2021 Writing Log, Part Three

– I had a conversation with Dr. Colleen Laird about the Takashi Miike film Audition, and I had a lot of fun chatting with a good friend and respected colleague about gender and horror. Colleen wrote a grant to be able to professionally edit and produce a series about Japanese horror, and all of the videos are amazing. You can find Colleen’s YouTube channel (here).

– I participated in an online panel about the cultural impact and legacy of Sailor Moon. I was fortunate to be joined by two fellow academics and the translator of the Sailor Moon manga, and we had a wonderful time. The panel was sponsored by the Japan Foundation, and you can find the video on their YouTube channel (here).

These two projects occupied the bulk of my time during the past two weeks, but I also managed to get some writing done.

– I finished Chapter 9 of The Demon King, an original fantasy novella that I’m posting on AO3 (here).

– I’m still working on my story for Midnight Gathering, a zine of original horror fiction and illustrations. I’ll have more to write about this when it’s done, but let it suffice to say that it goes to some places.

– I had the immense honor of being accepted as a writer for Fated, a Legend of Zelda fanzine about the relationship between Zelda and Link. (You can follow the project on Twitter here.) I was nervous when I started my piece, because I haven’t written much Zelink fanfic, but the story is all but writing itself. Apparently I have some feelings about The Wind Waker, who would have thought.

– I submitted my final piece for Memorabilia, a Legend of Zelda fanzine about the archaeology and architecture of Breath of the Wild. Both the writing and the art in this zine are absolutely spectacular, and I still can’t believe I get to be a part of such an incredible project. You can follow the zine on Twitter (here) and pre-order a copy (here).

– Pre-orders for the Ties of Time fanzine, a collection of art and stories based on Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, are now open too! You can preview the zine on Twitter (here) and grab a copy for yourself (here). You can see a short excerpt from my story (here). I had the pleasure of joining a number of spirited conversations about the deep lore and character development of the two games on the zine’s Discord server, and I think this passion for worldbuilding and symbolism is beautifully expressed by everyone’s work. I’m really looking forward to being able to read through the complete zine!

( You can follow me on Patreon if you’d like to support my work! )

Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.

The Demon King, Chapter 9

I just posted Chapter Nine of The Demon King on AO3 (here).

This is the second-to-last chapter of the novella, and it’s meant to function as a narrative climax. At the beginning of the first chapter, Balthazar casually murders someone; and, at the end of this chapter, he destroys an entire ecosystem. He has his reasons for doing what he’s doing, but I want to make it clear to the reader that he’s not fucking around. I also want to make it clear that this story is not YA fiction, so the language I used in this chapter is a bit… tumescent, let’s say.

Even though its narrative arc is complete in itself, this novella is intended to be the first part of a longer story, and I hope this sort of explosive conclusion is equally satisfying and intriguing. I think it can be understood as a natural outgrowth of the concepts that have already been introduced, but my goal is for an astute reader to come out of this chapter with a deeper curiosity about the history and metaphysics of this world.

This illustration of Balthazar is by the brilliant Jennifer So (@hellojennso on Twitter, @jennosaur on Instagram, and @jennlso on Tumblr), who designed the character. This is actually the first character design created for The Demon King (back in November 2018), and I’m excited to finally share it. Jenn nailed the character on the very first draft, and this is how I’ve pictured him since then.

Book Cover Studies

I’ve been thinking about graphic design a lot recently, especially as a tool to help writers promote their work. Contemporary mainstream social media is extremely image-oriented, which puts writers at a disadvantage. I therefore think it’s worthwhile to figure out how to create graphic images that focus on text but are still visually striking and easily shared.

Since book covers serve the same purpose, I decided to launch this project by thinking about how certain compositions are used to convey specific moods, and I’ve been drawing quick studies along the way. Silja Götz’s online class Book Cover Illustration has been an incredible resource!

It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that I love horror novel covers. “Modern gothic” is one of my favorite genres, and I could sketch these types of covers all day (and night).

2021 Writing Log, Part Two

– I’ve been putting together my first academic video, which will be included at the beginning of a panel about Sailor Moon hosted by the Japan Foundation. I’m extremely honored to be in gloriously sparkling company for this event, which is going to be broadcast live next Thursday, January 28. It’s totally free, and you can register for it (here).

– I finished Chapter Eight of The Demon King, an original high fantasy adventure comedy novella. I’m posting my first draft on AO3 (here).

– I submitted the final draft of my story for the Ties of Time Legend of Zelda fanzine. I’ve been editing this story almost every day for the past two weeks, and I’ve felt like a blacksmith hammering away at the draft so that every word is as sharp as it can be. It’s been an amazing experience to follow the progress of the stories and illustrations that will be published in the zine, which is going to be stunning. Preorders will be open soon, and you can follow the zine’s progress on Twitter (here).

