It’s no secret that we here at Djinn Tamer HQ (is that a thing?) love us some Pokémon, Digimon, and all of the monster fighting series under the sun. In case you haven’t guessed, they’re all a huge inspiration for the Djinn Tamer series. So, when I heard there was a book being made that chronicled the so-called Pokémania of the ‘90s, I (A.J.) had to talk to the author about it.
The book is called Monster Kids, and, using Pokémon as its core topic, it branches out into other series like Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and tons of other anime of the era. If you were alive at this time, it’s sure to flood with you nostalgia and remind you just how much Pokémania permeated pop culture. If you weren’t around then, it’s a great bit of insight into how the franchise and genre took over.
You can check out a piece of my interview with Monster Kids author Daniel Dockery down below. Don’t forget to check out the book on Amazon, and if after finishing, be sure to leave him a review!
Anyway, on to the interview!
A.J. Cerna: All right. First of all, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to meet with me. I very much appreciate it and I frankly hadn’t heard of you until, I’m trying to remember what it was. It was a specific tweet where you were plugging your upcoming book or book that’s now released by the time you’re reading or listening to this. To start with, can you tell me about Monster Kids? What’s it about and what inspired you to actually start writing it?
Daniel Dockery: Monster Kids is a dive into the cultural moment that was Pokémania, which occurred starting in late 1998, in September 1998 to be exact, when Pokémon came to North America and ends in the early 2000s when Pokémon didn’t go away, but a lot of the cultural saturation and ballyhoo around it disappeared. It’s about that. It’s about all the monster themed franchises that came to the United States in its wake like Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh and those. It has a lot of information about how Pokémon was created in Japan in the early nineties and it’s just a study of a time period that I experienced as a child, but as a kid it left me enthralled in rollercoaster fashion. I didn’t really understand it and no one really understood back then. It was just a big event that happened to everyone. Kids and parents and pundits and preachers and everything else alike and I was just wanted to go back into it and talk to some people and see how it all came out.
I first got this idea back when I lived in Brooklyn, New York. I was at the laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry and first I played their Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the Rubian Sapphire roommates, and then I played the Sun and Moon games released in 2016, the 20th anniversary of Pokémon. I thought there have been some books written about Pokémon or Pokémon adjacent subjects, but I wasn’t really satisfied with them and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I wrote an encyclopedia of Monster collecting stuff?” I wrote that or wrote a few chapters of that, wasn’t satisfied with it. Decided to write a history of Pokémon, wrote a proposal for that to send around to agencies and editors. No one really seemed satisfied with that either and I look back on those chapters that are there with horror, because they’re terrible.
I decided, “What’s a story I can tell? What’s an A to B story that’s not going to,”… First of all, publishing is a little bit slower of an industry than say putting articles online or uploading videos. What’s a story I can tell that’s not going to be dated by the time the books hit shelves and so Pokémania was the time period that felt the most important and special to me and I realized that in telling its story, I could encapsulate the reason behind Pokémon’s fame and it’s notoriety as a whole. That’s how it came about.
Cerna: I just thought, like you mentioned before, talking about the other monster franchises, the Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Monster Rancher or what have you, I was actually surprised how extensive they were interwoven in the narrative. I expected it to be like, also here’s a little bit about Digimon or those other imitators, back to Pokémon, but you actually went fairly deep in how they crisscrossed each other throughout. What made you decide to have that overall focus?
Dockery: I realized early on when I was structuring it that first of all, I like a lot of those franchises. I really like Digimon. I liked Yu-Gi-Oh, but I liked Yu-Gi-Oh and especially the manga, the late Kazuki Takahashi’s Manga, if you’ve never read it, is fantastic at times and if you’re an artist that wants to illustrate or draw Manga or whatever, it’s impressive seeing his growth and adeptness and not just art but at paneling and structure and flow.
