Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ode to a Mallrat.

Oh, Jubilee, why do I love thee?  Let me explain the ways.

There’s almost a certain futility in trying to explain why a certain character is your favorite.  Especially in a franchise as stuffed with good characters as the X-Men.  So much of it comes down to being the right age at the right time and encountering the right story under the right circumstances.  So, forgive me if this post ultimately doesn’t communicate what I’m trying to communicate.
But let’s rewind to first contact, shall we.  The year is 1992. On the newly formed Fox Kids line-up of children’s shows, a new and potentially groundbreaking animated series debuted.  It was based on the comic book series that had been Marvel’s bestselling title for almost two decades.  It was called X-Men.  The show featured a cast of both old and new heroes from the X-Men’s history.  There was Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Gambit, Rogue, Jean Grey and Beast.  And then there was Jubilee.  Voiced by Alyson Court (known for a number of kids’ shows like the Beetlejuice cartoon and the pre-school show The Big Comfy Couch), she was depicted as a young girl who was confused and scared by her mutant powers and worried about how it would affect her relationship with her foster parents.  It’s a fairly decent, dramatic start.   However, after that her depiction on the show  was . . . not great.  It’s not that cartoon Jubilee was a bad character exactly (though, some X-Men fans will disagree).  It’s that she was kind of designed to serve a purpose.  She was one of those kid characters created for children’s action shows that was there mainly so kids would have someone to relate to and who could ask questions about things so that the kids at home wouldn’t be lost.  She was an orphan, which made it very easy for Jubilee to join the X-Men for adventures, yet she also conveniently didn’t have any past that could play any significant part on the show (on one episode it was boiled down to “bounced around between foster homes”).  And her mutant power was shown as being weak enough that she couldn’t possibly upstage her elders in terms of super-powered feats.  Granted, Jubilee’s depiction was probably pretty good for the time, but in retrospect it seems a bit lacking.
Little did I know, comic book Jubilee was something else entirely.

The comic book version of Jubilee first appeared in 1989.  The story, according to the 1989 Marvel Universe Handbook is that she is the first generation American-born daughter of two prosperous Chinese immigrants.  She lived a life of wealth and privilege in Beverly Hills until one fateful weekend when her parents were killed in a car accident and all their investments were wiped out in a stock market crash (presumably the 1987 one).  With nowhere else to go and no one to turn to, she ended up in Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, where she quickly learned to rebel against authority.  Then she was sent to where she probably should have gone in the first place, an orphanage.  At this point, Jubilee didn’t like her prospects and was afraid she might end up getting sent to whatever living relatives she might have in China.  Not wanting to be sent halfway around the world to a country where she didn’t know anyone or anything, she ran away to the only other place in her life that felt like home: The Hollywood Mall where her mutant power manifested. That power being the ability to project articulate, quasi-animate, transitory plasmoids.  Basically, she can shoot explosive bursts of plasma from her hands that look kind of like fireworks.   After that, a series of events led her to become the youngest X-Man at the time, including rescuing Wolverine from being crucified by a gang of criminal cyborgs called the Reavers.

Jubilee for much of her early appearances had a tendency of putting up a front.  She would act tough and crack wise and would have a tendency of complaining loudly about things she didn’t like.  But by the time I had started reading Uncanny X-Men, that façade had started to crack.  You see, the X-Men were having a really lousy year.  Collosus’s little sister Illyana had died from a mutant-killing virus.  Collosus himself had defected to Magneto’s isolationist asteroid Avalon.  Iceman had been put into a coma.  But possibly the biggest thing in regards to Jubilee was that Wolverine, who had long been Jubilee’s mentor and protector, had been injured in a story titled “Fatal Attractions” and had left the team.  Through the cracks in the façade, a different image of Jubilee was revealed.  One of a scared, sad, troubled kid who had lost her first family and was terrified of losing the second one that she had built with the X-Men.  These revelations and this development were all in the purpose of moving Jubilee to a spin-off with other young mutant characters titled Generation X (don’t mind the title, folks.  It was the ‘90s).
She’s strong, but not as tough as she acts.  She’s kinder and big-hearted than she pretends to be.  She tends to embrace life with vigor, but also has an impulsive streak that can get her in trouble.  Her power is potentially devastating, but she tries not to use it to hurt anyone.  Oh, and she has a big mouth.  But to me, the biggest thing was that Jubilee represented the found family aspect of the X-Men.  To others, that aspect might be represented by Kitty Pryde or Cyclops or Rogue, or whoever.  But to me, it was Jubilee.  Her need for a family really resonated with me.

