When did you discover anime? My first exposure to anime was actually those Robotech novelizations by Brian Daley. I ran across them in the late ’90s at that college bookstore we have whose owner will never get rid of anything if he can help it. I was an avid reader of weird obscure science fiction books and this seemed like something intriguingly different, so I jumped in. (This was also how I discovered Doctor Who via the Target novelizations.)
Eventually I started finding out more about anime. I got into Ranma 1/2 via Doctor Who crossover fanfic. (Unfortunately I don’t think the Doctor fell into the Spring of Drowned Girl.) I learned I was supposed to hate Robotech. I learned about Sailor Moon, something that would one day have an enormous transformative impact on my life, via fan pages.
Due to the nature of ’90s anime fandom where the source material was scarce and hard to get ahold of, I didn’t watch actual anime for a long time. I watched my first anime at a high school anime club; I’m pretty sure it was either Nausicaa or Cowboy Bebop. I fell in love with a bunch of shows via fan pages and fanfic that I never actually watched until much later. Even when Toonami started I didn’t get into it because we had only one TV in the house and I was worried what my parents would think of it; I didn’t watch anime regularly until college.
At the time, why were fans against Robotech? Most of it was due to the changes that Macek made to the material. (The TVtropes name for unnecessary dub changes was “Macekre.”) There was also I think the desire for “real” anime fans to distinguish themselves from the casuals. There’s always been the issue of Robotech blocking the Macross license, though when anime was kind of an underground-ish thing even among officially licensed works that was less of a big deal.
Of course, there were genuine Robotech fans too, who enjoyed the Macek lore and the novels and comics that built on that. There was actually some excitement when the abortive CGI revival, Robotech 3000, was
announced. There’s a Geocities fan page for Robotech 3000 which I find weirdly poignant now.
You visited fanpages for anime you didn’t watch until much later. How did you understand fan pages for shows you didn’t watch? It was interesting because I wound up developing a lot of emotional investment in things I never saw and still haven’t seen. Then again, sometimes that still happens today. There are a number of shows I’ve never seen but know extensively through shitposts and memes. Back then, the issue was scarcity—anime was hard to get ahold of if you didn’t have the right channels. Now it’s the opposite problem. There are a million series available online and no one can watch them all. (You’d have to eat eventually.)
You were worried about your parents finding out about anime. What did your parents think of your interest in anime when they found out? Initially I think they were a little leery of anime—I had to be careful to distinguish the anime I watched from the hentai, as there was still an aura of perversion and creepiness around anime/manga in the popular consciousness up to the late ’90s. When the mid-’00s manga boom took hold, that lessened, and I started having more conversations about anime and manga with them. This decade, they actually started watching it themselves. At first they were interested only in more “respectable” Ghibli-ish stuff but then got into more otaku-y things
like Fairy Tail. Of course, maybe that’s not so surprising now that we live in a world where influential middle-aged centrist pundits watch hentai.
What appealed to you about anime when you first discovered it? I’ve always been predisposed to like things that are weird and colorful and energetic—that’s why, as a comics fan, the Silver Age stuff I could find reprints of was always my favorite, even deep in the heart of the Image ’90s. (Though that could be like that too, in other ways.) I liked a lot of the motifs and themes that cropped up in anime that was big at the time—giant robots, Blade Runner-style cyberpunk android stuff, magical girls, cool machines, tough women who blew things up.
And gender was definitely a big part of it. I was nonbinary and had no idea at the time. I never questioned consciously whether or not I was a boy but I gravitated toward things that involved female protagonists, and there was a lot of that in anime. Sailor Moon was a story by and for girls and it helped me experience the world in a different way. (I had a tremendous crush on Rei, BTW.) And then there’s Ranma 1/2—one of the first things I came into contact with that made me think about gender fluidity and such. I was intensely fascinated with the concept without quite knowing why.
Can you tell me more about how anime figured into your nonbinary identity? Anime has always been a space that allows for more exploration of
gender variance even as it’s often frustrating in not fully committing
to queerness and transness. Ranma 1/2 helped me think about the
concept of gender fluidity, in a half-articulated sort of way. Sailor
Moon helped make femininity feel more accessible to me and also played
with gender through characters like the Starlights.
Anime has been a hugely important factor in queer and trans culture in
the US among people in my generation and later. (Probably other
countries too—I’d really like to know more about the international
reception of Sailor Moon!) I feel like a lot of trans and nonbinary
people identify with magical girls because it presents femininity
through a lens of transformation-fantasy, where you get the power to
become your best and most fabulous self. I’ve come over the years to
identify more with Usagi, as someone who’s just starting to feel their
way into femininity. She’s not cool and elegant and struggles to keep
up with all the expectations society places on her, but she’s deeply
loved by people around her and has the potential to become a goddess.
