I’m ten years old, and you’re already dead. Your head explodes, and leather cringes while boots crush bone and dust swirls around a strange haired man in the desert. Buildings lay like corpses, luxury liners impaling them, and a brat in goggles trailing after the silent hero the way I clung to my older brother’s heals. But this hero, Ken… he’d straight up murdered the villains. Even his own brother. That’s it… a threat, a fight… they’re gone. No endless cycle of faux drama. The credits roll. The damage is done. The story is over.
It’s midnight sometime around 1991, and my half-brother Ron (12 years my elder) sits next to me for a second viewing, as a man’s head swells and blows apart across the TV screen. And my adolescent mind is still reeling from the first viewing. I feel more than escapism, more than just buying cool toys… I’m afraid, curious, excited and obsessed. It’s a cartoon yet, familiar, comforting, and yet it’s all so alien and strange. I knew, even then, that this was the most important thing in the world. I just wasn’t sure what “this” was. It was more than the shock… something deeper was happening, things would never be the same. And neither would I.
An axe is plunged into an old man’s face. The hero walks through a sun baked hell, no music. Ron’s asking me, “Hey man, how cool is THIS?”
What is, and where is it from? He says it’s from Japan, and it’s sick, and there’s more like it. A lot more. In Japan, ALL the cartoons there are like this. Scary. Awesome. Sexy. Awkwardly tough voices, strange 80’s leather and straps, with blue hair, madness, and… death. People fight, and makes threats, and then they die. At the time, death in narrative meant consequence. I just didn’t have the words yet. And I had no idea where the source for these “cartoons” truly was… not yet.
But by the time The Fist of the North Star was over, I knew that the seed they carried away was more important than all the ultra-violence preceding it. It quite literally assaulted my child’s mind, but I didn’t know why. All I knew was this: comic books and cartoons were for real. For adults. And they were secret. I’d been lied to.
From age five, I’d read my brother’s collection of Marvel comics, mostly late ’70s — early ’90s Spider-Man, X-Men, plenty of classics… but I’d never seen anything like this Japanese stuff. So we returned the video the next day, and I demanded another. The selection was… limited, to say the least.
Sitting just above the large porno table was a collection of movies from Japan, cartoons from another land badly dubbed in English, but more adult than anything I’d seen in my little decade on earth. And brother Ron made sure I’d seen everything cool. I picked up Akira. No idea what it was. But the drawing was cooler, a young man on a red bike with a sprawling city, bright lights shooting up from the evil city, and the bright red bike. Somehow faster, more urgent, than the other Japanese cartoon covers. The Professional: Golgo 13, Wicked City Shinjuko, Vampire Hunter D, Bubblegum Crisis. What the hell were these, and was Ron right? They were normal overseas? There was a whole country that watched cartoons, where people had sex and died and swore? Impossible.
By the time Akira’s credits rolled, I stared out at the full moon, afraid out parent’s would discover the evil, adult-only, “kid’s stuff” I’d soon be renting constantly for weeks, over and over. Back then, we didn’t have the word “anime” yet. We called it Japananimation, and it was bought for hundreds of dollars on bootleg VHS’s at small shops in Manhattan that I could never go in alone.
G.I. Joe fought Cobra every week, but it never ended. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles waged a never ending battle against Shredder and Krang. The hardly used their weapons. But these Japanese cartoons… they’d slice, shred, blood spraying, screaming obscenities until the bad guy was either a pile of broken bone and steaming guts… or flashing lights, a soft voice, and an existential ending far unlike anything in the preceding 90 minutes that I couldn’t yet fathom. And it was scary. The monsters in Vampire Hunter D terrified me. Everything terrified me. Tetsuo’s vomit inducing mutation, screaming for mercy as his body enveloped his best friend, was just… so far beyond all the art I loved… and it looked like video games. I began to learn the connection… most all were made in Japan, a country I knew only as being devastated by a hell-weapon long before I was born, and birthplace of the ultimate in human awesome: ninjas. I’d soon rented every movie on that tiny white shelf dozens of times, trying to understand the “adult” concepts while the visceral thrills never ceased to get my heat racing. But I need to know. What was Akira about? Why was Ken hitting people so fast that they’d explode, all for seeds? Why all the leather, and purple hair, and… and…
But it got better. Ron told me that almost all the Japanimation was based on comic-books. Comic books? Akira, Fist of the North Star, these all came from the same place as Spider-Man, Alpha Flight, Batman and… TMNT? I couldn’t believe it until Ron showed me the first issue, black and white. They all had red bandanas on the cover… they murdered a gang that looked just like the bad guys in my favorite arcade game, Final Fight (and the post apocalyptic cannibals and rapists in Fist of the North Star)… and by the end of the first issue they’d sliced Shredder open and stuffed a grenade in his mouth.
