in the magazine right now with quite a lot of pathos, hot blooded emotion, and oddly touching moments that arrive out of the chaos. Since MHA unfortunately isn't running in Spring this year I highly recommend watching this instead. You will be surprised at how good it gets.


Dr. Stone (Summer)

Completing this trilogy of Jump recommendations we end with Dr. Stone. One day the sky is filled with a strange light and everyone in the world is turned to stone. After thousands of years some finally awaken to find the world is a much different place. But one young man has just the right amount of knowledge of the old world to help bring it back. By the writer of Eyeshield 21 and drawn by the man behind Sun-Ken Rock, this is the type of pro-science series that could not be made in the west without heavy propaganda. As the character reintroduces lost science in the world and discover what put them there they learn exactly what they will need to survive and work hard to create a way out of every deadly situation they find themselves in.

This is a very fun adventure series with just the right amount of cleverness and action that would make it fit into an issue of Astounding (but not Analog) and this adaption should hopefully do it justice. I'm not sure how well this adaption will do, but expect either controversy or cultists from the western industry to gather around it in an attempt to ruin its pleasant tone.


So what is my final analysis of the state of the anime industry? I think it is improving, slowly but surely. I was almost certain 2019 would include some walking back like 2017 did, but just the opposite happened. Considering where this decade started out back in 2010, anime has really made steady improvements from the mistakes made in the late '00s and has almost taken all of them back with increased streaming, less cynical merchandising attempts, and more ideas that are closer to the heart of what makes the medium what it is and allowed it to take off worldwide in the first place.

Outside of television, manga's digital sales in Japan have overtaken physical, but they are also increasing overall. Overseas manga and anime are picking up the slack for the dead western industry of comics and animation, even live action TV can't match it. The Japanese gaming industry might be mixed (Sony has given over control to California and heavy censorship while Nintendo has not) but the rest appears to be on an upswing. They have learned and adjusted accordingly.

This is where we're at now. The changes in the '00s were a mistake, and the '10s started off in an even worse place, but effort managed to turn that around to where we are now. For the first time in near two decades it looks like the future of the medium might be bright, and that's a good thing. I can't say I saw this coming back then.

2019 should be a lot of fun.


My 2019 had some great releases. I had stories in issue 3 of StoryHack and in DimensionBucket Magazine and am working on others I'm hoping will be out in 2019. This past year wasn't perfect, but I can't lie and say I'm not looking forward to the upcoming year. Things really are getting better, so let us see where the final year of the decade gets us. I can't imagine what will happen next.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Memory Mirage



We're living in an age of nostalgia. That much is certain. However, what is the substance of said nostalgia? Is it centered around the good feelings and memories involved or on the products themselves? Do we even know? I can't answer that, and yet I doubt the entertainment conglomerates know either. It will require years of cultural studies to find out just where this whole thing came from and why no one can define it in concrete terms.

But the truth is that the past we all remember wasn't some Golden Age where everything was perfect and the sun always shined bright on the world. There were plenty of terrible things, and we know this. Remember Friends and Survivor? Try watching them now. Those haven't held up too well, and you won't find much argument to the contrary.

Some things simply don't age well, and sometimes those in charge completely misunderstand that. And sometimes they're more interested in re-purposing the old for sinister (and not-so-sinister) motives. Then, just as now, there existed a media that wanted to weaponize art and slander the past to create it. Either way they tend to misunderstand what made the original product hit the mark to begin with.

Even as far back as the '90s there were those who attempted to control discourse by gripping nostalgia by the throat and choking the life out of it. You don't have to look much further than video games and the attempted murder of 2D gaming.

It might have fallen down the memory hole for the general culture, but for those of us who didn't jump and clap our hands at the newest shiny toy on the block it remains fresh in our minds. An entire industry, and its sycophants tried to erase a genre overnight. Yes, this happened, and people in the industry deny that it ever occurred.

But it did.*

*Special mention must be made of several comments solely blaming Nintendo and/or saying this propaganda effort doesn't matter now. If you want to know why your hobby is a multi-billion dollar industry and is still dying then you can blame yourself for being completely unable to discern symptoms of the issues destroying it.


For those unaware, in the mid-80s when the video game industry was on its last legs, Nintendo came out with the Nintendo Entertainment System, a video game console that saved the industry with its focus on quality and stamping out the clutter and junk the shelves had been flooded with. The effort wasn't perfect as some quality was blocked from release and trash still slipping through the gates, but Nintendo's focus helped the hobby gain footing again.

By the mid-90s, video game systems like the Sega Genesis, Turbografx-16 and Super NES, had come around and raised the quality of the medium by putting fun first and creating the single best console generation of gaming to date. These systems proved video games were sticking around.

However, that was not to last. You can read the article to see why things changed and why the move to 3D was wanted by different companies, but it was inevitability either way. 3D was new and there were things you could explore with it that you couldn't in 2D space. I don't blame Sony, Nintendo, and Sega for pushing 3D (but I do blame Sony's anti-2D policy as directly harmful. Sorry, Dualshockers, we missed out on many 2D games because of Sony's censorship and no one in the industry ever calls them out on it) because there had never been a 3D console before. As far as selling points go, it was a great one.

What was damaging to the industry, however, were the game journalists who for the first time revealed themselves as corporate slaves more interested in pushing some nebulous form of progress while burning its roots to a crisp at the same time over promoting what the customers wanted. They deserve to be called out over this.


You see, 2D gaming is why the video game industry exists at all. It's where the medium started, where the top franchises emerged from, and where genres (including first person perspective games) were born. Without 2D your favorite video game would not exist because the medium wouldn't.

And game journalists fought to kill it. I had personally gotten into arguments on the internet as a boy with these very people who would give good ports of arcade games lower scores for being arcade games, lower price be damned. I'd seen 2D platformers degraded for being 2D platformers. I watched as sprite games were outright dismissed because they weren't overly blocky polygons. All this when less than five years prior games like Contra 3 and Axelay were praised for the inventive use of sprites and scrolling. Now these games suddenly didn't matter?

Meanwhile these journalists pushed 3D as the future of gaming and a step towards some utopian future for the hobby. Why both couldn't coexist was a mystery to me at the time, and it took until the Nintendo Wii (much to the chagrin of game journalists: they hated the Wii) and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (which IGN even wrote an article decrying Nintendo for releasing) being the highest selling game of the generation to show that audiences still wanted 2D. Because game journalists wanted it dead and relegated to 5 buck indie games. They didn't care that the audience made NSMBWii a higher seller than every Call of Duty game--they wanted their industry the way they wanted it.

