Whatever happened to… – and the magic of cartoons

First of all, I’d like to point to Shape No. 8, the newest Pegasus Pulp e-book again.

Steph Swainston is one of those authors where I sometimes wonder “Whatever happened to her?” When The Year of Our War came out, she was billed as the “future of fantasy fiction” or some such thing*. There was a follow-up book and another and then… nothing.

Today, however, the Independent ran an article that answers the question of whatever happened to Steph Swainston, namely that she is putting her writing career on hold to become a chemistry teacher.

It’s rather sad to see that slower writers are gradually being driven out of the publishing industry. Because I for one would rather wait five years for a new book and get the best possible book the author could make. But I guess I am in the minority, because the only author for whose new books people are willing to wait five years is George R.R. Martin and they’ll bitch to no end in the meantime.

While on the subject of “Whatever happened to…?”, nowadays it’s easier to answer that question, because Google can usually provide the answer. However, this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic discusses how difficult it could be in pre-Internet days to identify let alone track down a favourite song or find out what happened to a favourite singer/writer/actor/sports figure once they vanished from the face of the Earth.

The post and the New York Times column he links to are mostly about tracking down songs by obscure rap artists. I never had that particular problem (not my music), though I had my share of difficulties locating songs I once loved, too. I also had the backissue problem in my comic reading days, when I would hit the Yellow Pages in every city I visited, search for comic shops and then scour the back issue bins.

However, the bit that really resonated with me is this one at the end of the post:

Wait, one more thing–This is why I’ve been thinking of Jem and Transformers recently. It’s about El P’s “beautiful use of negative space.” The gap between what their budgets and formulas allowed us to see, and what we imagined when we went on with our lives.

I imagined so much. I think you did too.

Yes, this. Absolutely this.

I was a huge fan of the cartoons of the 1980s like Jem or MASK or Transformers or He-Man or Defenders of the Earth and the many others whose names I have forgotten. Yes, they were basically glorified toy commercials (even though neither I nor anybody I knew ever actually owned any of those toys), but they were also a daily dose of crazy and colourful SFF.

Besides, if you lived in Germany like me, these cartoons were a very special treat, because regular German TV only showed the umpteenth repeat of some dull kiddie shows. The good stuff was only available via Sky Channel, when it was all cartoons and music videos and old US shows. And the only way you could get Sky Channel was if your parents had cable TV. Which mine didn’t, because they felt it was a waste of money.

However, my Dad worked in the Netherlands at the time and we would spend the holidays at his flat in Rotterdam. Which had cable TV, including Sky Channel. Which meant an hour of cartoons every day and a whole morning of cartoons every Saturday (unfortunately, we usually went home on Friday, so getting to see cartoons was still a problem). The Dutch and Belgian networks were also less scrupulous about showing good cartoons, the ones with lots of action, then their German counterparts.

Those cartoons were incredibly important to me at the time and some of my favourite memories of the 1980s involve sitting on the floor in that Rotterdam flat watching cartoons. I only got to see bits and pieces, particularly as the broadcasters had the habit of chopping up a twenty-five minute episode and broadcasting it in five minute chunks over the week. If the cartoons had continuity – and most of them didn’t – I never really got the hang of it. Which meant that I made up my own continuity and my own versions of what happened during the missing bits.

Now I have digital satellite TV with approximately 500 channels or so, of which I regularly watch maybe ten. However, there is one of those 500 channels which occasionally broadcasts some of those old 1980s cartoons late in the evening. And I often find myself tuning in for a cartoon or two before going to bed. Seeing those cartoons again after more than twenty years is a strange experience. Because viewed through adult eyes (and I wonder what my parents must have thought), those cartoons are cheaply and shoddily made, the animation is jerky, characterization is almost non-existent, the plots make little sense, the “morality bits” at the end of the clip are even more condescending than I remember (and they were damn condescending when I was twelve) and as for continuity – what continuity?

The most striking thing, however, was realizing that ninety percent of what I once saw in those cartoons must have come from my own mind, because it certainly isn’t there in the actual cartoon. It was the ideas I loved, the possibilities of psychedelic lands full of hidden bases and fabulous adventures, where cars could fly or transform into giant robots, where the touch of an earring turns an ordinary girl into a pop star and a magic sword transforms a man or a woman into a superhero. The cartoons only offered the props, we made the story. Which was usually so much better than anything that was ever actually seen on screen.

That’s also why so many of us craved the toys those cartoons advertised, even though the toys themselves were usually not much better made than the cartoons. But the toys were a tangible avatar for the story that was happening in our minds.

*I can’t find the original review/post anymore, because the reviewer in question went on a spree of deleting all traces of himself on the Internet a few years ago after pissing off the entire online SFF community.

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One Response to Whatever happened to… – and the magic of cartoons

  1. Pingback: More on the avalanche, science fictional childhood, dark YA and unfair e-book pricing | Cora Buhlert

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