The allure of the alien can hardly account for the draw of anime on American teens. If the foreign was anime's only attraction the why are there no Yuri Norstein conventions? Why don't people parade in Tintin costumes?
Why do grown men paint their face and hoot that their local businessman's football team? How come reasonable people lose their senses at the sight of a pop star? Why, again, do young boys and girls -mostly middle class, mostly suburban -make themselves up as cartoon characters?
The football fan wants to be part of something bigger, like an army without obligation. Thus, the cheerleaders, the chants, and the wave. Our reactions to celebrities have become a Pavlovian response. We want to view these people great, messianic and react to them with appropriate religious fervor.
The Otaku kids are different sorts of fans. Despite the trecent flood of anime on television, the stuff is still hard to come by [EDIT: in 2003 it was]. In larger cities, illicit trade from South East Asia brings in DVDs. Mom and Dad's credit line willing, Hong Kong copies are shipped everywhere across the continent from online retailers.
Here's where the conventions come in. The weekend of AnimeNext, two other conventions were held, one in Tysons Corners, VA, one in San Francisco. The following week there's one in Erlanger, KY and another in San Francisco (this specifically geared towards gay comics and anime). There's one nearly every week in small towns throught the United States. If a fan buys one DVD a week and he four best friends buy one DVD a week, those 20 titles would represent less than 33% of typical month's slate of anime releases.
Erlanger, KY, Tysons Corners, VA, the dates get circled. The population of these places is no different than the population of Secaucus, NJ. The convention attract teens girls, maybe 70% teen girls. The rest is divided evenly between teen boys and adults. They coordinate their costumes with their friends (the girls do). The parents check in, freak out on the inside, then skip to the mall for a few hours.
Authority, adventure, a safe sexuality and most importantly the anonymity of disguise while still being part of larger "alternative culture" may all contribute to the appeal. Post-war American culture has deified the rebel youth -from James Dean and Elvis to Bart Simpson. James Dean, Elvis and Bart Simpson are outsiders, they respond to "legitimate" culture. The anime hero is part of a civilization where everyone is alienated, the society has degenerated to a mass of lost individuals. The hero finds a personal salvation in the this isolation. The fans don't see themselves as Elvis against the squeare. The girl in the yellow hot pants knows that she is a square too.
Nobody -besides the panelists -came to AnimeNext for the panels. They didn't even come for the celebrity guests (voice actors bused in from across the Hudson). They came to be with their peers, their soceity of self-made superheroes. They came to show themselves as they would like to be, sexy and serious and out to save the world.
Back on the other side of the Hudson, a Chelsea gallery host an R. Crumb opening. It was wall-to-wall bodies despite the rain. Crumb's art also has roots in Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop. He's publicly dwelled on the sexuality of Bugs Bunny in drag and the eroticism of children's entertainment. His own work is explosive and manic, the product of an individual mind in a society which prides itself on the individuals it persecutes.
The kids here have their costumes too. Young men dressed like Depression-era crooners, young women in casual black. They form a cozy crowd. They are a mass of collective calm against the downpour outside. Chelsea art pratron wear a shellac of cool. There is strength in the uniform. The deity of the day is an icon of individualism. Their sly siding slides off when stood next to Secaucus' Otaku, nerdy children who draw individual freedom from the anime produced for mass consumption.