Re: 2020 Resolutions

My resolutions for 2020 were to publish my book about comics, somehow find a way to leave my horrible job at George Mason University, and move to Philadelphia so that I could actually live with my spouse without anyone having to commute across a continental landmass two or three times a week.

I managed to do all of these things! During a pandemic! Nice!!

I had a few other resolutions, but most of them fell by the wayside, mainly due to said pandemic.

Still, my art went from (this) to (this), which is very fucking cool.

I published two zines of horror-themed flash fiction, one in April and one in October, and I ended up selling more than a hundred of copies of each zine on Etsy – with a lot of positive reviews and repeat buyers! I was able to exhibit at the Philly Zine Fest this year, and a few local bookstores in Philadelphia and Baltimore stocked copies of my zines. Sweet!

I also started submitting short fiction to magazines. I haven’t gotten anything published yet, but I’m getting a better sense of the market. I was accepted as a writer to a handful of original and fandom zines, though, so I know my work is good. I just have to keep writing and improving my craft and submitting stories.

Finally – and this is such a big deal to me – I started writing my first original novel!

Because of my success with various projects this year, I’m starting to realize that maybe I don’t need to worry so much about gatekeepers. The work I do is interesting and original, and I’d like to think that it’s only getting sharper and more creative with each passing week.

The most important thing, however, is that I’m enjoying my work for the first time in a long time.

2020 Numbers

In 2020…

I read 125 books.
I read 138 graphic novels.
I read 120 manga in English and Japanese.
I read 178 self-published zines, minicomics, and fanzines.
I watched 15 movies.
I finished 12 video games.
I posted 88 new drawings.
I made 136 posts on this blog.
I commissioned 31 comics and illustrations.

Most of these numbers are down from the previous year. It turns out that the pandemic did not make me more productive. Imagine that!

Earlier this year I set a goal for myself to be more selective about the media I engage with and not waste my precious time (and money) on things I don’t enjoy, and I guess I succeeded. I’d like to continue that trend and actually consume fewer books, manga, and so on in the coming year.

The one area I experienced growth was the frequency with which I was able to post relatively polished pieces of art (on Instagram and on Tumblr). Going from 60 posts in 2019 to 88 posts in 2020 meant that I went from posting one piece a week to posting three pieces every two weeks. I’m going to be honest and admit that this required a lot of work, especially since I’m still teaching myself relatively basic skills.

The way social media operates is that anything you post becomes more or less irrelevant after 12 hours, and the resulting pressure to be constantly productive isn’t healthy or sustainable. Still, at this stage of my artistic development, it’s nice to get immediate feedback and then be able to move on to the next thing quickly.

During the next year, I want to continue to dedicate myself to pushing my skill to the next level while figuring out how to work with better attention and efficiency. If possible, I want to be able to post finished pieces twice a week in 2021. I also want to expand the range of subjects I’m able to draw and spend more time working on backgrounds, landscapes, and interiors.

The Demon King, Chapter 7

This illustration is by the brilliant Yura Krokodil (@KrokodilYura on Twitter and @krokodilov on Tumblr). She also posts original comics on DeviantArt (here). This artist is a genius when it comes to environmental painting, and she’s magnificently talented at creature and costume design.

This is a scene from the seventh chapter of The Demon King, in which Balthazar ventures into a creepy mushroom forest and has a meandering conversation with a giant spider named Uniagoliantia. You can read the chapter on AO3 starting (here).

In Return of the King, Frodo and Sam cross through Cirith Ungol (“the pass of the spider”) on their way to Mordor, and along the way they encounter a giant spider named Shelob. The Silmarilion mentions that Shelob’s mother was Ungoliant (“dark spider”), a primordial spirit who took the form of an even larger spider. I think “Ungoliant” is a cool name, but it’s a shame it doesn’t have eight syllables, so I expanded it while making it sound more feminine.

Although there are definitely weird and creepy spiders in the world – just as there are weird and creepy fish and weird and creepy mammals – most spiders are just minding their own business, and I think their big bright eyes and round fuzzy bodies and short little legs are kind of cute.