Because of the success of that game, 2D came flooding back. One year after Mega Man 9's success and 2D was allowed to live on consoles again after being quarantined to handhelds (and with the rise of the Nintendo DS and then 3DS it was already being replaced by 3D) and saved from extinction. Years of quality games later and 2D is alive and well again.

No thanks to game journalists.

And with the recent success of the NES and SNES Classic, with the announcement of a Sega Genesis one, with affordable arcade cabinets coming into fashion and being sold at Walmart, with classic gaming merchandise selling higher than ever, the question remains. Was the audience actually tired of 2D, or were they simply not given a choice to get sick of it?


Because as much goodwill as the 8 and 16 bit generations have, the following one does not have anywhere near their popularity.

The uncomfortable truth is that 3D games from the PlayStation 1, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64, have not aged well. While many games came out for those systems that were great, they suffered from problems later systems never did and it hampers playing them today or with fresh eyes. If there is a generation of gaming that deserves to be totally remade with modern hardware it is that one.

Ironic that the most "important" and "advanced" console generation aged the worst of any, but there it is.

But the generation before it? The SNES, TG16, and Genesis, have aged perfectly well. In fact, there was room for improvement. The SNES had problems with faster games, the Genesis couldn't output as much on screen as the SNES, and the TG16 was weaker than both despite the CD attachment giving it a boost of Redbook audio. Systems like the Sega CD and the Sega Saturn showed where 2D could have gone with multiple levels of parallax scrolling, large sprites, and imaginative and bright art design, but were too enamored with a graphical arms race that amounted to nothing in the end to pursue it. That road led to bloated HD gaming costs, closed companies, oversized teams, and a decrease in output from studios. But at least every game looks as exciting as a National Geographic photo. That blind obsession with progress is what led gaming down the hole it's currently sitting in. The pursuit of 3D derailed the hobby.

So why are gamers nostalgic for the past? I wouldn't say they are, actually. I'd say the 8 and 16-bit generations remain popular because they are objectively the best generations in all of gaming. It was the one that hit worldwide, where genres flourished, and where quality was more important than technology. It's the 32-bit generation that requires nostalgia to enjoy to its fullest, and the trends started under it are what led to every modern problem (Save DLC) that is currently stagnating the industry from cinematic obsession to a focus on "realism" at the expense of player agency and fun. There is nothing to miss from post-16 bit console generations because everything they started still remains.


It isn't that people think the past is better but that the present is so terrible that they have nowhere else to go, and that is because of a pointless and obsessive worship of the future that buried it all to begin with. When you stray off the path you need to retrace your steps to where you first got lost to find your way forward again. You don't blindly plod along in the dark toward the coyotes howling over the next hill. You know what they say about doing the same thing multiple times and wondering why you get the same results.

Maybe this will serve a lesson for Gen Z coming from Gen Y and Millennials not to believe the hype.  The hype is not on your side. Eventually it will turn against you.

And the problem has not been remedied.

Yes, we can say games like Cuphead exist now and sell gangbusters so the stigma against an entire genre isn't a problem anymore. But that would be a lie. Entertainment was disposed of for the simple reason that it was declared outdated by someone other than the customers. We were never given the choice.

The fact of the matter is that it happened, and could very well happen again. In an age where journalism is losing credibility due to hacks and liars working against their customer base, we must remain more vigilant than ever. They're not going to stop doing the same thing over and over.

Pulp, 2D gaming, action cartoons, adventure movies, and comics as a whole, have all suffered heavy blows from groups of people who hate what they stand for and will do anything to take them away.

None of this is anything new, so don't be surprised when they try it again.



Don't forget, because it's not over yet. Nostalgia cash-grabs exist because of the feelings corporations are hoping to invoke, not because they want to continue the lineage of the product you enjoy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is when those involved don't understand the appeal to begin with. That is how you take a billion dollar franchise and within three years release a movie that can't even break even. That's how you know they don't get it.

The truth is we're not in any Golden Age right now, but we have the tools to make one. While those who dislike us and wish to pilfer the last remaining bills from out pocket as we walk by their foreclosed business look at us with scorn, we actually do know what we want.

We don't want the past, we don't want the present, and we don't want the future. We want all three at once. And if you don't understand that then maybe that's why modern art fails to connect with so many people.

Screw your bloodless manic-depressive Utopian paradise. We deserve better.


I have two recent stories out in Storyhack #3 and one in DimensionBucket Magazine. If you are looking for good old fashioned action and adventure stories like they haven't made since the '90s then I've got you covered.

Someone's got to pull the slack, after all.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Merry Christmas!

Thank you to all readers of Wasteland and Sky for keeping it interesting around here, and have a blessed holiday season! It's because of you folks that I have a fun time thinking up posts every week. It's not that easy, trust me. But it still remains fun.

Here's to you and yours, especially those loved ones who are no longer there to celebrate with us. They are hopefully enjoying their greater reward. For those still here, please cherish those by your side. This is the time of year for that.

There will still be a regular post this week, but I wanted to acknowledge all you out there on this special day. Keep looking up, and God bless.


Have a Merry Christmas!

Friday, 21 December 2018

Best in Retrowave 2018!



Even a year later I did not expect all the positive reactions my posts in Retrowave garnered. Unfortunately, it's not much of a subject I can post about without repeating that it is the best genre currently in the music world and you would be remiss in ignoring it. It takes the best aspects of the last era of pure pop music (the 80s) and the lessons learned in the decades since while ignoring all the bad turns the industry has taken. It's really that simple. The genre is just exactly what we need.

However, there is another way I can share more of this genre with you, dear readers.. The year is nearly at an end, so how about I share what I consider some of the best albums and songs released over 2018? Because there were some great ones, many of which you might not have heard.

It's been a good year for Retrowave as a whole, however there were some stumbles.

I'll be upfront about some of my disappointments with 2018. Still no new Miami Nights 1984 album is at the top of the list. He's been teasing a new album for years now, but it's still nowhere to be seen. Considering his other two are still top of the genre so many years later listeners are frothing at the mouth for a new one. 2012 was a long time ago.

After enjoying The Midnight's Nocturnal album to pieces last year their newest, Kids, was an unequivocal step down and my biggest disappointment of 2018. It is not just because they refused to use their secret weapon, the almighty saxophone, on this release but because of two things about Retrowave which I feel are the genre's Achilles' Heel and should be actively avoided to prevent it from falling into parody and obscurity. Unfortunately, it is still very possible for that to happen. The genre isn't perfect, and these two points are proof as to why.

