Anybody here like games?

“It’s too late. You’re my guests!”

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Being a dancer since the age of 4, I grew up a Michael Jackson fan, and will always be one. Over the past couple decades or so, I’ve read more about him than just about any other figure or hero of mine, and he fascinates me to this day. Not just for the seemingly untouchable power his voice and what he could do with his body had over millions of people — including myself — across the whole world, but for what a vastly complex human being he was, all while being at the center of what was perhaps contemporary American pop culture’s most relentlessly focused lens. America didn’t just put him under a microscope for nearly 5 decades; it stuck him under a magnifying glass in the sun, hoping to watch closely, with a dark sort of glee, while we burned him into the ground.

It bears repeating, no matter how many times I’ve said it, that the late, endlessly great, James Baldwin, all but predicted what would happen to Michael, as early as 1985, to the point of precision that Joe Vogel — one of the greatest chroniclers on record of Michael’s phenomenal and varied career — has dubbed it “The Baldwin Prophecy”:

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…

— “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Playboy Magazine, 1985

This is a remarkably uncanny observation, yet also entirely unsurprising, given how prophetic most of Baldwin’s works have come to be, which is why they have never lost their relevance, and perhaps (shamefully) never will.

Sitting here, listening to his music — thanks to MTV playing a block of his short films all night, in celebration of what would’ve been his 59th birthday — I find myself thinking about him and his complexities at a depth I haven’t in some time. (Even Michael’s relationship to MTV is complex; the network both helped break the visual arm of his career fully into the mainstream, and mocked him relentlessly, while also later playing host to the only appropriately fantastic tribute performed for him just after his death in 2009. And Madonna may be a messy as hell figure herself, but her words on that night carry a weight and appreciation that few others’ could.)

I think one of the greatest issues with the world’s view of him, versus the reality of his life, was that we attempted, at large, to simultaneously magnify and simplify him, which could only strip him of his humanity, ignoring that — like any other human being — he was deeply complex, and host to countless contradictions. This set impossible standards for him, and yet was the largest attempt of (white) America to condense him to something more palatable, more relatable, more laudable… And later, more villainous, more contemptible, more unforgivable. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not ever fit into boxes like these (which never stops us, culturally, from attempting to shove them in, then feeling somehow betrayed when bits spill out and force us to confront them), and artists, perhaps most of all, suffer the worst effects of such pitiful goals. We so easily forget: to simplify is also to diminish.

As obviously inspired as he was by Bob Fosse, I find it surprising how few parallels I’ve ever seen drawn between the similarities of their early lives. (The James Brown connections were both directly personal, and even more obvious, so there is less need to go there.) Fosse — and if you’re looking for a great examination of another legend, you can’t do much better than Sam Wasson’s 2014 opus, Fosse — was confronted as frighteningly prematurely by women, sex and sexuality, and darkness in show business as Michael was: Fosse backstage at burlesque shows before he entered puberty, Michael peering from behind similar curtains both before and during his factory production line-like Motown years, groupies crawling into his rooms shared with his older brothers, his abusive father borderline pimping them out as a family unit. There is so much barely-disguised pain in both of their works; both were relentless workaholics, rarely satisfied with their own art. Yet they inspired countless others in their wake, both in life and long past both their premature deaths.

People often plant stubbornly into one camp or another, when discussing Michael: they either feel he was a child trapped in a man’s body, or they feel he was a predator playing the long con. (There are, of course, many variations on these two camps, but they tend to, overall, fall onto one side or the other.) Neither was true, and the clearest reality to me seems to be, again, horrendous contradictions — horrendous in that I can’t possibly imagine trying to reconcile them within one person. That he did so through his art, and publicly, was extraordinary. To just scrape the surface…

(1) Michael was an unapologetic Black man. (How anyone can hear “They Don’t Care About Us” and somehow miss this is still beyond me. Or watch him literally morph into a black panther in one of his most popular videos! I mean… shit. This is not subtle, by any means, and yet…) Throughout his life he was vocal, political, and adamant about this. His primary and most iconic messaging being centered around love did not stop him from speaking truth to power. The fact that vitiligo — which he publicly acknowledged having (albeit likely too late) as far back as 1993 — is literally listed as a medical fact on his autopsy report has not stopped countless people from clinging to the idea that it was all a lie; that it is even humanly possible to turn white as almost translucent sheet paper through skin bleaching alone (spoiler alert: it is not). There are photographs of the heaps of stage makeup he once tried to hide it under sliding off his skin with his sweat, while performing, as early as the late ’70s, but it never mattered. No excuse would have been good enough, in America, for what appeared to be a black man attempting to somehow “turn himself white;” the ultimate crime in a place so steeped in — and founded on — racism.

