Tuesday, April 23, 2019

I'm not done talking about the DOCTOR WHO shirt contest.

You ever just get a bug up your butt about something you should probably let go, but you also know yourself and that you're absolutely not letting go of this anytime soon? That's me and the BBC's new Doctor Who shirt "contest."

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, or only a basic idea, have a seat, because we're gonna be here for a bit.

A few days ago, the BBC cracked open a fan art competition, inviting aspiring Who art sorts to submit art of any of the canonical TV Doctors with their TARDIS. Four runners up will receive a goody bag of Doctor Who merch totaling up to about $680, with a grand prize winner getting a Doctor Who-themed weekend in London.

Sounds great, right?

They also will be printing these designs on shirts and selling them. And the artists will not be getting a cut of sales.

Now, okay. Let's talk about this because I already see a few of you crunching the prize numbers in your head. Four of these five people will be getting just under $700 in things, and one will be getting a weekend whose expenses tot up into the four digits. So come on, this is solid. Right?

If it were just a fan art contest, and the art was shown on the World Tour or at SDCC onscreen as has been done in the past, then sure, I'd agree with you. But there is a difference between paying someone money and handing them that same amount of money's worth of Things. Especially if they have done work for it. Doubly especially if it is your licensed things.

Not long ago, I was offered compensation for my work in Stuff. I turned it down. Not because I considered the Stuff unworthy, but because there are other things I need and want to use my writing fees for. Groceries. Student loans. Prescription medications. Sure, maybe something less essential like fan merch or a trip, but not consistently.

Take into consideration, too, that what we would pay for these things retail is not what they pay wholesale. It is very, very easy for them to give any and all of the things in either of the prize packs to people without breaking a sweat. I have stacks of books I never managed to sell and that are just sitting there doing nothing in my workshop. I could assemble a $100 "prize pack" for people out of sunk costs. Am I saying that's what the BBC is doing? No; but I am saying we need to think that way about "prize packs" that come directly from a person's creations or IP being offered in place of payment.

Also of concern — major concern — is that having your art put on a shirt that the BBC will then sell for money that they themselves will keep is considered part of the prize. You get to have your art used on one of their shirts.

Let me tell you another story. Someone I've worked for, who will remain nameless, wanted me to help set up a contest. It would involve fan-created content being submitted to said company. I asked what the prize was. The person said, completely unironically, "The prize is that we use it." And added, as though it was totally okay, "When actually they're just making content for us that we now don't have to make." (Suffice to say I have not helped with said initiative beyond informing them that there needs to be proper recompense.)

Look at what's happening here. The BBC has opened up a massive "contest," in which fan artists pick the Doctor they want to draw. Then marketing takes their pick of those, throws some merch and a DVD viewing party at them, and makes bank on the result, end of story.

So where do I even start on this?

1. They get free market research and art.

Okay, as a fan of lesser-marketed Doctors (8 and 12 are my eternal faves), normally I would appreciate any initiative to allow fans to choose for themselves; which lets fans put forward, let's be real, someone besides 4, 10, or 13. 

But there's something that rubs me the wrong way about this. Strip away the "contest" or "competition" label briefly. What does this become? A multinational company saying "We want as many people as possible to send us as much art as possible of the Doctor they most want to see on a shirt."

That's literally just market research. They're literally just polling the audience. Which tells me they don't know which of their Doctors is most marketable, and they don't want to just run a poll that says "Hey, what would you buy?" Again, not certain, but my gut tells me that how many entries each Doctor receives will play into it — and the top five art pieces will be pulled from the top five most represented Doctors.

Now they don't have to do research and they don't have to pay artists. They just have fans send them what they want to see, then pick their favorites and throw merch at the ones they use, and walk away with the rights... which they can do because of their tangly rules and regulations, in which entrants give up their rights to the work they submit. 

(And if your knee-jerk reaction is, "Well, they own Doctor Who so technically they'd own depictions of their characters already," have a look at this video for a good talk on copyright law and derivative fan works.)

2. They are normalizing lack of credit or recompense for art.

If you're an artist in any fan community — or hell, just an artist online — you have likely had your art reposted without credit somewhere. If you're really lucky, you've seen it stripped of your signature and watermark, then when you spoke up you were told you had no right to complain because theft means your work is liked.

I find it hilarious that the contest's big bold lead is Your artwork could win you intergalactic fame. Because it couldn't. Unless they're gonna pop your name and Venmo on the sleeve of every shirt, all that will happen is that someone else will take your art, strip it of your influence, and benefit from it. Except this time, it's a major company and not some chucklehead with a curated Instagram account.

Are there some people out there who would be satisfied with knowing that there are official licensed BBC shirts out there with their art on it, even if they never see a dime or hear from BBC Worldwide again? I'm sure. Probably. Law of 7 billion. But to set up the scenario in a way that says "This is how you should feel about it" is unfair and unkind to fans.