The first issue is the over-reliance on nostalgia. I'm not going to deny that longing for the good old days isn't part of the appeal of the genre, but it mustn't wallow in it. Kids was obsessed with childhood from arcade motifs to wistful longing lyrics of dead days to unneeded '80s references to a soppy and weepy level of energy throughout. It's not using the '80s to create something new. It's using the '80s as a makeshift pillow to cry under.

This ties in to my other complaint about the lack of variety. Every track has the same tempo and follows the same formula over and over. The entire album blurs together because the focus is too overemotional and invested in reveling in a forgotten time at the expense of varied songwriting. This is the opposite of their last album, Nocturnal. Retrowave is at its best when it is acknowledging the past and using it to move into the future with exciting new ideas and sounds along the way. It links two things and makes the one. There is no attempt to connect to the future on this album. Kids sounds like a millennial from 2006 suddenly realized their childhood was over and never coming back so they made this album during that depressing realization. I say this because the genre is about more than pointless nostalgia, but this album has nothing else to it.

Those disappointment aside, there is far more worth talking about from this year. There is much to mention here.

The best album in the genre to be released this year is Syndicate Shadow by Neon Nox. This is a work that spans the gauntlet from downbeat groovers to epic action assaults. This is the sound of a Cyberpunk riot and a man who decides to become a hero when he is needed to. It is fantastic for every second of the journey. Syndicate Shadow manages to combine ideas from '80s and '90s soundtracks to meld with a modern positive futuristic outlook (that isn't easy with Cyberpunk) to deliver the strongest album in the genre this year. You won't find one better.

Nightrider scratches that Miami Nights 1984 itch I've been waiting to scratch, Risky Fulfillment is a slow burner with a hook that won't let go, and Street Hawk is a racing tune that wouldn't sound too out of joint coming from Tokyo Rose. The album builds to a dramatic finish where the protagonist becomes the hero he is needed to be, and the sounds escalate to reflect it. Every track on this one is a winner.


Neon Nox might have hit it out of the park, but they weren't alone in fantastic releases this year. There were a few great albums worth checking out. Some of which I didn't expect at all.


Irving Force's Godmode is a grinding trek through a DOOM meets Robocop world of explosive violence and carnage and an endless sprawl of city like Judge Dredd. I've said in the past that Darksynth isn't my favorite subgenre in any capacity, but this album is one of the few to break that impression and become a must listen. There is a reason for that.

I like my music to have shifting moods and tones, and Godmode delivers that in a way only Retrowave music can. Starting with a slowly speeding climb through a chaotic world, going through action set pieces and fantastic discoveries along the way, and ending with a jaunt through a dying wasteland, this album is a delight. And I haven't even mentioned the best tracks yet. But then I would have to choose between them.

Suffice to say, this is one every fan of Retrowave should listen to. Godmode is a classic of the genre.


Overlord is quite a rocking track. But let us move on. The next release is a very different experience.


DELOS' self-titled EP came out of nowhere for me. It's only four tracks and much shorter than the rest listed on here, but the soundscapes it explores are magical. This EP feels like a trip through an insane science fantasy world from the 1970s. Jack Vance isn't what you usually think when you think of Retrowave. But it works so, so well.

This one is all about scope and wonder, and it's delivered in such a condensed space that it is shocking how well it works together to form a cohesive piece.

The Brood starts off like a journey through a mystical far off land. Trace Decay is the exploration of long abandoned ruins of an ancient civilization by a lone warrior with a past of his own. Night View is what it states, a trek through a long dead land that overlooks the final destination. The EP ends with Magic City, where anything is possible and secrets and truths lie just around the next bend at journey's end. Every song takes you on a trip you don't see coming.

Four tracks, all top notch. DELOS knocks it out of the park. Give this one a go.



Robert Parker's End of the Night is the least surprising of these listed. He's been well known in the genre for years, and Crystal City is still regarded as one of the best albums in Retrowave. However, End of the Night is a step up from it.

Where Crystal City could feel a bit fragile at times with how light a touch the songs had, End of the Night is rock solid full of brimming confidence. Every track has muscle behind it and a thunderous groove to keep your toes tapping with a cornucopia of sounds not always heard in the genre. All the guest stars on the album also work and compliment the songs which is not too common for projects like this.

I guess that's the best thing I can say about this one. Every track is dynamite and there is no weak point to be found on it. This is the type of music that got you into the genre to begin with, and these are some of the best songs to be found in it.

If you've been waiting for the next poppy hit record for the genre then this is it. Nothing else hit that mark harder than this one did in 2018.



Last but not least and the first on this list released this year is LeveL-1's Mother Brain, a Cyberpunk groove machine that sounds somewhere between Streets of Rage and a robot invasion from an underground factory. It's a bit of a different sound from usual Retrowave in its focus on beats and feel over layered soundscape. But that doesn't mean it has no character or has no depth.

Each track gives plenty of imaginative sounds. Start the Engine is a deep trek through an underground factory. The Wirehead is a cyborg attack on a skyscraper with matching scale. Hit It! is like the missing theme from the Undercover Cops arcade game. Corrupted A.I. is a quirky pop tune that wouldn't have been out of place on an old school compilation album from 1986. Finally, Homecoming surmises the quiet moments after the escape and hope for what tomorrow will bring. It's a tight album where every second counts.

In just 10 tracks, Mother Brain spans across the map, sound-wise. And yet it is incredibly sharp and to the point. There's no flab to be found here.

Unlike the other albums on the list this one is available for free, though I would recommend chipping in some coin when buying because it really is that good and these guys deserve the support. It's an album that should be better known than it is. I would easily call it one of the best of 2018, and that's why I'm putting it here.



Those are the top five albums released in the genre this year. I highly recommend all of them. You won't hear anything like these anywhere else.

But we're not done yet. Next I want to post a bunch of standalone tracks from 2018 that really stuck with me. Some are part of bigger albums I simply didn't list here for space reasons or are stray singles not tied to any album in particular. Either way, they are just as good as what I listed above.

It is strange at how the age of the single has returned in the digital landscape. In the 90s they were all but dead after a slow death in the '80s. The format was thought left for dead little more than a decade ago, but here we are.

Anyway, here is a list of singles to listen to when you get the chance. I decided to put in 20 that I enjoyed throughout the year, so jump around and check out what looks good to you. There's enough to go around in this genre. Hopefully you will be left with the same impression that I had when listening to them over the year.

Retrowave is here to stay.