(2) People had enough pearl-clutching issues, at the time, with Bowie’s androgyny, but Michael took it further: he did it while Not White. (Michael’s original desired cover for the Bad album can only be described as androgynous — it was directly inspired, after all, by the famous 1928 Edward Steichen portrait of Gloria Swanson behind a swatch of lace for Vanity Fair — and it is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, his record label hated, and ultimately rejected, it.) The fact that fans — a majority of them women, many of them white — would literally faint, by the hundreds*, at just about every show he performed, did not help his case, because if we know one thing about America, it is the level at which white men will panic over what they perceive as threats to their women. And though he always featured non-white objects of love (or lust) in his music videos, he married a white woman; not just any white woman, but the daughter of the King of white music (and theft of  black music), Elvis Presley. It was widely mocked as a sham marriage, and yet for over two years after their divorce, Lisa Marie would follow him all over the world, even after marrying her next husband. He was a notorious — among those he employed or spent time in his entourage — flirt and lover of women. (Lord, the video of him in the limo, talking about the “good fish,” or shamelessly hitting on the female fan at that Invincible signing… Y’all.)

[*An aside: That live cut of “Man in the Mirror” has the power to emotionally destroy me, so… I get it.]

(3) He was, absolutely and unmistakably, obsessed by childhood, having missed out almost entirely on his own (and this is why, as previously mentioned, Madonna was an appropriate choice to speak on the matter shortly after his death). This, most problematically, seemed to blind him to the bulk of his own contradictions, and to the potentially dangerous motivations of others. This is how one ends up too close to (a) a man who will drug his own son just hoping to get a screenplay produced by his famous friend, and (b) a literal family of grifters, further down the line, who will eventually take you to court and destroy your life. (The 2005 court case was going on while I was in college for forensic criminology, and happened to be enrolled in law classes myself. I followed and studied it for months. The real details of it are, frankly, incredible. I wish they were more publicly, widely known. But a witch hunt is what the public wanted, and it is assuredly what they got.) He had played with fire, in his own anger quite transparently baiting the DA who was obsessed, for years, with convicting him with anything he could come up with — even going on record suggesting he would falsify evidence in order to do so — and a literal circus of media and law enforcement was the price he paid for it. The public perception of Neverland itself also speaks to this: an unsettling image of a Peter Pan-obsessed creep pied pipering children in from all over to some freakish compound, when in reality, its owner was very often traveling or touring and not even present on the grounds; it was created primarily as a space to welcome sick and underprivileged children to experience things they never could have otherwise (if for different reasons from the lack of them in his own childhood), and thousands came and went without the added privilege of ever meeting or interacting with the man himself.

(4) He was deeply shy, yet most at home performing on stage. This is how you arrive at a man who both plants false news stories in the press in the hopes of stirring mystery (the “Elephant Man’s bones” and “sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber” stories did, in fact, originate from Michael’s own camp), yet cannot take it when the press turns on him, and runs with the vengeful fun of printing far more hurtful and damaging lies about a large and easy target. A man who loved to greet adoring crowds of his fans by the thousands, but still longed to walk the streets alone and unbothered, to the point that closing down grocery stores just so he could experience walking the aisles without harassment was considered a privilege. Was this willful blindness often incredibly misguided on his part? Absolutely. Plenty of other things were, too, to put it mildly. If the world was determined to make a spectacle of him, he wanted so badly to have control over just what sort of spectacle he would become, though this was, of course, impossible. This is what happens when one just can’t understand why you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. This did not stop him from trying, and seemed to be one lesson he stubbornly refused to learn. It does not help that he was taught very early on that lying in the pursuit of crafting a public image is part of the job: at Berry Gordy’s behest, Motown falsely claimed, when they debuted The Jackson 5, that Michael was 9 years old (he was in fact 11; as if a child completely snatching a blues song from an adult man so unequivocally was somehow less extraordinary at any age), the better to package him as a precocious child star. The image vs. the reality, as an inescapable conflict, pervades Michael’s entire career, and consequently, his life. All of this is part of what makes the Jackson family the true realization of the American dream; that so much ugliness came with it is only appropriate. It is — it must be — a nightmare, too.

