Wednesday, March 20, 2024

A Tale of Two Deaths

Sometimes when I see the current state of things and our reaction to how it's going I ask myself a question. How used to change are we, really?

When you are so used to stagnation, especially decades of it, it is hard to notice real change, especially when it's happening right under your nose. I've highlighted a bit of the change around here in recent times, but I think today's topic should really make it clear how things have shifted recently more than the latest events might lead you to think they have. Old institutions are failing like they are more than overdue to, but the new ones taking their places aren't from where you might expect them to come from. We're heading into uncharted waters and no one really seems to notice.

I think I can safely declare that Cultural Ground Zero is over, even if it hasn't been supplanted yet. There is just no room or momentum left from that old era. Whatever remained from that period of pure stagnation is currently on the way out, if not already gone.

Here is my declaration. By the end of the '20s, I posit everything that finally should have died off with Cultural Ground Zero decades ago will finally do so, and leave us with a more clear path forward into the uncertain future that is the 2030s. It's daunting to think about such a thing, but it's becoming more and more obvious everyday that this is what is awaiting us on the road ahead.

I know I said I wouldn't be able to write much this month due to many ongoing projects, one of which is very close to being revealed, and I'm standing by that. However, recent events have caused me to ruminate on a specific topic that has come up every now and then in recent times--the importance of artists themselves in the grand scheme of things. Much has gotten warped over the years since Cultural Ground Zero closed off the past and future to current modernist insanity, but few things have been as deliberately as the purpose for creation itself.

It's no secret that I am very much not in line with the current zeitgeist's obsession with brand over all else, and yet two recent passings in the wider culture have made me take pause and reconsider a bit about where we currently are. These deaths both mark the opposite ends of the modern spectrum of entertainment appreciation, and yet both are responsible for much influence that stems from the early days of Cultural Ground Zero entertainment that would follow their success. One of these, however, was a much bigger news story than the other. If you've kept up with recent trends then you probably know which one I am referring to.

The first of the two deaths to bring up is the unfortunate early passing of manga legend Akira Toriyama. For those unaware, and I would be very surprised if anyone younger than a Baby Boomer didn't know, Akira Toriyama was the creator of Dragon Ball, one of the most influential IPs of the past forty years. In many ways, it invented battle shonen, one of the keystones of the industry's success in the decades to come, inspiring future megahits like One Piece, Naruto, and My Hero Academia, among many others. DB is also heavily responsible for helping to crack the international market. Without Toriyama, none of this is possible.

It wasn't just Dragon Ball, his other megahit series, Dr. Slump was also hugely influential, including inspiring people such as Shigeru Miyamoto on the art motif and run animation in Super Mario Bros. 3, which is one of the highest selling and most influential video games of all time. The short works he made after finally penning the conclusion to Dragon Ball in the mid-1990s were also very popular, one of which, Sand Land, has both a video game and an animated adaption on the way shortly. Even if that was all he put out it would be enough to cement his fame.

However, on top of all that, Toriyama was involved in the video game world, being instrumental in the success of many projects over the decades, but particularly two incredibly influential franchises in Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, video games whose influence spread even outside of the medium to creators all over the world. If you're of a certain age, you've taken in at least some entertainment that has the influence of these two in it.

And if even all that was not enough, Toriyama's Dragon Ball anime franchise, though he was not involved in the actual production itself, was instrumental in allowing the medium of anime to explode internationally as well as develop many new animation tricks and techniques still used in the industry today. So he was actually highly important in influencing three different mediums throughout his entire career, and his influence definitely goes far beyond even that to the point that we will probably never really know where it ends. The writer of this very post you are currently reading was heavily influenced by Dragon Ball, as well.

If there is a Mount Rushmore specifically for manga creators, Akira Toriyama is definitely on it. One would have a very easy case for his inclusion.

It was only at the moment of his death that so many realized just how big of a mark this one man made on so many lives, and the tributes and celebrations of his life were just about inescapable online. If you're reading this and didn't know about the news I would be very surprised. It was everywhere, and just about everyone had something to say about it.

It was also nice to see the creator, not the production company or the IP, get the credit for his own incredible accomplishments. For once, finally, it felt like the Brand didn't take precedence over the creator. Which is, of course, the way it used to be.

The original manga ran in Shonen Jump from 1984-1995.

Just before this news broke, however, there was a different sort of news being spoken about in its place. A different sort of death, this time it was about a company that had been around for two decades--one of the most influential in the early days of the internet media explosion. For those who haven't yet heard, I'm referring to Rooster Teeth.

Running since about 2003 after being formed by a small group of friends, Rooster Teeth was emblematic of the old internet. It was one of the first "geek culture" groups focused on popular things of the time like video games, machinima, podcasts, and all that went around the "pop culture landscape" during that period. This was the era when we were beginning to make the concept of "Pop Culture" a shrine to ourselves. It was a different era, one that is very quickly wrapping up.