– I’ve also been hard at work polishing the story I’m submitting to the Memorabilia Breath of the Wild fanzine, which you can follow on Twitter (here) and on Tumblr (here). The work that the other contributors have been sharing on the zine’s Discord server is phenomenal, and I want my own story to achieve the same high standard.

– I was invited to contribute to the Carpe Noctem anthology project (here), which is dedicated to illustrated historical fiction about vampires. I started working on my story, “The Kumo Diary,” which is set during the Heian period, and I’m having a lot of fun with the preliminary research. I’ve also been working on a few pitches for digital bonus short stories and really enjoying myself.

– I returned half a dozen peer reviews. For what it’s worth, I’ve finally started to realize that it’s good to divide my comments into what should be seen by the editor and what can be shared with the author. All of the manuscripts I reviewed were (graduate seminar papers probably? and) not yet ready for publication, but I tried to give positive and concrete feedback. I hope I was able to help the authors push their projects forward or identify better venues for their writing.

Unfortunately, I had to crap out on two big professional obligations during the past two weeks, which isn’t great, and I’m running weeks behind on two other important projects. I don’t know what to say, except that trying to work during a pandemic isn’t getting any easier. We’re all doing the best we can, I guess. Good luck to all of us!

( You can follow me on Patreon if you’d like to support my work! )

My Husbando

A true story from These Trying Times™

The song my husband is singing is (this one) from Azumanga Daioh.

“I would have just moved to another apartment,” someone commented when I posted this on Instagram. And I totally agree, but at the same time, moving during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy, and I don’t want to do it again. My illustrated piece of flash fiction “Apartment Hunting” (here) is actually about how strange and unpleasant this experience was. It’s been difficult to try to navigate my professional life without a stable internet connection, but at least I have a large library of anime to help me make it through.

The Demon King, Chapter 8

This illustration of Ceres is by Sali (@salisillustrations on Instagram and @saliechelon255 on Tumblr), who creates beautiful digital paintings based on books and anime, including Studio Ghibli movies and the Harry Potter novels, alongside her original work. Her characters are fashionable and expressive, and they always fit perfectly into their richly detailed environments. Sali has a talent for drawing fancy wizards, and it was a pleasure to be able to work with her on this illustration for The Demon King.

The eighth chapter of The Demon King is the culmination of Ceres’s first character arc. It echoes her introduction, in which she glibly treats murder as the only viable option to a tricky political problem, but now the reader is able to see the deliberation that leads to her decisions.

I’m interested in female political leadership, especially at high levels, when an executive’s position is just as symbolic as it is practical. It’s my impression that, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or Tsai Ing-wen or Angela Merkel, there’s an expectation that a woman needs to be perfectly competent and capable while still being both “rational” and having all the charm and charisma of a male politician. This is impossible in real life, of course, but it’s fun to exaggerate these pressures and expectations in fiction to see where they lead.

In any case, the prompt I gave the artist was “a beautiful fairytale princess quietly plotting murder.”

Although it’s still rough around the edges, I’m posting the first draft of The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

Apartment Hunting

I moved to Philadelphia earlier this year. The circumstances weren’t ideal, and I only had a few days to find an apartment. I went on a few tours of large buildings and fancy condos, all of which were way out of my budget. Besides, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that anyway.

I decided to pursue a different strategy. Instead of looking for listings online, I drove through several neighborhoods and took photos of places with For Rent signs outside. I sat in my car, made a list of phone numbers, and agreed to meet with anyone who picked up when I called.

This was how I found myself standing on the sagging porch of an old townhouse in West Philly with ornamental spires above the windows and a historic registry plaque beside the front entryway. A woman with a colorless suit and a severe haircut met me at the door and handed me a blank application form. Just in case, she said.

The interior was much larger than I expected. I’d never been inside a townhouse before, and I wasn’t prepared for how far back the hallway would stretch. The doors were strangely small, and the ceiling seemed far too high. This must be the building’s historic character, I told myself. Local color. The realtor wasn’t interested in conversation, so I stopped to take a picture of the crown molding, which was ornamented with carvings of infinitely spiraling vines.

When I looked up from my phone, I realized that I was alone. The hallway in front of me was dark, so I turned around and began walking back the way I came.

There were more turns and staircases than I remembered. As I walked, the floor grew spongy underneath my feet. My shoes made unpleasant squelching noises with every step. I started to notice that there were small mushrooms crouching in the corners of the walls and creeping up the support beams between doors.

I swallowed my embarrassment and called out to the realtor, but no one answered. I tried dialing the number printed on the For Rent sign, but no one picked up. I was lost, I realized. I’d somehow lost my way outside. At least I still had the application form.

It’s not so bad, all things considered. I was alarmed at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s not as if there’s anything I can do. I guess I live here now.

.