3. They don't have to do this, nor should they.

I've worked on a shoestring for lots of publishers, working for scale (and occasionally gratis) for small print runs or charity anthologies. In those cases, either the publisher has limited funds and is giving me some pocket money as goodwill, or the money is going straight to a charity and the publisher only sees it long enough to sign it over. No one is benefiting off my or anyone's back and leaving us out in the cold... and if I find they are, I leave.

The BBC isn't Disney, granted. It's a different setup, a different scenario. But it is not so poor that it can't pay 1-5 people a fair flat fee for art and either a cut of sales or up-front the right to sell it. It's not. It's just not. I've met the companies that really are that poor, and the scrupulous ones still drop something in your PayPal because they would feel wrong otherwise.

Unless things are really strapped beyond belief at the BBC, there's no reason for them to be tricking people into free work this way. It's not respectful to the fans, and — yeah, I'll play that card — it is not what the Doctor would do.

Tardis artwork

"Fine, then don't enter and leave it to the people who want to." I mean... that's all you can really do. I get it. And sure, there will be people out there (as I said) for whom this is no issue.

But step back. Look at this and think about it. Doctor Who is, in 2019, a global phenomenon. Many, many creators have gotten their feet wet writing or drawing or otherwise creating fan works for it. Many have gone on to be paid, recognized members of the expanded Who community.

And yet, here's this contest, which many younger sorts will likely enter, and what does it do? It frames having your work used without name or payment as "intergalactic fame." It glorifies erasing the person behind the work, comping them with toys and trinkets. It says, "Oh, yes, there are fans who can make good and become well-known and well-paid, but you don't get to sit with them. We'll still use your work, though."

As a creator who's contributed to the expanded universe officially and unofficially, I am disappointed. I'm sad and distressed and a little mad that this is the public face of the show I love so much: taking advantage of its fan base for product, and in the same breath telling them that it's not only okay, but good. That supplying labor for no pay or credit is something to be striven for because you're doing it for a famous thing you're a fan of. If they even included commission in the form of a "cash prize," that would be something.

But this all reeks way too hard for me. I've seen too many artists get taken advantage of by other companies, by fellow fans, and I can't believe the people at the top are doing it now. 

You're better than this, BBC. Do right by your fans. Please.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Thank You, Monkey Punch, for Making Me an Anime Fan

During my freshman year of college, I joined the school's anime club. I wasn't particularly into anime, but I knew people in high school who were and I was looking for more than just the sci-fi club to join. It was pretty okay to start; my first year we watched Slayers, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Cowboy Bebop, and other typical late-90s gateway fare. It was fun, I was into it, but I couldn't quite get behind why anime was So Much Of A Thing.

That summer, I went with the club's officers to my first Otakon. This was back in 2000 — so it was big, but not what you'd see now. I stayed with my friend Tina the night before we drove up, and she busted out a movie she had a feeling I'd like. It was called The Castle of Cagliostro, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki (whom I knew by name at this point), and hey, just give it a go.

I absolutely adored it in a way I couldn't even describe.

Image result for castle of cagliostro

It had that elusive balance of humor and gritty action I love so much. It had a sweet story. It had characters I fell in love with quickly. With this, I finally understood why anime as a medium deserved its own separate fandom.

Tina asked what I thought. I told her I loved it, but I was sad because I wanted to see more of Lupin III and his gang and there was just the one movie. And oh boy did she have a surprise for me.

In the years since, I've eaten up whatever Lupin III media I could get my hands on. I've seen most of the original series, I'm still working my way through the many films and TV specials bit by bit... and I just recently finished the latest television series, whose absolute amazingness I cannot overstate. It threw me for a loop, bringing new context and motivation to 50-years-running characters while still being true to the original.

While many people are responsible for what Lupin III is nowadays, it was the creation of one man: Kazuhiko Kato, better known by his pen name Monkey Punch. The pen name was foisted on him during the MAD Magazine era to sound cool and interesting, but he apparently hated it. So Kato-sensei it is.

Image result for lupin part 5

It was announced today that Kato-sensei passed away on April 11. He was 81 years old: not a young creator taken in his prime, but someone who'd created an iconic work of art and got to watch it go through its 50th anniversary. Lupin III is huge in Japan; and among anime fans worldwide, it's appreciated both for its entertainment value year-to-year and as a venerable classic.

It's also, as we saw above, the series that singlehandedly got me into anime. And I never stopped loving it or engaging with it. I've met long-time friends through mutual fandom, I spent serious money and time on a tearaway dress with camos underneath so I could do Fujiko's ridiculous quick-change onstage... hell, I recently got to write the newest series up for an upcoming publication. It's never not been part of my anime fandom.