For some perspective on age, Rooster Teeth started in the early days of webcomics with the likes of Penny Arcade, 8-Bit Theater, CTRL+Alt+Delete, Bob & George, VG Cats, Captain SNES, and Megatokyo, and even predated G4's Attack of the Show rebranding era. That is how ancient RT was in the lifespan of the internet and the mutation of Geek Culture that came out of the post 9/11 landscape. You might even remember some of the creations spun out of the company, like Red Vs. Blue, RWBY, or Achievement Hunter, which is what they were most known for. It's been around a long, long time.

In fact, Rooster Teeth represents that bizarre moment of the Angry Video Game Nerd/Retro Junk era of pop cult between when entertainment was appreciated for being as good as it was at the time into being a lifestyle brand of its own to base your identity off of. That transformation would come very shortly, though. Rooster Teeth was there at the beginning of that change, and was instrumental in helping create it.

For younger people, you might not have any idea about this, but things were truly different in the pre-9/11 era. Entertainment was not treated the same way it has been ever since Geek Culture was tortured into existence in order to represent the good guys/consumers against the bad guys/normies who oppressed them via movie clich├ęs invented by the likes of Revenge of the Nerds. The '00s was a whole different beast than what came before, and it is what led to the rampant consumerism as identity problem in the '10s that would make the 1980s blush with envy.

The '00s was the era where quips and references, tropes over art, and snark over sincerity solidified and consumed everything from commentary to the creation of entertainment itself. Essentially, it's the era where Geek Culture began in earnest, as referenced here. The '00s was where we appreciated the paint on the hood more than the engine underneath it, mistaking that sheen for the reason the car even runs at all. Rooster Teeth was one of the forerunners to this cultural shift, and stayed that way for decades, mutating with the times and the zeitgeist, showing both its highs and its lows. There are few companies that represent that entire time period better than they do.

So one might think that because of its longevity and obvious importance to the cultural landscape of how things are that it, much like Toriyama, would at least engender some sadness and reflection upon its passing, right? As stated above, Rooster Teeth was unarguably influential, they were popular, and it even created a few IPs people enjoyed a good deal. So surely the company would be celebrated with the news of its demise. If not on the same level as then maybe at least a fraction of what Toriyama received. Surely it would have something.

Well, no. That isn't what happened at all. In fact, just the opposite happened, a complete contrast to Akira Toriyama's unfortunate passing.

Most people were celebrating Rooster Teeth's overdue end, lamentations over lost jobs aside. The ones that weren't celebrating were more upset at what the company had become and were sad that it died instead of fixing course long ago. The news of Rooster Teeth's death was practically the opposite of Toriyama's with most people shrugging their shoulders or spitting on their grave, hoping they never rise from the ashes like so many dead relics like G4 had attempted to do in recent years. People, oddly enough, have no reverence to these "Geek Culture" institutions that were so influential on them, preferring them to stay dead and never to rise again.

This then leads to the main question of today: what in the world could account for this difference in attitudes between the two deaths? Again, besides the fact that one is a human being and the other is a company. We well know that the wider culture does not seem to distinguish a difference between the two anymore. The confused worship of the Space Battle brand shows that much in how whoever buys something owns its soul for eternity and can pump any product out it wants.

So, then, what is the real difference here?

The original Red Vs. Blue ran 100 shorts from 2003-2007.

There are many factors in why Rooster Teeth's and Toriyama's death are not treated the same (the life of a man and the life of a company being different notwithstanding), but the main reason for that would be the most obvious thing: Toriyama was in control of every single one of his creations until the day he died. He ran them all, made every decision, good or bad, with them, and was the one to decide if a project should even exist at all in the first place. He treated his own creations with care and respect to the people who enjoyed them.

In other words, he was from the generation where the creator mattered more than the creation. This was the time where the IP was just one tool and, once a series ended, that was it unless both the creator and audience both demanded otherwise. It is hard to say how, but Toriyama was very good about knowing when enough of something was enough, ending the original manga at what ended up being the perfect point in the long run. That isn't so common anymore.

In contrast, not a single one of Rooster Teeth's creations were ever continued on by the original creative team from beginning to end. Not a single one. On top of that, every single one decayed and fell apart as they went on, inevitably chasing the audience away. This is because the creator did not matter to them as much as the creation did. This example is one of the most common in the Cultural Ground Zero era of Brand Worship. You would buy product because of the packaging, not for what is contained in said packaging.

Over the years, as the company grew, the group changed from a bunch of frat boy late Gen Xers and early Ys making edgy internet content of the time, into a full-on company staffed by safe peddlers of corporate pap. That mean as they grew and got more corporate, friendships were broken and strained, relationships were thrown under the bus, and people were allegedly ripped off right, left, and center. The Rooster Teeth left over two decades from its beginning was a shell of what it started as, and the people there from the beginning were no longer those same passionate young guys hungry for success. It was just another corporate job. Everything was done to keep the gravy train going, not to create or sustain anything.

