Monday, June 17, 2002

WHY I STILL READ SALON: Even though their political coverage is locked up behind passwords and twenty dollars they aren't getting, they'll still declare Pac-Man a masterpiece and let me read about it. I love this bit where Pac-Man is located in the pantheon of pop cultural icons:

The psychic space that Pac-Man grew to occupy in early 1980s popular culture was truly enormous, filling in the vacuum of downtime between "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" and stepping into the breach vacated by Kiss, when all of America realized that the "Unmasked" album sucked, and sucked hard. Kiss and "Star Wars" are important for an understanding of Pac-Man, in that they created the model for the multimedia marketing blitz that Pac-Man subsequently adopted. But there's a crucial difference here.

The pseudo-mythic underpinnings of both "Star Wars" and Kiss gave their marketing campaigns a relative embarrassment of semiotic riches around which to build licensing opportunities. I mean, of course there was a Kiss comic book. Of course Toys 'R Us carried a full line of toy light sabers. But I can guarantee that no marketing executive looked at Pac-Man in 1980 and said, "You know what? I think there's a phone here."

Rather, it was Pac-Man's very spareness and abstraction that allowed for so many permutations to make their way into the culture. Pac-Man became a kind of Everyblob. Licensed images of him were slightly humanized, lending him arms and legs to allow for a variety of active poses, as well as a set of black eyes with the suggestion of pupils. But by and large he remains an abstract figure, limited to a few stock activities: eating, chasing, being chased. The most commonly reproduced image shows Pac-Man at a moment of triumph, devouring his ghostly nemeses. In nearly every image, he is smiling broadly, his eyes given a mischievous tilt; he looks like a good-time guy, a cross between R. Crumb's Mr. Natural and a Wilson tennis ball.

The article also reveals that Pac-Man's creator wanted a video game that looked like a cartoon --thus explaining the friendliness of the Pac-world-- and that the Japanese name, Puckman, was from a Japanese word meaning, roughly, "to flap one's gums" and not because Pac-Man looks like a hockey puck, which is what I had always heard but I guess is apocryphal. Good stuff.

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