Aside from that, to get back on topic, because I could talk about the Yu-Gi-Oh manga for days, I realized that I really couldn’t tell the story without talking about Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh because the essence of Pokémania is that it’s a confusing time. It’s a lot and part of that a lot was when series like Digimon and like Yu-Gi-Oh came in and it’s a series that had gestated in Japan for years at that point but not a lot of people knew that, or at least a lot of people that were shouting about it the most didn’t really know about that and so they were like, “What are these Pokémon copycats? Where are all these Japanese monsters coming from?”
The more I dove into it, the more recurring themes I was finding, the more interesting little divergences and little interweaving stuff as you talk about, I was finding, and by the end of structuring, I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to talk about Pokémon without mentioning all these series that were often seen as copycat when they came around, but had really, really interesting back stories and really cool things to offer the story and the entire thing again as a cultural movement.”
Cerna: You had made an interesting comparison speaking of Digimon and I’m curious if you can elaborate on it. You mentioned that if Pokémon was Fellowship of the Ring, Digimon is Conan the Barbarian. Can you dig deeper into what you mean by that?
Dockery: Aside from them being two fantasy series that I really like, one thing that I wanted to illustrate is the fact that from the very beginning with Pokémon Red and Green, Pokémon’s ethos, its main reason of being has been there. That is Pokémon’s scripture. The games may change, the enemy may change, it might get bigger, it might get smaller over time, but you can find the 10 Commandments of Pokémon essentially in Pokémon Red and Green. Digimon, on the other hand, in its first few years in Japan does a lot of evolving and it starts out as you’re in the book, it starts out basically as the cousin to the Tamagotchi, the much friendlier nurturing Tamagotchi made by Bandai and WiZ and it’s built around the concept of you raise these little battle blobs and dinosaurs and tiny little warriors and you make them fight.
That is a lot of what Digimon is about in the beginning compared to Pokémon, which is all about from its earliest published forum, friendship and creating a party and loving this world and your relationship to nature and the balance between mankind’s industrialization and encroachment and a world that demands that we be the precious stewards of it. That’s all in Red and Green. Not so much in little Tamagotchis that are built to connect and fight with one another, but as I go on in the book, one thing interesting about Digimon, as I said, is that it does a lot of evolving and that by the time we get the Manga and more upgraded forms of the virtual pit and especially the anime, which outlines how we think of Digimon as a whole to this day, how we connect to it to this day. It’s very cool to look back at the virtual pets and see how these fireball shooting little monsters grew into this amazing thesis on growing up and how we relate and connect to other people and other beings.
Cerna: Yeah, Digimon always has a special place in my heart as much as Pokémon, I felt united Kids on the playground more. Digimon was just a great story and I know something else you pointed out in the book, which I’m surprised I didn’t even think about, just the ensemble cast was, I don’t know if it’s something that a lot of us kids in the nineties really saw. You had maybe a group of five, but there were, how many of them, I forgot how many?
Dockery: There were seven at first and then they had the eighth…
Cerna: When Kari joined.
Cerna: It’s eight. That’s a lot of characters to follow and they did a pretty good job of juggling them and creating what I think is a fairly sophisticated story over the course of its 50 some odd episodes, the first run season so to speak and it made a big impact on me for sure.
Dockery: Yeah, the interviews with the director, Kakudou, he loathed the idea of one character that everything that the universe or the galaxy revolves around and especially because if you’re planning on storylines with other characters splitting off and making little different groups and have their own little moments of emotional growth, if you center everything on one specific character in an ensemble show, eventually you’re going to reach a point where people are like, “Why am I watching when the main character’s not around?”
By giving everybody their own distinct personalities and giving everybody time to shine and making… It’s cool to look back at Ty not as a main character, but as a guy that wants to be the main character. He feels called upon to be the leader and because he’s an elementary schooler, he’s not great at that all the time. It’s cool to look back on it that way, but yeah, I really like the fact that they decided to make it a truly ensemble piece rather than the adventure of Ty.
