Have Another AMV

Sorry all, still very strapped for time while I work on the book and about fifteen billion other things. Here’s another of my old favorites from the realm of AMVs. This is actually one of the first AMVs I ever saw, part of a batch a friend gave me. He used this one to attempt to persuade me to watch Kodomo no Omocha, a.k.a. Kodocha or Child’s Toy. His main point in the anime’s favor was that nothing in the video is sped up; the main character really is that absurdly energetic.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s a good show, but it just sort of stops mid-storyline in the second season. Bloody cancellations.

Humor and Darkness

Sorry this is late! Stuff happened. Lots of really annoying stuff.

Out of everything I’ve watched, by far Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood does the best job of making the comic relief and the sheer darkness of what’s happening work together. Most dark works (which, FMA:B isn’t dark overall, but has a lot of darkness in it) use comic relief to punctuate the darkness, but the jokes feel external–at best they’re characters whistling in the dark to put up a brave front, at worst they’re just completely artificial-feeling. But in FMA:B the jokes aren’t ever just jokes. Armstrong is hilariously weird and sparkly, but he has a really tragic backstory that comes up occasionally as a reason he’s determined to see things through. Hughes is hilariously weird and wiggly, and we all know what happens to him. Ed being short starts as a running gag and ends up being a plot point!

I am actually really jealous of Arukawa’s writing ability. I wish I understood better how she does it, because I *suck* at writing humor, let alone seemlessly integrating that humor into a serious narrative.

Here, Have an AMV

Today I have for you a classic AMV, Tainted Doughnuts. This AMV is a good eight or ten years old (which is pretty old for an AMV!), and does an excellent job of using cuts and implications to give the impression that characters from different anime are sharing scenes together–something which today is mostly done by digitally compositing the characters into one another’s shots. Extremely popular and influential in its day, I think this has been mostly forgotten, but I like it for its story (a rare thing in an AMV) and humor. On the other hand, even I have to admit the song is INCREDIBLY obnoxious.

Latin Latin Madoka More Latin (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)

In cased you missed it, some pretty major changes to the blog are starting today, with more on the way. See last night’s post for more.

This article is adapted from a panel on the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica I gave with Viga Gadson at Anime Boston 2012, hence its very different structure from my usual posts. It assumes the reader has watched all 12 episodes of the show, and contains unmarked spoilers. Headings roughly correspond to slides in the presentation.

Magical Girl Evangelion

A lot of people have compared Madoka to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I think that is a fair comparison. Certainly, when I watched it, I found it an equally mind-blowing experience, if not quite so trippy. It has owned my brain like nothing since Eva; I want to take it apart and grok it entirely, and the more I do, the more I find.

But it also fills a similar role to Eva (infamously a deconstruction in both the fandom and academic senses of the mecha genre) as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. A genre deconstruction is a work that takes the normal tropes and elements of a genre and plays them as straight as possible, while removing the narrative conveniences that make them work. Eva deconstructed the super robot genre by showing how psychologically devastating it would be to place the fate of the world on the shoulders of a child and force them to face monsters. Madoka does the same with magical girls, as well as showing the isolation their superhero-esque roles and secret identities create. Mami’s death has this effect–she dies against a third-episode monster of the week, proving this is not the sort of magical girl series where the girls have plot armor, or where the big Final Attack always works.
At the same time, just as Eva ultimately returns at the end to the core shounen theme of a young man embracing hope and self-determination to cross the threshold into adulthood, Madoka embraces the core magical girl theme of a young woman evolving into a powerful, maternal goddess-figure able to protect the world. It takes the genre apart, but puts it back together again as something new, and in so doing sets a new benchmark, a new standard of what the genre could be. I suspect that for quite some time to come, the test of the best magical girl series will be, “How do they stack up to Madoka?”

