Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 16 News List

As cool as Godzilla, and almost as big

As the final arbiter in the US of all that's cool in Asia for the past 10 years, could the magazine `Giant Robot' be going mainstream?

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Los Angeles

Eric Nakamura, 34, right, and Giant Robot's other founder, Martin Wong, 35, are shown at their store in Los Angeles. As Giant Robot magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, it exerts a powerful influence that belies its tiny budget. The magazine is even required reading in some university courses.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

At first glance it might seem that Scooby-Doo, George Foreman grills, stuffed-animal toys, scooters with automatic transmissions, gory video games, fuzzy melons, cockfighting, the pop artist Takashi Murakami and the band Sleater-Kinney have very little in common.

But over the years all have been found -- celebrated or mocked but always relentlessly scrutinized -- in the pages of a small quarterly Los Angeles magazine with sometimes strange editorial tastes and an even stranger name: Giant Robot.

The magazine's first issue, with a picture of a sleeping sumo wrestler on the cover and a drawing of a rib roast on the back, was photocopied and stapled together atop the family dining room table of one of its founders, Eric Nakamura. Even now, glossy and full color, less a zine than a real magazine, its circulation is a modest 40,000.

But as the magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary this month it exerts a powerful influence that belies its tiny budget. It is one of the chief arbiters of what is cool (and by extension what is not) in Asian-American pop culture, a tricky job that other, better-financed magazines like Yolk tried and did not survive.

high sub-culture

Nakamura, 34, and Giant Robot's other founder, Martin Wong, 35, have spoken at Harvard and Stanford and are sought after by journalists and advertisers for their views on matters as varied as racism, comic books and Asian pornography. Their magazine has become required reading in several college classes and recently helped start the fad for Uglydolls, a set of homely stuffed toys sold at Barneys and the Design Museum of London. Los Angeles Magazine, in some ways a competitor, has called Giant Robot "probably the best publication to come out of LA in the last decade."

Probably more exciting for its founders, however, is that they are now successful enough to make the leap that it seems everyone in pop culture dreams about: They are opening their own restaurant, in West Los Angeles.

"I know, it's a big cliche," Nakamura said sheepishly in a recent telephone interview, adding: "We don't know what kind of place it will be yet. But it sure won't be burgers and grilled cheese."

Nakamura's self-image in publishing, and even as a Japanese-American, has always been that of an outsider. His Japanese is not good. Wong, whose grandparents were born in China, speaks no Mandarin or Cantonese. They met while writing about punk bands for various zines, and when they started their own -- named after a 1960s Japanese television series about a boy who controls a giant robot with his wristwatch -- they were seeking to please nobody but themselves.

They wrote about Hong Kong movies and celebrities like Chow Yun-Fat (周潤發), John Woo (吳宇森) and Jet Li (李連杰) years before they became popular in the US, but they once declined an offer to interview Jackie Chan (成龍) because he had become too mainstream. And they often angered Asian-American promoters who saw them as allies.

"Usually it was these really terrible PR companies saying, `If you really cared about Asians, you'd write about this Asian actress,'" Wong explained. "But we're just not interested in mediocre Asian actors in mainstream movies."

Nakamura described the magazine as "the punk-rock kids in the corner who didn't get invited to the parties," but more often it has seemed that the magazine is the one not inviting people to its party.

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