Now, I haven’t read every Jubilee story.  There are a whole mess of stories from Wolverine’s solo series that I haven’t read that she’s in.  I also haven’t liked every story of hers I’ve read.  A while back they took away Jubilee’s mutant powers.  This resulted in her being reduced to a damsel-in-distress for a while.  I didn’t care for that.  Then, in the wake of Twilight fever, they turned her into a vampire.  Some people liked it because it gave her more physical powers.  I also didn’t care for that.  Granted, it seemed out of left field to me and the writers who wrote her seemed to forget what the vampire rules were on the regular.  Possibly my favorite event in Jubilee’s recent life is that she adopted a baby boy named Shogo. 
Yeah, it’s a strange turn of events in a genre that’s not usually kind to the concept of parenthood.  However, the way Jubilee went about it was both big-hearted and impulsive and in that way, very Jubilee.  Also, it gave Jubilee a more consistent tangible and grown-up connection to the whole “found family” thing that she can bring with her even when she’s not an active member of the X-Men.

I’m happy to say that Jubilee seems to be back on her way to being a more active X-Men character.  In the near future, she’s going to be a member of the reconstituted Excalibur.  But even if she wasn’t, she’d still be a favorite.  And I hope that, in my own admittedly clumsy way, I’ve expressed why.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Days of Cinema Past.

Hey, guys!  Dark Phoenix is out!  Isn’t that . . . isn’t it . . . great?

Okay, let’s not pretend that any of us actually went to see that movie.  The truth is that the X-Men movie franchise has been flagging for a little while now.  Sure, it was innovative when it first came out, but that was nearly 20 years ago.
A little color would pep up those uniforms
Before I talk about where the X-Men movies have been stumbling, let’s take a look at where this whole crazy superhero movie trend started.  The year 1997 saw the release of Batman & Robin, the third sequel to the 1989 Batman film.  Reaction to the film was negative, as moviegoers pushed back against a series that went from dark and noir to dark and gothic to ridiculously bright and silly.  This was considered the death-knell for superhero films and films based on comic books.  Hollywood entered a fallow period when it came to pictures based on comic books.  That terrible period lasted for, oh . . . about a year.  You see, in 1998 New Line Cinemas released Blade, a movie based on a character from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comics.  The character had been heavily revamped between the comics and the movies, but the modern version had made some appearances on the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon.  This is probably because they wanted to test the new version out on some kind of audience.  The movie did well.  One should note that despite having some superheroic qualities (superpowers, distinctive costume, fighting evil in an urban setting), most people don’t usually think of Blade as a superhero  (note: as of this writing, the comic book incarnation of Blade is a member of the Avengers).  Two years later in 2000, the first X-Men movie comes out from 20th Century Fox.  Now, this is a property that people knew was a superhero thing because of the ‘90s cartoon.  However, they played a lot of it down.  Things were a lot more stripped down and more grounded.  The palette was a lot darker.  And the colorful costumes of the comics and popular cartoon were replaced with black leather bodysuits reminiscent of both Blade and The Matrix.  Again, it did well.  Two years after that, Sony Pictures released the first Spider-Man movie which embraced the superhero thing a lot more and the rest is history.

But yeah, in the middle of that whole era when the entertainment industry was pushing against the whole idea of the “superhero” was when the first X-Men film was released.  And the problem is that they’ve never entirely been able to quite separate themselves from that era completely.
You may scoff, but the “superheroes are uncool” era extended out beyond the Hollywood movie set.  Marvel used to downplay the term “superhero” in its own text pieces and press releases.  Per their descriptions, Captain America was “a soldier”, the Fantastic Four were “explorers”, the X-Men were “activists”, etc.
Still one of the best on-screen renditions, though I like X-Men: Evolution too.
Anyway, over the past 19 years superhero films have sort of broke loose and shown what they were capable of with the MCU.  And they did it by embracing a lot of the crazier aspects of it all.  The main X-Men films still feel unusually cautious.  They repeat the same conflict over and over again.  They always default back to showcasing the same four characters, Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine and whoever Jennifer Lawrence is playing (they say it’s Mystique, but the character comes across more like Amelia Voght), despite the X-Men having possibly the best ensemble cast in all of superhero comics.  The color palette is still this sterile, bland black and chrome thing.  And that’s just the beginning of it all.

