Category Archives: Beyond the Book

Cowboy Bebop is More Than a ‘Gateway Series’

by Ashley Capes

Obviously, I won’t be able to add much in the way of new ideas to discussion of a series that folks have been talking and writing about for twenty years but I still wanted to mark Cowboy Bebop’s anniversary in some way. [Editor’s Note: This was written in 2018.]

To dip but swiftly into the category of ‘things already said about the show’ I’m sure words and phrases like bounty hunters in space, gateway series and trailblazing or greatest anime of all time and genre defying would be on that list and for me, most of those things feel true but one of them is also reductive.

It probably is a pretty good introduction for Western (sceptical) audiences looking to trial the genre of anime; a genre which is just as varied, in terms of content and quality, as any other. The show largely works as that introduction because both the cultural references and aesthetic tend to be very recognisable to western audiences – creator Shinichirō Watanabe mentions Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee and John Woo among his influences, and of course the OST is a veritable library of US and UK-influences.

But I still fear the words ‘gateway series’ are too often used to suggest that Cowboy Bebop is a creation of a certain depth and value only, a stepping stone toward works that are either better or more ‘difficult’. It can feel as though the series is ‘merely’ an entry point into an unfamiliar art form, the way that maybe you start with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue before trying Bitches Brew or Agharta. Yet that accessibility common to both Kind of Blue and Cowboy Bebop belies a depth and complexity that – like all great art – is better revealed during subsequent encounters.

I believe part of what makes the show so rewarding is how heavily intertextual Cowboy Bebop remains but also the episodic structure, which invites repeated viewings. Obviously, I won’t present any sort of exhaustive list here but I still want to mention a few things at least. Sometimes that intertextuality is quite overt – like the similarities between Spike’s costume (and his frame for that matter) and Lupin the III or our hero’s Jeet Kune Do fighting style and the famous ‘water’ speech he gives in episode eight (Waltz for Venus) which Bruce Lee fans will certainly recognise. Another episode that many viewers often single out to demonstrate the intertextuality is the Star Trek/Alien tribute, Toys in the Attic – but which I won’t spoil here 😀

Sometimes the references, depending on any given viewer’s cultural literacy, become subtler like the Spike/Vicious weapon swaps a la John Woo, or the setting recreated from Desperado in episode one, Asteroid Blues, (which I didn’t pick up on during my first viewing but felt like I should have when I did finally put it together second time around). Later in the series, as the oppressiveness of the odds stacked against the Bebop crew really starts to build we’re given session twenty: Pierrot Le Fou. In this episode the colour palette becomes far more muted as greys and shadows really start to dominate in a way that evokes both film noir (without Jet this time however) and Gotham City. The Batman references won’t be surprising to folks who are aware that members from CB’s production team Sunrise also worked on Batman the Animated Series prior to Cowboy Bebop. In the episode, antagonist Tongpu himself clearly evokes (at least) both the Penguin and the Joker and much of the imagery throughout brings Batman to mind. (It’s also one of the more harrowing episodes in the series, one that refuses to paint heroes and villains as wholly good or evil).

There’s a lot more to love about Cowboy Bebop (it’s fun, it’s fast-paced and it’s not clumsily front-loaded with character back-story and there’s not too much fan-service either) but in closing, I want to quickly mention another aspect that I’ve always enjoyed about the series.

Blessedly, CB isn’t one of those shows that drags on until the character and story arcs are rehashed in an endlessly sad cycle of diminishing returns and contradictions. No, it actually presents a complete story – it has an ending! In part because of this, viewers are treated to some great character development, none perhaps more striking than that of Faye Valentine. Now, my personal favourite character remains Jet but Faye has the better character arc, I feel. Considering where she begins the series emotionally and where she ends up, it’s pretty grand. Again, I don’t want to offer spoilers in this post but Faye’s fear and her quest for belonging really plays out in a touching way – though there’s a certain montage involving other characters that’s probably just as moving, damn thing nearly gets me every time!

Now, I’m aware that I’ve only really offered three points to support my assertion that Cowboy Bebop is far more than a gateway series but I could far too easily get carried away so I won’t go on. However, if you’d like to see other folks exploring the depth of the show, there’s a series of posts available at Overthinking It which are pretty ace or if you wanted to offer any thoughts of your own below, I’d love to hear what you think!

The World of New Hampton

by L.A. Frederick

Hello all, and welcome to my explanation or at least attempted report into the city of New Hampton. It has a mind of its own so trying to explain it is harder than you might think!