When it comes to creepy things, I tend to think that mushrooms are much creepier than spiders. Still, they’re very cool-looking. I was talking with the artist about this, and about how the “evil forest” area that always seems to be one of the first dungeons in a lot of RPGs inevitably looks really interesting and beautiful, and she told me that she was inspired by the opening dungeon of Final Fantasy IX, which is called, appropriately enough, Evil Forest. It feels a bit anthropocentric to refer to a place that humans aren’t comfortable as “evil,” and I imagine that the creatures who live in any given “evil forest” are probably quite happy there.

Two-Step Tumblr Thinking

I have a theory about why nuanced discussions of complicated topics have become unnecessarily fraught during the past five years or so. This is one facet of many, of course, but I’ve had enough experience with this particular discursive mode that I think it’s worth describing in concrete terms.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr promote a style of messaging that is easily consumable and sharable. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Concise and witty observations, one-sentence press releases with hyperlinks, and captioned comics and artwork are the majority of what I share on social media, and I’m grateful to have access to this content without having to scroll through endless reams of blog posts in an aggregate feed reader.

Unfortunately, this sort of messaging tends to flatten discussions. Although I see this on Twitter too, I joined Tumblr in 2011 and have watched in real time as discussions of subjects like race and sexuality have been adjusted to a format better suited to easy consumption and sharing. After becoming more familiar with the patterns of how this tends to play out, I’ve started to refer to this oversimplification of complicated topics as “two-step Tumblr thinking.”

The basic model for this type of thinking is as follows:

  1. [X] is bad.
  2. A piece of media contains [X].

Numerous conclusions can be drawn from these two observations, but they tend to be something along the lines of “the piece of media is therefore bad” or “anyone who likes the piece of media is bad.” These conclusions in turn result in the sort of call-out culture (or cancel culture) in which relatively powerless individuals, often young people occupying positions of relative disadvantage, become the targets of anger and frustration that might more appropriately be directed at social and economic systems or perpetrators of violence and injustice in the real world.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to call out bullshit when and where it exists. Sometimes bullshit is nothing more than bullshit, and calling it out doesn’t need to be “a nuanced discussion.”

Still, simplifying every discussion of a complicated subject like media representation to “this is bad” serves to inhibit critical thinking while erasing perspectives that don’t occupy a mainstream or normative position. In other words, the demand for a flattened mode of discourse serves to reify injustice, not resist it.

To give a specific example, this is an argument I’ve made (here) about the villainous character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.
  3. But the game is not made by white Americans.
  4. Japan has a complicated history with imperialism.
  5. The dark-skinned villain comments on imperialism.
  6. He does so using (Japanese) language that invites sympathy.
  7. The games were made during a surge in ethnic visibility movements.

Following this chain of thinking, one might be able to suggest something interesting about the games and the different layers of the story and message they convey. You might not come to the same set of conclusions I did, and that’s totally fine. (I would love that, actually.)

The problem is that most discussions stop after the first two steps, so you get:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.

According to this chain of thinking, the Legend of Zelda games are racist, and anyone who enjoys the games or wants to talk about the character Ganondorf is therefore racist as well. The only place a discussion can go after this conclusion is a squabble over ad hominem identity politics, which is unpleasant even when it’s not happening online.

I’m not saying that positionality isn’t important, or somehow irrelevant and invalid. Rather, if “being allowed to talk about something” is dependent on nothing more (and nothing less) than individual positionality, this creates a tense atmosphere that encourages shenanigans like racebending (which is when white people suddenly discover their “ethnic” heritage) and infighting within the LGBTQ+ community over who is allowed to “count” as gay.

Let me give another example based on an academic article I was asked to review for a well-respected journal. The author was writing about an interesting manga that I would describe like this:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.
  3. But the manga is drawn by a woman.
  4. And most of the manga’s fans are women.
  5. The artist explicitly addresses the violence of misogyny.
  6. Many fans openly address misogyny in their fanwork as well.

