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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Let's Pop Together Part 2

Is what Pop Team Epic does to everything it touches that different from what Ready Player One does to The Iron Giant? After you flatten pop down, break it apart, and repeat it to the point of meaninglessness, can you find a way back to sincerity?

Previously: Superflat

Any pop art probably runs the risk of turning into the Sixers from Ready Player One, simply stripmining culture for things to monetize. Pop Team Epic certainly runs that risk, what with its explicit framing of its subjects as consumer goods. I think it's often really obvious when that's being done. For example, Tracer showing up is always a bad sign, certainly from a cosmic portent perspective, but also from an artistic perspective. What I mean is: I think maybe we can sense the insincerity that comes from skimming profits off people's nostalgia or present fandom hype or, simply, the milking of previous commercial successes. We can sense when something is Sixer-esque--when it's been deep sixed.

Ready Player One seems to go for the hits, the things already established as pop cultural icons. This is a big part of why I personally can't relate to it, actually. Other than the Labyrinth--one of my favorite films--there's just not a lot of touchstones there that I associate with my own childhood of watching weird European cartoon imports, educational tv on PBS, and Disney films from the 70s, the exact period everyone else seems to think was the company's dark age. Oh, and Gumby. I loved Gumby. You know, it's honestly a miracle that I'm not even weirder, all things considered. Anyway, yeah, whatever, Back to the Future defined a generation bla bla. It feels like there's a weird insistence that, if I thought about it, I'd fondly remember all these things that I didn't experience and don't care about.

The things I care about can't be monetized. I don't mean that in a "I care about ART and LOVE" sense; both those things can be monetized all you like. I mean the things I care about aren't things people like enough to buy. I can't even get people to read about a webcomic by a famous comic author, for heaven's sake, simply because it's a decade old and, like, no one actually reads comics! Anyone can rehash the poster for Blade Runner, though, and expect, and receive, recognition. Might as well strip mine where there's actual coal!

The end result does come off as sorta phony though.


I think we can draw a distinction between what Ready Player One does with something like Blade Runner and what, say, Neil Cicierega does with it. I'm on record as an ecstatic fan of Cicierega's Mouth Saga. His piece "Like Tears In Chocolate Rain" is a stand out example of his technique of taking the revered (Blade Runner) and splicing it monstrously with the memetic or the reviled (Tay Zonday's "Chocolate Rain"). It's absurd, but it also has the weird effect of wrapping back around to sincerity through a kind of alienation. I often find that Cicierega's mashups demand far more attention than their sources, the displacement of music and lyrics and their frequent maniacal repetition compelling re-examination and close reading. This is how you get from the mashup of Blade Runner and Chocolate Rain to an examination of Foucault's theories of biopower. While it could be fairly noted that Genius commentators are notoriously pretentious and happy to apply similar wank to practically any song (when they're not interpreting everything as a drug reference...) I think the experience of "Like Tears In Chocolate Rain" is one of absurd sincerity. There's something weirdly resonant in this pop art intervention.

Some of the best moments of Pop Team Epic partake of a similar absurd sincerity. Take the longer story segment in episode three: "The Documentary: ~On the Other Side of an Idol's Dream~". In this sequence, Popuko is the chain smoking, crude, lazy, drunken, and belligerent head of one of Japan's ultra-feminine (or, will I get in trouble if I just say "infantalizing and chauvinist"?) "Idol" groups, "Popu-chin." Pipimi is her manager, "Pipi-P," bizarrely convinced of Popu-chin's hidden brilliance despite her total unsuitability to the cloying hyperfemininity of her role.

Unable to find suitable backup singers that can properly accentuate Popu-chin's unique qualities, Pipi-P ultimately decides to simply create a massive army of Popu-chin clones. They quickly overrun normal humans, utterly subjugating humanity. In the last shot of this "documentary", Pipi-P, sitting on a concrete throne amid ruin a la Akira, wearing an outfit based on Street Fighter's M Bison, surrounded by Popu-chin clones, is asked by the film makers whether this is the "ideal world" she imagined. "I guess you could say that," she muses cryptically, and the camera zooms out slowly while dramatic and somewhat melancholy guitar music plays in the background.
This was the moment when I became sincerely and passionately devoted to the timeless love of Popuko and Pipimi. I mean, it's remarkable how many sketches in the series revolve around the two characters being intensely devoted to each other, in one sense or another. It's absurd nonsense, but that absurd nonsense allows the characters to express some sort of bond that is far larger than life. The references here, and in things like Cicierega's work, take on a weird resonance to them through their recontextualization. It's like a Byzantine juxtaposition: isn't the tale of Jonah a presagement of Christ? Isn't the story of Tetsuo and Kaneda a presagement of Pipimi and Popuko? Or, not--sometimes it's just jokes, and that's ok too. But amidst the absurd pagentry there's a sense of weird (maybe a little misplaced) affection towards these terrible meme girls.