Performing ultimately would, however, kill him. Frighteningly rigid professionalism had been hammered into him so hard by his father, from such a young age, that by the time a part of his own stage fell over 30 feet into an orchestra pit (with him on it), despite suffering an awful injury to his back, he still crawled back on stage and would not leave until the song was over, because he had been so deeply conditioned to never disappoint an audience. It was around this time that the drugs that would eventually take his life were introduced to him by rapacious doctors backstage, and though this may have taken over 10 years to destroy him… of course it did.

He was, yes, a genius. He could not read or write music, so when full songs would pop into his head — which he was characteristically averse to taking credit for — he would sing and beatbox each and every part to his musicians and engineers. He had a vocal range that made opera singers envious; its remarkable breadth was both lower and higher — and more powerful — than many realize. This alone should have been enough to cement the fact of his artistry, but his body was a singular instrument, too. In the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” during the instrumental bridge/dance break down, Michael and his backup dancers are shot in silhouette, but there is never, at any point, a shred of doubt as to which shadow is his. He employed many of the greatest performing professional dancers beside him, in videos and on his tours, and yet no matter how great they were, he still outpaced and outdanced them all. At 50, hovering at death’s door, and certainly not well, he still brings a bunch of 20-somethings to their knees in shrieking awe, merely by half-assing (if only by his own standards) his way through a new interpretation of “Billie Jean,” then waves it off shyly while everyone loses their minds: “At least we got a feel of it.” Oh, Mike. The voice and the body were both superhuman, and both existed, somehow, within the same man, to a degree that seemed impossible.

(5) His two longest works on film are also his most obviously personal, in that they vocally and visually attest to all these contradictions, which is what makes them such a unique combination of so incredibly entertaining, and so profoundly weird: Moonwalker (1988) and Ghosts (1997). (I also love them both fiercely; know this.) The former features an unbelievable hodgepodge of adult themes and performance (drug trafficking, kidnapping, the mob, the performance of “Dirty Diana” that closes the thing out) flowing in and out of chunks of genuine childlike wonder and simplicity (playing soccer at Neverland, the three kids who carry the bulk of what you can generously call the plot, morphing into a fucking car — and later a robot! — through seemingly straight-up magic, etc.)… it’s basically impossible to describe. It’s a chaotic collage, but one straight out of its megastar’s all-over-the-map psyche.

