Blank Generation

A look at Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith

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European comics tend to be focused on stories serialized in about 8-10 pages in magazines such as 2000 AD, Warrior, or Heavy Metal, mostly in black and white. It’s a similar set up to that featured in the manga industry without the insane demands that are placed upon mangaka. The format can be somewhat tough many authors to adapt too. At this point they would have clawed their way through tons of short comics (in the case of 2000 AD these short comics are its Future Shocks features which are short twist based Sci-Fi stories), and are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world of trying to make a long form series told in short pages. Despite the fact some of the formatting can lead to awkward storytelling, this is a seen as as a stepping stone in British comics almost every major British comic book author having worked on one series, and the format has given us some classics. For example the first 2/3 of both Alan Moores Miracleman and V for Vendetta were released in this format in Warrior magazine, and 2000 ADs most famous work Judge Dredd has reached an iconic status in the comic book industry.

One benefit that was granted to these authors despite the storytelling drawback was the lax attitude towards content. These stories were rife with violence and sexuality at a time when this content was boundary pushing and not played out. These comics were able to play with the tropes and context of many genres through a different light. It was punk debauchery mixed with heady science fiction equal parts titillating and thought provoking.

That brings us to the comic which we will talk about today Grant Morrison’s Zenith released in the late 1980s to the early 1990s at a time in which Morrison was just on the cusp of breaking out into the American comic book scene. In the passage of time it was published Morrison would begin working at DC and publish Animal Man and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Zenith’s concept is an interesting one, and the thought process behind it is most comparable to the idea behind something like Boogiepop phantom. It’s a comic which was meant as a deliberate fusion between high art and loose comedy with the two main sources cited by Morrison being Watchmen and Strange Days, a lesser known work by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy before the former broke out into American comics with his vertigo series Shade the Changing Man. It combines the superhero revisionism and alternate history concepts of Watchmen with Strange Days focus on British popular culture and fuses them into a single story beginning with a nuclear bombing of Berlin in an alternate history World War II before cutting to the present of the 1980s introducing us to our protagonist and slowly filling in the history of the world in bits and pieces over the course of 4 different books titled phases.

Phase 1 for the most part serves to detail the history of the world which is a part where Zenith truly shines. Morrison sets up a world in which superheroes of every era reflected their generation, with the first two the British Maximan and the Nazi Masterman being WWII soldiers, while the 1960s had Cloud 9 a group of supersoldiers who quit in protest of Vietnam and became hippie countercultural icons. Finally, there is Zenith who represents the 80s era of british pop, where punk had passed and the mindset was as Chris Ott described it, was simply to have extravagant fun. The first generation died in the Nuclear Blast in Berlin, while the second is mostly out of the picture at the start with the exception of two characters, Ruby Fox who works for a magazine, and Peter St. John a former hippie turned conservative politician.

The main thrust of phase one involves a clone of Masterman being rediscovered and becoming a host, for a Lovecraftian old one here referred to as a “many angled one” and later as a “llogier”, he attacks Ruby Fox who recruits Zenith and a fight ensues. It’s a story that for the most part works as a fun character study of both Zenith and Peter St. John. Zenith comes off as completely self absorbed, and dickish. He is the ultimate idea of a self absorbed superhuman, someone who feels more duty his hedonistic lifestyle and pop career than to any idea to save people. He only joins with Ruby Fox because she promises information on Zeniths dead parents. He is a dick but like the characters in Panty and Stocking he is relatable in a way. Its hard for the audience to really despise Zenith because for all his egotism he never really does anything to bad, he is at the most uncaring about the fate of the world. He serves as a pretty great contrast to Peter St. John who by far is the standout of the series. St. John is a great anti-hero someone who is incredibly devious and unafraid to murder to achieve his goals but who also does seem to give a shit about the world and what’s best for people. If Zenith is inactive St. John is active in all senses of the world. He is someone who is always planning ahead and the fights involving him emphasis his focus on telekinetic strategy. These fights feel almost like out of a shonen battle manga were the focus is on using powers strategically rather than a classic superhero brawl. St. John for all intents and purposes drives the story much more than Zenith.

