Mark Simmons has been well-known in anime fan circles for years as an expert on Gundam. He once maintained a large and in-depth Web site on the Gundam Universe but is now content to maintain Ultimate Mark. Along with Benjamin Wright he wrote Gundam: The Official Guide. He has assisted with the translation into English of several Gundam projects and created the mecha images that have been used for “franken gundams” by online Gundam fans.
Gears Online was able to have an interview with this prominent U.S. anime fan. Read on to learn more about Mark Simmons.
When did you become an anime/manga fan? How did it start?
Early 1980s, thanks to Star Blazers. I guess that means I’ve been into this longer than many of my fellow fans have been alive, which just goes to show that older doesn’t equal wiser.
What do you think of anime fandom in the U.S. now?
On the one hand, I feel like the rise of the Internet has tended to homogenize fandoms of all kinds, making it easier for people to cluster around a couple of major sites or discussion forums and get the conventional wisdom pounded into their heads. On the other hand, anime fandom – unlike some other fandoms – is so much bigger now than it was twenty years ago that it can’t help being more diverse. And the works themselves are now far more accessible, both in terms of availability and in terms of fans being able to find out what’s going on in the story.
I also have to wonder if the vastly greater number of works that are now available discourages the kind of long-term, passionate devotion to a favorite show that was characteristic of Stone Age anime fandom…
Have you ever visited Japan?
Yep, a couple of times. (Three, if I recall correctly.) Nice place, great food.
Besides science-fiction, what is your favorite genre of anime/manga?
That’s a tough one. I think I’m probably more passionate about live-action J-Horror and giant monster movies than any particular subgenre of manga or anime.
Tell us one or two of your favorite anime titles and why it appeals to you.
I adored King of Braves Gaogaigar, which was big and loud and cartoony and left me with a huge dopey smile on my face. Neon Genesis Evangelion was pretty awesome, and I loved all the psychological sewer-trawling. And of course, the third Mobile Suit Gundam movie was a perfect gem of anime wonderfulness, at least up until they changed the ending song for the special edition.
Tell us one or two of your favorite manga titles and why it appeals to you.
The original Battle Angel serial kicked butt (the sequel Last Order has lovely art, but a far more generic tournament plot). Uzumaki was great creepy fun, and Aqua Knight was a hoot from start to finish.
What anime/manga are you into these days?
I haven’t really been keeping up with anime, aside from Satoshi Kon works like Paranoia Agent and Paprika. As for manga, my wife and I are following Dragon Head and Monster with a feverish intensity.
Of all the anime that hasn’t yet been released in North America what would you most like to see released here?
They’ve finally released Gaogaigar, so I’m fairly content. Perhaps I should wish for more of those crazy seventies Go Nagai shows.
What do you do for a living?
Right now I’m a full-time art student, so the answer to that would be “pretty much nothing,” and I can’t say I recommend it. Fortunately I’m getting closer and closer to graduation.
Do you collect anything?
Not really. I’ve pretty much stopped picking up comics and Gundam model kits for budget reasons, and it turns out that a lot of the text from the kit manuals can now be found on Japanese fan sites, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on all that nifty background info.
Where do you live now? Is it a good place for anime fans?
San Francisco, which is pretty swell for anime fans. The local branch of the Kinokuniya bookstore just expanded to two stories!
Your Web site (www.ultimatemark.com) has an interesting mix of Gundam articles and artwork. Can we look forward to more in the months ahead?
Possibly, although I have a couple of other projects that may take precedence…
Do you think you’ll ever create a large Gundam Web site like you had in the past?
Now you’re getting warmer. 🙂
Your Gundam artwork of the various mobile suits has seen a lot of activity on the Web as Frankengundams. What was your reaction when you learned about that?
Obviously it’s pretty flattering! Since I always tried to process the images in such a way that there’d be a minimum of distortion and pixelation, I can see why they’d be useful for recoloring and splicing. I just wish the actual drawings were better. 🙂
You’re known to many as the Gundam expert of the English-speaking world. When did you first learn about Gundam? What was it about Gundam that appealed to you?
My first exposure to Gundam came when I picked up a Zeta Gundam book – specifically the MJ Material modeling reference book – because I thought the black Gundam Mark II on the cover looked pretty cool. My curiosity was piqued, and I ended up seeking out first-generation Gundam fans like James Teal, Doug Hardy, and Toshi Yoshida, who made me watch the Mobile Suit Gundam movies over and over again until I realized how awesome they were.