What I would argue (as I’ve argued before) is that this type of storytelling is a form of collective therapy, healing, and empowerment for the objects of violence, who tell stories in which they become the active subjects and literal authors of their experiences.

If this discussion stops after the first two steps, however, you get:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.

This type of discursive flattening led the author of the article to argue that the manga advocates for violence against women and is therefore, in a very literal sense, just as bad as #Gamergate, a social media “movement” in which anonymous users sent a barrage of rape threats to female game developers and journalists over several months during the summer and fall of 2014.

I have to admit that, as a peer reviewer, I had no idea how to respond to this. One might as well argue that Joyce Carol Oates, in writing about the violence of rape, was justifying rape; or that Toni Morrison, in writing about the violence of slavery, was advocating for slavery. This sort of argument is absurd, obviously, and I don’t think it’s any less absurd if it’s applied to a story that addresses its themes through fantasy instead of with mimetic realism.

Again, I’m not saying that being able to quickly share information about sexist and racist bullshit on social media is bad. If someone in a position of power is abusing their privilege to hurt people, I don’t need “a nuanced discussion” of the matter.

I also want to emphasize that I respect people’s positions on what they are and aren’t able to tolerate in any given piece of media. Speaking personally, I have a set of topics and styles of representation that I avoid on sight (or reputation) whenever I encounter them in entertainment media, and I don’t care how “nuanced” or “complicated” the piece of media’s treatment of them may be. This is valid for me, and it’s valid for every other human being on this earth.

At the same time, I don’t think that two-step Tumblr thinking should be the default for critical discussions of complicated topics, especially not in an academic setting, whether it’s a classroom or a peer-reviewed article. Sensitivity is always necessary, of course, but “Toni Morrison was racist because she wrote about race” isn’t an exercise of critical thinking by any stretch of the imagination.

This especially applies to conversations about cultures outside of Europe. If we want to encourage conversations about “difference,” then we’re going to have to accept that people operating in the context of different cultures have different ways of telling stories and talking about important issues. Again, I’m not trying to excuse bad behavior, but I think discussions of complicated topics could benefit from more research and critical thinking instead of stalling after the first two steps.

Demons Have Feelings Too

The passage Balthazar is reading is from the introduction to the “Demons” entry of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. The full paragraph reads:

Spawned in the Infinite Layers of the Abyss, demons are the embodiment of chaos  and evil – engines of destruction barely contained in monstrous form. Possessing no compassion, empathy, or mercy, they exist only to destroy. The Abyss creates demons as extensions of itself, spontaneously forming  fiends out of filth and carnage.

And this is just not a very nice thing to say, honestly.

I drew this comic to include as the interstitial illustration following the sixth chapter of The Demon King, which I’m posting on AO3 (here).

A Christmas Story

My husband is a fan of British football, and his hobby is to scroll through Twitter on his phone while he watches pirate livestreams of matches on his laptop. If I happen to be in the room at the same time, he’ll sometimes read me news headlines from Twitter.

This past Friday morning, he informed me that Visa and Mastercard are no longer accepting charges from Pornhub. “But isn’t Pornhub free?” I asked him. “Maybe they have premium content,” he said. I wanted to ask who pays for “premium content” on Pornhub, but my tea was done brewing and I had emails to write.

Along with British football, my husband is a fan of Germany. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think I can guess.

One summer my husband was scheduled to give a paper at an academic conference in Europe, and we flew through Amsterdam because flights were cheap. My husband wanted to stay in the city for a few days until he got over the jetlag, so he rented an Airbnb in a student apartment at the top of a townhouse. It was high summer, and the apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and I was tired, so I complained. “This is how people do things in Europe,” he said, and I said, “Amsterdam is budget Europe.”

For the record, I don’t actually think Amsterdam is “budget Europe.” I like Amsterdam a lot, and I love the Netherlands in general. To geek out a little, I’m interested in how “science” developed in the Edo period, especially through what people at the time called “Dutch learning.” While the Japanese were studying Dutch medicine and culture, the Dutch were also studying Japanese medicine and culture, and it’s so cool to see the legacy of that exchange in Holland, especially in its botanical gardens. The comics subculture in the Netherlands is also really interesting, and I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences talking with the artists and writers I’ve met there.