For the most part outside of some of the battles involving St. John, Phase I is somewhat of a slog to go through at times. Its hard to judge the comics quality at times because the format in which I was reading it was so different than how it was released. For me what came across as a quick introduction of the character Siadwel (an alcoholic imbued with fire powers) who then is killed off for cheap affect would not have come across as such if the chapters were spaced months not minutes apart. In the format I read (that of a trade paperback) it felt predictable as in the course of three chapters Zenith goes from being careless about Siadwels life, to then caring about him, and finally after his death becoming so fueled by rage that he starts to give a shit and fight Masterman (this is all supposed to occur over the course of like an afternoon so it makes just about as little sense in the diegesis of the work as it does outside of it.)

Phase 2 fairs slightly better up to scrutiny as it takes a backseat from the overarching plot involving the Many Angled Ones and instead focuses on backstory and worldbuilding. It introduces for the first time into the plot Thomas Peyne who created the second generation superhumans and is convinced of them as the next step in the evolution of humanity. The main thrust of the plot involves a Richard Branson-esque billionaire preparing to blow up the world and take control using Zeniths child which he bred through the usage of two cloned superhumans, with the help of Thomas Peyne. Zenith is once again cajoled into helping solve this threat by a shadowmen a government psychic designed to fight superhumans. This shadowmen (or rather shadowomen) is quickly killed off though leaving Zenith to quickly stop giving a shit about saving the world so he can fuck the clone superhumans, that is until his life is threatened. Zenith though at the behest of St. John does end up saving the world in by far one of the comics most memorable and probably funniest scenes. Rather than through a fight or quick force Zenith simply walks into the room of the billionaire and points out all the flaws in his plans. It’s a bit of deconstructionism that works of multiple levels. It points out the holes in the work of many supervillains but its portrayal of a billionaire madman intent on saving the world pokes fun at Ozymandias from Watchmen. It portrays the billionaire who wants to save the world with a crazy scheme as not an intelligent calculated figure but as a pathetic, and eccentric man who obviously did not think the plan through. Finally the faith that Peyne puts in superheroes being the next step in evolution is undercut by Zeniths existence as he proves that superhumans are just as petty as humans.

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It also serves as set up to the next two phases of Zenith by introducing the concept of a multiverse to Zenith and a plot by the Many Angled Ones to take over the universe during an even called the alignment.

Phase III is by far the part of the work where I think Zenith truly shines as it sets itself up as a rip roaring multiverse crossover adventure featuring loads of 60-70s British superheroes including the Steel Claw, Hotspur, a parallel universe version of Zenith called Vertex who unlike Zenith, a pastiche of a classic British superhero character called Robot Archie here styled as “Acid Archie” who comes off as a groovy C3-P0, and the anarchist superhero group Black Flag, dressed up like members of various underground music subcultures. They are brought together by an alternate universe version of Maximan to prevent the Many Angled Ones from achieving their goal of controlling the Multiverse.

Eventually it is revealed that Maximan is secretly working for the Many Angled Ones and the heroes have to defeat the villains while St. John and Black Flag psychic face off against Maximan. Of all the parts of Zenith this one feels like the one Morrison had the most fun writing. Seeing him play all these British superheroes against each other essentially fighting Lovecraftian Deities is insanely fun and several moments are incredibly memorable. Acid Archies arrival with a dinosaur to rescue the day is a great moment for such an endearing character, the sacrifice of Vertex in which people mistake him for Zenith is a great send off to his character and seals him as a noble equivalent to Zenith, and of course the classic moment in any superhero crossover when all seems to be lost only for the superheroes to show up in the last moment is as badass as always.

