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  • What You Watch Is What You Are? Early Anime and Manga Fandom in the United States
  • Andrea Horbinski (bio)

The early years of anime and manga fandom in the United States were an era in which a fascinating welter of developments occurred simultaneously among fans of "geeky" popular culture, particularly science fiction, comics, and gaming, and set the stage for the current structures of fandom as they exist today. Over the course of approximately twenty years in the 1970s and 1980s, American fans attracted to "Japanimation" came to identify themselves as anime fans, a process that was by no means guaranteed to end with that result. Indeed, in their first few decades in the United States both anime and manga went through processes of familiarization, estrangement, and readoption that mirrored the experience of other new media in other times and places, particularly that of movies in Japan in the 1900s through 1920s. The evolution of American fans' attitudes toward these media was closely related to the fates of the first companies' attempts to operate for profit in these spaces, and the failures of these companies' efforts to import anime and manga as cartoons and comics essentially conditioned the current regime among both companies and fans that celebrates anime and manga as distinctly Japanese media.

Sociologist Casey Brienza contends that the history of manga publication in the United States before the start of the period she covers in Manga in America is more or less irrelevant because "manga was simply not, in short, something that was ever going to work in the comics publishing field" and therefore is not worth discussing at length. 1 While these conclusions are certainly correct for Brienza's study of the American manga industry since 1997, as a historian I cannot agree that those prior decades ought to be disregarded. Failure structures later developments no less than success, and the failures of anime and manga tell a story that is worth adding to the larger narrative of popular culture and its audiences in these decades. Moreover, taking a bottom- up rather than top- down vantage point on this era tells a very different story than the one we can derive from corporate sources; fan cultures are driven by motives other than pure profit, and the archives of fan [End Page 11] cultures reveal that even in the years when Japanese media were not selling well, fans were still engaging with them in ways that were consequential. In other words, telling the story of popular culture without engaging with the audiences who consume it creates a fundamentally one-sided and inaccurate narrative.

First, We Take California: Anime Arrives

Early anime fans were drawn to anime not because it was Japanese but because it was an additional form of science fiction or cartoons, in which they had a prior interest. In this respect, the experience of Fred Patten (1940–2018), who had grown up watching cartoons on television and who eventually became a notable figure in science fiction, anime and manga, and furry fandoms, was more or less representative. Living in southern California his entire life, Fred became one of the founders in 1977 of what was christened the "Cartoon/Fantasy Organization" (C/FO), which is now regarded as America's first anime club, eventually serving as its secretary after the organization expanded nationally. 2 The archives of the Fred Patten Collection in the Eaton Library of Science Fiction at the University of California, Riverside, on which this paper principally draws, are full of proof and final copies of Fred's desktop publishing efforts in service of the C/FO and other associated fan events, including science fiction and anime conventions, over the course of more than forty years.

Patten was himself a furry, which may explain the choice of "Sandy," an anthropomorphized female otter-type creature with antennae who served as the group's mascot despite the fact that she had no clear analog in the anime that was one of the group's mainstays. Although Patten later emphasized the C/FO as an anime club, materials in the archives make clear that not every C/FO member nationwide shared this evaluation: Patten himself complained in a...


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