It doesn’t quite have a mind of its own. But it is the one dominating force in a country that pretty much all packed up and headed for New Hampton. The nation is nameless throughout, but if you held a gun to my head… I’d say it’s an ambiguous cross between the United States of America and England.

I am an Englishman who’s obsessed with American literature and TV shows. Thus it was only natural that I’d fall upon something between the two for my debut sci-fi series.

The world of New Hampton is a dark, urban mystery setting. The enormous city makes up 99% of the country’s population. A few small fishing towns are still in existence in the very northern part of the nation.

On a timeline, the city is set in current times, so say 2017. The focus is on the urban, city environment of the cutthroat New Hampton. A few hundred years ago there were decent sized towns scattered up and down the country. That was until the Great Depression hit. Hundreds of thousands of people forced to move. The only remaining prosperous area in the country, you got it, New Hampton.

As a result, in the modern day, the city has an overcrowded population and has become a corporations dream. Millions upon millions of consumers lap up whatever the corporate fat cats throw at them. All in a vain attempt to elevate their meaningless existence in a city of greed and corruption.

The vast forest that spans the entirety of the northern part of the city masks the city from the wastelands. Hiding the city from the reality that makes up the majority of the country. All that remains near New Hampton to show that life ever existed are thousands of wooden shacks. That used to house a vibrant community. That community is often referred to as the lost society. They upped and left one day, never seen again; did they make it into New Hampton? No one seems to know.

The most prominent feature of New Hampton, especially in the past six months or so, is…The Rain.

A Few Key Locations:

The Emerald Mile

The Emerald Mile is the height of wealth and opulence. Huge townhouses, high-rise buildings and the Royal Palace the standoYetures. There hasn’t been a Royal family for hundreds of years. The Royal Museum is a treasure trove of information on the city. The well to do live within the bubble of the Emerald Mile, a few miles away from the mire and filth of the…

The Docks

Dangerous men live there. Dangerous men work there. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted. The seedy pubs that stain the boardwalk are full of biker gangs. Organised criminals frequent the bars and the entire area. All in the knowledge that the law won’t dare touch them in that area.

As you would expect, the docks are dark and dingy. Dank moisture lingers in the air wafting in from the sea up the river.

Abandoned Warehouses And Factories

The northern part of the city is littered with hundreds of them. Over the years the wealth and prosperity have grouped down in the southern parts of the city. As such several industrial buildings are derelict, eyesores on the city. They provide yet another layer of shielding from the stark realities of the country. You either live in New Hampton or the fishing towns, or you go elsewhere.

These warehouses and factories are not as unused as some might think…

So that’s New Hampton in a quick nutshell. As one reader describes it ‘It reminded me of a dark, gothic Batman type superhero book.’

That’s a pretty apt description of it, a city that takes over and consumes everything in its path. It is a dangerous place, with a combination of the affluent and the poor, threatening to boil over at any minute. A criminal element resides under the surface of the mysterious megalopolis of New Hampton.

Finding Fantasy Settings

by P.H. Solomon

Fantasy always seems to have some basis in fact or real world. The further along I’ve written in The Bow of Hart Saga the more I realized how much the real world had influenced my settings. All too often, the settings arrived from places I had visited long ago or even some I frequented many times over the years. Here are three places that ended up in the series without almost a thought for a long time:

1. The Auguron Oaks and the forest – I lived in Oregon as a child one summer. It was a wondrous time with many visits to various locations on the west coast that really impacted me. Having begun the original version of The Bow of Destiny some thirty years ago, I turned to places then that I had seen as a child and some of that included the rain forests of western Oregon and Washington which I visited often during that long-ago summer. On one visit, I saw trees so large that they were hundreds of feet tall – including a few redwoods. Those forests held a wonder for me and still do to this day. Auguron is a vast forest-land but the roots of those trees lie in my memories of that summer in the mid-1970s.

2. The Drelkhaz Mountains – that same summer, I first witnessed the sights of high mountains in the forms of the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies. All summer, I viewed some of the highest mountains in North America just by driving into Portland from Beaverton. Looking north on a clear day you could see Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens (before it erupted and what a memory!), the Three Sisters and even Mt. Ranier. Growing up in Alabama, I didn’t get to see white-capped mountains so these majestic wonders were the first I saw in person. I even visited Mt. Hood one summer day and stood on snow while dressed in a t-shirt – quite an experience for a kid used to the humid weather of the south.

Later that summer, we drove back from Oregon cross-country. The trip took us over the Rockies and that was an even bigger thrill. Once into eastern Montana, we viewed the Grand Tetons which still stick in my mind (not to mention a trip to Yellowstone!). The Drelkhaz Mountains are a major setting of An Arrow Against the Wind and owe much of their origin from those distant days during an adventurous summer that still rides high in my memory.