The latter work — originally penned by Stephen King — I could write an entire essay on alone, it carries so much of all I’ve touched on here within it in a mere 40 minutes. Though the overall storyline is much more straightforward than Moonwalker‘s, it is also far more revealing: Michael plays both the Maestro — a reclusive spirit playing magic tricks alone in a seemingly haunted mansion — and the Mayor — a stodgy (white! hiding under an incredible Stan Winston makeup job) man attempting to have the Maestro thrown out of town. (Again, the Mayor is a pretty obvious visual poke at DA Tom Sneddon; the town, hilariously, is called “Normal Valley.”) The Mayor is unhappy that apparently kids in the town have been hanging out in the mansion; the parents who follow him are concerned that the magic tricks are too scary for the children. The Maestro insists it’s all for fun, and he has no intention of harming anyone. Echoing the insights of Baldwin, unconsciously or otherwise, the Mayor continuously calls the Maestro “weird,” “strange,” and “a freak.” (Don’t forget: it is Michael voicing these words, to himself. If you’ve ever seen a more direct visualization of grappling so fiercely with self-hatred, let me know; I have not.) At first, the Maestro just plays more harmless tricks for silly scares, to the delight of the kids (and the consternation of the parents and Mayor). When he still isn’t getting the message across, and the Mayor continues to insist he leave town, he grows angry, and moves into a different territory: genuinely trying to scare them. (In the process, quite fittingly, we are treated to some of the fiercest, and best, dance choreography Michael ever put on film.) At one point, he literally jumps into the Mayor’s body, taking over his motions, transforming him into a good dancer, to the delight of the kids and the parents. He separates from him again, and takes a bow. But when the Mayor continues to berate him and insist he leave, the Maestro appears broken by the pain of this. He responds by literally smashing himself to dust on the floor, destroyed. The children and the parents are saddened by it. Ultimately, it’s yet another trick, and the Maestro finally scares the Mayor enough to send him running for the hills, and it ends on a happy note. The core message of this work is undeniable, and so pointedly Michael himself, I’m still in awe of it 20 years later. The contradictions in the man himself are all over the short film, too, and it invites a far greater understanding of his perspective on himself than, I think, any other piece he ever crafted. Michael himself loved practical jokes, childlike things, holding onto innocence all through adulthood, and pleasing his audience; the world turned on him for it, called him a freak, and the weight of all of it ultimately destroyed him. Unfortunately, in the real life version, the Maestro never returned from crumbling to dust; he stayed gone. Unlike Annie in Moonwalker, none of us could wish him back again.

“I had to tell ’em I ain’t second to none.” Somehow, this still has to be told. The point of this whole post? Respect and credit where it’s due. Don’t toss lazy criticism out there that’s so laughably simple of such a hugely complex artist. Engage with those complications when you want to talk about Michael and his legacy; otherwise you’re merely critiquing a tiny percentage of a very large picture, and you can go ahead and miss me with that weak shit.

I chose the image for this post for those reasons, too; it’s possibly the only piece of art, after his death, that I’ve ever seen capture the true dichotomy of the man himself (who happened to be, appropriately, a great fan of Rockwell, whose style it clearly emulates). He saw himself as both who he had always been, and who he believed himself to be — with all the inherent contradictions therein, as all human beings constantly struggle to do. The public saw otherwise, in large part because they insisted on it, but that didn’t make him wrong — it made him an artist.

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Always held close in your fear

After several months of sitting on it, taking forever to finish it off (and only 36 exposures! amazing what the cost of printing will cause you to be stingy about), I finally had a film roll developed at my nearby lab. I had not shot a roll in nearly a year, and before then, not in about a decade. I had never shot in black and white at all, before the winter before last.

I was far more encouraged by the results of this set than the one from last year. Perhaps last year’s pieces were tied too closely to emotions that were difficult to process, tied up in too much pain. I’m not sorry I took them — I’ve taken millions of photographs in my life, having picked up my first camera over 25 years ago — I will never be sorry to have taken a photograph. But the keep ratio on that roll was embarrassingly low, and I had set too high a bar to challenge myself with, after so long away from the unforgiving, changeable, wonderfully unpredictable nature of film. I shot nearly an entire roll late at night, wandering alone out on the streets of the city, with an old, persnickety steel tripod and a handheld shutter release shaking in my hands in the coldest weeks of winter, losing the feeling in my fingers, wishing I still owned a pocket watch to properly time the seconds of my long exposures. The camera body itself is 10 years older than I am, and made of steel, too. Its heft is reassuring and dependable, but must be adjusted to. I stumbled a lot, on that roll.

This second batch is certainly not without its errors, and not just because I’m not the only one to use it — a couple of friends picked it up, at my urging, for a few shots. I ended up, somehow (too many months have passed to be sure how), with a few double-exposures, one is entirely underexposed — so much so it took me a few minutes to decipher where I had taken and what it had been of. A few are not a good mix of aperture and shutter speed, and came out sadly flat as a result — black & white film is completely unforgiving to a failure in getting those elements talking to one another smoothly, and will wash most all detail away in mid-range grays as punishment.