I mean, they’ve tried to loosen up a bit especially in the prequel trilogy.  They used The Hellfire Club in X-Men: First Class, who are a group that provides a different conflict seeing as they want to take over the world just because they’re arrogant, ambitious jerks rather than for some mutant supremacy agenda.  X-Men: Days of Future Past used the Sentinels who are usually the go-to choice for stories about the push back of evil, mutant-phobic humans (which always evolves into the Master Mold AI trying to take over the world, by the way).  And then there was X-Men: Apocalypse which used Apocalypse, one of the X-Men’s most comic book-y villains.  But they still didn’t push any of it quite far enough. 

The truth about the X-Men is that there’s always a drive to make it some kind of grounded, serious, mature thing because of the seriousness of its famous central metaphor.  However, the thing is that as serious as the X-Men’s metaphor for bigotry and discrimination is, it’s also increasingly dated and very flawed.  For example, the metaphor loses a bit of power when you consider that unchecked mutant powers are actually pretty dangerous.  And the more you focus on that metaphor, the more the cracks in it start to show.  So, the metaphor is always there in the comics, but there’s also a lot of cross-genre craziness and over the top soap opera melodrama to draw the eye and make sure you don’t inspect the metaphor too closely.  What kind of craziness?  Oh, all kinds.  Evil mutant terrorist kinds like Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  Ancient conqueror kinds like Apocalypse.  Time travel kinds like Stryfe and Trevor Fitzroy.  Technological kinds like the Sentinels (including Master Mold) and the Phalanx.  Alien and interdimensional kinds like the Brood and Mojo.  Magical kinds like the Juggernaut and Belasco.  Heck, sometimes they just go to a place called The Savage Land and fight dinosaurs and jungle people.  The X-Men probably have one of the most diverse galleries of rogues out there, surpassed maybe only by Superman.  And Superman has a diverse collection of villains because he’s the prototype superhero and has a lot of prototype villains.  (Note: I said “most diverse”, not “best”.  I know many people will argue with me about how Batman, Flash or Spider-Man have better rogues galleries than Superman).  The one place where the vaunted bigotry metaphor and this varied array of villainy come together is in how people react to the X-Men’s heroism.  Basically, the X-Men are the heroes who will save the world everyday for a week before breakfast and will never receive the proper recognition for it.  No one throws the X-Men a parade.  Instead, they’re greeted with suspicion, contempt or worse.

Not to mention there are other themes that play into the X-Men.  Like found family.  For decades, the idea that a family doesn’t begin and end with blood or marriage and that a caring family unit can be built out of friends, classmates, teammates and other such people has been one of the defining themes of the X-Men.  Ever notice how Joss Whedon includes found family as an element in so many of his shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and even the Avengers movies.  It’s probably because he’s an X-Men fan going back all the way to the ‘80s.  The movies did pretty much nothing with it.
Back to the printed page.
But now the X-Men are back with Marvel.  Though, I’m not entirely crazy about the circumstances.  Disney buying 20th Century Fox is a little worrying.  Big companies getting bigger can cause some serious problems.  Not to mention the fact that I’m not crazy about the idea of Disney handing what’s left of Fox, which includes right-wing propaganda factory Fox News, billions of dollars.  However, there’s little we can do but look on the bright side of things.  So now, the X-Men can get a fresh start, which I am eager to see.

That’s about all I can say on this aspect of the X-Men.  But I have to say, now that I’ve started, it’ll be really hard not to turn the next post into just a love letter to my favorite X-Men character of all time.  Hmm . . .

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Bows, Frills, Love and Justice.

