Moe, Slice of Life, Westerns, and Rob Liefeld – Part One
In this part: Moe is to 2000’s anime as the anti-hero fad was to 1990’s super hero comics.
I’m old enough to have been a super hero comic book fan during the boom of the early 90’s. I got into comics after the first Batman movie was released, 1989. That was the summer where I was transitioning between elementary school (5th grade) and middle school (6th grade). Chris Claremont was still writing X-Men at the time, and in retrospect it wasn’t as good as his early 80’s stuff, I enjoyed those comics then and still do to a certain extent. At the time, things were good. But I was a part of the industry’s boom. I was a young fan introduced to the hobby by the first major super hero movie ever released.
Before then, comic-related materials were relegated to cartoon series like Superfriends or cheesy (but very entertaining) stuff like the Adam West Batman series and the Hulk series from the late 70’s. Tim Burton’s Batman was a big thing for the movie industry and for the comic industry. While I’d read comics every now and then as a kid (I still have a small collection of comics I bought at the supermarket when I was, like 2 and 3 years old. Mostly Spiderman and Star Wars comics.), it was the Batman movie that turned me into a fan. I asked my parents to take me to one of the local comic shops on a near-weekly basis to get new stuff. I got into X-Men and a few other series. And I wasn’t the only one doing this.
There was a huge wave of geeks like myself making their way to comic stores over the next couple of years, and things were good for the comic companies. Series were getting bigger and bigger print runs due to demand. Crossovers became bigger and people were buying the issues. Prices on back issues, and even on new issues that had only been out a few months, skyrocketed as demand increased. All of this sounds pretty good, and for a time it was. The problem is that with this influx of new fans, certain trends started to arise.
With an influx of young fans, those fans’ tastes started to drive the market. While I cared more about the latest issue of Excalibur, with its dry British sense of humor and absurd adventures, most fans were obsessing over the latest Wolverine/Punisher anti-hero wannabe fad. This was the time when Venom was getting his own mini-series, Lobo was a hot commodity, and various indie companies wanted to jump on the bandwagon with their equivalent of the angsty, anti-social, bad guy murdering “hero.” Most of this started with Marvel, where they saw Wolverine’s popularity increase (he already had his own series, which was surprisingly good at times). They revived many of the “dark” heroes from the 70’s, like Ghost Rider. Some of this stuff was good (I liked Ghost Rider for the first couple of years), but for the most part they were feeding the fans.
But one person came to represent the problems with this trend. That person is Rob Liefeld. He came into prominence at the tail end of The New Mutants. New Mutants was a series that dealt with young recruits to Charles Xavier’s school for mutants. They were the kids that would become X-Men in later years if A) the writers allowed them to age (time and aging in super hero comics is funny like that) and B) they lived long enough to reach that age, since they often went up against foes just as nasty as their older counterparts. A couple of years before the comic ended, Rob Liefeld joined the comic as an artist. At the time his art style was relatively unique. As a middle schooler I liked it. People dug his stuff. He was one of those hot comic artists, like Jim Lee, Todd MacFarlane, and whoever else. Young hotshots who were making names for themselves. Problem is, Liefeld fucked up The New Mutants. The comic likely had a reputation for being X-Men-lite, despite characters dying just as often as they did in the parent series, so Liefeld and whoever was writing at the time came up with the idea to “toughen up” The New Mutants.
Enter Cable. He was a tough, macho, mysterious, gun-toting, mercenary cyborg who, for reasons I forget, became the leader of the team. He was like every other tough, macho, mysterious, gun-toting adjective noun. People ate it up. They loved the direction the series went. The New Mutants were getting tough and eXtreme! They were no longer kids at a school, they were an elite task force of mutant commandos! They became so rugged that their series was canceled and renamed X-Force, because that name was so much more intimidating. And in the process they got a tough, macho, mysterious, sword-toting alien assassin, a tough, macho, mysterious, claw-toting female cat-mutant (who wasn’t Wolfsbane), and a tough, macho, mysterious, muscle-toting Native American stereotype. Even the characters who were already there and who before that had relatively unique personalities became tough, macho, mysterious, noun-toting adjective nouns.