Madoka as a Feminist Work

Magic is frequently used as a metaphor in many works–that is the entire basis of the magical realism genre, for example. Magical girl shows are no exception: in them, the magic is often a symbol of female empowerment. The magical girl is an empowering figure, a girl endowed with the ability to resolve her problems, protect others, and ultimately (at least, in many series), ascend to a sort of goddess role, some more literally than others (for example, Princess Serenity in Sailor Moon, or Sakura surpassing Clow Reed at the end of Cardcaptor Sakura). The magical girl is able to escape the confines of a traditional female role and take on the traditionally male role of the warrior, without sacrificing any of her femininity the way an Amazon character might (as in “Pretty Warrior Sailor Moon,” the literal translation of the Japanese title). The transformation sequence is symbolic of the way she must transform into something other than “a girl”–a usually passive role symbolic of innocence and weakness–to achieve her full potential.

Madoka subverts all of this; the magical girls become liches, sacrificing not only their femininity but their humanity, as victims of a predator who uses pubescent girls for his own purposes. Middle school girls are the perfect targets for his plan; they have the extreme emotional highs and lows of any adolescent, they are inexperienced and thus gullible, and girls tend to be trained more than boys to worry about others’ feelings and put others’ needs ahead of their own. Where a boy’s social training might lead him to feel perfectly fine about wishing selfishly, a girl is likely to be trained to feel guilty about pursuing her own needs and wants, and thus either makes a “selfless” wish and regrets making the wrong wish, like Sayaka or Kyoko, or wish for her own needs like Mami, and then feel guilty that she didn’t wish for others, too.

In the end, however, Madoka is able to find the right wish to achieve that godlike status, and so this is another sense the series deconstructs, and then reconstructs, the magical girl genre. But Madoka not only deconstructs magical girls, it also deconstructs the vile moe aesthetic that has been steadily corrupting the genre for the past decade. Happily, it makes no effort to reconstruct it, and leaves it ultimately behind.

Moe is the fetishization of vulnerability, weakness, and suffering. The (usually male) viewer is supposed to feel a protective impulse toward the (usually female) moe character as the basis for an emotional attachment that is depicted as an idealized form of love. As in all forms of White Knight-ism, the essential paradox of this fetish is that the moe fan does not care about the character before they suffer or demonstrate weakness, and wish for the character to be safe, non-vulnerable and non-suffering; they want–need–the suffering to happen in order to fulfill their fantasy of swooping in to save the day.

Madoka starts with main characters that fulfill standard moe archetypes. Madoka is your typical moe-blob; Sayaka the happy tomboy hiding pain and a need for love; Kyoko a tsundere; Homura a Rei Ayanami clone. It makes them cute, puts them in frilly outfits, and generally makes them as moe as possible.

Then it starts to hurt them. A lot. In the least sexy ways imagineable. Their suffering is depicted realistically as possible, not just pain but despair, loss, grief, suicide. Their vulnerability is not endearing; it is horrifying. You do not want to swoop in and comfort them so that they will love you; you just want it to STOP; it seeks to evoke real empathy, rather than the fake, objectifying, self-serving pseudo-empathy of moe.

This is a huge chastisement to moe fans and creators. It is saying, “You want others to be unsafe for your gratification. What about them? No one would ever wish to be vulnerable, but you do not care about them, only about how they can make you feel.” It accuses moe fans and creators of violating (in spirit, given these are fictional characters, but still) the categorical imperative to treat others as subjects, as people with wants and needs of their own, as ends in themselves, rather than as objects to be used as means to satisfy one’s own desires.

Allusions and References

But Madoka is about more than just other anime. It is chock full of references to other stories, works, and ideals as well.

For example, Madoka heavily references the Russian folkloric character Koshchyei Byessmyertnuy, in English Koshchei the Deathless. Koshchei is an evil wizard who menaces young women, usually the hero’s love interest. He cannot be killed by normal means because he has removed his soul from his body and hidden it in an egg (sound familiar?) He hides the egg inside a duck inside a hare inside an iron chest buried under a green oak tree on an island in the middle of the sea. If someone takes the egg, Koshchei becomes a weak and powerless husk (sound familiar?) If someone tosses the egg around, Koshchei will be flung around too–remember Kyubey causing Sayaka pain by hurting the egg? And if the egg is destroyed, Koshchei dies.