LeBrock - "Runaway"


AM 1984 - "Miami Beach"


Dimi Kaye - "The Streets Are Mine"


Morch Kovalski - "DX 7000"


Korine - "Heaven's Servant"


Dreamers Avenue - "Fire in the Night"


Metropolis - "Midnight Plaza"


Thought Beings - "Hazy"


Deadlife - "Dreaming in the Garden"


Kalax - "Dream"


Wolf & Raven - "Space Strippers"


Ace Buchannon - "Breakout"


Night Runner - "Hellhound"


Satellite Young - "Moment in Slow Motion"


Madelyn Darling - "Blue Diamond Eyes"


Futurecop! featuring Parallels - "Edge of the Universe [Robert Parker Remix]"


SelloRekt/ LA Dreams - "What It Was"


Ace Buchannon featuring Noki - "Timelines"


Dreamers Avenue - "Lonely Highway"


LeBrock featuring Ultraboss - "Juice"



And that is all. I could go on listing more, but I have to stop at some point and this should be enough to show you exactly how well off the genre is at the end of 2018. It's just as good as ever.

In 2019 it will have been a decade from when the genre first started making an impact and eventually pierced the mainstream. Not bad for a genre considered a niche when it came out. Retrowave has only grown since. It's been a good run for the only creatively healthy musical genre out there these days, and I hope there's still plenty of gas in the tank.

If 2019 is as good as this year then we've got a lot to look forward to.


As always if you want some fun fiction I have a story out this year in Storyhack #3 and one in DimensionBucket Magazine. They were fun stories to write and I hope you enjoy them just as much. There is more to come in 2019, too.

2018 was just a warm-up.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Signal Boost ~ "A Traitor to Dreams" by Alexander Hellene

You can find it Here


Today I wanted to talk about a recent book release. A Traitor to Dreams is from friend of the blog Alex from Amatopia who was kind enough to offer me a free review copy. I have not yet finished it, but since this is a new release from a new author I thought it deserved the spotlight. It's also good enough that it should be on more people's radar.

As always with the books I like to talk about, this one isn't quite normal. It's actually quite weird. A mixture of genres like you aren't used to, it is difficult to describe. You won't find a novel like this coming out of Traditional Publishing, especially these days. As usual, that is definitely a good thing.

The official description is as follows:
"Ideomatic, Inc. has perfected humanity. Their Dream Trashcan can create the ideal you. 
"Elpida Kallistos has everything she wants . . . almost. There is one unfulfilled dream, one desire standing between her and happiness. Enter the Dream Trashcan from Ideomatic, Inc., guaranteed to eliminate unwanted desires while you sleep. All it takes is the click of a button and the desire is gone, permanently. 
"And it works! But when Elpida has second thoughts and opens up her Dream Trashcan, she finds more inside than circuitry and wires. She finds a whole other world . . . the Dreamscape, a realm where angelic, winged beings called Stewards hunt down desires made flesh. But her presence makes the Dreamscape unstable, and Ideomatic will do anything to get her out. 
"Chased by Ideomatic’s minions, Elpida must discover her Steward’s true identity, learn the secrets of the Dream Trashcan, and unravel Ideomatic’s plans . . . before she’s devoured by her own desires."
One thing I can tell you from being halfway through this book is that the description doesn't really emphasize how insane and intense things get as it goes. And it doesn't start off slow either. You will get more action and adventure than you can shake a stick at along with an unsettling creeping terror out of your nightmares. The genre is a lot harder to pin down as even the description won't tell you what a weird mix of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, it actually is. It is quite original.

On top of it Each character has a distinct voice and motivation for going on this batty journey. Heroes and villains are distinct and each interesting in their own right. These are people (and animals) you want to follow along with until the end.

And what more can you really want from a book?

I'll be sure to give a more in depth review when I'm finished, but for now I do recommend checking it out if you want some good old fashioned fun. It is a good dose of fresh energy in a very stale industry.

It's good to see so many independent authors reminding all of us just how wondrous storytelling can be. Books like this just aren't that common, especially not these days. However, independent and smaller press books are trying their best to shake things up. This is one of them.

You can find A Traitor to Dreams here on amazon. It's been a good year for writing. Here's hoping next year can match this one.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Curtain Call


It's been a year since I made my last post on the state of pop music, and how massively ignorant those in the industry are about their own line of work. Unsurprisingly, a post about the mental shortcomings of such an out of touch industry has dated exceptionally well. But I've recently been checking up on a lot of other sectors of entertainment and seeing just how far things have (not) come over the last decade. While the rest of pop culture continues its decent into the abyss I have begun wondering what the future holds for it all. In the process of searching I came across something strange. So for this post I will return to my favorite whipping boy: the death of Rock music.

In many ways the music industry is the canary in the coalmine for the rest of popular culture. What happens there has a bearing on the rest of it. But to go into how much things have changed in such a short time I want to use an example.

I want to talk about a band, specifically The Hives. Anyone who was between the ages of 13 and 33 between the years of 2003-2008 have almost certainly have heard of them, and if not you probably have heard the song linked above. I want to talk about them because they are the very last band to come from the old age of the music industry. They come from a time that no longer exists. Specifically I will be pulling from this article just written last year where the lead singer, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, discusses their five albums and where they were at when they were each made. It's quite eyeopening in its straightforwardness and how out of left field the ending is.

Before the late '90s, most bands signed to major labels were those who worked their way up from the indie circuit. The Hives were no different, forming in 1993 (though possibly earlier as they were all childhood friends) as a bunch of kids playing around after school, they soon got to the point where they put out their debut Barely Legal in 1997. It's a very rough album typical of debuts from young bands being more attitude and sound than much in the way of songwriting. But it did show promise and with enough charisma that they signed to a bigger label. You kind find examples of this going back to Buddy Holly. But the late '90s were already a hazardous time for the music industry.

Thankfully the band avoided the major labels at this point. It might have destroyed them early. The majors had all but ejected every rock band from their catalog, paving the way for the Nu Metal explosion to come and instead putting all money behind their disposable pop acts. The Geffen/Interscope merger in particular destroyed many up and coming careers throwing out band after band for shallow and thoughtless reasons. Indie still worked as it should. At least at this point. They still did what record labels should: pushing, promoting, and getting some radio play on smaller stations. It was enough for a band to get a foot in the door to bigger opportunities. Again, at this point. In less than a decade indie labels and radio stations would actively avoid specific genres and play only what big money told them to. However for now in the late '90s the indies were the only place to be.

In 2000 The Hives released their breakthrough album, Veni Vidi Vicious. It was not an instant hit. For two years they toured while their songs Main Offender and Hate to Say I Told You So began receiving more and more radio play. The band then signed with a UK label that put out a sort of best of compilation of their early material from Barely Legal, Veni Vidi Vicious, and select obscure EP tracks which coincided with the rise of the Garage Rock Revival movement in the early '00s. Because of this perfect storm of events and effort on the band's part, they finally hit out of the underground.

