Location: Brunswick, Maine
When did you discover anime? Share as much as you remember. The year was 1999, and I was 13. I’d fallen in love with the Pokemon (Red) video game, and one day discovered that there was a cartoon version of the story. From the first episode I caught on TV, I was hooked. It was my gateway. I drew fanart, and my very first comic (I’m a professional cartoonist now) was a jagged and messy Pokemon fancomic about my adventures with my favorite Pokemon, Dragonair. My repertoire expanded almost immediately to any anime I could find information about on the internet, aired on late-night Cartoon Network (carefully time-recorded on VHS), or otherwise appeared on TV or in my local comic shops. Animerica Magazine was pretty integral to my keeping updated and immersed in anime. Having my fan art printed in Animerica and in Animerica Extra gave me the ego boost I would ride into an actual art career.
How did your interest in anime factor into your journey as an artist? Did you go through a manga-style angular chin drawing phase? Anime was alllllways at the core of my artistic journey. A good number of people in comics today who are my age remember the struggle of fighting teachers when they told you not to “draw anime style.” And I understand why, now, they put up that fight. “Anime style” is a visual language that makes sense to someone who watches it, but doesn’t to those who never have. So of course the giant eyes and sweatdrops and pointy chins seem baffling to them, and it turn, to your college admissions portfolio reviewers. I get it. But it felt crummy! Other cartoonists are influenced by the comics and cartoons they idolized, and you can see the influence of Archie Comics or Powerpuff Girls in a lot of folks’ comics today too! But since our influences were foreign, because the visual language we aped was not native, we we told to cut it out. Often with no suggestion of where to look instead. So when I tried to fight that fight, I pulled from “traditional” or classical illustration, and spent a long time, as many of my peers did, being sure I was drawing “more correctly” to “realistically” but always being asked if “it was anime,” anyway! It was tough! And it’s not like anyone was having conversations with us ABOUT the cultural exchange, or even the bigger colonial implications around the dialogue that WAS happening. Anyway, yes. I drew lots of pointy chins.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? Watching Pokemon as a freshly-minted teenager, I was excited by the way the narrative carried across episodes. Each episode had a fight of the day, but it was part of a journey. It lacked the reset button of The Simpsons, but was more structurally engaging than The Little Mermaid (TV.) It seemed unique. And it felt like a bridge into a new world, because it was foreign and because there was a community around it. I was posting Ash/Misty romantic fanfiction on message boards online before I understood that fanfiction was a /thing./ Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z followed, and by the time I’d sunk my claws into Gundam Wing, Slayers, Tenchi Muyo, and Utena, I was gone! The western anime-loving community was my place. No small part of my fascination was in the subtextual and sometimes textual queer themes. I was a budding /something/ at the time (lesbian? transboy? time would tell-) and the genderqueer/tomboy/lesbian in Sailor Uranus, longing gay love of Utena‘s Juri, and extensive slashability of the Gundam Wing boys gave my needs a home, my desires validation, my expressions an outlet.
Could you expand on this over the course of your fandom? How did anime factor into your exploration of sexuality? After the initial blossoming into a queer butch because of shoujo manga, anime didn’t factor a whole lot into my sexuality until I wrestled with my love of yaoi later on in my mid-20s. The community was always there and part of its actualization, of course; my first online girlfriend was a fellow Utena roleplayer, and one summer-fling boyfriend was someone I met at an anime convention in Maine, who wooed me by singing that impossibly fast Gravitation song at karaoke. But it wasn’t until around 25 or so that I looked at myself, on the cusp of coming out as trans, and the fact that I’d basically only consumed yaoi/slash since I got to college, and realized the complicated sexual sociology of it. As an afab person, I’d appreciated a medium by which I could explore sexual imagery without seeing sex /done/ to a female body. Porn and hentai all established women as objects that sex was done /to/, often violently. While yaoi in general wasn’t necessarily /better/ in that regard, it at least allowed me to separate /my/ body from sexual violence. My current identity as a bi enby doesn’t give as much credit to anime as it does the webcomics community, but the transition from one family to the other was smooth, since there is plenty of overlap there. That I now draw the trans-inclusive adult comics I wished I had as a teen and young adult probably owes to that yaoi legacy directly, though.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? When I “discovered” anime, the most popular thing was probably Dragon Ball Z. Even though shoujo (Sailor Moon, Fushigi Yuugi) was more my thing, I still understood what a force and presence the DBZ fandom was. I could never be sure because my perception was affected by whatever I was most obsessed with at the time, but Sailor Moon was big, as was CLAMP as an entire entity and force. Evangelion was also very present. But nothing would be like DBZ.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? It was like stepping to the garden of eden. Or being on a rewarding treasure expedition. Me, a tiny art-making teen, discovering a world where people expanded and reimagined narratives (fanfic,) examined fictional relationships (ship manifesto,) multiplied content through art (doujinshi, fanart,) shared- OH how they SHARED- their passion… and it was the wild west of internet, too. Navigating the community was an adventure. You had to participate to find what you were looking for. It made that rare piece of Evangelion merch, 3rd generation VHS Kodocha fansub copy, or perfectly-aligned-with-your-interests Card Captor Sakura fanfic absolutely like earning treasure. It was rich with discovery.