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Phase 4 takes itself in a very different direction, almost being a long form version of a Future Shocks story. Through the eyes of Thomas Peyne who is slowly becoming younger we are told the story of the end of the world. How it came to be under the control of the remaining cloud 9 members besides Peter St. John. It contains numerous reveals and twists some of which work and some that don’t. For example Ruby Fox who in the first phase was portrayed as content to be a magazine editor without using her powers is here portrayed as dead set on world domination and the elimination of the human race AND apparently held these views in the 1960s. That is such a weird turn for that character its absolutely fucking insane to think about. On the other hand the final twist is absolutely genius. Morrison picks up a loose plot thread about a being created by the cloud 9 experiments turned into a crystal and fashions it into a stunning reveal. See the whole time we are lead to believe that the world of Zenith has essentially ended and has been taken over by the Cloud 9 members who have ascended to become Many Angled Ones themselves. It is then revealed though this is all a fiction and Peter St. John has trapped them in the crystal with Thomas Peyne, essentially letting them live out their fantasy within their own little world.

screenshot-168The series ends with Peter St. John becoming Prime Minister through killing off the Labour party leader and Zenith ending the series having learned essentially nothing ready for the next party and for a switch in career. He didn’t grow as a person all that much but there is a certain beauty to seeing the character turn out all right in the end and it underlines the main theme of Zenith, that of looking at generational conflict and pointing out that it is all pretty much bullshit. Cloud 9 turned out to be just as corrupt and evil as they come despite all their hippie ideals and even their nicest member St. John sold out and became a conniving politician who murders people. Zenith is portrayed as no nicer the epitome of the soulless culture of the 80s all intent on enjoying life to its fullest without trying to help anyone. While that is the main message other ideas about generations our explored such as with Thomas Peyne who through the course of Phase 4 is shown to regret what, his metaphorical children Cloud 9 has done to the world, and how he becomes less and less concerned with what has happened as his body and mind becomes younger and younger. It’s even more interesting that the main villains of the plot the Many Angled Ones our portrayed as timeless essentially showing us that the many issues that face each generation inevitably face almost all generations.

My experience with Zenith left me feeling a lot like Zenith feeled at the end of my story, that I on some level went through some shit but wasn’t changed all that much. It felt fun and tense but never special. It’s a work that I feel is best enjoyed from the perspective of a Morrison fan looking at his history or as a fan of 2000 AD rather than as a pinnacle of Morrisons work.

Anyway its been a while since I posted so its nice to get back in the swing of things. Here’s to another year of shitty writings on media I enjoy.

Further Reading

Suggested for Mature Readers did a great series on Zenith here

Chriss Ott on the 1980s Pop music scene

Grant Morrisons book on superheroes/autobio

Griffith is the Hero of Berserk

A look at Berserk.

If there is one thing that I think annoys me about the anime/manga community it’s the belief that anime should simply be viewed in a bubble onto itself. Digibro, (someone who for the record I respect a lot and enjoy his content) has often stated that anime is a very incestuous medium. While that I think is very true it’s also overstated and ignores a lot of influences that anime take in from other sources. For example EVA in addition to referencing many anime also references tons of stories from the New Wave of Science Fiction with End of Evas iconic final image being a straight up reference to a cover of a Sci-Fi short story compilation book.

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This unfortunately leads to an environment where many people tend to view anime only within the context of its medium and not its wider genre. At best people view the influence on anime by other mediums as solely skin deep references. Which to me is a bit of a shame as there is so much anime that when viewed in a broader context say a lot about wider genres.

One of these in particular is Berserk which when viewed in the broader context of fantasy delivers some incredibly cogent statements on the genre and more specifically the concept of the hero. Berserk tears down the fantasy hero through the simplest and most effective way possible, by making the hero the villain.

Griffith is the true hero in Berserk. He is not the protagonist but he fits all the tropes of a classical fantasy hero straight up to going through the heroes journey. He gets a call to action from an old character with implied spiritual connections, a mystical boon in the form of the Behlit, and is tempted by women through his encounter with the Princess of Midland (though in Berserk the temptation is not one of sexual gratification specifically rather it is of Griffiths need to reclaim his feeling of control). The Eclipse is an example of what the greeks called the katabasis, the journey into the underworld. Usually the protagonist journeys into the underworld to gain some boon such as knowledge in the case of Odysseus, or a lost love on in the case of Orpheus. It also can be seen as a metaphorical rebirth of the character.

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In the case of Griffith its both metaphorical and literal as he gains mystical powers, knowledge about the true nature of the universe (though this was somewhat retconned out later), and transforms from a battered, shell of a man into a horrific godlike being. While the Band of the Hawk and by proxy we, the audience may view this as a waking nightmare through the lens of the heroes journey it clearly places Griffith as the “Hero”.