Nothing was ever the same. First off, I became the coolest kid in school. I wouldn’t enjoy that status for long, but many friends drooled over the secrets I spilled from Ron. About what the real Ninja Turtles were like, about the Japanese cartoons full of weapons that were used. And naked women. Adult stuff. But if it was adult, then why didn’t our parents have any of this? Why all the secrecy? It elevated anything from Japan to a mythic status. We were still years away from Ghost In the Shell, and the flood of anime about to kick our American asses in Toonami. Hell, I ordered Ninja Scroll for twelve bucks out of a catalogue by random. I made the mistake of popping that in the living room VCR the moment the mail arrived. Oops. But Mom let me keep it.
If getting anime was tough, getting manga was impossible. For me. I was a child with a two-dollar-a-week allowance and no resources, moved from Brooklyn out to Springs, a sleepy forest town at the end of Long Island. Any piece of trash by today’s standards was absolute treasure. And there was a common denominator I couldn’t avoid, and that my brother and my friends never gave a shit about: the story. These all had stories with beginnings, middles, and more importantly, endings. It felt full, it felt right. It felt adult.
As some point I got my hands on a tattered copy of Lone Wolf & Cub. It belonged to Ron’s friend, and that 20-year old punk would barely answer my constant questions, let alone lend me anything. But I knew. I knew there was something to these stories that was lacking in American comics and cartoons (given what I’d been exposed to, of course). Years later I learned some fancy words.
Two decades passed before I bought and read all 28 volumes of Lone Wolf & Club, crying as I closed the last graphic novel. By then, so much had changed. I could triple this article by name dropping series and sources of them that most of us know… but it was the little things, like catching Vampire Hunter D on the Sci-Fi channel at just the right time of night, so that it was uncensored and even more terrifying, that made me feel special. Ronnie opened the door to art that I understood. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but video games, which were to me, living artwork, and comics, movies, they were all connected. Ronnie saw only tits and split skulls. I saw stories. Characters. Emotions. And by then I was maybe, at the oldest, 12.
That’s when American comics lost their appeal. The problem was, I never had access to manga, and Japanimation or anime was rare and expensive. By age 16, when DBZ was ruling Cartoon Network and all the rage at High School, I knew the Japanese version, the real one, was full of blood, a symphonic orchestra, that Goku had a high pitched voice and that every episode flowed into one long crazy story about family and generations. But in between…
Spider-Man locked Venom away. Batman beat the Joker, and I was excited that he’d always be back… but it’d be a reiteration of the same old thing. G.I. Joe shot lasers that missed and Cobra Commander would never change. Of course, I was wrong, but at the time I felt trapped in a cycle of repetitive, and ultimately pointless, narratives.
In the years to come, shortly after I saw my first anime, I’d find out about the Vertigo revolution. The Dark Knight Returns was the first graphic novel I bought with my own money, and still read it every year. The clerk at Forbidden Planet almost laughed when mom and laid The Watchmen on the counter. Those filled the gap that anime tore open. Real narrative arcs. Ones that ended. By ending, they meant something. Tuning in next week, grabbing the next issue, watching the sequel… it was like Star Wars. Another treat that Ron shared, taped to VHS in the mid-’80s… those movies were fun, cool… but when I learned who Darth Vader really was, when The Empire Strikes Back ended with the bad guys victorious… I’d recaptured that from Japan, lost it again… now I take it for granted. It’s so easy to get anything off the internet, sagas that cost me a fortune in High School, or that I never even saw at all. Comics, video games, manga, anime, fan-subs… I’ll never forget the magic I felt when I realized there was, somewhere out there beyond the newsstand and afternoon cartoons.
This art I loved, this art that wasn’t worthy of laughing at because to my parents, it was all kids’ stuff… it never ended. The art continued when you became a teenager… you could still find it as an adult. I didn’t have the sources yet, but I had the knowledge. The stories would always exist for me, for my tastes, forever. No matter how niche, or rare, or mocked, there were narratives out there of every form, waiting to bring drama, consequence, love, horror.
We couldn’t have predicted how far it’d come full circle, until cultures fed off each other into a Mobius strip of genius and garbage alike, how mainstream our secret passions would be, or how soon. All I knew, sitting there out in the woods, saving money for my next trip to Manhattan and whatever random gem I could bring back, I had one recourse left. The common denominator. They were stories, real narratives with characters, drama, consequences. Someday I’d have it all, I’d understand the end of Akira and no one would laugh at my obsessions. Until then there was only once choice.
I’d sit in class, quietly taking notes on one page, and in the notebook beneath… I’d make them myself.
See you out there,