What were you usually looking for, then? Where did you participate? Did you make any lasting friendships, or discover new shows that way? I was looking for all of the above. Fanart, doujinshi, fanfic, Evangelion dissertations. For example, if I was looking for Touya x Yukito (Cardcaptor Sakura) fanfic, I couldn’t hop on Ao3 and click the Touya/Yukito tag. I have to either web-search (Google was not yet the standard) or ask around for a Touya/Yukito fansite (one Geocities or Angelfire, probably) that would then host or link to fanfics. Instead of collections, you usually found a fansite that featured the site’s owner’s own fanfiction. You really had to work for that reward. I can’t remember the names of those fansites anymore, they were so all over the place. I vaguely remember the transition to Livejournal as a new standard for communities and roleplaying, but I don’t think I could name any of those, either.
I don’t think I’ve maintained any friendships from those days! We’re talking 15 years ago, when I was a teenager and a very different person. We’ve all grown up and found new spaces to occupy … as much as I still value Utena, I don’t really need to be on an Utena RP board anymore, and I think everyone else has established new identities since then too. I can’t think of anyone from those days that I’m still close to. In college I made friends with folks in the Ookiku Furikabutte community that helped me through hard times and are still close friends of mine today, but no one from those early days. Every once and a while I’ll get a message from someone who will be like , “Woah, are you Shirono from the Pokemon Boards back in 1999?” and we will reminisce for a whole five seconds, but that’s it.
Finding new anime, at least for me, didn’t happen in communities, because they weren’t “anime” communities, they were show-specific communities. Pokemon boards talked about Pokemon, Utena LJ talked about Utena. Discovering new anime came through some specific channels, like Animerica magazine, which reported on both stateside releases as well as what was coming out in Japan. There was also fansubs, which I credit with exposing me to A LOT of new anime. See, when you bought a fansub, the two or three episodes on the tape might not take up the entire tape. So some fansubbers would fill the extra space with anime openings. So at the end of my Kodocha tape, there would be opening themes for Fushigi Yuugi, Mamono Hunter Yohko, and City Hunter. I proceeded to pursue each of those shows. Why did fansubbers do that, though, I always wondered. Was it purely to spread the gospel of new anime?
Was the Internet a part of fandom at the time? If yes, how? If no, how did you connect with other fans? Yes, internet and fandom were inextricable in the early aughts. Fansites were your source for news, eBay your source for rare merch, group sites for your mail-in-fansubs, message boards for your discussion. It was an exciting time; despite the burgeoning attempts Real Player made at establishing itself as a way to watch video, we still had dial-up internet and relied on the community access to get our fix. I took chances sending physical dollars and checks to strangers on the internet and was never let down, getting copied CDs and VHS tapes in the mail, weeks or months later, every time. Message boards and fansites were where I spent most of my time, role-playing, reading fanfic, dissecting episodes, characters, relationships, and story arcs.
Do you remember your first convention? What was it, and what was it like?
Shoujocon 2001, in East Brunswick, New Jersey. It was magical. It was more accessible to me in Pennsylvania than any other convention at the time, and my parents could drive my friends and I there. I cosplayed Yuzuriha Nekoi from X/1999. I met a CLAMP messageboard crush. I returned in 2002 with different high-school friends and a preparedness to take advantage of what I now knew a convention could give me. The two years blur a bit in my memory. That second year, I cosplayed in a Kare Kano group. I sang in and won the karaoke contest. I bought Gundam Wing doujinshi, sneaking an 18+ wristband over my little teen fist to get into the restricted section of the dealers’ room. I met up with people I’d met on Utena message boards. I shared home-printed copies of my first scrawled doujinshi (also Utena.) I bought a $40 JPOP CD (expensive now, but imagine THEN!) I still have the printed photos from these experiences. It blew my mind.
What was meeting your messageboard crush like? Worth it, or never meet your heroes sort of thing? It was uneventful! I had a little baby forum crush on them but they didn’t on me. We took a picture together and I never heard from them again! We weren’t close in the first place, I just thought they were cute and looked like Kamui.
What’s the biggest contrast between anime fandom when you got into it and now? The biggest differences, I think, are the means to access content, the availability of content, and the discourse.
As I mentioned before, you couldn’t just google “Sailor Uranus x Sailor Neptune doujinshi” or “Tamahome x Chichiri fanfic” and FIND IT, let alone just click through tags on Ao3. You had to hunt and you often had to establish human connections to get to what you were looking for. Today you can access content for your very specific shipping interests almost immediately and definitely without interacting with anyone. It’s not like recc lists aren’t still valuable and we don’t make connections these days! But the work you /needed/ to put in to find your goods was different in nature!
It’s so EASY to watch anime now. All of it! Any of it! It’s so great, now, with both legal avenues for the big stuff (Crunchyroll, Amazon, etc.) and less-legal avenues for the obscure stuff. More manga is published in English and more quickly, and scanlations are available for more weird and independent stuff than ever. There’s basically no way to NOT find what you’re looking for instantly these days. Before it was buying fansubs off the internet, downloading a third of an episode on dial-up, or saving $60 to buy a tape with 2 episodes on it at Suncoast. 0_0
Finally, wow, both good and bad has come from the global discourse on anime and manga and fan communities. I absolutely do not want to get into the specifics, but we are having good conversations about appropriation and problematic content (to the benefit of POC, women, and queer people, but we are also having very BAD conversations about appropriation and problematic content (to the detriment of POC, women, and queer people!) Before, we went by the motto “don’t like, don’t read,” which meant problematic ideas were not challenged, but also, it meant that people weren’t harassed for exploring ideas in fiction. Progress resists binary reduction, so it’s messy, but I wouldn’t go back in time either.
Kori can be reached on Twitter.