While this is a fun bit of trivia, many may ask “what does it all mean”. Well in my opinion Berserk tries to deconstruct and tear down the classic ideas of Heroism in the fantasy genre. It points out that things like government, religion, and heroes are all corrupt things that we put our faith in despite the fact they will always let us down. It’s a warning sign that tells us to not trust cults of personality like the one that surrounds Griffith. This stands in contrast to something like Lord of the Rings were monarchy is upheld and lauded, religion and mysticism is something that always has our back, and heroism and cults of personality about great men are justified.

This is also shown through how Berserk treats on of the most prominent aspects in many fantasy tales, Fate. For the Greeks fate was an inescapable thing, it was to them the driving force of their legends for good or ill. It was unchangeable and no matter how much Oedipus struggled he would always fall to it. In more modern fantasy fate is seen as a force that will put the righteous back in charge. Aragorn being the true king of Gondor will reclaim his throne and all will be right with the world. But in the world of Berserk it shows just how truly terrifying fate can be with Guts being accosted by Apostles constantly, all seeking to kill him as he is fated to die. But despite all that Guts still fights on at one point compared to a fish trying to swim upstream. It may be a losing battle but it’s one that Guts is determined to win.

Berserk is the story about how one should not put their faith in any outside forces but only in themselves. No matter the odds we are the arbiters of our own destiny and through sheer force of will can overcome what is ailing us. Berserk pulls no punches on how this is a very, very, tough struggle but it also shows how we can achieve these goals none the less. It shows that while our heroes may let us down but we can never let ourselves down, if we put the determination and effort into it.

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On all Hallows Eve

A look at Zombies ate my Neighbors

When I was a kid the first halloween I can remember involved me and my brother dressing up as Batman and Robin and taking to the streets to get some candy. We hopped out of bushes ready to fight crime and got toothbrushes from dentists (in fairness she did give us candy in addition to the toothbrush). The overwhelming sense of the night was fun. Not terror but pure unrestrained childhood joy. All the skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts were cartoony and frightening. Sure there was a tiny part of are brain that recognized that these were once symbols of fear but they were for us harmless. We pretended to be afraid only so much as to go along with the fun of the night.

When I think of that sort of mindset one a childhood fun and scariness being superseded by just pure fun I think of the video game Zombie’s Ate my Neighbors for the SNES. Its a game I first picked out at random from the wii shop when I was still in grade school and it quickly became a favorite.

The overwhelming aesthetic and atmosphere of the game try to emulate a sort of kids horror movie like say “Monster Squad”. This contrasts it with my other favorite spoopy SNES game Super Castlevania 4 which actually tries to build an gothic atmosphere. While Castelavania has aspirations of being serious Zombies Ate my Neighbors is incredibly goofy. For one its 90s as fuck with the male player character in particular looking totally tubular and hip.

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It also maintains such a dorky “kidz rule” vibe to it I absolutely love. Everyone civilian you have to rescue is a cartoon cutout who are comically ineffectual against the zombie horde. All the adults are useless so its up to the kids to take on the zombies with there squirt guns and sodey pop.

The various enemy types are fun pastiches of movie monster villains and all work on their own rules leading to you having to devise different strategies of dealing with them. Zombies can easily be gunned down, while small Chucky-esque dolls move fast enough dropping soda behind you is the best option. The variety in design leads to some really creative moments of level design such as “Chainsaw Hedgemaze Mayhem” where one is placed in a maze with destructible walls but indestructible enemies you can also break down the walls. This leads to a careful balance of one using there most powerful weapon a Rocket Launcher as not an offensive weapon but as a method of enabling transportation.

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What really ties the game together for me though is the music. It is spooky in the cheesiest way possible pulling out every “scary” chord progression in the book but it has an incredibly fun an energetic bounce to it.

The overall feel of this game to me is one which draws upon the cheesiness of our younger Halloweens. When the holiday only represented fear to us in the most superficial sense and not in an genuinely horrific way. Its fun in video game form and every once in a while I will pop it out and place it in the SNES I have (Robin gives good birthday gifts) and have an absolute blast.

