Under the Influence of Heroines

Going back through tons (boxes and binders and teetering piles) of old artwork over the past few weeks, it’s been much more illuminating than I anticipated to see the works of my younger self. I had almost completely forgotten just how many “epic” stories I attempted to start, but of course never finished; I have been a terrific non-completer of “books” for as long as I can remember — the incredible prevalence of plastic spiral-bound (and even more rudimentary staple-bound) reams of lined paper containing the first few to, at most, dozen or so pages of my Next Great Story, among all this old work, is unintentionally hilarious to recognize as a larger pattern now. Once I got older, there were a few I even gamely stuck with across a few years; in grade school I would start and stop them within single volumes and quickly move on to the next concept, but once I hit junior high, I began to obsessively plot out and outline, often in astounding levels of detail (considering how little actual “book” ever followed all this preparatory work), to sketch out in fuller detail characters and concepts. I would enter periods where I would draw nothing else, in which these worlds became as fictionally real as I imagine any writer’s do. I would sketch scene upon scene from some great work that would never be anything more than disjointed pieces, with no serious concern for how I might stitch it all together later. All of that was already somewhere in my head, even if I would never draw most of it.

This “style,” if it can be called that, even spilled over into my writing. I started playing around with fanfic at around the same age, and on into high school; when writing it, I always gravitated toward scenic stories, rather than anything deeply plotted. (To this day, there’s still a huge Word document sitting somewhere on one of my backup hard drives, containing the thousands of words of all the X-Files fanfic snippets I ever wrote, which I added to randomly whenever inspiration struck. It’s essentially just one huge collection of post-episode vignettes, which was far and away my favorite thing to write. At some point, I had a vague but grand vision of connecting it all together via some large, interactive art piece and some creative coding.) My preference for this style was so great, I even once created a new formatting style on LiveJournal, incorporating small graphics — via plenty of extra CSS code — into a story, purely as a means to add a visual element to give the disjointed nature of this type of storytelling better flow for the reader. It won a community award, and was even mimicked by a few other writers for a time afterward, though I don’t imagine anyone knew what my real reason was for doing it: I’m just a heavily visual thinker. (But mostly, I’m just a huge nerd.)

In revisiting all this old art and all these old stories I started, the theme that connects them all is as obvious a sign of my influences as anything anyone that young creates: badass (often magical, though not always) ladies. Why was this? Sailor Moon. Obviously.

I was introduced to the series by a friend just around when I was turning 13. I can’t imagine a better time to be indoctrinated into the magical girls club. At the time, the only way you could read the original source material — Naoko Takeuchi’s beautiful (highly stylized) manga series — was Mixx (which would later become TokyoPop)’s English translations. They were poorly bound, and even more poorly translated. It took my nerdy ass roughly three months to figure this out. What did I do then? I bought the manga in its (much more finely bound, as tankouban have always been in comparison to American comics) original Japanese format from the Kinokuniya bookstore at the local Japanese market, then sat in my room and stared at the panels, attempting to figure out what the symbols in them meant. Considering I had never attempted to learn a foreign language before, looking back at the notes I made as an adult — and as someone who eventually did study the language formally for three years in high school, can still read and write it well enough, and was for a time conversationally fluent — I’m rather amazed at how much I was able to figure out entirely visually, just from trying to read a comic book. A note, in one margin: my poorly written (not having studied Japanese calligraphy yet) kanji for “senshi,” followed by its hiragana counterparts. Next to it, I wrote, “must mean ‘soldier’ or ‘scout’.” This is essentially correct (senshi indeed means “soldier”); the Mixx translation of Sailor Moon (and dubbed Toei anime series) opted to refer to the girls as “Sailor scouts” rather than soldiers, but I was apparently astute enough to recognize where and when this character would appear, and what its context must mean. I had several sheets covered with such inferred word usage investigations I undertook on my own.

This was an understandably slow process, and entirely based on making educated guesses, with no one to correct any mistakes I might make. So, I next rode my bike to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble, sat on the floor for an hour in the language section, and picked out a Japanese language guidebook. (The selection was overwhelming, and ultimately I picked the one co-written by a woman who shared my first name, because that’s as good a reason as any to choose one book over another when you’re 13 and wholly ignorant to the nuances of translation. Fortunately, it turned out to be a very good edition. I still have it, with all my old handwritten Post-Its stuck in.) By the time I started to study Japanese formally in school, at age 15, though much of my self-taught calligraphy stroke order was a bit backwards, I had a fairly strong basic understanding to work from. (Along with trying to read through comics, the first full anime series I watched, which will always be my favorite, Tenkuu no Escaflowne, is a series heavily concerned with the concept of fate or destiny. The word is discussed so often during its run, I realized at around the same age what unmei must mean. This applied to iinazuke — “fiance” — with Ranma 1/2, and its plot’s comedic obsession with rotating engagements, as well. As I picked up more, I also gained an appreciation for Japanese humor, which — being heavily pun-based — does not translate easily, and on which you can blame the ridiculous title of this very post.) All of this work, almost entirely thanks to the power of magical girls.