(Note: I was one of the suckers who bought multiple copies of X-Force #1 because there were five different trading cards circulating and only one came bagged with each copy. I was a stupid kid.)
That was just one series, but it wasn’t the first and it wasn’t the last. This was the time in which writers felt The Hulk needed to have a big gun to match up with bad guys. This was when Superman was killed by an alien monster with huge spikes and a personality that boiled down to “I like to kill because the readers think that’s the only interesting thing a character can do.” This was when the Image comic company was created, where Rob Liefeld and other artists split off to create entire teams of anti-heroes who somehow got along well enough to fight teams of villainous anti-heroes with even worse attitude problems. Even Spawn, a demon from hell with supernatural powers, grabbed a gun shortly after his series started, because that’s what super heroes did.
(Note: Images actually did some good things for the industry (emphasis on creators, creator-owned titles,etc.), but very little of it had to do with actual comic quality.)
You know what happened to the comic industry after all of this? It tanked. The market bottomed out, Marvel came close to selling its assets. The industry never fully recovered. Even with comic movies being ridiculously popular, sales have never recovered. While the above trends were only one cause of this fall, they’re a symptom of a larger problem: when a market caters to only one subset fans, there’s something inherently wrong with that market. Comic companies were desperate for a certain demographic’s money, they catered to it by altering heroes, making new ones that stuck to popular trends, and making other bad marketing decisions based upon the desires ot a single group of fans.
This is very similar to what’s going on in the anime industry right now.
Anime studios are increasingly catering to the moe fad. Anime fans in Japan have voted with their cash and buy up merchandise for K-On and the like, and therefore the studios continue to create similar series. Even series that, under other circumstances, would not contain such tropes are wrought with images of young girls gawking and inconsequential objects and prattling on about subject matters that real girls would laugh off as trite and pathetic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people liking this sort of thing, much like how there’s nothing wrong with people lusting after muscle-bound malcontents with phallic guns, but there’s something wrong when the tastes of one facet of fandom is catered to at the expense of the rest of that fandom.
The result is a market that becomes increasingly insular. By catering to moe fans, the anime industry is becoming decidedly unfriendly to anyone whose tastes run counter to these trends. I’d love to introduce The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya to more people, but I know Mikuru’s squealing and the other moe-isms of the series will turn off many of these people who would otherwise enjoy the non-linear storyline, cynical comments from Kyon, and discourse on the nature of reality, time, and so on. Some people simply don’t want to ignore such elements because such elements are major deal breakers.
This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if there were more alternatives, but said alternatives seem to shrink with each passing season. One of the better series from last year, Canaan, had to slip in a few moe-ish elements. While bullets were flying, people were dying, and terrorists were gassing politicians, Maria was being a defenseless peon who prattled on about how much Canaan is her friend and how she just wants to see her smile again and blahblahblah just shut the fuck up Maria before Alphard and Liang Qi put a cap in your ass.
The series is using Maria as a way to draw in certain fans who would be turned off by strong female characters who can defend themselves. One of the key aspects of moe is the defenselessness of the female characters. To be moe one needs to be vulnerable and one needs to need someone to be at their side. Even magical girls that are considered moe need their proverbial Tuxedo Kamen to come to their aid so they can muster their heart-curing love-blast. Moe fans enjoy seeing someone who they feel they can help because it gives them a degree of strength and control. It’s like a person knowing they can control their pet’s actions with a snap of a finger. The moe girl is more akin to a pet than an equal, and it’s this aspect that seems to be one of the fad’s appeals.
The fact that the creators of Canaan felt the need to add such a weak and pandering character into the mix of a series that is otherwise the antithesis of everything moe stands for is akin to seeing some dude with a metal arm and a laser gun walk into the X-Men Mansion and tell Cannonball, Warlock, and Boom Boom that he’s their new teacher.
Totally irrational but completely correct conclusion: Rob Liefeld created moe. Blame him.
In the next part: How slice of life anime series and TV/movie westerns romanticize a period in time that never existed.