So the news flying through the Crunchyroll newsroom yesterday that Kato-sensei had passed was heartbreaking. We actually tried to "wait it out" — granted, this was largely because we had one (ultimately reliable) source and I don't think any of us wanted to be the news source that said Monkey Punch was dead when he was still alive and kicking. But once news came down of his illness, the pneumonia that led to his passing, comments from the family, and the fact that the funeral had already been held... there wasn't much more to wait on.

Image result for lupin iii

As a weird aside... I spent Monday at Work Nimbly, a workspace in Williamsburg, while I waited for our power to be restored after a massive wind storm. My friend Mai-Anh was the captain that day, and had the in-house tunes set to a reliable assortment of Lo-Fi Beats To Get Work Done To. I was extremely surprised to hear a remix of "Fire Treasure" from the aforementioned Cagliostro pop up in rotation... not the sort of thing I would expect to her mixed into that list.

Call it a coincidence or a universal heads-up as you so choose.

If anything, I'm relieved that Kato-sensei lasted until now, when Part V has come out and shown that there are capable writers who understand his creation and can create new and exciting things within it without inherently altering it. The series is in good hands and is doing amazing, even after half a century. Lupin, Jigen, Fujiko, Goemon, and Zenigata will live on, and they're going to be amazing.

I never got a chance to meet Kato-sensei as many of my friends did. I wish I could have thanked him for creating a character and a franchise that made me fall in love with anime... which, in turn, has had kind of a major influence on the trajectory of my life and career. I'm glad he had as long a life as he did, and got to see how beloved his creations were worldwide.

If you've never seen any Lupin III, I highly recommend you start tonight. Why not start like I did? Castle of Cagliostro is available on multiple streaming services. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

NOW AVAILABLE: On MOON MAN, Branching Paths, and No Cussing

M'kouhai and regular collaborator Ginger Hoesly had her idea for Moon Man all the way back in fall. Shipments were just coming in for The Hybrid, her first charity zine project (which raised $2k for One to One Children's Fund), and she was already plotting out the next round.

This would be a zine based on the career of Peter Capaldi — not just his Doctor Who work, but anything and everything there was room for. We worked together making a coherent filmography, then rating each by how important it was to have it represented in the zine.

With The Hybrid, there was a mix of art and fiction. I was told that for Moon Man, there would only be applications open for artists. I said cool, I'd be happy to buy copies and spread the word. But apparently she had a job or me.

I was asked, could I write something for the zine that encompassed as many of Capaldi's roles as possible? Hell yeah I could... I even started to get an idea right then, using the Twelfth Doctor as a hook to move through the different stories. Then she hit me with another, optional idea: could it be a branching narrative?

Image result for choose your own adventure

The format is generally better known by the genericized trademark "choose your own adventure," but Bantam and ChooseCo keep very strict tabs on that phrase. So interactive story, branching narrative, whatever you like. The point is, anyone who follows my writing knows that I absolutely adore stories like this... but may not know I'd never actually written one myself.

Fortunately, the one for Moon Man would be small scale. Art takes center stage in this zine, with 41 brand new full-color illustrations from 27 talented artists of all stripes. The idea was to supply an "Easter egg" between the images. Which meant that I was given 10-15 print pages total to get a story across.

That's not as sparse as you might think. If you read The Hybrid, you have an idea of how many words could comfortably exist on a page. I had to write efficiently, pare down tons of potential tracks to make the space I had count, and still make it read well. It was a fun challenge; if I had infinite room, I would have taken infinite time. But the space I got, scattered throughout the images, made for a nice lean story that hopefully complements everyone else's work.

So what can I say about the story? Not much. I want to leave it a bit of a surprise, after all. I will say it stars the Twelfth Doctor and Clara pre-"Dark Water," when this Doctor still couldn't remember the source of his new face and Clara was figuring out where she stood with him. You pilot the TARDIS, but only just; she has a very specific reason for the places she wants to go. What that reason is will depend on which of the four endings you get.

Funnily enough, two of the endings are reworkings of old back-burner ideas of mine, so it's nice to see them finally see the light of day in a coherent format. One did require some retooling, though. The zine is meant to be all-ages accessible... and some swearing had to be got around. If you read it and like it, credit Ginger with the idea; it was too fun to pass up.

Moon Man is raising money for the Glasgow School of Art, Capaldi's alma mater. Physical and digital zines are on sale, both of which feature my story. You can also add on T-shirts and merch bundles. Once 50 merch bundles have been ordered, a very cool enamel pin will be added for everyone who buys it. (Think of it like Kickstarter stretch goals.)