So to all who are reading I hope you all have a fun night whether you be out collecting candy like my younger sister, sitting inside shitposting like my younger brother, sitting in a basement doing homework like a rube, going to a party like my older sister, or sitting outside handing out candy like my parents.

Blog update

Im in a pretty good mood today. Im having a pretty lazy Saturday before heading off to work for a couple hours.

So I decided that just so I dont feel lazy procrastinating or writing anything else today ruining my good mood that I would write a bit on my future plans. Currently the nearest thing to release is a blog post on Berserk and how it specifically subverts the heroes journey. The next blog after that I will be working on a Halloween centric post about Zombies Ate my Neighbors. Finally the last blog post is a collaborative post I am writing with my older sister about Superman: American Alien by Max Landis.

Besides the blog I have a podcast I am working on. The name is currently a WIP but we will be covering the comic book Empowered by Adam Warren in out first episode.

Also since I got a sweet new mic for podcasting I figured I might just use it to make some lets plays so I can kill some time. First up I think will be a nuzlocke of Pokemon ruby.

I also made another playlist.

Anyway thats all for now folks so stay tuned.

Fly Away

A look at Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt

Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is anarchy personified. Not the actual political movement but your 14 year old perception of it. It’s a mess of pop culture references, varied animation, and irreverent gross-out humor, tied together and sold to you as an anime. It’s a western cartoon filtered through the lens of Studio Gainax and it’s truly something unique to hold.

Immediately Panty and Stocking makes an impression, largely through its art style, which owes more to the west than it does to any other anime. While anime has been characterized by many people as an incestuous genre that does not take in much outside influence (I disagree with this perspective btw but that’s another story), Panty and Stocking breaks far away from the anime mold. Western pop culture references abound from title cards, to direct homages, to straight up imitations of other art styles.

As protagonists Panty and Stocking are far cries from your average protagonist and even farther from your average female character. They are a pair of banished angels, sisters who were kicked out of heaven for bad behavior, and they are absolutely vulgar, egotistical, and horny, and most importantly act on all those impulses. This stands in far contrast from your average pure, humble, virginal female anime character, who waits around for the main character to choose them from a cadre of other pure, humble, virginal, females and have little to know volition of their own.  In my opinion the fact Panty and Stocking stand so far apart is fucking awesome. I’m all for variety in mediums especially among characters, and anime is sorely lacking in interesting female leads. For a show that breaks away from nearly every convention anime has they are perfect protagonists.

Panty and Stocking as a duo work together perfectly when it comes to writing fun dialogue as they, like many siblings, are constantly at each other’s throats, throwing out cheap insults, and verbally sparing with each other using every vulgar word ever conceived. In fitting with the shows irreverent comedy they constantly aim the lowest blows out each other, and each one tries to then top the other. As someone who has engaged in similar arguments with siblings it was something I could easily get caught up in. But what makes it all the more enjoyable is seeing that through all the insults they do care for each other. It gives the characters a necessary humanity, that many of the cartoons the show seeks to emulate lack. The characters are shitbags but they’re the kind of shitbags that you can root for and love.

The plot concerns Panty and Stockings misadventures as they attempt to regain entry into heaven through the accumulation of Heaven coins, which are collected through killing ghosts. As a premise it is incredibly broad and allows the show to tell a huge variety of self-contained stories, each one told in 10 minutes chunks just like western cartoons. Many episodes take the form of parodies, distorting a classic scenario through the eyes of the shows twisted humor. By far the episodes which standout to me the most are the zombie apocalypse, the transformers parody, and the episode where they are put on trial. The last one in particular I consider one of the funniest things ever created and it best exemplifies the shows style of comedy. The episode manages to include everything from parody of Tom Cruises character in Magnolia, to a monkey lawyer who when subjected to electric shock becomes a Phoenix Wright parody, and have it all fit together.

The show works largely because it’s main characters, shifting art style, and musical score, present the world of the show as a wild and unpredictable place. Immediately the animation gives off the impression that the animators are doing this out of a sense of fun, with constant references to works that the staff were fans off, and no intention whatsoever of being consistent. It says that one needn’t have to try and take this show seriously though it’s completely fine if one wants too.