Cerna: You said something key also having to do with character growth. Digimon is all about growth. You compare it to Pokémon. Pokémon is just return to status quo on a pretty regular basis or find some status quo whereas Digimon is all about changing and growing and for lack of a better term, evolving and it’s interesting how they’re often compared, but they are still very different. A very different take on just a single main core concept about monsters fighting and that’s pretty much it. I think as you mentioned in your book also, it’s not an imitation but it’s an alternative and I think that’s a great way of putting it.
Reading your book also gave me a lot of great nostalgia in many ways because referring back to a lot of those early marketing or commercials and thinking back to when did Pokémon first come inside my life, what was my first exposure to it? You mentioned one particular ad with the bus driver essentially capturing Pikachu and all the rest of the Pokémon on the bus and all that. I think that was my first exposure to Pokémon. It was in a Regal Cinemas in Northern California where I saw it and it played in front of a movie. I don’t remember the movie though and I remember thinking to myself, because the designs, they look so childish and I was like, that looks lame, that looks stupid and then realizing pretty quickly that everyone at school was playing it so I probably should pick it up as well.
The rest is history. I played Pokémon, became a gigantic fan of it. It was my gateway drug into anime and manga and it’s been a wild ride and of course just monster fighting in general. What was the first exposure that you remember to Pokémon?
Dockery: My first exposure to Pokémon, I write about this in the book, but it was the dying days, I think of summer vacation in 1998, late August probably, late August. I was visiting a Super Kmart with my family, a Super Kmart that in two years would be nothing, it would have had been closed down. Kmart being very prominent was another relic in the nineties, but I remember I was looking at the video because my parents, we weren’t broke, but we couldn’t really afford video games. It was around that age where my friends all talked about playing video games constantly and I was fascinated by them from an outsider perspective.
Eventually when I did get a copy of Pokémon Red and a Purple Game Boy Color, I was taken aback, but I was looking at the video games and you just look at the cover. Back then as a kid, I just looked at the cover art and I imagined what the Ocarina of Time was going to be. What is that? What is an Ocarina? What is a Zelda? What is a Resident Evil? Then I saw in the Little Game Boy case, in the bottom right corner, there was a sticker and it said, “Pokémon, got to catch them all, coming Fall 1998,” and it had a picture of Pikachu, of Blastoise and of Beedrill and I had no idea what these characters were.
Cerna: So random.
Dockery: Yeah. If you look back on a lot of the art, a lot of the assortments just appear pulled out of a hat, but a lot of it is Nintendo America testing out which one of these are kids the most drawn to. Those were the three that were put on there and I was like… Got to catch them all is an unbeatable catch phrase. It’s almost an illegal catch phrase as you read in the book because legally you cannot tell children in America for them to directly go buy something.
They somehow skirted that by the FTC and I remember just being like, what are these? Got to catch them all? What do I need these for? They’re cute and some of them are cool, but that was the first time I remember Pokémon and then thanks to a marketing campaign that was super extensive, all of a sudden I saw the commercial that you were talking about and on the channel that Pokémon aired on, UPN 48, Channel 14.
Cerna: UPN 48. I had UPN 44 digital 45.
Dockery: Nice. I’d see it in the mornings when they played at 6.30am when Pokémon was in syndication at first and I’d see commercials narrated by Eric Stewart, the voice of Brock, and these 30 second commercials blaring, got to catch them all, got to catch them all and then Brock outlining what the series was and then boom, Catch Pokémon, 6.30 starting this day. I don’t know. It was a confluence of all these commercials and ads coming together to be like, okay, I absolutely have to go check this out. This is event television.
Cerna: Yeah, the anime, I was all about the anime. I used to record it on VHS and just on repeat, on extended play, which I think was two hours, no, it wasn’t two hours, maybe it was four and I had four hours of Pokémon just on repeat that I would just put into a VCR wherever I had it and just would watch. It probably drove my parents absolutely nuts but it kept me busy, so there you go.