As the Mr. Almqvist in the article linked above said:
"When we put it (Veni Vidi Vicious) out contemporary music made no sense to us, it was only a year or two later when The Strokes and The White Stripes got popular that it seemed like we had a place in the popular world. We kind of knew we could make the hits in the UK in a way by calling the album Your New Favourite Band because it seemed like such a perfectly UK thing to do – and it worked! It was a clever bit of writing and awesome rock ‘n’ roll that made us popular."
For those that remember pop music from the year 2000 you will understand exactly what he meant. Major labels and their payola had locked down the radio and TV airwaves for their manufactured sugar and angst, slowly squeezing out anything they didn't craft themselves. A band like The Hives were completely unlike anything on the majors at the time. Their breakout hit, Hate to Say I Told You So, was a major underground hit for these exact reasons. Listening to it now it is fairly obvious it did not fit in the popular landscape of 2000.

I'm sure everyone reading this blog is familiar with the video for the song. You should, because it is the last one of a band who had an independent hit break out into the mainstream to be signed by the majors. What was once a common occurrence now no longer exists. Not long later were music videos irrelevant and the relationship between indies and majors completely severed. It was the end of an era.


The band got so popular off this they were roped into a major label deal not long after. Their constant touring and strong albums made them an easy fit for guaranteed success. Major labels at this point only signed bands with pre-made success following them. After all, the band only had to keep doing what they always did. But success is success, and it has a way of changing people.
“There were a lot of people who had ideas of what we were going to do and who we were, and to their credit the label we ended up on left us alone a little bit. But they signed a band that was popular and didn’t really know that they were going to be popular, so they let us do what we do. It was weird that people were invested in us and we didn’t know them, which led to varying degrees of paranoia in the band. 
“Compared to some of the other bands around at the time, we coped with success better. Part of that was because we’d been an unsuccessful band for a couple of years before we became a successful one. Because some of the other bands’ first thing was really successful, when you start to think that’s normal that’s a dangerous place to be in. I guess for us it was more of a cynical realisation that all of a sudden the world turned and made us popular, but we didn’t really change, we were just doing the same thing we were doing. The fact that we’d known each other since we were children also meant that it was harder to get a big head because there were always people around you who had seen you as a naked six-year-old. It’s hard to become too much of a rockstar within the group!”
Now if you play rockstar bingo you might know where this story is going. So many end up in the same place. But this story is different. The band didn't get full of themselves, sell out, and cash in. They also didn't give the label the finger and become obnoxious brats about it while wasting it away on junk albums. What they did was what they were hired to do. They made a rock record.

You see, to me, the most fascinating thing about their third album Tyrannosaurus Hives is that it didn't feel like the band lost their way. The first album was more or less a rough around the edges Punk/Garage rock album, but every release since they had sharpened their songwriting and playing and they were growing naturally. It was as if the jump to the majors made little difference in what was making them popular. By 2004, they were big and their sound matched it.

The public must have thought so too, because the album continued their forward momentum up the charts despite the label not really doing much in the way of promotion. Walk Idiot Walk was a huge hit and it kept them going, but I can't escape the lingering feeling that if the Garage Rock Revival wasn't in full swing when the album came out that they would have been dropped despite its success. Few rock bands survived on the majors in the '00s, and few more would be left by decade's end. The labels were looking for excuses.


The band's third album was a hit, but by the time they got around to album #4 it was clear to everyone at the time that the days of the majors were at an end. This was around 2007, ten years after the band's first album released. Mr. Almqvist describes the feeling well:
“We looked at it like the last days of Rome because the record industry was going into the shitter and we got a lot of money from the record industry, so we figured it was kind of our duty to make a big budget rock record and spend some money on it. We could make a cheap record and keep all the money, but where’s the fun in that? It was a challenge to ourselves. We have to play these kind of mind-games with ourselves to feel creatively challenged.”
The Black & White Album is wonderful for a lot of reasons. It's the last big budget rock album from rising and fresh talent instead of oblivious Boomers going through the motions. Pharrell Williams, of all people, guests on the record. There is an honest and zealous attempt to go for the Phil Spector Wall of Sound that had been heard in decades. It genre hops like a record hadn't since the '90s. It's the longest album of their career. And it doesn't sound overproduced in the slightest. This from a "garage" rock band.

The album also sold extremely well and was their highest selling by far. Tick Tick Boom was a titanic hit, and other popular songs such as Try It Again, You've Got it All . . . Wrong!, and Won't Be Long, are some of the best they had ever recorded. At the same time they put out the non-album Fall is Just Something that Grown-Ups Invented which was another popular track. In other words, by 2008 The Hives were at the top of the world.

This is the sound of a band on the cusp of ruling the world.


But The Black & White Album was the last album The Hives ever put out on a major label. In fact, since 2008 The Hives have only put out one album since and have instead been focused on touring. They do still get attention from the public, but the industry totally failed them. This from a band that did everything the right way.

This isn't the story of a could-have-been or a has-been that just didn't meet the mark. This isn't about a bunch of divas that had a chance and threw it away. It's not about a bunch of screw-ups who made bad choices. No, this is about a band that actually did everything right and still ended up on their own.

So you might be wondering how this happened. Well, it's a bit complicated. Here is what Mr. Almqvist says about their last (to date) album, Lex Hives:
“It took a lot of doing to get this done and that’s partly because we were in charge of it ourselves. It made things slower not having anyone on our backs, but the plug was out of the tub for the record industry so they had a lot less money, and we always licence our record to record companies but the economy wasn’t really there any more. We knew that we were going to make a record and have whoever wanted to release it release it because that’s what we wanted to do. We were in a time where we wanted to feel closer as a band and work more together again after getting produced. We had a lot of people and producers working on the record before, so what happens if we just do it ourselves? Fuck it, let’s build a studio, build a microphone, build a guitar amp, you know? That’s why it took such a long time ha ha!"
Yes, a band that put out hit singles, music videos, and albums, was unable to get any sort of backing or support from an industry designed to do just that. The album itself is what you would expect from The Hives, full of catchy garage rockers and songs that could have been huge hits had anyone backed them. As it is, the album did as well as could be expected in the post-bubblegum industry, but the band deserved better. And for those curious, Lex Hives came out in 2012. The record industry was already that bad by then. Can you imagine what it's like now?

I don't think you have to imagine. Just think of the last star to break out of a major label and if you've heard any of their songs outside the confines of the dead radio stations. Chances are the answer is most likely that you have not. They will never have another Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, and all that is due to the goodwill burned after decades of iron fist control of their industry and choking out any life from it.