And there is some kind of sincerity, too, I think, in the choice of subjects to parody. If you know a mountain is full of coal, sure, anyone can level the mountain entirely and make a profit (well, as long as the government keeps giving handouts to fossil fuel companies), but wandering out in the desert of pop culture high out of your mind and finding a city of gold takes some real guts, and possibly also hallucinogens.

So, it comes off as incredibly sincere when Pop Team Epic has an extended parody/homage stop motion musical sequence based on an Earth, Wind, and Fire music video produced during the Disco backlash of 1981.

Like, the further I got into that sentence the more I felt reality itself dissolving into an incoherent mass of colors and textures around me. What... what the hell? Who asked for this parody? Who could even have imagined it? Crunchyroll put a bit of it up on youtube so you can watch it there if you don't believe me. I assume they selected that clip because they, too, aren't entirely sure this nonsense isn't just a hallucination. To take something that is utterly without cultural clout at this point in time, zero nostalgic leverage, and make it the centerpiece of such a lavishly produced sequence might be absurd and ironic, but in a way that is fundamentally sincere, because it functions without an expectation of a return on the investment.

Even the show's copious use of more familiar things, like its parodies of Die Hard, come across more like John Egbert of Homestuck's improbable obsession with Con Air, something aesthetically discordant, once again so over the top in its obsessive fanishness that it wraps around and becomes nonsense. Homestuck is a pretty good guide here, given its fascination with the state of being a fan or reader of pop culture (buy my book). Dave and Dirk Strider's collective obsession with irony layered over top of itself recursively until irony and sincerity are hopelessly garbled is cautionary in a sense. It's easy to get lost in the weeds of ironic recursion. Nevertheless, they do capture something really fundamental about what it means to be a participant in pop culture online, I think: in the face of a culture that is utterly stripmined, sometimes all you can do to express what you're feeling to the people you care about is pick over the debris until you find enough raw material to make a weird meme. 

"Is this the ideal world you envisioned?"
"I guess you could say that."


Apparently in the book for Ready Player One the protagonists use Ultraman to fight Mechagodzilla. Ok. In the film they use The Iron Giant, a character of course famous for how much he loves to fight and make violence happen. As he says famously in the beloved cartoon film: "I am a gun!"

This shouldn't be too surprising. As we've already explored at length, what characterizes Pop Art, Pop Team Epic, Ready Player One, and maybe our entire contemporary engagement with culture is the treatment of all media as contentless, infinitely interchangeable slurry.

This isn't a problem due to some mythic, sanctified and sacrosanct "Creator's Intent," or at least we can't get from "Creator's Intent" to a place we want to be, I don't think. Nor can canonicity get us there, not on its own. I think we want to have some kind of autonomy and control as readers, if only because that seems to be more fun... and I think it's fair to say that we don't want our culture dominated by reactionary fuckwittery, because "sci fi novels about disabled transgender were-seals of color" also seems to be obviously more fun than endless hard boiled white dudes shooting the baddies.

Both of the moral claims--for Continuity and for Creator's Intent--against treating a character like the Iron Giant as so much raw, contentless material have pretty significant failstates, in that they close off our ability as readers to say wait, you're telling the story wrong. For marginalized readers, this seems flatly unacceptable. Authorial intent can be a real albatross around our necks in a situation where institutional access is limited. Our culture is dominated by cishet white dudes. Do we really want to say, ok, no more fanfiction or parody, authorial intent is king and these white dudes get to dictate culture to us? I don't think so.

Canonicity is I think less problematic but still has a long history of being used for reactionary causes. I'm not ruling it out as worthwhile (and, in fact I'm not ruling out authorial intent necessarily--it can be useful, as when Ursula Le Guin lambasted adaptations of her books for whitewashing the characters) but in geek dominated culture we've seen it primarily leveraged in order to complain about legacy properties becoming more diverse. Remember Star Wars and the "little white cuckball"? I think that there's often ways this can be dealt with from the perspective of canonicity--for example, it's trivially easy to argue, against fake nerd boys, that a leftist critique of power is already buried within Star Wars--but sometimes a canon might be so fundamentally broken in its conceit that you simply need to do a Taika Waititi and blow it all to hell.

What's needed is a way to contextualize how canonicity or anticanonicity, authorial intent or the flaunting thereof, exist both within a repertoire or meaning-making context, and within a material production context.

Take The Iron Giant for example. If we're relying on canonicity or authorial intent, we're on trouble defending the original animated film simply because it isn't the original text. That's actually a children's story by Ted Hughes, a guy best known as the husband of Sylvia Plath.

No, really. Yeah I was pretty nonplussed by that info too. Apparently it was written to comfort his children after Plath's suicide. So... that's a thing. Anyway, the book seems to match the film only in the broadest of strokes, though there is a kid named Hogarth who tames the Giant and inspires him to help humanity fend off the giant bat-dragon-angel that comes to Earth demanding tribute. I mean you can with some work get from the book (the alien monster is drawn to earth by all our warmaking) and the film's searing indictment of cold war paranoia and self-annihilating jingoism, but a directly faithful transcription of the story the film is not.