As you can see, it had definitely had a big impact on me in terms of my introduction to anime, my introduction to Manga, Digimon and everything else in between. I worked in the anime industry for a while and then now doing authors Djinn Tamer, so very Pokémon influenced. Obviously it’s had a big influence on the world at large and you wrote a book about it, so obviously it had an impact on you, but if you were to point to one thing outside of the book, what would you say was the biggest impact this franchise has made on you?
Dockery: Outside of the book? I’d probably say… That’s a tough one, because writing a book about Pokémon does feel like a culmination of sorts of a lifetime of pretty frequent interest in a series.
Cerna: As far as me, I could point to the fact that it was literally, without Pokémon, I would not have met specific friends who then transitioned from Pokémon into Dragon Ball Z, into other anime, into my entire career going forward, so I could see Pokémon as a real splitting off point for me in my life.
Dockery: I think that might be it. I had a lot of trouble relating to kids growing up and Pokémon, this sudden interest where all of a sudden all of my friends could connect on this one thing, especially all of my new friends at that point could connect on this one thing that was really, really cool and to me revolutionary in my life because I was like, “Oh my gosh, look at all these people that all want to talk about the same thing as me. This is a first.” Obviously, I held on for a little bit longer as my friends went to middle school and tried to sweep their Pokémon interest back under the rug. I think that’s probably it. I made a lot of friends through Pokémon and even if they didn’t stay with Pokémon, it was very cool to have such a cultural touchstone moment with everyone there at the same time and everyone was just hyper enthusiastic about it.
Cerna: Obviously there’s a lot of great surprising facts in this book. There are a couple that strike me, and one of them was a random one. I’ve known obviously about the Mamoru Hosoda Digimon short that he did that was later compiled into the movie thing. I actually didn’t realize that that was released prior to the anime actually airing so that was a surprise to me.
Dockery: I want to say it was the day before.
Cerna: Right. You mentioned the day before the TV airing, so it was an introductory special, like a prequel so to speak, which I thought was cool. That’s a cool fact there. Another one was, I think it was called Pokémon Pocket Monsters, the Manga, the really crude Manga that came out back when Pokémon was still finding itself, did not know that existed so that was interesting. For those of you who are reading this or listening, you can go ahead and Google that and I think one of the images in question that you mentioned in the book with Pikachu, we’ll be there, we’ll be present. It’s very crude and very definitely not the brand of Pokémon as it became.
Dockery: I can see why they did not localize it.
Cerna: No kidding. For sure. My question to you is, over the course of your research, what was the most surprising fact that you came across, or one of them, it doesn’t have to be the most?
Dockery: I think the most surprising thing loops around what we were talking about at the beginning and it isn’t really a specific fact, but when Pokémon came out, it left me… It came out, at least what it felt like at breakneck pace, in full force and left me dazed and stunned and wanting more and more and more of it. As a little kid you can’t really fathom what it would take to pull off something like that. You’re a little kid, you’re not really thinking about who’s pulling strings behind the scenes. You’re just like, “Hey, here’s the new thing you’re into. Okay, I’ll be really into this for a long time.” Just talking to a lot of people that worked at Nintendo of America at the time or worked at 4Kids, which is the licensing agent for Pokémon and just learning all the little behind the scenes stuff and how it was all pulled together was really cool.
Especially because back then, a lot of learning about Pokémon was just like guesswork and it was built on playground rumors and a burgeoning internet community and so you were left to put things together. Is there a Mew under the truck or is there secretly a Pokémon Purple version coming out where you play as Team Rocket? My uncle works at Nintendo Rumors and to be able to see Pokémon from the perspective of people whose job was Pokémon, it was pretty cool. I think that was really neat.
Cerna: It’s always funny to hear behind the scenes stories too, be it the making of the game or any of the iterative properties, how big of a behemoth it seems like when you’re a kid and how much you realize it’s thrown together with scotch tape and figured out as they went.