This was my submission to the 2020 Philly Zine Fest Anthology. You can download a free PDF copy of the anthology (here). The Philly Zine Fest is held in West Philadelphia every November, and you can stay updated on Twitter (here).

The Internet Conspiracy Machine

About a month ago, a post that felt weird to me started circulating within my small circle of Tumblr mutuals. To make a long story short, there was a smart post by a popular Tumblr artist that someone had reblogged with an inflammatory addition. The inflammatory addition was from 2018, so I was curious why it had started circulating again in December 2020.

I asked my mutuals if they were reblogging the post because something specific had happened recently, but they couldn’t give me any background. It seemed that the reblog was nothing more than clickbait making the rounds while riding on the back of the original post. Tumblr being Tumblr, this happens all the time.

But this reblogged addition still felt strange to me. The user who created the reblog had deactivated their account, so I searched for their username to try to figure out who they are. I wanted to figure out if the inflammatory addition was referring to something specific or whether it was just someone venting on Tumblr – which, again, is fair. I honestly didn’t expect to find anything, but I was working on an academic essay on the general topic of the original post and thought it might be interesting to follow up on this lead.

What I found was that the inflammatory addition had originated in 2018 and spread within a circle of blogs dedicated to video games whose users openly identified as male. All of these blogs were only briefly active and hadn’t been updated since 2018. Their reblogs alternated between memes, game release announcements, and incendiary “social justice” posts.

I’m not sure how to explain the particular flavor of circa-2018 “social justice” posts on Tumblr, save to say that they are totalizing, polarizing, and extremely aggressive to an absurd degree. In aggregate, these posts engender a sense that there is an elite group of enlightened people who all share the same position and values, and who must foster their anger in order to stand against their enemies, who are presumed to be an equally monolithic group. Let me be clear that these posts are not about any specific real-world issues or political groups, but more along the lines of general ideological programming spread through discourse surrounding fictional characters and entertainment media. Such posts have nothing to do with critical readings or cultural critique, but instead take the form of brief and easily digestible “this thing is bad” slogans with jingoistic “people who don’t agree are also bad” insinuations.

In any case, what I found regarding the circle of video game blogs on Tumblr seemed suspicious, so I tried to figure out who these users were and where they’d gone. (I was no longer doing research for my essay, by the way; now I was just morbidly curious.) Tumblr has an optional function that allows users to crosspost to Twitter, so I ended up tracking down a few of these blogs via reposts on Twitter, where I ran across a surprising number of deactivated accounts. Between one thing and another – and this was a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m afraid I didn’t document my process as well as I could have – I ended up on Parler, a social media platform for the sort of alt-right people who tend to get kicked off Twitter.

Along with 8kun, Parler is one of the main seeds of the QAnon material that makes its way to Facebook and YouTube, and the conversations I saw on the site were completely divorced from consensus reality. There’s an excellent article about this on The Atlantic (here); but, to summarize, “the QAnon conspiracy” holds that the American government is rotten to its core, and even conservative politicians are almost literal comic book villains. Donald Trump, as someone coming from outside these evil political circles, is only person that “real” Americans can rely on, and he must therefore be defended from Democrats and Republicans alike.

At the time I encountered Parler in mid-December 2020, it was filled with people talking about contesting the election results, by force if necessary. Many of the hashtags, like #HoldTheLine, were military in tone, and people were sharing state-specific resources for obtaining firearms. There were a lot of links to videos associated with the Dorr Brothers, who oversee various regional organizations devoted to “no compromise” “Second Amendment rights.” (NPR has a limited-run podcast about this, if you’re curious.) There was also an extraordinary deal of antisemitism, with coded references ranging from “global capitalists” to “lizard people.”

I did not stay there long. I got super creeped out, to be honest.

The worst thing was that, between all the “Take Back America” rhetoric, links to QAnon videos on YouTube, and announcements for the Facebook Live events of reactionary political groups, people were sharing memes and joke posts about video games… and a lot of them were really good. To my shame, that’s why I stayed on the site for as long as I did, even after it had become painfully clear what I was looking at.

The appeal of QAnon conspiracies is that they speak to the marginalized in their own language, whether that language is video game memes, “traditional feminist” slogans, or decontextualized Bible verses. These conspiracies provide both an “it’s not your fault” justification for why individuals don’t succeed in neoliberal capitalism and a concrete path of action that elevates a normal person sitting at a computer to the status of a righteous crusader.

This sort of messaging is designed to appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re under attack from forces they don’t understand, which is perhaps why it has appealed so strongly to Donald Trump himself. Once I started picking up on QAnon codewords and hashtags, some of Trump’s more bizarre tweets from 2020 (such as “Nothing can stop what is coming”) started to make much more sense.

