Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Here's something peculiar but not entirely unexpected. Liking something in the company of a group of people who like it can make you like it more.

I tend to be a joiner very reluctantly. Part of that is due to my overburdened roster of projects--I need something else to pay attention to like I need a hole in my head. But on a few occasions in my life, I have harnessed the power of the Internet to communicate with other people who like a thing I like, and in all of those cases, certain things happened.

I bought merchandise. I drew fan art. I made content related to the source material. And I met other people who liked what I liked.

High school Animaniacs fan art

In the mid 1990s, the Internet was in its infancy. I had been introduced to the television show Animaniacs by some of my friends and fell very quickly in love with it. I bought a bunch of tee shirts, wrote a guide to the show (that had started as simply an outline of what was on my VHS tapes, but it grew exponentially), and learned all the songs. When I gained Internet access, of course the main thing I wanted to do was go online and meet other fans.

It was actually a humbling experience at first. I thought I was a big deal and that I knew all kinds of trivia and that I was some kind of show expert. I immediately ran into people who knew episode code numbers and animation studios, who had had conversations with the voice talent and knew their other work and had rented movies just to get a glimpse of some actor's bit part, who had taken vacations to California primarily to get a photo of themselves with the Warner Bros. water tower. Really Big Fans. I was just kind of a pretty ordinary fan, though I was certainly annoying enough to people around me.

But I also made connections with some people and was able to offer a little bit to the community. Did any of the folks in this message board ever listen to the radio show that sometimes included Animaniacs references? Had any of them ever compared the show versions and CD versions of the songs? How many of them caught all the references in the episode where the characters did a Les Misérables parody?

Liking this stuff in front of other people made it more interesting and deepened my appreciation for the source material. But it waned somewhat when the cartoon stopped being made.

I've had a few other less enduring obsessions with anime and whatnot, but the next big one was Eyeshield 21, a manga and anime that captured my attention in 2006. I watched a bunch of the anime with Jeaux and loved it, and we talked about it a lot, but then I got more interested when I found out the manga was far ahead with the story (and that it diverged a lot), and that it was still coming out in Japan. I found other people in a forum where I could see translations of the manga as it came out, and of course every time it came out with a new issue, I could go wail or squeal about it with other people in the same forum who were as excited as I was. 

Merchandise wasn't very available because it wasn't all that popular and also the merch that did exist wasn't available outside Japan for the most part. But I got a little bit of it from a friend who lived in Japan at the time, and of course I drew fanart.

Eyeshield 21 fan art

I guess the one thing I didn't do that a lot of other fans did was get into American football because of the show (either playing or watching, or both). I liked it in a fictionalized anime context, but didn't seem to really care for the game. Eventually I stopped having anything to talk about because the manga concluded, and a mainstream American following never developed because they tried to bring the show over here and the terrible dub and loss of important elements in translation led to a very short run. (I actually cried over how bad it was.)

I think the Steven Universe obsession I'm wallowing in these days has become as huge as it is partly because everything is perfectly timed and positioned to encourage me to be a fan in front of an audience. The Internet has plenty of resources and groups to encourage participation and consumption and redistribution of original and fan material; the show is actively still being produced; the fandom is huge and originates in my country; there is plenty of merchandise; and the content is interwoven with a good number of my interests both in its entertainment content and its social messages. Everything just fits for me, and it's kind of catapulted me into my most enduring, most active fan participation yet.

And it's interesting how important the audience is, because I wouldn't have thought that would matter to me, but it does. I watched the first season of the show in a two-day binge watch by myself. I still remember how odd that was given my current relationship with the show: I cocooned myself in my room and just engaged in consumption mode, enjoying the content itself and deliberately not looking up anything about it because I was afraid I might get spoilers. After I finished thoroughly enjoying it and telling a couple people in my friends circle how much I was enjoying it, I joined a couple groups online, looked at a couple blogs, downloaded a few songs, and added the show to my favorites list. My impression of the show was basically like "wow. that was really good."

Then I watched a few YouTube videos depicting fan reactions, which I had never done before. And I found myself kind of using the reaction videos as an excuse to watch the show again immediately after I'd finished watching it on my own the first time. That was completely unfamiliar to me--I have rarely been a re-watcher, and even with my favorite stuff I would usually only re-watch things if I was showing them to someone else. I enjoyed it more the second time, and watching some stranger react to it was kind of like watching it with a friend (if that doesn't sound pathetic). Seeing that reactor's reaction made mine feel more real, I think--seeing other people laugh and cry at the same things I did sort of legitimized having a very emotional relationship with the content, and I sought out more. I also sought out ways to engage more with the source material.

I read interviews by the creators. I looked at some forum discussions. I started following more blogs, and finally started posting a little bit of content of my own--occasionally discussing which characters were my favorite and why, or sharing art I really connected with. I bought my first merchandise: three fan-made tee shirts (no official merchandise existed then!). I didn't read or write any fanfiction--I find that sort of uncomfortable--but other than that I started listening to more people talking about the show and it made me want to think about it more too. And this is the kind of show where you can understand the characters AND the plots on several levels, so sometimes there are theories: what's going to happen? why did that character act like that--is there an explanation for it? what is that character's relationship with that other character? how should we interpret that character's comment? when are we going to know/see/fully understand X?

If I wore one of my shirts in public, sometimes people who were fans came over to fan-squee over it. If I posted a theory or an interpretation about a character, people would reblog or comment to support or request my thoughts on more aspects of the show.