Of course, we all grow and change as we get older, but when your very lifeblood is staked on building upon the audience you have cultivated and the creations you all built together, it is paramount that you never forget who you were and build on that person. And, unfortunately, they didn't. It doesn't matter what property of theirs you liked, you were almost certainly chased away by how they conducted themselves as they got older and decided what really mattered to them. Their fall is like a crash course study on how not to grow.

And I haven't even talked about Gen:Lock! (And I won't because you can learn all about that disaster in the link.)

One should also mention that all of this also goes for easily their most popular IP, RWBY, created by the late Monty Oum. For those unaware, Monty Oum was a Gen Y kid, first coming to prominence with early online video game fight videos in the early '00s like Haloid, a mashup of Halo and Metroid, as well as Dead Fantasy, a combination of Dead or Alive and Final Fantasy. Though such a thing is common today, it certainly was not back when he was first doing it. He was hired to work on Red Vs. Blue for Rooster Teeth before getting the chance to make an original series of his own, which ended up being the surprisingly popular RWBY.

Contrary to what some might tell you now, RWBY was never meant to be anything mind-blowing or original. Much like RvB existed for goofy Looney tunes-like comedy shorts, RWBY was supposed to be a showcase for cool fight scenes, much like Oum's earlier work was, and that's what it was for the first couple of seasons. That is until he died via extreme allergic reaction in 2015. A sad early end to a creator that had a style all of his own.

And this is where the series went off the rails.

No, it didn't end. It was too popular to do that. Corporate decided to push on without him. And it was a disaster.

To be clear, Rooster Teeth did help Oum make RWBY, but the series was really his creation. It was a creator-driven project, not a corporate one. Once he died, so did it. There was nothing more to be said. The series was his idea, it was his creation, and it was his passion put behind it to make it stand out from what was being made online at the time. The company in the one who turned it into the punchline it has been for ages now.

So what happened? Well, instead of respecting the creator and wrapping up his creation with his death, Rooster Teeth decided the IP could still make money. What they then did was grab a bunch of random writers and threw things at the wall, none of which stuck, in order to keep the gravy train going, because that is the sort of company they now were. The result? Well, if you know RWBY for anything beyond Oum's early work it is almost certainly for the memes insulting how bad it has gotten. That should tell you everything about how well his property was respected after his death.

Instead of a Toriyama-like appreciation for Oum and what he did for them, his creation was warped beyond recognition by the company looking to pander and milk anything to get a few extra bucks out of the popular property and the consumers attached to the Brand image. And, of course, because this was the era of Cultural Ground Zero, a hyper-specific and quickly dwindling slice of the viewers didn't care. The chipping paint was enough to keep them on the company's side. The creators no longer mattered to fanatics, it was the IP that mattered to the Geek Culture generation weened on corporate creations first and foremost. Nothing can ever end, it must always be pumped for more money to be consumed forever--no one person matters or should get in the way of that.

And, it should be restated here, every other property Rooster Teeth had control of over the years more or less went through this very thing, even if the creator didn't die like Oum unfortunately had. Most of them were chased out regardless, and a large chunk of the consoomers the company courted didn't care. They just wanted the product, not the creation.

This is the sort of comment that can only be made when a faceless corporate entity matters more than people:

No, the above statement is wrong. A company is not bigger than any person's life or their creations that allow it to live in the first place. Every person who works there is more important than the company. The company exists to serve the person's life so that they can create and put said creation out there to as many people as possible. It does not exist to wipe the creator from the process. People are bigger than a company can ever be, because they make it what it is.

This is the legacy of early 2000s Geek Culture and why we are where we are today. So it seems a bit strange to me that despite all this madness and backwards thinking that when both a person and an entity dies that we suddenly remember which one is more important than the other. It is Toriyama that got all the tributes. Rooster Teeth only got memes thrown their way.

Perhaps this all exists as a reminder to appreciate the time you have left and the people you have with you along the way, because you never quite know what'll happen or where you will end up. We have other people in our lives to both be helped and to help us. Just remember to never forget that which made you what you are. Otherwise, not only will you will lose it all--but so too will everyone lose you. At least leave behind the best of you, not the worst.

What else can we hope to leave behind than that?

As I said, this post was just meant to be a shorter one ruminating on recent events. It grew quite a bit from that because it looks like there is more going on here than I originally thought. The 2020s have been a decade of change so far, with many holdover elements from Cultural Ground Zero finally falling to the wayside and ending. I'm not sure you could have predicted any of this happening even a few years ago, and yet here we are.

The 2000s were the nadir of culture, a time of moral vapidity and self-destruction, and the 2010s were a holding pattern of that very time period, with interior change sprinkled about in the few final years. It's only now after a worldwide pandemic has simultaneously shaken so many people's trust, had them face their own mortality, and allowed them to push forward into new arenas that you are starting to see real replacements for those old dinosaur institutions and modern failings we've had to deal with for far too long. As has been said, things do not stay the same forever. By the time we get there, the 2030s will be something to behold.

You're here to pass the baton on to whoever comes after you. Make sure that baton is something you can really be proud to hand off.

Hopefully, this time we won't fumble the toss.


  1. Great article, JD! The 2030's can't get here soon enough!

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