Maybe someday I can be a Moon Princess too.
What would you say was the most popular anime at the time? Ranma 1/2 was huge. Huge. It dominated anime fandom in the same way that Naruto, Death Note and such do now. There was an everliving crapton of fanfic. Sailor Moon was big too, and drew in a lot of fic, fanpages, passionate fan investment of all kinds.
Dirty Pair was a series that had a pretty substantial following which I really got into even though I never saw it. I still have a lot of fondness for that concept and characters to this day, even though I’ve only seen like one episode and read a couple of the Adam Warren comics.
Other popular series included Slayers, Evangelion, Tenchi Muyo, and Utena. Dragon Ball Z was the #1 shonen anime back in the ’90s and very early ’00s, but I never really warmed up to that. I do remember that my family used to stay in a vacation house in North Carolina with another family, and we would watch some anime on the Cartoon Network, and they showed the same episodes of Dragon Ball every time we went there. They involved Vegeta turning into a were-monkey. I remember those episodes really well.
What was it like to be a part of anime fandom at the time? Most of how I related to anime was through fanfic and fan pages. That was true of a lot of people back then, I think. There was a ton of fanfic written by people who never actually saw the show, who were basing it on other fanfic they’d read. It was pretty wild.
The fanfic often went in some really weird directions, as fanfic does. There were Ranma 1/2 fics that were slice-of-life comedy like the show, but also ones that were epic dramatic stories, sweet or and tragic relationship-based stories. People got really invested in who was the Best Girl for Ranma and wrote stories that wrote whatever love interest they liked as perfect and demonized the ones they didn’t like. (Polyamory was not really on the table.) There were some really ambitious Sailor Moon stories that created new mythologies. Evangelion attracted a lot of fix-it fic from people who wanted the characters to be happy or wanted it to “make sense.”
There were also original anime-inspired stories, sort of OEL before the age of webcomics. And there were crossovers—just about everything was crossed over at some point with Ranma, Sailor Moon and/or Evangelion. The Sailor Moon/Hellblazer crossover was probably my favorite. There was one mega-crossover series that brought in just about every anime under the sun, and a lot of other fandoms too—Undocumented Features. I think it’s still going on. It started with a bunch of self-insert college students bringing the Dirty Pair to life via a computer program. They blow up the campus, of course, and then the authors each marry one of them and then go off to explore the universe. It eventually crossed over with a million other things, as other authors joined in the universe and married their own anime girlfriends.
And that’s another thing—anime fandom was a lot more straight and cis than it is now. There were a lot of selfinsert-y fics by male writers where they dated their favorite characters. Yaoi was not discussed much, until it made a sudden surge around the beginning of the ’00s, which seemed to be a crucial point for teenage girl fandom activity. There wasn’t a lot of femslash/yuri even though Sailor Moon is extremely conducive to that and Utena was pretty popular. (And Dirty Pair for that matter—there would be a lot more Kei/Yuri if that were a thing now.)
Sometimes people made an effort to scrub queerness out of series that were extremely queer. Like the whole Prince Uranus thing–when some people were claiming Haruka/Michiru wasn’t really gay because Haruka was the reincarnation of a man, and claimed to have sources from [Sailor Moon creator] Naoko Takeuchi to back it up.
That said, I am sure there were a lot of queer people out there running into this stuff in anime and forming their own identities, like I was. We just didn’t have a community and context for that the way we do now.
At the time, how did you connect with other fans? Online? I didn’t really interact with people much on the anime internet. I passively read a lot of fan stuff and lurked on a couple usenet newsgroups. Weirdly I didn’t go much into the Sailor Moon groups, where my future partner was a prolific poster. We were like sailors passing in the night, or something.
Tell me about meeting your partner! Points if the story is related to anime. We met through a small writing group/shared universe we’ve been part
of a long time which originated on Usenet. We both wrote stuff that drew influence from both Western sueprhero comics and animanga. We started collaborating and throwing around ideas and turned out to have a lot of really specific interests in common, like Doctor Who novels. We’re both interested in taking apart and analyzing pop culture and genre fiction so we had a lot of great conversations, and then we eventually both independently realized we were genderfluid, and then that we were in love.
How is your anime fandom experience different today than it was back then? Anime has never been my primary focus but always been a consistent thing in my life. There are particular series I get intensely
into—Yuri!!! on Ice helped me through some difficult times earlier this
year. Nowadays, I learn about new series through Twitter and Tumblr. I
don’t necessarily go out of my way to follow people who post about
anime and manga, but it comes up a lot in queer contexts.
Jeanne can be reached on Twitter.