The motivations of the main characters also help ground the show. It was once said by a much smarter man than I that the clearer a characters motivations the more distinct the character becomes. Both Panty and Stocking have very clear motivations. Both want to get back to heaven but not before indulging in their various vices first. In every episode you can count on Panty wanting to get laid and Stocking wanting to get sweets of some kind. This adds a bit of focus to the chaotic world and allows for the stories to be easier to follow.

The final thing that keeps the show in check is that it is willing to divert from being just vulgar. The second part of Episode 8 serves as the best example of this completely changing the formula. It focuses on a romantic subplot between Stocking and a ghost who well is kinda a literal disgusting shitbag. While the episode focuses on gross out comedy for the most part (a certain joke certainly got me gagging) it manages to actually have a pretty touching ending that said something meaningful about both of the main characters.

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One thing the show also excels at is its supporting cast each one being rather goofy but having a surprising amount of depth when actually focused on. Garterbelt a priest and the angels handler on Earth, for example is on the surface just a parody of Samuel L. Jackson with some sideways jokes about the whole Catholic sex abuse scandal thrown in, but when one digs deeper they find he actually has a rather compelling backstory told in a way that manages to be both cool and pretty funny at the same time. This extends to the other cast members to. The weird Invader Zim esque creature Chuck, at first just serves a cipher for physical comedy and abuse from the sisters is revealed to be a rather fearsome beast in the finale. Brief who is at first just a nerd in a ghostbusters outfit trying to hunt ghosts and crushing on Panty ends up playing a major role in the finale too which I won’t spoil here.

Though by far the best side characters are Scanty and Kneesocks, two demon sisters who are the exact opposite of Panty and Stocking in every way. They are orderly, smugly polite and constantly complementing in each other. They seek to exert order to the chaotic world of the show making them perfect rivals for Panty and Stocking. Also their theme song is fucking kickass.

Actually on that subject the entire soundtrack is fucking cool as shit. Its full of instantly recognizable and catchy electronic songs which add to the show a sense of synesthesia, enhancing the animation similar to another Gainax show FLCL. So many of the songs are seared into the minds of its listener as they are fit perfectly with the scenes they are matched with. Im sure most people would not consider the transformation sequence such an iconic moment without the backing track “Fly Away”

Where Panty and Stocking really appealed to me though was in its last two episodes. The show up until that point was content with just making irreverent comedy built around sex, pop culture references, and toilet humor but they actually tried to go for something serious at the end and make a point. Stocking is ascended back into heaven while Panty is not, because Panty spent too much time sleeping around. Panty and Brief engage in a romantic encounter and end up getting captured. This leads to the classic Gainax trope of putting the characters in a false world before the finale. Panty is placed on a farm and brought up to live a boring life that she is content with. This ends rather quickly as in keeping with the shows sense of humor all her family members are killed off by bikers, with her fictional grandmas final words basically telling her to be a free spirit. This leads to Panty taking a motorcycle and running of to confront the bad guys in a big epic showdown. During this confrontation Panty delivers a speech that is pretty on the nose about how older people try and use concepts like virginity and fears about going to hell to keep people from having sex.

Panty’s speech underlines the entire point of the show which is a celebration of the chaotic id. To be free and tell society and its rules to go fuck itself. It appeals to the teenager in you who wants nothing more than to go out and do a ton of crazy shit just because you can. Unlike some other material with a teenage mindset (cough cough Freezing) there is a certain purity to it all. It isn’t a brutal show for as vulgar as it may be, and it isn’t there to try and make you feel mature, it’s just there to have a good time.

As the show wraps up in one of those big Gainax style endings which never fail to impress it gives every character a moment to shine and really ends on a high note. Then after the credits out of the blue, Stocking cuts up Panty, reveals she is a demon, and Garter has to go collect the various pieces of Panty. Most people hate this ending but I will stick up for it. It’s one last irreverent joke at the expense of the audience, and what better way to end the most unique and irreverent anime series of all time with something no one was expecting.

Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is possibly one of the weirdest pieces of media I have ever watched and anyone who knows me understands that I fucking love weird shit. As someone who values uniqueness over perfectionism I absolutely love this series.  One a bit of a personal note I want to leave off by saying that this was incredibly fun to write. The last couple of posts though I am proud of them dealt with some pretty heavy shit so Panty and Stocking was the perfect palate cleanser for my mind. So I will leave you with the immortal words of Panty and Stocking “REPENT MOTHERFUCKERS!”

Of Plastic Trees, and Witches.

A long and somewhat incoherent ramble on the 90s, Radioheads Fake Plastic Trees, and Bloc Partys Hunting for Witches

When I think of the 90s one of the themes that tends to run through the works is an overwhelming sense of ennui. Spurred by works like “The end of History and the Last Man” By Francis Fukuyama, which argued that after the fall of communism there was no “ideological threat” for society and that without this clash of major ideologies which had defined history our traditional sense of history would end (NOTE: this is a massive oversimplification). This idea would largely be disproven by the rise of terrorism as a major threat but for a while in the 90s the sense was that there was no major driving events that defined the generation. No wars, no social movements, and no great economic struggles like the great depression. Like in the 1950s there really was no problems (at least for white middle class males, minorities still had numerous cases of discrimination). This led to a period of introspection about society that seemed to point to a world dominated by meaningless consumerism and vapidity leading to intense dissatisfaction and alienation.

This shows up in explicitly in works such as Fight Club, and American Beauty, but it lies in the background of many of the works of the 90s. For example cartoons like Beavis and Butthead, and Ren and Stimpy, mocked the 80s cartoons attempts at poignancy that tried to mask there shallow salesmanship. It was a reaction to the barely covered to commercialism of shows like Transformers, and He-Man. In terms of film, the work of Tarantino affected a sort of escape fantasy to the past with his constant reference to the pop culture of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The Coens oeuvre was full of stories of somewhat stupid characters stumbling through there plots with a mixture of bleak cynicism and heart, stories of idiots we can’t help but both laugh at yet love. But for me what sums up this era the most is the work of the band Radiohead which presented a world full of alienated people lost searching for meaning where this is none.

If they have one song that sums up their entire career it is the song “Fake Plastic Trees” of their album the Bends, which came out in 1995.

It’s a rather simple song that doesn’t take much liberties with structure but it manages to a pack a lot of emotion in a down tempo balled. Musically it is very simple just some guitar matched by a bit of synths.  Similarly it is lyrically quite simple detailing a narrative about a woman and a man she lives with both defined by their alienation from each other.

The first verse references this woman buying a fake rubber plant, “that she got from a rubber man, in a town full of rubber plans”, seeming to suggest that the world around this women is hollow, full of people following out plans they have set for themselves that will never truly grant them happiness. The second verse references this women living with a “cracked polystyrene man, who just crumbles and burns”, someone who is unable to face the world around him and when exposed to it crumbles away like polystyrene to fire. Following this there is a line referencing how he “used to do surgery, for girls in the 80s”, which I have interpreted two different ways. One is that he used to plastic surgery fitting in with the songs motif, or that he used to do some sort of useful surgery and now is living a meaningless life. This verse ends with the line “Gravity always wins” either a reference to how the negative forces of the world will always pull us down or simply to suicide by jumping off a building. The final verse switches perspectives describing a man, in the first person rather than the third like the previous verses, with a “Fake plastic love” who “Can’t help the feeling, I could blow through the ceiling, If I could just turn and run” essentially breaking out of this rut of alienation and depression.

After every verse the chorus changes slightly changing the pronouns to fit whoever the verse was about, starting with “It wears her out” to “it wears him out” and finally “it wears me out”. There is an outro which simply states “If I could be who you wanted, If I could be who you wanted all the time”. This is rather cryptic but it seems to show a man unable to be who society wants him to be, unable to fit into the world of fake plastic.

The song itself has some rather interesting background behind it, with it being inspired by the fake plastic trees that adorn Canary Wharf in London. After it was recorded Thom Yorke apparently broke down into tears.

