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Giant Robot: Asian Pop Culture 101

NCM Profile

Julie Johnson Posted: Jan 13, 2004

When you compare R2D2 to Gundam, or C3PO to Voltron, there's no contest: Asian robots are bigger, smarter, and human-powered. Eric Nakamura, co-editor and publisher of Giant Robot, says his magazine is like a huge Asian robot: clever, powerful, and run by good people.

In fact, giant is the perfect adjective for a magazine that has an editorial scope that ranks the Yellow Power movement and the San Diego Scrabble championship as top priority stories.

In 1994, two of the few Asian American punks in Los Angeles, Nakamura and his other half, co-editor Martin Wong, loved kung fu, anime, and punk, but the little coverage they saw of Asian pop culture was sketchy at best. In true counterculture form, they started a zine. Next thing, Nakamura, Wong, and a few friends collated the first 64-page photocopied issue of Giant Robot in Nakamuras parents' living room.

Unlike most photocopied zines, Giant Robot has made it to its 10th anniversary and grown into a quarterly glossy magazine with over 100 times the readership of the first 240-copy issue.

From Hong Kong films and Japanese comics, Giant Robot's focus grew with its readers' demand to fill the void spelled out in the magazine's subtitle: "Asian Pop Culture and Beyond." The readership expanded from mainly non-Asian punks who found it at independent record stores to an international audience who is, as Nakamura says, half-Asian and half-not.

The magazine's eclectic coverage appeals to everyone with a soft spot for Indonesian graffiti artists and public health in rural Cambodia.

"I dont think its just like were talking about toys." Nakamura says the magazine also provides a historical and cultural context.

He says they're good at what they do because they pay attention to the tiny details that other publications may miss. This is how Wong noticed that a few of the top 10 finalists in the San Diego Scrabble Championships were Thais who didnt speak English.

Beyond its quirkier articles, Giant Robot's historical pieces have given it recognition as a source for Asian American and Asian pup culture.

In 1998 Giant Robot published an article on the Yellow Power movement, an Asian American empowerment group inspired by the Black Panthers during the Vietnam War era. Yellow Power members were all but forgotten until Giant Robot staff started digging up information. The article sparked new interest in this little known part of Asian American history.

"I don't know if it was coincidence or what, but people started writing books on Yellow Power after the article came out," said Nakamura.

Its fresh, underreported stories have put Giant Robot on the required reading list of colleges like the University of California at Irvine.

Giant Robot was ready for the Internet e-commerce boom when it went online with the first Giant Robot store in 1997. Now it has a store and a gallery in Los Angeles and a store in San Francisco. A blinking array of Kubrick figures, Bruce Lee stickers, proletarian art books from the Cultural Revolution, tiny sewing kits, stuffed Murakami characters, and the paperback edition of the Jimmy Corrigan Anthology, the Giant Robot store is an intersection of artists, actors, kids, designers and skaters.

"Its what we do in a nutshell. For the person who doesnt know what the magazine is, they come into the store and get confused and wonder how we got this all under one roof," Nakamura said. "But to the readers, it makes sense."

Giant Robot wont tell you who to vote for, but it's the only magazine that writes about the Vietnamese refugee who is also the 20-year reigning Rubix Cube champion or how the non-English-speaking Scrabble champions won by memorizing the dictionary.

The folks at Giant Robot have become ambassadors of Asian and Asian American pop culture for the rest of the country and parts of the world. When Chinese basketball player Yao Ming visited Texas, the local newspaper called Giant Robot to get its perspective.

"It seems that once every year a major newspaper writes an article about Asian pop culture and interviews us about it. It happens every year like clockwork."

But for Giant Robot readers and staff, Asian and Asian American art and culture is not just a passing trend.

"We like it and thats the main thing," Nakamura said. "Its not a flavor of the month kind of thing. We cover what we think is good."

Check out Giant Robot at www.giantrobot.com

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