Monday, February 23, 2004

More than meets the eye?

Transformers are making a comeback -- in the science fiction department of my local bookstore, of all places. There's a line of Transformers books -- actual novels meant for "adult" consumption -- quietly infecting a genre already compromised by lame franchise tie-ins. "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Babylon 5." Now this.

A Seizurebot. Technically not a Transformer, but close enough.

This ready-made Transformer obsession is due, at least in part, to the U.S.'s inexplicable fascination with Japanese "manga." Ever since Godzilla planted his scaly foot on the post-atomic landscape, the U.S. and Japan have been engaged in an incestuous cultural feedback-loop, each mechanically recycling the other's kitsch until a certain critical irony is achieved. It seems harmless enough . . . then you catch a glimpse of a malodorous, trenchcoated teenager ogling over pictures of hydrocephalic waifs in revealing cartoon outfits and you start to wonder.

The consummately fannish anything-Japanese craze manifests in a host of superficially disparate but deeply entangled phenomena such as Hello Kitty, X-rated anime, "plushies" (vanguards of a rather freaky sexual subculture that seems to be making a bid for mainstream acknowledgment), and "cosplay," which manages to splice elements of all of the above.

Of course, genre "fandom" has always had an insular geek core. Outsiders attempting to understand it are like onlookers peering through a badly lit aquarium. Don't taunt the weird-looking fish inside, because chances are they'll bite.

Suggesting that the re-ascendancy of Transformers and their ilk signals a creepy new form of infantilism isn't likely to sit well with hardcore geeks. Nose-pierced losers in Slipknot T-shirts will accuse me of close-minded intellectual snobbery and return to their oh-so-existential comic books (er, "graphic novels"). Teenage girls will scowl at my disdain for Hello Kitty.

Meanwhile, the "Moral Majority" occupies its time cringing at alleged "explicit" lyrical content in pop songs. The John Ashcrofts of the neo-Puritan political zeitgeist blanch at the very prospect of genitalia. I quite honestly suspect that there are Christian Fundamentalists out there who think Christina Aguilera is the Whore of Babylon.

Of course, they're looking for Armageddon in all the wrong places. Oblivion is as close as the nearest Sanrio outlet.