So Amsterdam is not “budget Europe,” obviously. I was just being a brat.

My husband’s pride was offended, however, so before we flew back to the United States he decided to rent a car and go to “not budget Europe,” which he had apparently designated as Germany. Specifically, he wanted to go to the kebab shop that the former Arsenal star player Lukas Podolski opened in the city of Cologne. So we went, and Cologne was beautiful, and the kebabs were delicious, and we got fresh bread at a nearby bakery that ended up being some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a fun drive, and we had a good time, and now my husband is in love with Germany.

After watching his football match, my husband informed me that he wanted to get German food for lunch at the “Christmas village” that the city of Philadelphia has set up in front of the City Hall building. Despite the city of Philadelphia being what it is – saying “budget New York” might sound mean, but I’m proud to live here and say it with affection – the German-themed carnival set up around City Hall is quite nice.

I staked out a table and remained there to hold down the fort while my husband stood in line to get beer and borscht and wienerschnitzel. It didn’t take long for me to realize that no one else was eating lunch at the German fair in the freezing cold at eleven on a Friday morning, so I had a good ten minutes to sit alone and listen to the pre-recorded Christmas music coming from the cheap speakers set up around the edges of the tables. It was awful. I’m not a fan of Christmas music to begin with, but this was something special. I think there’s brand-name Christmas music that gets played on broadcast radio, and then there’s Christmas music that’s cheaper to license. Budget Christmas music?

I was especially disturbed by a rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that sounded as though it were being sung by a man who had a gun pointed at the back of his head. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you could tell from the tone of his voice that his smile wasn’t reaching his eyes.

The feeling this performance inspired in me was, “Is this person okay?”

I imagine that the singer probably wasn’t okay. What if he had gone to Julliard, thinking that he wanted to work with a professional choir one day? He might have even specialized in medieval Christian religious music. But there’s probably not a lot of demand for that sort of thing, especially not during a pandemic. So he calls in a favor and gets hired to record “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for Xfinity Radio or whatever, and he hates every second of it. He made his life choices when he was still young and idealistic, and now his student loans have trapped him in an industry he despises more with each passing day.

He gets back to his apartment after the recording session and eats cheap take-out food that already got cold while he climbed the stairs to his walk-up, and he thinks about all the sacrifices he’s made to become a professional singer. All of his classmates used to go out drinking after performances, but he never did, not wanting to risk damage to his voice by yelling to be heard in a noisy bar. Most of his friends from high school who followed more practical paths into adulthood are already married, and some of them even have houses. He’s lonely, not to mention broke, and none of the thousands of hours he’s put into perfecting his craft have gotten him anywhere in life. He gives up on dinner and turns on his computer before deciding that it’s probably best not to check social media, not tonight. While he’s got his computer open, he might as well go to Pornhub. Try as he might, though, he just can’t seem to finish, and he thinks that he would do anything to be able to forget the decisions he made when he was younger and believed the world was a better place than it turned out to be.

And so, I thought as I sat by myself at a socially distanced table and listened to sad Christmas music echo across an empty parking lot in Philadelphia, that’s who pays for premium content on Pornhub. Except not anymore, apparently, because Visa and Mastercard have cut off all payments to the site.

Happy holidays!

2020 Writing Log, Part 37

It’s been a month since I’ve updated my writing log, hasn’t it? Here’s what I’ve been up to:

– I wrote the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of my original fantasy novel The Demon King. I’m posting my first drafts, as well as the comics and illustrations that accompany them, on AO3 (here).

– I wrote a short nonfiction piece called “Sympathy for the Villain: A Queer Memoir of Online Fandom” to submit to the upcoming anthology Queer Life, Queer Love. My essay is about occupying a monstrous position, inadvertently identifying with monsters, and being kind to your fellow monsters, especially when the rest of the world insists on treating you as the villain of someone else’s story.