And yes, all the stuff on sale is for charity. So if you just buy a book, or just a merch bundle, or just a shirt... it all counts. Plus you get some genuinely amazing one-of-a-kind stuff from fantastic creators. Like seriously. Where the hell else will you get a Local Hero pin and a Soft Top, Hard Shoulder bookmark?

By the way, orders are only open until April 29. After that, that's it. So if you want a big book of some amazing art, or some sweet merch, or a soft shirt... or you're just really really curious about the story I wrote... you have just under 3 weeks to get on board. Plus it's a great chance to do something for up-and-coming artists.

Let me know if you buy a copy — and which ending you get first.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

"The Comedian" and the TWILIGHT ZONE Morality Play

I don't know what I'm going to do about Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone. Like, I absolutely want to watch it with every fiber of my being. I love The Twilight Zone, I love Peele, but do I "subscribe to an entire new streaming service for one show" love them? It's the new Game of Thrones conundrum.

CBS All-Access did do their level best to suck me in by putting "The Comedian" (the premiere episode, released simultaneously with "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet") on YouTube. Of the pair they could have shown, this was likely the wiser choice: we've seen Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" done twice already, after all. And while the new version is apparently a contemporary twist rather than yet another gremlin on the wing, it's fairer to give us something cut fresh off the block to help us make our decision.

"The Comedian" isn't by Peele (in fact none of the episodes announced so far is penned by him, save for a Story credit on "Nightmare"), but by Key & Peele and Rick and Morty contributing writer Alex Rubens. The story falls into the "morality play" or "Monkey's Paw" subgenre of the series: someone has problem, they are offered solution, solution has frankly horrible results, and there's probably not a happy ending in sight once they're underway.

Our protagonist Samir (played by Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comedian who just ain't doing all that well — could be because his material seems to consist solely of one realization he had about Second Amendment debate. Dubious salvation comes in the person of Tracy Morgan's J.C. Wheeler, Samir's idol and a comic legend who just disappeared from the scene one day. He advises that Samir turn to his own life for material (the brilliant line "You are a country with one export"), but that once he's plumbed something for humor, that's it, it's gone.

Anyone who's seen enough Twilight Zone to rub two episodes together already knows where this is going, and by the time we hit Peele's opening monologue, we already know the ride we're on. Samir can invoke someone in his routine, absolutely bring down the house regardless of how objectively funny the material is, but then the person will be gone from the world as if they never existed, and the world will adapt for that absence. Take out a drunk driver who busted up a bus stop and killed two people? The bus stop is fine, and the people are alive.

There are rules, though, which he sorts out for himself with trial and error. It has to be someone with whom Samir has had an interaction at some point, even if it's just a brief conversation on a bus or a back-and-forth with a heckler. So no, it can't just be a public figure. And the disappearance occurs once he speaks the person's name.

In vintage Twilight Zone, with its 25-minute run time and low budget, the plot trajectory would be fairly trackable. I expected it to go a bit like Alphonse Daudet's short story "The Man with the Golden Brain," in which our hero fights with himself not to mete out his one precious resource. A black-and-white-era take might well have seen Samir carefully whittling down his list, least important to most important, carefully trying to craft new material while edging ever closer to having only one last, desperate choice left.

When I started to tell my grandfather the setup, he interrupted me and called the ending immediately. Was the specific end action correct? Yes. But the road to that ending went in an unexpected direction, pulling obvious inspiration from elsewhere:

That's not even a joke or a low blow. Samir literally goes full Light Yagami in the second act, going through his social media and high school memories and merrily making lists of every single person he believes needs to be taken out. He even goes full God complex.

Death Note has become something of a modern cultural touchstone, with enough jokes and memes existing that even people who aren't hugely into anime know a reference when they see it. I've talked before (largely in my Black Archive installment on Heaven Sent) about entertainment invoking other entertainment as symbolic shorthand. Heaven Sent uses a time loop, making everyone think of Groundhog Day, one of the ultimate character building/redemption stories. "The Comedian" takes a man who only needs a person's name and some face time to make them unexist, gives him a little black book, and we know even before he starts talking like a savior that he's thinking like one.

Literally all he needed was a potato chip. TO EAT.

What we get with Samir is the story of a man who justifies his destructive actions as noble — look, look at the proof, he's saved literal lives! — and uses circular logic to maintain that nobility across any use of those powers. "I use my magical unexisting ability for good, therefore I am good, therefore it's all right if I decide to take that out on a drunk heckler whose biggest crime was thinking my unfunny material was unfunny."

The message of the story is a hard slap in the face that just keeps slapping the longer it carries on. Sticking by your standards is difficult and often unrewarding. Creating a name for yourself on the backs of others is easy. Hell, you can even squint and tilt your head and justify it as a good thing. But the longer you do it, the less important other people become. The more people you hurt because it's just easier that way. And then finally, finally, you tug the wrong thread, and the damage you do becomes evident in your own life.