3. The Funnel – this is a setting in An Arrow Against the Wind that involves a deep gorge with sheer sides at the bottom of which runs a deep river. This fictional location finds as its origin a real place near which I grew up. This little-known National Preserve is named Little River Canyon and, with drops of sometimes over 600 feet, it’s one of the deepest canyons east of the Mississippi River. There are dramatic cliffs with incredible views and a river that runs through it. About 26 miles long, the river is a favorite for kayak enthusiasts and a place I visited several times when I was a kid until today. It’s a geologic wonder with several unique species of plants growing within its confines.

Bonus: the Troll-Neath is a deep and dark network of natural caves leading into the dwarf kingdom of Chokkra. I’ve visited many caves in the southeast that run into the southern Appalachians. Some caves in the area are rumored to go on for days according to old native American tales. A number have been explored and some have not. Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, TN, is a place where an underground river flows over a falls but no one is sure of the source and certainly not where it goes. All of these make for great sources of fantasy settings.

Finding a fantasy setting can be as easy as looking out your back door or remembering a favorite trip. I have any number of memories upon which to draw. What places would you choose to use as a fantasy book setting?

Evocative Imagery in Fantasy Art

by Stuart Thaman

From an early age, I always wanted to be a painter. I loved getting lost in the details of masterful art, and the sense of wonder I felt when I saw something truly incredible that wasn’t a photograph, that was something made by hand, has always stuck with me. Well, I’m terrible at making art myself, but I do like to think I have keen eye for it—at least in fantasy.

What is it with art, especially fantasy art, which captures the imagination so quickly and so thoroughly? How do we get lost within the battle scenes, cityscapes, and sweeping wings of dragons painted on the page or coming to life on the screen? What sets fantasy art apart from other genres is actually rather simple, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Firstly, due diligence must be paid to the masters. The classic painters of yore deserve all the fame they have earned, yet for most, for the average person who only offers a passing glance to the art they see every day, the wonders of the renaissance and baroque periods go largely unnoticed. There are scores of people who get easily lost in the grand scale of a Game of Thrones episode yet will not give an original Rembrandt painting more than a moment’s notice. Why?

What sets fantasy art on a different level, not necessarily a better or worse level than the classics, is the exact thing that has drawn hordes of hungry viewers to Game of Thrones. The idea of a “grand scale” is something most of the old masters never captured. They found their artistry in each and every stroke of the brush, every minute detail regarded at a critical level, and what fantasy does in almost every medium is shatter that expectation. Instead of giving the consumer something to ponder and perplex, fantasy gives us worlds to devour and endless amazement.

If you’re a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, try to think of your favorite thing in that genre—your favorite video game, book, movie, poster, whatever it is. For me, that’s the very opening scene from David Dalglish’s masterpiece The Weight of Blood. The book, which begins the acclaimed “Half-Orc” series, opens with one of the most dramatic and grandiose scenes I have ever read. Two half-orcs run near a city wall as hundreds of flaming skulls, objects of pure magic, sail overhead to fill the citizens with terror. Qurrah, one of the half-orcs, is also a necromancer, though he is untrained. He gets his first real test in the opening scene, which he passes, that also brings him to a startling revelation. Desperately out of energy in his brother’s arms, he realizes that the well of magic he is connected to is unending: “The well is limitless.”

The well is limitless.

That line packs such a poignant punch it can hardly be adequately described. The opening scene of the book is only a page or two long, yet it vividly captures the imagination just like a dramatic movie trailer or an action packed cinematic release for a video game—just like incredible art. But that’s what books are, at least at some level, and at least to some people. Books are art. Most people pass by the majority of them without notice. Those with a keen eye find the absolute gems, and anyone with an imagination gets something more. The imaginative reader gets to watch the books they read. They get to turn each page and find a fresh painting done by the most masterful hand waiting to suck them in with every word, each letter at once becoming a highly detailed brush stroke.

Fantasy in all its glorious forms strives to capture the most powerful sense of wonder humans are capable of feeling, and then it tries to distill that emotion into something tangible. When we experience the best fantasy has to offer, we get lost in it. The grand scale, the epic nature of absolutely everything in the scene, and the sweeping beauty of each part coming together in just the right way coalesce to form exact idea Dalglish captured in his opening. No matter what the media is, the artistry of epic fantasy is what gets people to save a piece as their desktop wallpaper, or to read a thousand page book six times a year, or to spend thousands of hours playing only one game. When it comes to fantasy, that well is limitless.