And yet… the ones that do work, this time, outnumber those that do not. And the ones that work rather stunned me. It has been such a long time since I felt so moved by any of my own work. I am reminded how much more deeply film carries a feeling of place and memory for me, in a way that digital never has. It’s not that digital photographs I’ve taken (which still greatly outnumber those I’ve shot on film, sadly) hold no meaning or value to me; quite the contrary. But no digital photograph has ever given me the feeling of sudden and deep transport back to a place I once was and exposed a frame to light in the way that photos like these do. And the places (the poppy fields, Hollyhock House) and things I most hoped to capture — to freeze in time, as Susan Sontag once described us photographers as constantly, vainly fighting to do — were right there before my eyes, almost as if I had been transported directly back into those very moments again. I’ll even admit to audibly gasping at one or two, they exceeded my expectations so completely. The warmth and texture, the true depth of space, the contrast and purely imprinted light… I have scrolled through the lot of them several times already, and with a sense of deep contentment with my work I have not felt in perhaps many years. This is how you want a photograph to make you feel, but it’s been long enough since I last achieved this, I had forgotten what a powerful feeling it can be. I’m sure some will be posted here, or elsewhere, soon. I can feel proud to place my name under them. I also can see better what my margin of error will be with this particular film I’ll have to work within for a series I’ve been planning to shoot for years, and will begin work on soon. But looking through these, I can also see — within those limits — what I am capable of capturing, within those limits, and it is encouraging.

One photograph in particular — and it is not even one of the technically “successful” ones; it is underexposed and not fully in focus, though I knew the moment I took it I would be lucky if anything in it would come out discernible at all — captures a treasured memory, a very precious moment in time. I surprised myself, at the time, in even daring to take it. And it is fairly dark, and somewhat blurred, but… it is there. My happiness in that moment, my peace and contentment, are right there within it, alive still.

Seeing any sort of hope realized, for once, even a relatively small one, feels so rare to me, or possibly it just seems that way of late. Looking at it reminds me how I still long for another moment like it, but seeing it preserved better than I dared hope I might be able to makes that feel not quite so impossible now, somehow. I did not know even a slice of my own face could look as beautiful as it does there, and that is a hopeful thing to see, too.

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:

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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.

Damned if she do

drowning

© 2016 Eleanore Studer

When I was 13 years old, I drowned.

Out in the proper ocean, not in some backyard pool. There had been a storm the day before, and the waves were massive; it was stupid to go out in it, but growing up in Southern California, I spent much of my time in or near the water — one summer, my record number of days spent at the beach in a row hit 39 — and when I wasn’t in it, I was always aware of it. The compass in me always knew in which direction West could be found.

As I was pulled under a huge wave, for a time I lost all sense of equilibrium; which way I would need to swim to reach the surface was impossible to know or sense. I was rolled and tossed around long enough for oxygen deprivation to kick in, which slowly released any hold pain or panic might have had on me. I relaxed. I stopped fighting. I accepted the inevitable.

I was struck then with the simple, profound certainty, lacking any drama or fear, that I was — not dying — but dead. It arrived as a conclusion to whatever questions my stricken brain and nervous system must have been asking: Oh. I’m dead. 

A genuine out-of-body experience followed to solidify this concept, and as I watched myself stop struggling, a calming sense of nothingness settled over me; both of myself, and of what was to follow. I blacked out, though I have no idea for how long. Fortunately, I hadn’t been swimming alone at the time, and my friend was able to find me once the wave set had passed, a few minutes later, pull me out and drag me to shore, pound the water out of my lungs.

I’m not sure why this memory has been called back so strongly now — despite how many difficult things continue to pile themselves on me, one after another, these past couple of months, and how tired all of this continues to make me; both of my circumstances, and simply myself — because the sort of drowning sensation that’s gripped me recently is not at all peaceful, as the real one so strangely was. Instead, it’s simply a perception of moving in the opposite direction of my intent, away from the surface where I might finally breathe again; the sensation of the waters converging above me, closing in over my head; of waning strength, of erasure, of sinking.

I don’t know that I’ll cross-post artwork all that often from where it typically lives, but this piece — quick, sloppy, still with its pencil sketch marks, finished with slowly dying markers —  needed words to go with it, and Instagram isn’t the place for them. So, I put them here.

The post title comes from the Kills song, which I’ve listened to several times today, the lyrics of which feel all too appropriate of late…

If history hang hang hangs her well/ Her memory won’t.