I've posted before about the death of pop culture and the fragmentation of a formerly homogeneous society. This isn't anything new, it's been happening for a while now due to higher interest in short term profits than in building a lasting platform or relationship with an audience. It's also clear that it is too late to reverse the trend. Decades of abuse and disrespect lead to empty seats and store shelves full of overstocked product.

So what does the future hold? Hard to say, but centralization doesn't appear to be in the cards. A future of blue collar folks creating product for each other and hoping to be found by larger audiences in the process, I suppose. Smaller audiences are an inevitability in a fractured climate, and who knows if we'll ever return to the age of the superstar again. It won't be any time soon.

Perhaps it is how it was always meant to be. Without a gate-keeping middleman both the customer and creator have less restrictions than ever before. Now customers have more options and entertainers need to work twice as hard for that beer money.

Here's hoping we can live up to the task. One thing is for sure: things will never be the same again. This is the curtain call. Goodbye, pop culture. This is the fate you've chosen.



I'm still waiting on word for the physical version of DimensionBucket Magazine, but the electronic version is readily available here if you don't want to wait. Of course if you're looking for last minute Christmas gifts there is always StoryHack #3 and Grey Cat Blues. I'm still putting it out there for ya, folks!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Outsmrted!


I've had this one discussion about the arts many times over the years which never goes away. I'm not sure how common it is among other groups, but among mine they became more than sick with discussing one of my issues in particular.

I can deal with subpar content. I can abide by bad faith actors or overambitious flops. I can even stomach liars who consistently promise endlessly climbable tall mountains only to deliver a post-apocalyptic crater of pure garbage instead. Artists and entertainers are a varied lot.

But one group of content creators always manages to push the wrong buttons. This would be those artists who cannot avoid cramming in their hamfisted views of the world into every single thing they do. And not just any hamfisted view. This is about those who have found the secret of life, the universe, and everything, and are going to tell the uneducated rubes what billions of people across the world and throughout history haven't yet figured out. This is about the truly smrt people.

And, yes, that spelling is intentional. This is about a very specific group of people.

Mecha and space pirate author Brian Niemeier describes the game in a recent post:
"Here's how the trick works. The Smrt author presents himself as a sort of Gnostic oracle who's got the dirt on some formerly sacred Western tradition. He doesn't break the fourth wall and make these claims overtly. Instead he establishes his credentials by portraying the skeptics attacking the fable as cool, informed characters the reader wants to emulate. At the same time, those who cling to traditional Western beliefs are mocked as credulous--often violent--dupes. The Smrt author carefully frames the window of allowable debate in his world to exclude any compelling arguments for the defense. 
"Skilled Smrt authors will introduce some last-minute ambiguity to allow the rubes some wiggle room. This conceit is just a sugar to coat the poison pill. It's usually presented as an afterthought, and often for a laugh. The story's main impression remains: The reader has joined the cool kids who know the truth behind the fairy tales."
I'm sure you've seen plenty of stories following this very predictable formula. The recent Castlevania Netflix show does exactly this. Dishonest characterization, ahistorical examples to tar certain groups, and hack one dimensional characters, are used to warp the story in the fashion the writer wants. This is done to send a message, and it's wrapped in shiny plastic coating to distract from it.

This is inherently dishonest storytelling.

Why the dishonesty, you might ask. Is it a pathetic cry for attention? Losers in life striking back at what they're too smrt to grasp? It could be any number of things, but it's motivated by ego.

People have an inherent desire to have something over others. Riches, knowledge, virtue. This is Pride. It has ruined many otherwise solid pieces of art. The temptation to use a large platform for yourself instead of for your customers is tempting, but it remains a purely selfish act to weaponize storytelling.

Art is made to connect with the audience. It is an equal exchange between the artist and the customer to exchange product with compensation. But here's the key. No one is going to be paid to be told they are horrible and everything they believe is a lie, because nobody is that stupid. But what if you give it a candy-coating and color the pill so that a casual observer is none the wiser? In this way the smrt artist can slip it in unnoticed.

But it's not just the West that suffers from this.

See Japan and religion in the '90s. So many games and anime were made about an enlightened secular modernist main character that preaches ideas completely out of joint with the setting about their post-modern ideas of God and those following thousands of years of tradition. Stop me if you've played a JRPG in the 90s, because you know the drill.

"Good and evil are both illusions! Now let's destroy both evil ideas so us good people can rule."

This is literally the same muddled, and intellectually bankrupt, theme in so many stories that would otherwise be fantastic. It's all about attacking tradition and wonder which are intrinsic to fantasy. But for near a decade you would get the same tired points.

In some case, like Grandia 2, it makes an already pedestrian plot feel embarrassing. A wandering warrior learns that the "devil" is sympathetic and the "god" is no real god at all. In fact, this means all gods and religions are bad because of this incident. You even get many characters delivering speeches about this as if any of that actually follows. All this in the middle of a bunch of tired anime tropes and plot moves that were already played out by 1999. But it gets sillier.

In Lunar: Silver Star Story, it's not even sensical. The party spends the whole game endowed by magic and relics given by the goddess in order to fight the evil wizard. But, you see, the wizard did all this evil because man is so terrible they need a god to rule over them. Since the goddess power is what stopped the villain before the start of the current story, his point actually does make sense. Without the goddess that villain would not have been stopped.

But the wizard is proclaimed as in the wrong via a very shallow argument. The heroes' respond that they don't need gods at all anymore because they're grown so much and humans are above that old superstition and nonsense. This despite the very common knowledge that the goddess power was needed to save the world in the first place from a different evil before the game began. By the way, the party touches the goddess statue to refill their health, remove poison and ailments, and recover magic throughout the entire game. For free. All magic and artifacts were also created by her. But these heroes don't need gods, even though the quest would have been impossible to complete otherwise! The goddess in question only created a world on a moon with flying magic cities, mystical dragons, and wondrous creatures, but sure take that away to prop up a modern world completely devoid of magic where an overly congested metropolis with high suicide rates and unending media addiction is the ideal universe. The fantasy game actually argues that fantasy is bad for you.

An entire line of magical dragonmasters is wiped out because they're not needed anymore. In a fantasy world where evil can rise up at any time and observably has.

It takes a smrt kind of person to structure a theme like this, but here we are.

And I didn't even get into the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion where the plot is forgotten for full blown propaganda for moral relativism and the writer teaching the audience the secrets of the universe. That wasn't otherwise a smrt show, just a solid and entertaining one. But that ending is among the worst.

You might have noticed a theme with smrt stories. They tend to make the writer look arrogant in their attempt to teach a point, and if you dig deep enough they end up contradicting the work in the process. It's always been in fiction to some extent, but entropy is real. What was once chest congestion has morphed into a full blown flu.