Oh, and then you start to care.

"The Comedian" justifies the existence of Peele's new Twilight Zone pretty quickly, which is not an easy feat. A post-Serling approach will always be difficult. You need to tell new stories that are relevant to the modern state of the world, while still maintaining the tone of the original series. And the series needs to feel right while still giving you something new. "The Comedian," as mentioned, had a very predictable end point... but the road to that end point was a new and modern one. Which is not to say that narcissism, sociopathy, savior complexes, and the like are solely 21st century traits. But they are traits whose bearers have more ways to proliferate in the modern day, and which have been examined more heavily psychologically for understanding.

Too, classic methods are getting new spins. I will admit that most of my knowledge of Tracy Morgan comes from 30 Rock, so hearing he'd be playing the arbiter of Samir's curse was exciting. While the move to do the casting felt like a spin on Jonathan Winters's turn in "A Game of Pool," Morgan's performance is in a class of its own. He's got a lot to chew on in two deceptively short scenes, and he more than brings it. I can only hope for more opportunities like this for actors, comedians, and celebrities of all stripes — because it looks like we have some firm direction to bring out everyone's best.

In the end, "The Comedian" was what I've come to expect a morality play Twilight Zone episode to be: observant, emotional, just a bit difficult to watch, and — yes — with a predictable ending. Because we count on its Monkey's Paw stories to show us that these people will learn from their mistakes, be hoisted on their own petards, or a combination of both.

With this episode and "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" now out, I look forward to seeing the 2019 Twilight Zone challenge some more of the original show's themes: twist endings, allegories, and especially their occasional humorous/warm-hearted turns. They've already proven they can do one of the original series's most famous formats solidly. Let's see them run the whole gamut. I'm reasonably sure they can.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

MOVIES: Wreck-It Ralph 2 Is Your Abusive Friendship Big-Pill

First up, apologies for the radio silence. I've been working on multiple writing projects with hard deadlines (one of which is now in the bag — more on that soon), getting my day back in order, coping with the odd existential crisis... you get the idea. Too, going through all this stuff while working for other sites means that, of the rare bits of entertainment I got to consume, most were being talked about elsewhere. So I really did have a dry period for my blog.

No more, friends. No more. I've been catching up on me zeitgeist, and boy is it giving me a lot.

I liked the first Wreck-It Ralph. I dug the nostalgia bits, I liked the general story of self-discovery, and as a person with epilepsy I found a lot to love in Vanellope coming to terms with her glitch and taking joy in who she is as a person. The minute I saw it, I was aware we would have a minimum of one sequel, and I had a feeling I would be iffy about it at best. I'm not anti-sequel by any stretch of the imagination, but Disney is a bit hit-or-miss with their properties.

Ralph Breaks the Internet didn't seem to be the most promising. The Disney Princesses were their primary selling point (and don't get me wrong, I can't blame them... it was so rad hearing Jodi Benson back after all these years as Ariel). And, well, beyond that it looked like a lot of known brands. And I knew those brands would not be story elements... because, as a writer, I know you gotta be careful how you use brands.

Example: in Owl's Flower, the eponymous coffee shop has Facebook and Instagram accounts. Nothing special happens with them; part-timer Stormy just suggests that owner Iris should have social media for her business, and those are some of the biggies. Once in a while someone will snap an Insta shot or make a Facebook post, but there's nothing plot-based about those elements.

But in one of my works in progress, the protagonist has a social media account on an as-yet-unnamed service. That service will be the gateway for a minor antagonist to do their dirty work. The social media won't be at fault; however, because the service will be the carrier for the negative plot point, it is safer to invent one. Otherwise, you can run afoul of a business who doesn't like you using their property as a harbinger of negativity (see Bandersnatch sticking their foot in it with ChooseCo simply for using the phrase "Choose Your Own Adventure").

This is all a long way of saying that representation of brands in Ralph was a conscientious thing, driven home by the fact that core company BuzzzTube (where the old retread "the Internet can be garbage but not always I guess" lesson was spouted) was an invention, while eBay (only ever depicted as operating securely and as advertised) was mentioned by name.

That long-winded note aside, and with the knowledge that I could (and did) just shut my gosh darn brain off and enjoy myself, it's the back half of the movie that really shines. And that's the half people seem to ignore completely in their take-downs and talks. To be fair, that could be because they're avoiding spoilers... but if I'd known that Ralph Breaks the Internet was a serious look at insecurity and abusive friendships, I'd have been there a lot sooner.

I've said before, and will never not say, that the concept of abusive friendships is under-represented. We talk about abusive romantic partners, family members, and even bosses. But somehow, the idea that this same dynamic could exist in a friendship escapes us. Perhaps it's because we consider friendships more escapable or less of a commitment, as there's no blood or legal ties and no romance. You can unfriend someone on Facebook or just stop visiting them a lot more easily than you can file for divorce or quit your primary source of income.