When it comes to manga and anime, I tend to surprise myself.  The genres and titles I expect to like often fail to spark my interest for the long term.  However, titles I might not have expected will often become my favorites.  When I first started reading manga, I thought I’d like shonen battle manga like Naruto, Bleach and FullmetalAlchemist because they seemed to be the closest equivalent to the superhero comics I grew up with.  Instead, I found I didn’t have much of a taste for the battles that seemed to drag on for multiple volumes or the constant “I must become stronger” mindset.  Instead, my manga genres of choice ended up being mystery, sports, cooking and even the occasional harem comedy.

However, it’s rare that I jump the gender divide and read or watch something from the shoujo (girls’) or josei (women’s) demographics.  So, it surprised me a bit when I ended up binge-watching all of Sailor Moon Crystal  on Hulu.  I knew of SailorMoon, mind you.  Back in the ‘90s, it was one of the few anime to get a foothold on TV here in the United States before the Toonami boom.  Then after that, it would make a comeback on said Toonami block.  However, I had never watched it all that intently.  So, I decided to do as deep a dive as I could into the “magical girls” genre and see what I could figure out about its appeal.
Now, when I first approached this subject, my knowledge of the genre was limited.  I mostly knew of it in terms of Sailor Moon and to a lesser extent Cardcaptor Sakura and Tokyo Mew Mew (both of the last two were brought to the U.S. as Cardcaptors and Mew Mew Power respectively).  I also had a vague awareness of the PreCure franchise.  So, the way I saw it based on Sailor Moon was that the magical girls genre could be summed up as “like superheroes but frillier”.  You know what I mean: villains, special powers, secret identities and fighting the good fight.  All of it done while wearing skirts and bows and wielding sparkly pink accessories.   However, while that is true to an extent, it’s not completely true.  While some magical girls could be quantified as superheroes, not all are.  I put together a basic Venn diagram so you could get the gist of it, but it doesn’t include every possible property or franchise.
The biggest thing that seems to define the magical girl genre are young, female lead characters with some kind of magical power (duh).  Sometimes it involves a transformation, sometimes it doesn’t.  There’s usually a romantic subplot, but not necessarily (like, 98% of the time).  The main lead will often have a power related to healing of purification, but again not in every case.  For every rule there is an exception and for every exception there is a rule.

So, what did I think of all of it?  Well, let’s set the parameters, first.  During this dive into magical girl territory, I mainly read them in manga form with a few anime sprinkled in.  The titles I read were Wedding Peach, Tokyo Mew Mew, Magic Knight Rayearth, Pichi Pichi Pitch Mermaid Melody, Phantom Thief Jeanne, Shugo Chara and Cardcaptor Sakura.  The anime I watched were Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu and the original Pretty Cure.