Audiences don't really want it anymore. You can see that in how more customers are choosing to spend their money as the years pass. Industries are dying, long-running franchises are being sucked dry and left as husks on the side of the road, and meanwhile the audience only becomes more and more fractured.

Soon there won't be anyone left to look their way. The art gallery, concert hall, and movie theaters: all empty.

So the end result of trying to lecture the audience has ended in them waking away instead of stopping to listen to those peddling poison. You can call it an own-goal. It doesn't get more laughable than that. I guess you could say it is the ultimate smrt move.

And that kind of special smrtness deserves a special song. (Lyrics included below!)

*WARNING: High dosage of Rock inside!*

Outsmarted!

I used to be the kid who always got caught
I used to be the one who never let thought
Interact one bit with intellectual shit, diversity and wit!

You used to be the kid who waited in line
For an opportunity to waste away time
Trying to be so cool, but no suspicion, no clue
You've been...

Outsmarted!
I'm selling you for scrap!

Now I'm the kid who put the shit back in place
And I'm the one who threw it back in your face
It took a bit of intellectual shit, diversity and wit!

Now you're the kid who put the "L" back in Lame
And you're the one who always fitted the frame
Still such a fool! No suspicion, no clue
You've been...

Outsmarted!
I'm selling you for scrap!

You're outsmarted! Yeah!
That's what I said! Yeah!

Only throwing back what you've been putting in my face!

Outsmarted!
I'm selling you for scrap!



And in other news the print version of DimensionBucket Magazine should be available on amazon soon enough. I'll post when the date becomes known. Until then you can try out the digital version of it here. There's also the very exciting action adventure StoryHack magazine which has some of the most fun fiction you'll read today. I'm in issue #3!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Black & White


This entire post was spawned from a twitter discussion later spun out into a blog post by Rawle Nyanzi. I recommend reading it to see where this post comes from.

Here's the secret to good storytelling: Dynamics. Contrasting elements that cause the audience's neck to snap back and forth over which one might prevail over the other. It is the key to all the best stories when one side is clearly set apart from the opposite and their differences lead to what is ostensibly the plot.

And every story has this. There exists no great story where the antagonist is a better person than the protagonist (unless we are following the villain's POV) and in which the antagonist is someone we want winning over the protagonist, and if there is it usually equates to a bad story. We want one side to win over the other because one is better (even if microscopically) than the opposite. Even mobster and crime stories are like this.

For instance, sword and sorcery stories are tales of morality, as is good fantasy in general. The sword represents that natural state and humanity and the sorcery represents unnatural evil intended to warp and rot the natural world. Are all protagonists of sword and sorcery good people? I don't know, are human as a whole perfectly good? No. But they are objectively superior to those dabbling in the dark and who wish to overturn the natural state for their own selfish ends. One is, and always will be, the superior and more morally compelling side. So yes, sword and sorcery is about black and white morality. It does not mean the hero cannot have flaws or the villain cannot have good points. It means that one is still the morally preferable choice despite this clash. They are still dynamically opposed, and those differences are compelling.

"Grimdark" fantasy tends to miss this point by sinking all characters in mass of mud. Classic fantasy is already plenty dark, but it is not because the morality is weak and cowardly like modern fiction, but because evil is terrifying and destructive to both the soul and the world. There is nothing compelling about a cast of terrible characters murdering each other until one wins. This haze relies on shock and shallow violence to keep an audience's interest until eventually the story rolls to a stop. Nobody cares who wins because it doesn't matter. A terrible person will get their wish and continue being terrible. Rinse and repeat until the heat death of the universe.

It's like I'm talking to that kid in high school who hung out at Hot Topic and wore Slipknot and My Chemical Romance shirts. It's all about image. Instead of a moral battle between two opposing forces, we are left with mindless violence and sex and characters without any passions or aspirations aside from their appetites.

And audiences want more than that.

Listen to any discussion about Watchmen. Rorschach is still the most popular character despite Alan Moore working hard to try to make him despicable. But the audience rejected his attempts. Why? Because they instinctively want someone to root for. Therefore the only character who has any values he is willing to fight and die for (and is still clearly morally superior to the villain) is who the audience will attach themselves to.

How many discussions of A Game of Thrones involve readers and viewers frantically trying to attach themselves to the least terrible characters still alive and hope for them to win? If they wanted grey goo instead why would they do this at all? Despite George R. R. Martin's best attempts, the audience is still searching for the black and white in his attempt to paint only in greys. Even if he can't give them what they truly want, they dig for it anyway. His experiment backfired. (And that is why he will never finish it.)

Deep down we all want the good guy to win. It's embedded into our bones and brains. This is why despite Hollywood's constant failures and inability to have a hit, superhero films still reign supreme at the box office. The most black and white depiction of morality there is remains the most popular genre. Meanwhile, former titans of this mentality like Star Wars have flailed due to their weak attempt at eschewing morality. Superheroes are the only place audiences can currently get what they want. And if nothing fills that void when the genre falls in popularity? Well, Hollywood is going to have a lot of problems.

In fact, the entire entertainment industry is having this problem. Book sales are down, TV networks have had a terrible year, and the comic industry will not survive the oncoming decade. Perhaps instead of force-feeding audiences their pedestrian and unthinking view of morality they might consider giving the customer what they want. And what the audience wants are excitement, dynamics, and perhaps a healthy dab of Truth.

Truth is real. Morality is real. Everyone instinctively knows this, and they want to be reminded of it. Truth be told, we need to be reminded of it. It's good for us. It keeps us on the straight and narrow.

Storytelling is about sharing truths through dynamic exaggerations. Truth is real, and we all know it deep down. This is why black and white morality is unavoidable, and why it will never go away. We crave it, and we always will.


If you're looking for fun action adventure stories to read, I recently had two different short stories released. One is in issue #3 of StoryHack, and the other is in DimensionBucket magazine. Check them out! I should also hopefully have news on my superhero novel, Gemini Warrior, sometime very soon. Exciting times!

Friday, 23 November 2018

Adapting to Adaptions


Stories are universal, as a rule. They are made to connect with audiences, which means their goal should be to do so on the widest scale possible for the story. But sometimes it isn't the original work that does the job. Sometimes it's the adaption of the story that ends up reaching the widest possible audience. It happens more than you would think.

In fact, let's go over some examples here.

One of the most interesting aspects of being into anime and manga is the relationship between the two.. One story transfers across two different mediums in Japan all the time. Comparing adaptions will be clearer if I talk about these.

In the early days when anime was just getting a foothold the adaptions were usually loose. Merely taking the concept and adapting what they could while adding their own ideas. In the 1970s with the advent of super robots, space opera, and fantasy, adaptions had a whole new meaning.