If anything, such situations are harder to escape in a different set of ways, as friendship boundaries are less structured and more nebulous. We have levels of friendship: acquaintances, work friends, childhood friends, best friends, platonic "I genuinely have no idea if they're dating or not" friends. A real-world "unfriending," short of the day we get corneal implants and can just Jon Hamm someone*, is imperfect because of the varying degrees of acquaintanceship.

Too, the idea of "friendship break-ups" is less normalized. You can quit a job, end a relationship, or move away from your family and change your name. All of those elements involve a degree of salting the earth, blowing it out the airlock, whatever you want to call it. There's a finality you can trace to a piece of paperwork. And people can largely respect it because of that element. But when two friends are no longer friends, it's a choice — usually eternally one-sided — with no paper trail. And it's often pegged as "drama." Maybe because "You're not my friend anymore" sounds very schoolyard-y or very meme-ish. Which, you know. I get it, I guess.

I can safely say I'm closer emotionally with some of my friends than I've ever been with a significant other or even some family members. The lack of blood or legal tie has nothing to do with it. It's that unfettered closeness, combined with the eternal mentality that friendship is a few rungs down the same ladder as romantic love, that makes us forgive a lot of horrible things without realizing it. We think we're not at the same level of commitment because there's not a piece of paper or a specific set of words said, but by God, we are.

Ralph and Vanellope are an especially close type of friend: two misfits who don't belong in the world at large and barely belong in their own worlds. Those are the ties that bind tightest. And as we explore wider worlds, we find places we belong... not always places the other friend can follow. If I had my druthers, all my dearest friends would live close to me and keep similar hours so that we could all be together at the same time. But I'm also aware that as much as they'd like the easy closeness, a lot of them don't want to live in Virginia any more than I want to live wherever they've settled... or they wouldn't want to be single freelancers any more than I'd want a 9-to-5 and a kid.

The friends I have in my life now understand that. And while it took me a while to understand that not wanting the exact same things is not the same as an unwillingness to maintain a friendship, it is something I grok now. The problem comes when a friend is so reassured of their knowledge of another friend's needs (and, worse, wants) that they put themselves above said friend as an authority. And these actions all come down to a beautifully double-edged word: insecurity.

Yes, there are absolutely some terrible and controlling people out there who believe they know best and don't value friendships at all. I've met them. They're not in my life anymore. I wish them well and hope someday they can do better. There are also people who genuinely love and care about their friends and want what's best for them, while laboring under the misapprehension that they know everything there is to know about said friend, and change is indicative of a flaw.

In either case, the impetus is the same: insecurity. Caring friends are scared of not being enough, of perhaps not being as important to someone as that someone is to them, and will be uncharacteristically controlling out of fear of loss. Dyed-in-the-wool abusers are insecure at their core: they need and crave that control because, subconsciously, they believe anything less won't be enough.

Insecurity, incidentally, is not a flaw or a fault. Vanellope's glitch is a fluid metaphor for many things, from disability to anxiety to pretty much anything that makes a person function differently in the world. It takes on yet another meaning in Ralph Breaks the Internet, as a virus made to exploit security breaches runs rampant. Exploiting insecurities isn't just a technical issue: it's a prime play in the abuser's handbook.

We see it in full force, too. Vanellope may blame herself for the mass instability the virus causes, but it didn't originate with her. The virus was deliberately released to cause problems, with no thought given to the idea that the instability could very literally destroy the person that all this scheming is allegedly for.

As strange as it may sound, Ralph was fortunate in how his situation turned out: he had the opportunity to see how he came across in full IMAX living color. This isn't something a lot of us get to do. It's also not something a lot of us want to do. Because seeing yourself at your worst is frankly terrible. It's also a catharsis we need when we're at we're worst, because sometimes that's what it takes to snap you out of it.

Ralph is, to me, still a hero more than a villain. He does some awful things in the name of friendship. He becomes angry and controlling. He does things with full awareness that they are potentially destructive, fooling himself into believing they are for the greater good. But he also responds when he sees what his actions have done. And that's what sets people apart: not whether they literally never do anything bad, but whether they change once they have.

Given long enough, all of us will end up on both sides of this situation, because it's part of maturing in friendships. Not all of us will go as hard as Ralph, or be as victimized as Vanellope. I've been the controlling friend, terrified of losing someone because I felt that if I wasn't enough, I wasn't worthwhile. I got that smacked out of me by multiple people six ways to Sunday. I've been the friend manipulated into staying put and working against my best interests, too. Sometimes things have worked out. Other times, I've had to leave someone behind.