Dockery: Especially in the beginning where it was a big mix of people that were like, “Okay, this is going to work,” or people who were like, “Okay, this is not going to work,” or people were like, “This is not going to work to an extent that it’s going to tank our company.” It was a pretty big spectrum of belief in Pokémon’s efficacy and that was another cool thing to find out is who thought it would work and who was convinced that they’d be out of a job because it would flop so hard.
Cerna: Yeah, like 4Kids, I think it was 4Kids. They were all in on it. If it didn’t work out…
Dockery: Yeah, they didn’t have a big stockpile of cash at the moment so if Pokémon had knocked out, that might have not been a thing anymore.
Cerna: Yeah. Is there any other thing that you want potential readers of the book to know about Monster Kids?
Dockery: I’d like people probably to know is that if you read it, the thing I tried to do the most was present it as a story because if you don’t have much time and you have to explain Pokémon and its success and its early years, it’s a lot of, and this was this popular and this was this popular and then this made this amount of money. I really wanted to take that and present a character arc in a way for a franchise that is now essentially ubiquitous. There’s not a medium, or, I use this in the book, there’s not an area of target that it hasn’t touched. I had a few people, especially at the beginning wondering, is it going to be a hit piece on Pokémon if you’re talking about it or is it going to be a list of Pokémon effects?
I was like, “No. You can decide whether I achieved my goal or not,” but the big thing I wanted to do was provide a story of how a franchise is born and how it’s presented and how it changes and most simply for Pokémon, because Pokémon as I said recently in this interview, hasn’t changed all that much spiritually or structurally since Pokémon Red and Green, but the world around it has changed. In many cases, as I write Monster Kids, Pokémon was a proponent of that change, those mediums advancing that thinks of him latching onto Pokémon and changing around it. It changed the way we connect with Pokémon, it changed the way we connect with other people sometimes. That was a really important thing for me is I wanted to write a book that was nostalgia about Pokémon, because I like it and it was a deep dive about Pokémania and all these cultural factors and monster collecting franchises, but I wanted to write a story of a few years where Pokémon forced the world to evolve.
Cerna: I like that. Nice tagline. How Pokémon forced the world to evolve.
Dockery: I should have put that on the book.
You should have put that on the book. Opportunity missed.
Dockery: That was my big goal, so if that sounds good to you, then please pick it up.
Cerna: What were your thoughts on Pokémon Arceus? Have you played it?
Dockery: Yes I have. I really liked a lot of it. I think when you have a game with that much expectation built into it, just as every Pokémon game has so much expectation built into it right now, not just how many new monsters or new characters or new world, but how is it going to define the franchise in 2022 or 2023 or 2024? What is it bringing, how much is it going to expand on what we imagine the Pokémon world should be like? I think with that in mind, there were a few things that I was, okay, it had a problem that some open world games follow where stuff is a little bit empty sometimes, but aside from that, aside from the emptiness and I’m sure with the breakneck schedule that they’re forced to release these things on, more time probably would have helped fill in some of the details.
Aside from that, I thought there were parts of it that were really fun. There was just something about my experience with Pokémon that is Arceus can be summed up in one experience or one little moment where I was walking around and I fell down a hill and I fell into a little glade with some trees of Pikachu and Pichu and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is Pokémon. This is how I feel.” As much as I hate to be like, “I felt like a kid again,” because that’s not really my goal when I play Pokémon. My goal to play Pokémon is to have a good Pokémon game, but for a second I was drawn back into like, “Oh my gosh, the sense of discovery, this innocence where you leave the house in your hometown and all of a sudden the world is at your feet and you can go anywhere and do anything and catch them all.
That was a really, really cool moment and I think for all of its flaws, I think Legends Arceus provided a really fun time and I hope Pokémon games in the future can deliver on that because if they can, I think the franchise is in very safe hands for the indefinite future.