Turned_Good

Sailor Mnemosyne (left) with her sister, Sailor Lethe (right).
© Naoko Takeuchi

My years-long obsession with Greek mythology was deepened by this as well, as the original manga series of Sailor Moon features a rich, heavily Greek-inspired mythology, and almost all major character names are tied to it directly or indirectly (apart from the majority of the villains, whose names are largely tied to gemology). I’d spend hours on library and school computers — for at least half of high school my only means of accessing the adolescent Internet — poring over all those quirky old Geocities fan sites, soaking all of the character dossiers up, learning how everything tied together. (The one character I briefly considered cosplaying as a teenager only appears in a single chapter of the manga, and her name is Sailor Lethe; she appears alongside her sister, Mnemosyne, and they are named after the rivers in Hades. Their names’ connection to forgetfulness and memory in mythology tie in directly to their powers and actions within the story.)

I’m old enough now to look back on old works and see their obvious — and even some of their less glaring — influences. It’s easy for me to laugh at how heavily I matched so many of the same notes from that series (c’mon now, younger self, did you really think no one would notice?), but it’s hard for me to find fault in it. I can only view Sailor Moon‘s affect on my younger self as positive. But what was it that made it so special to me, exactly? To answer that, I looked more closely at my longest enduring creation; the character I worked hardest at, to develop the most fully, and drew for the longest period of time.

kaea1

Kaea’s early character design concept, from my high school notes, circa 2000-01. Heavily manga-inspired in style.
© Eleanore Studer

Her name was Kaea (an obvious crib from “gaea,” alternately “gaia,” and all the Greek mythological and Escaflowne-inspired — the fictional planet just near the moon, where most of that series takes place, being called Gaea — carryover that implies). She far outlasted any other character I ever conceived. She first began to appear somewhere midway through high school, likely in my sophomore year, but she can still be found as far on as in the margins of my latest notes in college, up to eight years later, and possibly even a bit later than that. As my style evolved with time and more extensive art study, so did she.

kaea2

Kaea’s design evolution, from one of my college notebooks, circa 2006-07. A much more hybridized style between Japanese and American influences.
© Eleanore Studer

Originally she was far more obviously Japanese in style, but as I grew older and studied graphic novels more broadly, she took on a more hybrid look somewhere between Japanese and American styles: still large, though not as large, eyes; more prominently defined nose and lips; a less pointed and angular, smoother face; less spectacular hair, in both color and length. She also aged with me; in early drawings she is clearly intended to be a teenager, but once I was in college, her face had elongated slightly; she seemed to have become older, too.

Looking back now, though I didn’t realize it as I conceived her, she was everything I wanted to be. In many ways, her creation and sustained presence through my creative development and life stands as the most protracted and intricate example of escapism for me. She was, like me, a tall girl (my same height, in fact, because if things aren’t completely on the nose when you’re young, what are they?). I attended a high school with over 4,000 students, and was probably only the same height or taller than a dozen of them at most, and thus stuck out everywhere I went like a sore thumb. In her story, she had a male love interest (something I would never have) who was — unconventional in any shoujo series, and against the typical Hollywood romantic comedy archetype — shorter than her, as all the boys I knew then were. (He was originally named Seki, though I suspect I may have changed it to something else at some point. I wish I could recall my thought process in choosing that particular kanji, considering its meaning is, oddly, “blame” or “to condemn.”) Kaea had long hair, like mine, but it started off wildly, ridiculously colorful, unlike mine (and a few years before I would finally dye mine, as I had wanted to do for ages). She dressed somewhat similarly to me; a bizarre hybrid of tomboyish baggy pants and more girlish, fitted shirts, or skirts at times. I’m sure I even drew her a few times in a long, black trench coat, which was my own lone signature clothing item throughout high school. She was more beautiful than I could ever imagine I would be. She was also braver and stronger than me — the tough one; the rescuer and aggressor — but simultaneously a loner with few close friends, just as I was. She had a strange, tragic backstory to explain her unusual personality and various neuroses, which I had (and still have) no such convenient excuse for, yet almost longed for, in that shameless self-mythologizing manner of children (which is why, among other reasons, I’ve always suspected so many children’s stories are focused around orphans — from Dickens to Mary in her Secret Garden, through Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and the Boxcar Children, and the hundreds of others in between). Like me, she was bitingly sarcastic, and fond of raising one eyebrow to intimidate or communicate bemusement. She had secrets of the sort we all wish we had, rather than the secrets we live with. She may have been a strange outsider, but — unlike her perpetual misfit creator, who fit in nowhere — she had a destiny, and when you are a young dreamer with an overactive imagination, that is everything. Some incarnations of her, at various points in her ever-growing mythos, had wings (another aspect that can be equally blamed on Escaflowne). She had weapons: originally a gun, until I grew a bit older and more uncomfortable with them, which was later replaced by a sword, but then replaced yet again by, ultimately, inevitably, some form of staff, tied to… magical powers. Why? Because: Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon is still extraordinary to me, whether viewed as a product (or an outlier) of its time of conception, or on its own. Created by a woman, it describes a universe almost entirely composed of women. Powerful women. Soldiers. Badass ladies guarding, fighting for, saving the goddamn universe. The main male love interest is the one who keeps needing to be rescued (constantly getting brainwashed and/or kidnapped), because his own powers are both what might be considered traditionally feminine (healing, psychometry) and significantly weaker than his girlfriend’s. When I drew one of my longest standing favorite images of Kaea and her own fellow, she is the primary focus; he is standing behind her:

kaeaseki

Kaea and Seki, still in the early (heavily Japanese-styled) design stages, right down to the friggin’ cherry blossom petals. (Boy, did I have way too much fun with that hair.)
© Eleanore Studer

Thanks, Sailor Moon.

All women. Strong, diverse women. (Jupiter was my favorite, because I saw myself most in her: tall, tomboy, perceived as intimidating but secretly big-hearted and romantic, loved to cook and bake, fiercely protective of her loved ones.) But really, you and your friends could find at least one girl in that series you saw yourself in, if not several, because there were so many to choose from. We made a game of it, my five core female friends in eighth grade and me. (Which Sailor Scout are you!?) And the series itself, despite being considered primarily shoujo, had everything: action, drama, comedy, romance, intrigue. Gender swapping, lesbianism, implied pre-age of consent sex, asexuality, destiny. There are even arguments to be made that Sailor Moon was — particularly during its later, nightmare-centric SuperS and galaxy-wide hit squad-focused Stars arcs — a horror series.

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Sailor Chi, acting as an agent for the dictatorial Sailor Galaxia, murders Princess Kakyuu by impaling her through the back with her staff. Sailor Moon never shied away from blood, violence, or horrific imagery, but this panel always stuck with me personally as one of the most brutal and shocking of the entire series.
© Naoko Takeuchi

It did not shy away from lending immense power to its female characters, either. Sailor Moon is the ultimate power source in the universe, but her protectors are total badasses in their own right.

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The Sailor soldiers, outer and inner planetary squads (left to right): Pluto, Uranus, Moon, Saturn, Neptune; Venus, Mars, Chibi-Moon, Mercury, Jupiter.
© Naoko Takeuchi

They were gorgeous — one of my all-time favorite things Takeuchi ever said was that she just loved to draw “beautiful women” (who doesn’t?) — but they could, and would, beat the shit out of you. (Kaea’s story featured, of course, three support soldiers, complete with obvious element-inspired names. HMM. Apparently young me genuinely believed that if I assigned her three of them, as opposed to four (or nine), no one could possibly know where this idea came from.) The anime may not have liked to overtly depict much death, but in the manga, the soldiers behaved as soldiers typically do, and did often kill their enemies, whenever they were found to be beyond redemption. Sailor Pluto’s lonely duty guarding the gates of time alone meant she could stop time. Sailor Saturn? Her single power was to come in when everyone else had irrevocably fucked everything up, lower her scythe, and end the entire goddamn world.

Of course, in my drawing, growing up with these women, the woman I drew would stand in front.

The ultimate lesson of the series is arguably that pain and struggle, suffering and loss are inescapable, but love and friendship are worth living and fighting for. Sailor Moon chooses to live, despite the chaos of the universe — and the temptation to end any future conflict by throwing herself into the Galaxy Cauldron to be destroyed — because of her friends and those she loves. She will not sacrifice their existence simply to save herself the burden of forever fighting. Her greatest power throughout the entire series, but particularly by the end, is the strength of her heart, her ability to accept and love anyone, even her enemy.

For all these reasons, and probably plenty more, Sailor Moon permeated everything I wrote and drew for many years. As all young, developing artists do, I began by copying favorite panels, before eventually developing my own style and characters. (Coming across many samples of this through my recent trip down memory lane has been pretty entertaining, too.) The themes of her story bled into any I wanted or attempted to create, helped feed my creative drive. And while I can initially laugh at that transparency… the more I consider it, the more grateful I am that — of all the series I could have fixated on during my most feverishly productive artistic years — I found her and her friends.

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