Ralph Breaks the Internet isn't what a lot of people wanted it to be: a commentary on Internet culture. But God, we have more than enough of that already. In the meantime, we're asked to look in a great big mirror and ask ourselves: are our friendships healthy? Do we love our friends, and ourselves, enough to believe that friendships can survive not always being joined at the hip? Do our friends believe the same?

My greatest friendships have miles, years, and lifestyles between them. The differences in our worlds are things we can bring back to each other, to help each other continue to grow. Those same friendships have weathered storms from without and within... and again, are things that make us better. No friendship has to be perfect; it just has to be flexible and ready to grow as the individuals within it grow.

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* My Black Mirror references never end. Apologies to any new visitors.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Cult of Personality Is Still a Cult

Ah, geez. There were so many other things I wanted to talk about this week. Stuff I've got coming up. Movies I've seen. Literally anything except this. But by God, here we are.

Now, for the record, this post is not about one person or one situation. It's about many. Some I've been uncomfortably closely tied to; others I've seen from a distance. The rest, I hear about in YouTube deep dives about crazy stories lost to time. The point is, this is not a new situation, nor is it one that's going away anytime soon.

I'm talking about Cults of Personality, and our inability to see them for what they are. Which is funny, since the word is right there.

I'm a big fan of a lot of well-known and lesser-known people. And really, that's a fine way to be. It's good to have people we look up to, who inspire us to be our best, whose work brings us happiness in our darker times. Too, it's good to have people in our own spheres who are uplifting to be around, famous or not. Those are positive influences in our lives—provided we remember that they're as human, and as fallible, as we are.

There's a line between a fandom and a cult of personality. I can safely say that if any of my faves were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be someone I should no longer put stock in, I can move on from them (and have done so) without feeling a need to support them just because I like something they did. It's not fun, it kind of sucks finding out someone you like or admire has been passively playing you and others, and it brings up the old chestnut of "separating the art from the artist." (How you deal with that is between you and your good self—I have my standards but am aware they're not shared by others.)

Fandom cults of personality require a lot more involvement than just typical support, though. You'll see either a genuine or manufactured (though most likely a genuine-looking but manufactured) inner circle of goodwill. And once you're in that inner circle, that's where things start to get weird. And bad.

A fallacy concerning cults (religious and non-religious) is that only sad, dumb, lonely people join them. And that's not really the case. Intelligent, questioning people are more susceptible to the techniques used in groups like these. Though in my personal experience, there are two more things that make you extra susceptible: feeling as though you're missing something in life—a loving family environment, a solid circle of friends, a place to exercise your talents—or having a specific goal toward which you desperately want to work.

The former is a killer, because many cult-like situations begin as "extended families" and homes-away-from-home. And they may truly be full of other good, kind people that would make a difference in your life outside this setting. Once you make that attachment, though, you get something else: a fear of losing that community. And the fear of either leaving it willingly or being kicked out of it can convince you that there are understandable sacrifices.

Those understandable sacrifices play into the other issues, too: having a specific goal, and seeing the resources you need to achieve it in this group setting. You may even make genuine progress. And then it becomes frightening to lose that progress, all while you're seeing that there's stuff going on that shouldn't be going on. Maybe you're being asked to do something you don't want to do. Maybe you're seeing that the ethics of this group only apply when outsiders are watching. Maybe the person around whom this cult of personality is built is saying and doing things you deeply disagree with.

And you'll find yourself making excuses. "It's a small price to pay to get to have friends." "Maybe I'm overreacting or there's something I don't know about." "It's a necessary evil to make something good happen."

I escaped a cult of personality, but not before it nearly broke me. Hindsight is 20/20, and things I forgave stick out like sore thumbs as unforgivable. Toxic back-channel talk that, in public, never happened. Overworking people. Glorifying overwork. Alternating love-bombing across several people, like some sort of Saturday morning villain favoring the newest underling to make the first underling work harder to get that love back. Subtly turning people against each other with rumors, or against "rivals."

One night a few months ago, I fell down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos, as you do. I ended up watching a video about a cult—yer actual religious cult with moving into a shared house and praying at certain times of day, the whole thing. And my stomach dropped every time I heard these real cult survivors say things that I had said while in this group.

It was a wake-up call, even after I was well clear of the influence. Cult behavior is not limited to Kool-Aid-drinking, self-help-needing, Nike-wearing space cadets. It creeps into any situation where someone needs or wants to keep people in line, whether they have arranged the sitch deliberately or are demanding a series of behaviors that brings the same results.

Steven Hassan's BITE Model outlines Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional Control of people in cults or cult-adjacent situations. I ran over this for my own previous situation, and while many of the more extreme ones (controlling diet, living situation, etc.) were non-issues, many more were present than made me happy. I encourage anyone in or escaping from a group situation they consider harmful to look over it themselves.