When Trump posted a video telling the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6 that they’re “special” and that he loves them, this also made sense to me. Trump seemed to genuinely believe, as the rioters did, that they were on the righteous side of a holy war to protect the rights of the marginalized and prevent the fall of civilization at the hands of a nebulous and unspeakable evil.

Given my actual research interests, which have very little to do with American politics, you can probably guess that this whole thing started with Legend of Zelda. There may be some people reading this essay who might feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that the Zelda series is to blame for fostering an apocalyptic mindset because [insert racist generalization about Japanese people here]. I’m not saying that the Zelda games – or gaming culture and video games in general – aren’t without their problems, but please don’t let that be your take-away point.

I’m also not suggesting that the people on Tumblr who reblogged a post I found upsetting are ignorant. After all, most people on the platform are fully aware of how misinformation spreads, and we rely on a carefully curated grassroots social vetting system that serves as something of a Geiger counter to make sure we’re not getting close to anything radioactive. We’re all doing the best we can, and a few isolated posts from malicious actors aren’t going to hurt anyone.

Rather, what has struck me about this whole mess is how the tendency toward authoritarian thinking transcends political lines. I can’t say whether the Tumblr blogs that were active in spreading inflammatory “social justice” posts in 2018 were real people who ended up gravitating to the far right or the sock puppets of people already involved with far-right groups, and I don’t know who started circulating their posts again in December.

What I do know is that “us vs. them” essentialism is just as appealing to online communities in favor of progressive social justice as it is to online communities that propagate QAnon theories. Because of the way social media algorithms privilege content that evokes “engagement,” this type of thinking can spread far beyond these communities and become normalized even for people who don’t know anything about Wojak memes or video games or Tumblr or 4chan, whether they’re financially precarious retirees or recent college graduates who have just started to understand that they will never be able to pay off their student loans.

The key word here is “normalization,” because this is what makes extremists feel as though they have broad support for what they’re doing. For every one person who creates a social media account solely for the purpose of telling an artist or showrunner that she should kill herself because her content is “problematic,” or for every one person who showed up to the riot in DC on January 6, there are thousands of people in each of their extended communities who are directly supporting their actions online.

I think that, if both young people and older people could envision an actual future for themselves as valued members of society, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so invested in fantasies about destroying society. I know this makes me sound like a moderate apologist, but I’m not advocating for “compromise” or “seeing both sides.” What I’m trying to say is this: If there are multiple generations of people who are unemployed, underemployed, deeply in debt, and one random accident away from complete financial ruin, of course they’re going to be upset and looking for guidance, especially while they’re stuck at home or trapped in “essential worker” jobs during an ongoing pandemic. This is not a controversial statement to make.

Neoliberal capitalism is irreparably broken. So many people wouldn’t be in such a precarious position if it weren’t. Something needs to happen, because people need to be able to live without feeling as though they have to fight each other to survive.

In the meantime, social media corporations need to change their algorithms. It’s unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible to destroy the platforms on which authoritarian and apocalyptic discourses are created and disseminated. That being said, these fringe beliefs should not be as accessible, widespread, and normative as they are.

The individual and social formation of identity and ideology that happens online is real, and it has real consequences. I think it’s high time to start taking this seriously.

Wizard Karen

Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?
https://www.vulture.com/amp/article/who-did-j-k-rowling-become.html

Rowling had never been a particularly controversial figure. Her books sold hundreds of millions of copies, they inspired films that brought in billions of dollars, and she used the money she made to save children from orphanages. In 2012, she gave enough to charity and paid enough in taxes to knock herself off the Forbes billionaires list. In 2020, she was tweeting links to a store that sold pins that said F*CK YOUR PRONOUNS.

Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.

“She absolutely believes that she is right, that she’s on a mission, and that history will eventually bear her out,” Anelli [the administrator of a prominent Harry Potter fansite] told me. “She thinks she’s doing good work right now.”

Yikes.

I started seeing posts attacking Rowling on Tumblr in early 2018, but none of them actually explained why people were so angry with her. When I tried asking what was going on, I’d get vague answers along the lines of “she liked the tweet of a bad person a few years ago and then said it was a mistake.” 2018 was a year of people on the internet becoming extraordinarily upset about space wizards, so I brushed the accusations against Rowling into the same category as assertions that fictional characters in Voltron and Steven Universe and Star Wars were “abusive.”

I assumed that Rowling, who is active on Twitter, had probably made a few tweets about British politics or politicians that didn’t make sense to young Americans and left it at that.

Wow was I wrong about this. I was so wrong.

This became embarrassingly obvious when Rowling made her stance on transgender rights clear toward the end of 2020 in a way that was so public and performative that it was picked up by mainstream news outlets, but plenty of signs were indeed there beforehand. The article I linked to above is quite lengthy and does an excellent job of explaining exactly what’s been going on, and I appreciate that it provides the context for this discussion in a way that isn’t centered on American culture and politics.