Like many of the works that express similar sentiments from the time for all the depression there is a sense of hope with the line “Can’t help the feeling, I could blow through the ceiling, If I could just turn and run” seeming to apply some sort of escape from this miasma of alienation. This is similar works like American Beauty which ended with a sort of redemption for the main character, managing to at the end see above the fake world that surrounds him. Though not all the media allowed for such redemption, Fight Club for example posited that tearing down such a system that encouraged consumerism would only result in a similarly oppressive one (in fairness there is a lot more at play within Fight Club than just alienation with elements of Fascism, Patriarchal dominance, and Toxic Masculinity playing a huge role).

Looking back though a lot of these works seem to be a bit less important in a Post 9-11 world where we have much more to worry about than just alienation and ennui. We now have a world of nihilistic paranoia and a chaotic political landscape. For comparison let’s take a look at the song “Hunting for Witches” by Bloc Party which sums up the fears of the 2000s in a similar way.

To start of where “Fake Plastic Trees” is slow and listless reflecting the tiring affect that societal alienation has on the characters, “Hunting for Witches” sets about to create a somewhat energizing and terrifying sense of paranoia. It kicks off with a repeating with various indecipherable voices from news clips quickly come in and shutting off in a repetitive motion emphasizing the oversaturation of media in the modern world. A descending sound is created from the tapping of a pick on a guitar creating a sound that reminds one of falling or of police sirens.  A drum machine kicks in repeating a constant beat, quickly setting up the guitar riff which rides the drums like a wave, cutting through the mix with high treble. All of this serves to set up a sense of paranoia and neurosis in a world full of fear sold to you by the mass media.

The first line of the song completely underscores all of the paranoia opening with “I was sitting, on the roof of my house, with a shotgun, and a six pack of beers”. It immediately paints the picture of a man terrified of the world around him. The line that follows gives us context for that fear with “The newscaster says the enemy is among us, as bombs explode on the 30 bus” showing us this is a man who is buying in to a narrative of paranoia delivered by the media. Following this is “Kill your middle class indecision, now is not the time for liberal thought” referencing the affect that 9/11 had on many people, leading to a sense of war hawkishness, bigotry, and fear that lead to conservative actions like the patriot act which robbed people of their rights.

The next verse of the song further details the situation stating “90’s, optimistic as a teen now its terror, airplanes crash into towers” which contrasts the relative happiness of the 90s with the fear of the post 9/11. It also indirectly shows the kind of lack of perspective something like Fake Plastic Trees, or Fight Club has. Sure its shitty to feel alienated and lost in a world of consumerism but troubles 90s seem somewhat insignificant and whiny compared to the troubles of the 2000s. After all the 90s was a relatively great time to be alive, with a huge booming economy and all. Returning to the song the fear mongering of the media is brought up again “The Daily Mail says the enemies among us, taking our women and taking our jobs, all reasonable thought is being drowned out by the non-stop baying, baying, baying for blood” further emphasizing how media pushed a narrative of bigotry and fear upon the average person.

The chorus of the song with the line “I go hunting for witches” delivers an indictment of the entire culture post 9/11 which bathed in fear and desperate to get some kind of sense of security created a paranoid world view. People searched for “witches” something that isn’t real but can be blamed for all our problems. For many this scapegoat was people of the Muslim faith who faced bigotry post 9/11.

The song closes out with “I was an ordinary man with ordinary desires, I watched TV, it informed me,” followed by “There must be accountability, disparate and misinformed, fear will keep us all in place” clearly stating that one must hold the media to a standard of accountability and not let fear mongering spread.

“Hunting for Witches” manages to portray a person and by proxy a culture in a way that is both critical and sympathetic, driven into a state of paranoia and fear after tragic events. It’s a song that I think seems to portray a more desperate and more important message than “Fake Plastic Trees”. I do want to point out that I think consumerism and alienation our important problems in our society but for me they pale in comparison to problems like fear mongering and bigotry.

It seems strange looking back on both these songs in the year 2016. I can relate to both of them and I feel both have an important message that can be applied to today’s cultural climate. It’s somewhat sad how little we have come, our culture is still fearing a terrorist thread and we still our stuck in a world of consumerism. I wish I could end on a more positive note than that but I really can’t cause its 5:36 in the fucking morning and I want to sleep.

My next post is gonna be more positive I promise.