Also, please bear in mind that sometimes a bad group is just a bad group. Your situation doesn't have to be cult-like for you to justify leaving. If it is, it is important for you to know. But I don't want to encourage people to tack "cult" onto any harmful group, any more than I want people to tack "narcissist" onto any harmful person. Knowing the situation helps you free yourself from it, and labeling it wrong leads you to the wrong methods for escaping it.

I do not believe that every key figure of every cult of personality sets out to "start a cult," or sits there with a checklist of ways to subtly mind-control their friends and fans. My Law of 7 Billion states that it's more likely that at least one person does than that absolutely no one does... but tactics do not have to be schemed out to be in play.

The centers of these cults of personality are charismatic to at least some degree—enough to bring people in and deflect attention away from their flaws. And they're certainly charismatic enough to make you feel really special and important at the outset... whether it's because it's a celebrity you like who's given you the time of day, or a go-getter who treats you as a fellow go-getter. They have at least enough drive to do something, big or small, enough to warrant at least some degree of attention. Because otherwise they'd be begging for attention with zero investment. And hell, they likely have some talent.

But there's one other thing that a commonality across all these types: fear. Fear of being looked down on. Fear of being alone. Fear of being seen as anything but the persona they've developed for themselves. Fear of being judged based on an aspect of themselves that, deep down, they may well know they should not be exhibiting.

The creation, knowingly or otherwise, of a cult of personality creates a big fat bubble around them. Anyone starts to find you out? Send your people to "have a word," or to "keep an eye on" your accusers. Discredit said accusers to these people, and bolster is with why you're so much better off where you are. And as for worrying about being hated? Well, now you've got a massive circle that loves and believes you no matter what; you can just check in as necessary.

I say all this now because I'm watching a new group of people do, for a different person, what I convinced myself was expected of me. And I say it for a few reasons, aimed at readers who aren't those people:

Reason 1: It is tempting to attack these people. Don't do it. Take precautions if they attack you or a friend, but do not go after them. They are knee deep in group-think and doing what they believe is expected of them because they think they have no other choice.

Reason 2: Someday they are going to look back on this and feel scared and ashamed and stupid. I know. I've been there. I still go there sometimes, if we're being honest. They will torment themselves more than anyone else ever could.

Reason 3: If you know someone who is wrapped up in a friend group, fan club, organization, or anything else where you know they are being pushed into this behavior, do what you can to offer them your friendship. Show them that there is somewhere else they can go and be cared about. Don't push them to leave the group; that'll kick them into defensive mode. Offer them an alternative but don't tell them that's what you're doing. They'll be ready when when they're ready.

(Please note: if someone you care about is in an actual by-God moving-away-from-home cult, please take necessary steps. This is not advice for those situations.)

Lastly: if you yourself see your current or recent circumstances in anything I've written, please know you are not stupid. You are not weak. Find someone to confide in. Good friends will understand, respect your privacy, and want to help you. If something feels wrong, listen to that feeling. And get the help you need. People care about you.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

See Me This Weekend at ODUcon!

It's been almost a year... but I am going to a con.

So I made a decision in the middle of last year that I would no longer be staffing conventions. I'd be happy to attend as guest, panel, or press, but for a variety of reasons that (and maybe occasionally just going to one???) would be my limit.

I had a great time at ODU's convention last year, and was glad to be asked back! And I'm even more glad that, in spite of my surprise gallbladder surgery, I'm well enough to be there this weekend!

There's a full schedule here, but in case you wanna zoom in on what I'll be doing:

Friday Night Fanfiction: Friday, 10pm, Main Events
This was one of my favorite parts of the weekend last year, and I'm so glad to be back for it! Basically FNF does dramatic readings of bad fanfic, and occasionally invites up guests and audience members. I'm down to clown, and hope you are, too—but bear in mind it's 18+.

35 Days (or so) 'Til White Day: Saturday, 12pm, Panel Room
Con chair Troy will be taking the lead on this one, but I'll be sitting in as he talks about depictions of romance in anime!

Black Mirror: Hunting the Bandersnatch: Saturday, 5pm, Panel Room
Of course I was going to find an excuse to talk about Bandersnatch. I'll be with a panel of fellow viewers as we discuss our various views, reads, and experiences with the latest installment of Black Mirror.

Owl's Flower: Write the Book You Want to Read: Sunday, 2pm, Panel Room
Even if you're not familiar with Owl's Flower, if you're a creator who wants to make a difference, this panel is for you. I'll be keeping it casual as we talk about how Ginger Hoesly and I put the books we wanted to see into the world, and how you can work to fill the needs in your genre of choice.

Registration is $15 for the weekend, or $10 with an ODU student ID. Proceeds will be donated to Relay for Life.

I hope to see you there!