Occasionally I'd see some ugliness go down and stay completely out of it, but I'd have my opinion, formed largely after watching others discuss it on various sides of the issue. (No, white people should not paint their skin to cosplay black characters. Yes, it's okay to criticize fan art over why the artist chose to make fat characters slim, but no, it's not okay to bully them or send them death threats. No, it's not queerbaiting to float a potential relationship between two same-sex characters and then have them gravitate toward a different same-sex character. Yes, I think some of the choices the creators made have unforeseen racist implications, and no, that doesn't mean we have to abandon liking it just because we can admit they may have screwed up; I wish they'd include a clued-up black woman on their staff to cut down on this.) 

Also, the creators are largely people who are younger than I am and who grew up on the Internet; most of them have active Internet presences and can answer questions, post their own stuff, talk on Twitter, participate in forum events and live feeds, and basically make themselves more accessible to their fans. (That's not always so good for them, especially when fans are aggressive or entitled, but for the most part it's a dimension that didn't used to be available to the type of creator who used to disappear behind a writing desk.) The creators sometimes go to conventions and answer questions. This situation, all of it together, does a couple unprecedented things when compared to the previous generation's experience of fandom: One, it provides a regular glimpse at how people who make our entertainment are Real People, and two, it provides direct feedback for them about how people are reacting to their work, enabling them to continue what they're doing right and correct what they're doing wrong.

It took me a long time before I felt comfortable enough to try fanart for some reason. I liked the characters so much that I was afraid sucking at drawing them would upset me. I ended up trying it for the first time along with a bunch of other cartoons I'd rarely or never drawn before on a Halloween poster I drew.

First time ever drawing anything from SU, with assorted other toons

And now I draw these characters pretty much every week so there you go.

Anyway, over time I began to do more and more stuff that let me engage with the show and with its fans, and anytime I made some kind of content, I got positive feedback, which made me think it would be fun to do it even more. When people sneeringly refer to others as just wanting attention, I always wonder what they think is so bad about wanting attention for something you spent time and energy on and something that connects you with like-minded people. That's a really big thing for me: when people send me nice comments about character analyses that shed new light on someone's motivation or compliments on the content I chose to make fanart about, I know they appreciate the same things I do and could likely have a conversation about many other things we both appreciate--from social issues to simple shared interests in entertainment.

(Not to mention that if you try to get attention for something you're doing and nobody really cares, THAT'S considered pathetic too. It's almost as if people who don't really do anything productive have created a dynamic wherein ANY form of trying is pathetic!)

And here's something interesting. I bought a ukulele on a whim because I thought it might be fun to learn this cartoon's adorable songs. (I'm balancing it out with other non-cartoon songs too, but I'll admit the very first song I tried was a cartoon cover.) I have spent FAR more time on my art (and, well, spent more money on markers) and I've found my skills seem to be progressing in a way they weren't before--I thought I plateaued a long time ago with my decent-but-won't-win-any-awards art scribbles, but after I got hundreds of followers/subscribers on a cartoon blog where I primarily share original theories and art and won an art contest on Amino, I realized the care and time I take to render my fan content in a format pleasing to me is resulting in some forward motion for me.

A doodle from last summer

A doodle from this summer

But I don't want to act like the only reason you should engage in fan creations is to beef up other artistic skills. I didn't learn ukulele songs or practice drawing with Copic markers so I could eventually use those skills for something more original and more "legitimate." It IS its own reward, and even if you never do anything with it, it's still fine to make things and share them as a celebration of what you like. When someone likes something I did, I've found a like-minded person. And even though this show is still being produced, it cannot possibly keep making more content at the rate we want to consume it, so when we create our own and share it, it kinda keeps the fandom busy.

I try to recreate the food the characters eat on the show, just for kicks. I own some of the artifacts from the show. I have a bunch of the toys and accessories. I've learned the songs and bought the soundtrack. I'm collecting pieces to do a cosplay of a character in August. And I've also learned some writing tricks by watching what the show is doing right, and I have a clearer idea of where I want to aim emotionally when I write a story about people's relationships with each other. I've used examples from the show to illustrate points, both in a writing context and a social context. I love deconstructing different aspects of it, just for the love of the material, but I also love that other people I talk to about the show have similar values, or may have even learned some of those values from the way they were presented in the show.

I've seen people discuss understanding of same-sex relationships, consent, gender stereotypes, parenting, angst, trauma, otherness, compassion, culture, and love because of this show. I saw a nonbinary gender person describe finally having a character from a popular show to reference when explaining to the kids they babysit they're not a boy or a girl. I saw people celebrate having a fairy tale ending for a relationship made up of a she and a she. I saw someone discuss acquiring a new perspective on the struggle between partners in a relationship, how fundamentally different personalities do not wreck the relationship's future potential if you complement each other. I saw someone relating to the thoughts a character had when she was part of an abusive relationship. I saw a whole group discussing how happy they are that there are multiple large-bodied female characters who aren't a punchline and are depicted as beautiful. I saw some boys admitting that they've become more comfortable with crying since noticing the male main character of the show cries more than anyone else. I saw someone relate to wanting your parents/guardians to get along better while recognizing how much dirt is buried in the past. I've seen a lot of appreciation for the mixed-race couples in the show. All the time I see people picking up on characters' names or cultural signifiers and realizing this is a character from their country or background for once! And I've seen some appreciation for a show that can get dark without every character having an incredibly edgy origin story.

Not only can I have an opportunity to discuss these things with others (and maybe learn some things I didn't know!), but I am also creating relationships with people who are on the same side as me here--the ones who WANT more unusual relationships and underrepresented backgrounds in their entertainment. The ones who know how important it is and are relieved and excited to have it. The people who are ready for our society to move forward toward more acceptance, more tolerance, more understanding. I think that's part of the reason I want an audience of sorts. I want those conversations. All good entertainment is about more than just plot theories and specific character background details. And when people talk about what they love, you can see so much of their authentic self--often including what about them makes them the type of person who likes this thing in the first place.

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