Do you keep up with newer Gundam material?
Yep. I’m not getting paid to do so anymore, but it would seem like a pity to bail out of the fandom after all these years!
Who is your favorite Gundam mecha designer?
I’ve got to go with Mamoru Nagano here. Those young whippersnappers like Kazumi Fujita and Haime Katoki turn out some nice stuff, but Nagano’s handful of Gundam designs are utterly inspired, and I shudder to think how boring the Gundam mecha universe would be now without that infusion of crazy Nagano DNA.
Who is your favorite Gundam story writer?
How do you top Yoshiyuki Tomino? All those weird side characters, nutty plot twists, and bizarrely memorable lines of dialogue… not to mention that he’s virtually the only Gundam creator who ever gives his female characters anything to do. I also love all the bizarre character back story that Yoshikazu Yasuhiko came up with for Gundam The Origin.
What do you think of the decision to make so many alternate universe Gundam stories for anime and manga?
I’m not sure if it matters what I think of it at this point – after fifteen years, the multiple universes are a pretty well established aspect of the Gundam franchise. I think it’s proven to be a good way to keep Gundam fresh and accessible for new viewers, and it’s reduced the temptation to beat the Universal Century storyline any further into the ground.
But a spinoff of a massive institution like Gundam is never really going to be able to escape the shadow of the original work, and it seems as if these new worlds become less weird and ambitious with every iteration. At this point it’s hard to tell the alternate universes apart from the regular one, and Mobile Fighter G Gundam seems even more gutsy in hindsight.
What is your favorite slice of the big Gundam pie?
The model kits. At this point, the animated Gundam works are just anime works like any other, but “Gunpla” continues to evolve by leaps and bounds. I really think it’s become an industrial art form unlike anything else in the world, and the technological creativity that Bandai pours into its model kits far surpasses the creative ambition of the stories themselves. This wasn’t always the case, and it could always change in future, but that’s how it seems to me at the moment.
You’ve seemed to indicate in the past that Gundam wasn’t the financial success in the U.S. that Studio Sunrise and Bandai had hoped for. Can you elaborate on that for us?
Oh, it would be long and boring. Obviously there’s a huge difference between the massive success of the Gundam franchise in Japan and the relative flop it’s proven to be in the West, and that surely comes as a disappointment for the custodians of the franchise. I have my own pet theories about why it didn’t work out, but ultimately I think the Japanese franchise is anchored so completely in thirty years’ worth of fan devotion that it would be impossible to reproduce that commercial environment here. As Grebo Guru can attest, the last time somebody asked me what you’d need to make Gundam a hit in the U.S., my answer was “a time machine.” I think I’ll stand by that. 🙂
What do you think might make Gundam successful in the U.S. in the future?
If I had a good answer to that, I’d probably be knocking on doors at Sunrise right now. I think it would come down to pushing some aspect of the Gundam experience that differentiates it from everything else on offer – the kewl model kits, the staggering scale of the franchise, the hard sci-fi and geopolitics – but Bandai America has tried all those before without success. At the end of the day, I guess the main thing Gundam has going for it is a whole bunch of cool robots, so perhaps somebody should consult the Pokemon marketing folks…
You’ve worked for Japanese companies in the past connected with Gundam. Can you tell us more about that? Who did you work for? What sort of work did you do? Any possibility you?ll do more in the future?
I might be a little vague here – one hates to cash paychecks and tell. I did script consulting on a bunch of English-language releases, compiled spelling and terminology lists, wrote most of the text for the GundamOfficial.com web site, stuff like that. I’m still doing a little bit of work here and there for the related companies, but it’s not a full-time job anymore.
What does the future hold for you?
At this point I’m mostly concentrating on finishing up art school, building up a portfolio, and becoming a genuine art-maker-person. Being a professional fan was pretty sweet while it lasted, but in the long term I think you have to strive to create something of your own rather than just being a consumer of somebody else’s work. Well, that’s my feeling at any rate.
Any parting remarks to the mecha fans reading this?
Parting remarks?! You haven’t heard the last of me yet, buckaroos! I’ll see you all on the internets. 🙂