Some manga were made from the anime staff specifically. Go Nagai's Mazinger Z ran in Shonen Jump at the same time the anime did. Since he was the writer he knew the general plot and where it would go. It's about a teenage boy who finds a giant robot and must use it to battle the evil Dr. Hell from ruling the world. But because the anime was for spectacle and selling toys, the manga ended up not having monster of the week battles. Instead it had a rapid fire plot that rocketed from Point A to B. Whie the anime ran for 92 episodes from 1972-1974, the manga ran for 5 volumes in the same time period. The sequel series Great Mazinger did the same, running for 56 episodes from 1974-1975 and 2 manga volumes at the same time. The third series, Grendizer, is more less the same format as the other two. The last series spread across mediums, God Mazinger, is entirely different in every adaption.

Personally, I like this approach. This makes the various versions seeing for different reasons. It's engaging in a way a simple panel by panel adaption would be. But, of course, most franchises are not Mazinger Z. And despite how popular it is they are not all easily available. For instance, the western market has yet to see any of Nagai's original Mazinger manga (in my opinion, his best by far). So this tact has its downsides.

A different series that ran a similar course was the ever popular and influential Space Battleship Yamato. If you don't know, it's about the crew of a spaceship trying to find a way to defeat alien invaders of Earth. While the original 26 episode series was running, directed by Leiji Matsumoto, he also put out a manga based on the story at the same time. It ran for three volumes, and although I have yet to read it, actually has been licensed for release over here by Seven Seas. I would assume it follows the plot of the series tightly.


But in the '80s is where things changed the most. The economic boom in Japan meant a growth for many industries, but entertainment is where things really ballooned. More anime and manga was produced than had ever been produced before. Magazines, timeslots, and companies were opening up, and more productions sprang up. OVAs opened the floodgates as to what animation could do. Movies as well were at their peak. This continued into the 90s and is regularly considered the Golden Age of anime and manga. Everything sold, creativity was encouraged, and the overseas market was being cracked.

It only stands to reason that adaptions would continue in this era, and continue they did. Some adaptions were like psychic romance story Kimagure Orange Road and followed the main story while adding in their own idiosyncrasies along the way. Episodic series like City Hunter created whole new scenarios which allowed it to run longer. Post apocalyptic martial arts slobberknocker Fist of the North Star stretched out the material to create a longer anime. Others were more plain adaptions.

But the most important and popular adaption, and the most infamous, was the one for Akira Toriyama's adventure comedy Dragon Ball.

The original manga ran for 42 volumes, spit into two anime series. The first anime series covers the original 16 volumes over 153 episodes. This anime was simply called Dragon Ball. This adaption works surprisingly well despite the pacing issues one would expect. The staff added whole new events and smaller arcs (known as filler to wider anime fans) that did not interfere with Toriyama's original pacing or intent. It starts and ends strong. As a rule, this is the best Dragon Ball adaption.

The second anime series, called Dragon Ball Z, takes place after a time skip in the original manga to cover the remaining 26 volumes. However, it covers them in 291 episodes. Unlike the first series, this one succumbs to a myriad of issues. There are long stretches of episodes where nothing happens, there is a lot of filler that goes nowhere and (unlike the original anime) adds nothing to the story, and most importantly the animation is incredibly inconsistent. As an adaption it is quite weak.

It managed to succeed at the time due to Dragon Ball's manga being so good and because there was little on television like it at the time. But there is a reason it has an official edited version, Dragon Ball Kai, which cuts the fat to 159 episodes. The original Z anime is close to unwatchable today without heavy skimming.


But when we head into the 90s there are two more series worth discussing. Oddly enough they are by two different individuals who would end up marrying. The first is Sailor Moon, the second is Yu Yu Hakusho. Both are two of the biggest series of the period.

Sailor Moon is the premier Magical Girl series, created by Naoko Takeuchi in the early 90s. It's about a teenage girl named Usagi Tsukino (Serena in the North American dub) who is made a warrior for love, Sailor Moon. She fights evil creatures at night and deals with normal teenage stuff during the day joined by her friends. The story soon involves a legendary kingdom on the moon from the far past as well as a new earthly kingdom in the future. That's about the only similarity between the manga and later adaptions.

The original manga is loopy, but it's also quick paced. The entire series takes 18 volumes to complete when the original anime series takes 200 episodes and doesn't really end. The later anime series, Sailor Moon Crystal attempts to be a straightforward adaption of the manga. Despite all of this, I think the original anime is the best version of the series.

Yes, despite being full of filler episodes and arcs, as well as a lot of tangents, I feel the anime gets to the heart of the series better than the manga does. The manga is dry and fat much of the time whereas the anime adds good characterization, including character arcs for villains, as well as has much stronger direction. It's also a lot more fun. The original, and the later anime as a consequence, simply doesn't stack up.

In contrast, Yu Yu Hakusho is almost a straight adaption of the original manga, only with trims and additions of its own. Yusuke Uremeshi is a punk kid with nothing in the world. He sacrifices himself to safe a child and is rewarded with a new chance at life. He then learns there is more to the world than he first thought.

The manga starts off with many one-shot chapters centering around Yusuke helping various people in the world with their problems as a ghost before coming back to life. It also ends with two volumes of the most cynical, nasty, and stupid material in the entire series that almost ruins the entire thing. The anime trims the start of the story to get to the action quicker, and completely revamps the final arc of the series to wrap everything up with a more consistent tone and removes all the garbage. There are also other tweaks along the way such as giving a few more scenes and moments to other characters to give the series more flavor.

In this case the 19 volume manga is vastly inferior and less consistent than the 112 episode anime series. The adaption ended up saving the series from the author.


So as you can see, the differences between adaptions can be pretty extensive. In some cases, the adaption could utterly ruin the original in transition (such as Flame of Recca) or go a different way while keeping the core intact (such as Ushio & Tora), which give the consumer far more options to choose from.

This is a long way to say that adaptions really should be adaptions. They should take the original and create the best adaption possible, but the fact is that the original still exists and these are separate mediums. Changes are a certainty, and sometimes they are for the best.

My point is simply that stories can be fascinating in how many different ways they can be told. There's something universal that links even across mediums, and even despite changes that might be made. Even going over them here I am surprised at how much there is to go through.

And I didn't even cover some of the weirder examples. But that will be all for today. I have to get back to editing! Enjoy your Black Friday and watch some anime. It'll do you good.


In case you're interested, I recently had stories in issue 3 of StoryHack and in DimensionBucket Magazine. Please check them out if action, adventure, fantasy, and horror stories are your thing. They are quite good at what they do.