As expected, I leaned more towards the ones that had more superheroic tendencies.  Sailor Moon remains a favorite.  Tokyo Mew Mew is also good.  Tokyo Mew Mew kind of reminds me of Spider-Man.  For one, it embraces a science fiction origin in terms of how its characters gained animal powers.  Also, how the main character frets over how her hero duties interfere with her romantic relationship.  Shugo Chara also proved to be a surprise favorite.  I just find the concept rather clever.  The whole thing revolves around people creating heart eggs which hatch into Guardian Characters, which represent a kind of person who the person wants to be.  The main character Amu uses these characters to transform into different magical girl forms.  So, her heroic forms are idealized versions of herself amped up to superheroic proportions.  Amulet Heart is peppy and athletic.  Amulet Spade is artistic.  Amulet Clover is super-skilled at domestic tasks like cooking.  And Amulet Diamond is a cool idol (read as: singer/actress/model).  Instead of it just being “here’s you transformed by magic”, it’s “here’s who you want to be but dialed up to eleven”.  I also really liked the original version of Pretty Cure, which I found on the free streaming service Tubi.  What surprised me in that series was how much physical combat there was.  Shows like Sailor Moon tended to focus on magical and energy attacks.  Cure Black and Cure White, on the other hand, tended to actually get in there and mix it up.  Princess Tutu, which is kind of superhero-y but also about ballet and storytelling and oddly meta, is a series I’ve watched before and is always good.  Seriously, watch Princess Tutu.
There were a couple of magical girl series that I liked that didn’t quite overlap into superhero territory.  Incidentally, both of them were created by the artist collective CLAMP.  Magic Knight Rayearth is a magical girl story about three high school girls who get whisked away to an epic fantasy world and made into magic knights.  They set off with the idea that they’re there for one specific mission only to find they’re there for completely different reasons that create all sorts of negative consequences.  It’s a well-written and well-drawn fantasy series and one that is surprisingly funny in spots.  The other series is Cardcaptor Sakura, which is a little bit closer to an urban fantasy in execution.  It’s about a girl named Sakura Kinomoto who accidentally releases a set of magical Clow Cards into the world and then with the help of the cards’ guardian and her friends, finds them and recaptures them.  This much I knew and expected from the TV show Cardcaptors, which was a heavily edited version of Cardcaptor Sakura (it had an awesome theme song, though).  What I didn’t expect was a light romance comic that seemingly discards any sense of strict sexuality and all the identity politics that come with it.  At least during the first half of the series (haven’t read the second half yet), almost every character seems to be at least bisexual.  Sakura herself has a crush on her older brother’s friend but also talks about how her new female teacher makes her “feel all floaty”.  Meanwhile, her rival is a boy named Li Syaoran.  He’s on the books as becoming a love interest for Sakura later, but also has a crush on her brother’s friend.  The lack of identity politics is actually kind of refreshing.  Here in the U.S., such ideas often seem to get whittled down into who people identify as and what “team” they’re on.  Still, there are some elements that might make American audiences uneasy.  The fact that so much is made of romance in a story where the main character and her rival are about nine years old might bother some people (they are a little young to be so worried about all that).  There’s also a romantic relationship suggested between one of Sakura’s elementary school classmates and her teacher, which might raise a few red flags with people.
Other manga didn’t impress me much.  Phantom Thief Jeanne I stopped reading after one digest.  One of the ones I found particularly disappointing was a series entitled Wedding Peach.  It starts off with the rather crazy premise of the goddess Aphrodite choosing a girl to become the heroine Wedding Peach in order to defend love from demons and retrieve the legendary “four somethings” (something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue).  The really noteworthy part being that her first demon-fighting costume is a big, floofy wedding dress.  As the series goes on though, it changes first to a shorter, almost lingerie-like outfit and then to a sort of Wonder Woman-like outfit but with hearts and angel wings on it.  And then it’s just kind of finding treasures and fighting demons.  Also, a typical will they/won’t they semi-antagonistic, semi-romantic relationship between the main character and one of her classmates.  The whole wedding theme sounds odd and crazy enough that it could be fun, but ultimately the execution of the whole thing proves to be kind of boring and conventional.

Overall though, I enjoyed what I saw.  The ones that did lean in more of a superhero direction, really do tend to read more like the American superhero comics I grew up reading.  It may seem a bit strange at first glance considering how oriented towards romance magical girl manga is.  But then, Spider-Man was always more concerned about his love life than a lot of other things.  Heck, the X-Men comics have often been regarded by fans as just being a big, long, complicated soap opera.  Someone once made the case that the writing of American romance comics from the ‘50s had a big impact on how superheroes were written from the ‘60s onward and I believe them.  As for how the magical heroine stories match up against the battle heroes over on the shonen side of the street, I’d say it’s favorable.  In the magical girl stories, there’s a lot less macho posturing, a lot less obsessing over strength or rivalries and a lot more focus on communal qualities like friendship and love.

I’ve really just scratched the surface, though.  I didn’t even touch the manga and anime that subvert the genre and take it past the usual bounds of girls’ romance stories.  Manga like Puella Madoka Magica, which depicts becoming a magical girl as more of a dark, Faustian pact.  Or Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka, which near as I can tell asks the question “What if magical girls were the result of a secret military project?”.  I’m not finished yet, though.  I’m still reading Shugo Chara and Cardcaptor Sakura as well as watching Sailor Moon.  Heck, thanks to Tubi I just discovered a magical girl idol series called Fancy Lala.
I’ll try my best to keep up with them.  You see, I’ve started reading some other manga series.  Staying true to form, I’ve developed an interest in yet another unexpected genre.  This time, it’s . . . romantic comedies.  I’ve begun reading manga like The Quintessential Quintuplets, We Never Learn, Wotakoi, Kaguya-sama: Love isWar and even some more risqué fare like Ao-chan Can’t Study.

When it comes to anime and manga, you never know what you might like until you try it.