– I wrote a short story called “The Flower Thief” for an upcoming fanzine called Ties of Time, which is devoted to the worlds of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. This story is about Ganondorf coming to Hyrule for the first time as a child, as well as his complicated feelings about the kingdom and its people. As someone with three decades of experience of moving between countries and cultures, this ended up becoming a very personal piece of writing for me, and I’m extremely grateful for the kindness and support of the mods and writers on the zine’s Discord server.

– I wrote a short story called “Husband Hunting” for another upcoming Legend of Zelda fanzine called Memorabilia, which is an exploration of the world of Breath of the Wild from an archaeological perspective. This story is set a year after Breath of the Wild ends, and it’s about Rhondson, the Gerudo tailor who moves to Tarrey Town and marries its founder, Hudson. I’m interested in talking about cultural differences, as well as the work necessary to maintaining a “happily ever after,” but mainly I wanted to geek out about the Akkala Citadel Ruins and express my appreciation for the lazy Hinox that’s always snoozing on the parade grounds.

– I wrote an original story called “Halloween Candy” for an upcoming horror zine called Midnight Gathering. This story is my take on the “creepy older woman who lives by herself” trope, and I had a lot of fun with it. I’ve also been having a good time on the Discord server, where the writers for the project have been sharing their favorite creepypasta and creepyposts from Reddit and Tumblr.

– I wrote a review of the puzzle platformer The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince (here), a review of the story game Mutazione (here), and an extremely salty post about academic publishing (here). I’m much prouder of my positive game reviews than I am of my vent post; but, given the nature of social media algorithms, you can probably guess which of these pieces got the most attention.

It feels like I haven’t done much, especially when my writing for the past month can be summarized with only six bullet points, but I’m working at a pace of about one novel chapter, one short story, and one essay a week, which isn’t bad. I’ve also been working with several artists on illustrations for The Demon King while drawing some Demon King comics of my own, and I should be able to post them soon!

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

Big-Hearted Lad Appreciation Hours

I’m looking forward to 2021, so this year I’ve decided to send out New Year’s cards instead of holiday cards. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, so I thought it would be fun to have a card with a muscular big boy with ox horns showing off his eggplant and arrows while posing against Mt. Fuji. Himbos please drag us out of the toxic swamp of 2020, that sort of thing. I checked the websites I use for Japanese stationery, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I guess I’ll just have to make it myself.

When it comes to fictional characters, some people argue that the celebration of powerful men with big bodies is “fetishization.” I don’t think that’s quite right, as gendered power imbalances in the real world still result in misogynistic discrimination and violence. To give three examples that are very close to me:

I have a male acquaintance who moved from job to job after grad school, and at every position he left behind warnings on Rate My Professor from female students saying he harassed them. People in my field know this but still hire this man because “you can’t trust what kids say on that site.”

I spent four years quietly suffering harassment from my male department chair before finally being forced to leave my position, relocate, and find a new job during the pandemic. This man now has his own page on Wikipedia, and I don’t even have health insurance.

In college, I once had to watch a man deliver a monologue to a giant dildo about how fanfic is only written by gross women who want to get raped. I still post my “gross” fanfic on AO3, but that man ended up becoming one of the key figures behind the Detective Pikachu movie. True story!

I think that, before someone gets angry at writers and artists for indulging in a fantasy of men who are visually coded as powerful yet still have a kind and supportive personality, maybe they should ask themselves why this type of male character is considered to be a “fantasy.”

I think it’s appropriate that 2021 is the Year of the Ox, because we have a lot of work to do this year. Everyone defines strength differently, and everyone expresses strength in different ways, but I personally have spent so long feeling weak and afraid that I’m absolutely ready to feel strong and powerful.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with many men (cis and trans) who reject toxic masculinity and use their power and privilege to support the people around them. Hell yes I will celebrate these men, and damn straight I will create strong and attractive fictional characters based on them!

School’s Out

I’m like this at the end of every semester, but it hits especially hard this year.

It’s tough to get to know a group of interesting and talented people as you watch them learn and grow from week to week, only to then no longer see or talk to (most of) them ever again.