What the film does, though, is use the story as a jumping off point for a close look at violence, paranoia, the failures of adults, the evils of McCarthyism and the Arms Race, and the possibility of a response to conflict that doesn't involve conquest. That all seems pretty worthy, goal-wise. It's a big part, I think, of why people are nostalgic for the Iron Giant in the first place. One approach might be, then, to simply look at how straightforwardly sincere the reimagining is.

And yet, if the Iron Giant waltzed into a scene in Pop Team Epic to lose an arm wrestling match to Popuko ("Gundam!" Popuko might shout in misrecognition) I doubt anyone would react to it with the rancor I've seen in response to Ready Player One's use of the Iron Giant. For this reason, I don't think we can say that the big reception issue with Ready Player One's use of the Iron Giant stems simply from a differential between how meaningful or straightforwardly sincere (rather than meta-ironically sincere) one version and another is in its engagement with the material. While we might find great value in what the film The Iron Giant does, meaningfulness simply isn't the only way we arrive at a place where we're ok working with texts in a noncanonical way.

The difference, it seems to me, is the cognitive dissonance Ready Player One seems to demand, where we are at once deeply committed to treating media objects as sacrosanct, and also utterly indifferent to what is actually done to them. The film is marketed with the understanding that we will feel an instant pang of recognition when we see the Iron Giant. And yet, it also depends on us immediately betraying that recognition and accepting the use of the character in a way that takes everything that made that character meaningful and really makes them meaningless. So, there's all this weird cognitive dissonance going on where you've got to simultaneously care fanatically enough to buy buy buy, but not care at all about the contents of any of the things you're supposedly devoted to.

Pop Team Epic, meanwhile, continues to be ambivalent towards its fans, towards its haters, and towards the fans of all the various things it parodies or mines for visual gags. It simply presents itself as exactly what it is: Extruded Absurdist Anime Product. If nothing else, I admire how from the bizarrely overproduced and epic theme song forward, it constantly reminds the viewer that it is where pop culture gets sliced up and churned out as shitpost gold. 

Because I'm not a thinkpiece writer at The Atlantic or whatever, I don't buy into this tedious, seemingly eternal Irony vs Sincerity thing. It should be clear by now, I think, that those categories are less interesting from a critical standpoint than considering how the affectation of irony or sincerity might be leveraged. I'm sure plenty of people, like that dude who called Ready Player One "Black Panther for Geeks", will treat it as utterly sincere, despite the cynical, ironic orientation towards culture that its whole advertising scheme requires. I'm sure plenty of people will consider Pop Team Epic a bewildering labyrinth of irony (and honestly they wouldn't exactly be wrong). What differentiates them is not irony and sincerity, though, but the whole way they exist within culture, within advertising, within the lucrative fan exploitation industry, and so on. And honestly? I do think, judging from reactions I've seen, that plenty of people intuit that, on some level at least.

The first episode of Pop Team Epic opens with an implausibly well animated false start for an agonizingly generic idol singer harem anime. Towards the end of the theme song, Popuko rips through the title, her strained voice choking out "NOT!" while her blank expression stares out at the viewer from the Goatse hole in the title card. Nevertheless, at the end of each episode we receive a preview for next week's episode of "Hoshiiro Girl Drop", in enough detail that we can expand out an entire plotline for this nonexistent show. Everything from the generic male high school student protagonist, to the girl who is secretly an idol singer, to the way each episode ends with the admonition to "fall in love again next week!" feels eerily familiar, itself a kind of Extruded Anime Product.

If pop is really as trivially mass produced as that, reconstructable just from a few fragments, then we don't need to go buy a ticket for Ready Player One or anything else. We can have just as much fun playing fast and loose with our mislabeled, bootleg action figures at home. What I ultimately love about Pop Team Epic is that like the best pop art it seems to invite us to come join it in play.


Hoshiiro Girl Drop is not without its share of surprises. In the preview for the finale, the protagonist rapidly reveals that in the previous episode he rediscovered that in fact five years prior the female lead actually died and "became a star" but "through the power of Gaia" was brought back to life, at the cost of the lead's memories of her. And now apparently her life is on the line again! The cutsey tagline of the show, "fall in love again next week," actually describes the characters rebuilding their relationship after the lead loses all his memories! This is why in the very first scene way back at the start of the damn series the protagonist doesn't know who the love interest is.

People responded accordingly with shell shocked astonishment to this purely parafictional anime managing to somehow have a Gainax Ending. In this we can see one of the really incredible strengths of the pop art approach: flatten everything down, reproduce it over and over to the point of meaningless, reduce the image down until it abstracts, turn all stories into a series of tropes... and then suddenly wrench everything sideways, introduce the unfamiliar, juxtapose things that really don't go together, and you can arrive at a new weird sincerity assemblage. I don't know if Ready Player One will do this. Nothing I've seen from previews or discussions about it suggests that it will.

But we can. And that's what matters.

Interviewer: We always see the Takeshobo building get destroyed, but what about King Records?Producer Kotaru Sudo: I’m sure it will be reduced to rubble when everyone wishes for it deep down in their hearts.

This Has Been

Let's Pop Together Part 2: Fall In Love Again Next Week!

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