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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.
As the Long 90s draw to their close, new possibilities open. A lengthy struggle with the ideas of good and evil, which gave us villainous heroes, heroic villains, and 90s antiheroes galore, has been brutally interrupted by conflict for conflict’s sake. No longer is the battle between protagonist and antagonist a war between ideals; now it’s a game played by ten-year-olds and their yellow electric rodents.
The anime boom ushered in by Pokemon had a massive transformative impact on American cartoons, one which eventually back-trickled into comics as well. It encouraged increased serialization–a trend which, as we saw all the way back in Deep Space Nine, was already being felt from the other direction, live action science fiction and fantasy–younger protagonists, and most importantly for Megas XLR, a very different conception of both hero and antihero.
Neither Pokemon nor most of the series added to American television in its wake contain the particular element we’re looking at, but it was common in the media available to someone who was an anime fan or Japanophile before the Pokemon craze. Given that this form of fandom was until recently almost exclusively a pursuit of (and is still dominated by) teens and young 20-somethings, anyone who was a professional adult far enough in their career to head their own show in 2004 must have had their primary exposure to anime no later than the early 1990s, more likely the 80s or even 70s. Rather than Pokemon, Sailor Moon, or Dragon Ball Z, the primary influences one would expect to see in an anime-influenced American cartoon in 2004 are the classic mecha anime of the 70s and 80s, and maybe kaiju movies.
Precisely the influences, in other words, that visibly inform Megas XLR. For instance, the Gundam-esque robots massacred by aliens who, in turn, are massacred by a unique prototype super robot, recall Gainax’s early work Gunbuster, while the giant beam cannon which emerges from Megas’ chest is very obviously the prow of the titular Space Battleship Yamato, firing its infamous Wave Motion Gun. Perhaps the biggest influences, however, are Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and the Godzilla franchise, in the sense of a heroic titular entity that does colossal amounts of damage to that which it is supposed to protect. Just like Megas, Godzilla frequently ravages Tokyo even while protecting it from greater threats; the SDF Macross, meanwhile, does massive damage to the civilian sectors of the ship every time it transforms into its robot mode.
All three are notably distinct from the kind of destruction brought about by 90s antiheroes, who typically do a better job of focusing it on their enemies. The difference can perhaps be summarized by noting that the 90s antihero chooses to slaughter his (and it is, almost always, his) enemies, while Megas and its antecedents do so accidentally. The antiheroism of the 90s, in other words, comes from hatred, rage, and machismo, while, on the other hand, the antiheroism of the anime-influenced 2000s comes from ineptitude, carelessness, and a capacity for destruction so great that it cannot be contained to the chosen target. The antiheroes of the 90s are deadly serious, and hence absurd; the antiheroes of the 2000s are absurd, and therefore can be taken seriously.
Which brings us to the absurd figures of Coop, a genius technician who repairs an alien robot from the future for fun, yet is somehow still consistently lazy and sloppy; Kiva, highly skilled military commander from the future who can’t control two lazy teenagers to save her life; and perhaps best of all Jamie, the epitome of 90s cool, with his goth wardrobe and snarky attitude, his laid-back aimlessness, his pursuit of wealth and women over all else–so of course he contributes nothing and just tries to take credit for Coop’s work, being ultimately just as lazy and sloppy.
It’s very funny, but there’s something underneath, as well. Remember the essential struggle that gave rise to the 90s antihero: the apocalypse was averted, the great war between good and evil fizzled out, so was there ever any such conflict? Are they distinguishable, or is good simply evil with better PR?
By contrast, what Megas (and its predecessors, as well as early- and mid-90s comedy anime like The Slayers) present is a hero whose power is so much greater than those around it that simply to be near it is dangerous. It gives us a world that we must destroy to save, a near-apocalypse that occurs not because the hero stops the villain from destroying the world at the last second, but rather because the hero nearly destroys the world in the course of stopping the villain. There is good in the world, buried deep beneath sarcasm and incompetence and greed, but there will be collateral damage when it bursts out. To be saved, the world must be changed, which means the world-that-was must be destroyed.
And we can destroy it, or so Megas XLR, laughing, tells us. All we have to do is find first gear in our giant robot car.
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