The Soul Gems in Madoka are clearly based on the Koshchei legend. They are often compared to the phylacteries of Dungeons & Dragons’ liches (which are also based on Koshchei), but the fact that they are egg-shaped and that damage to them is felt as pain by the girls suggests that they are more directly taken from the older legend.

Of course, as many fans and critics have noticed, one of the series’ main sources of references is Goethe’s Faust, to the point of being arguably a retelling. Faust is the retelling of an old legend that has been repeated many times of a man who makes a bargain with the devil, most well known from the English play by Christopher Marlowe, the two-part German play by Goethe, and the French opera by Gounod based mostly on part one of Goethe’s version. Faust, an old man who is a wise sage but finds no joy in his life, makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles to become young again and try living his life differently. Mephistopheles agrees to show Faust all the pleasures and joys of life he missed, but in return, if Faust ever experiences a moment of perfect happiness so great that he wishes to stop time and make it last forever, Faust will immediately die and go to Hell. The first part (published 1808, revised 1828) mostly follows Faust as he woos a young woman named Margarete (sometimes also known by the short form Gretchen). After he kills her brother, he leaves for a while to celebrate Walpurgisnacht, when German folklore says witches and demons have an orgy on Mt Brocken. (Night on Bald Mountain, both the Mussorgsky piece and the Fantasia segment based on it, are depictions of the Ukrainian version of this legend.)

He returns to find Gretchen is now mad and in prison, and she gave birth to his child but it was taken away. He tries to free her, but she is so delusional she cannot understand what is going on and he is forced to leave her behind as he flees the guards. Part two (published 1832, the year of Goethe’s death) is much stranger: Faust is now getting old again, a successful and wealthy man and a powerful sorcerer, and he has time-travel adventures, has an affair with Helen of Troy, saves the German economy by inventing fiat currency, and wins a war by bringing in an army of demons. At the end, he finally does something motivated solely by the good of another, instead of himself, and experiences a moment of perfect happiness. He dies, but because it was doing a good deed, he goes to judgment instead of immediately to Hell. Gretchen pleads with the Virgin Mary to let her guide him into Heaven, and Mary agrees.

From the start, Madoka is littered with Faust quotes, showing up as graffiti and as cryptograms inside the witches’ barriers. But more importantly, the story itself has many Faustian elements. Walpurgisnacht, for example, while it is referred to as an immensely powerful witch, appears to actually be an event involving many witches engaging in an orgy of destruction, just as in Faust. The witch’s barriers are prisons created by overwriting reality with their own despair and madness, just like Gretchen experiences near the end of Faust Part One. A moment of perfect happiness leads directly to Hell for Faust, and this happens to multiple characters in the anime: Mami goes in moments from the blissful discovery that she has friends and allies to her brutal death; Kyoko’s father is happy to have a congregation that listens to him, only to commit murder-suicide when he discovers how Kyoko made it happen; Sayaka experiences the happiness of knowing she has saved Kyousuke, only for that to turn out to be the beginning of her descent to despair and witch-hood.

Even moreso, the story of Madoka is arguably a retelling of Faust. Kyubey is clearly Mephistopheles; he first appears as a cute animal, and is soon revealed as a frightening, powerful predator who offers wishes in exchange for souls. Just as Mephistopheles wants Faust to experience a moment of happiness and then descend forever into Hell, Kyubey is preying on the emotional highs and lows of the magical girls, and wants the energy released when they descend into despair and become witches.
Since Kyubey’s primary target is Madoka, it might be tempting to see her as Faust, but that would be a mistake. The anime more readily compares her to Gretchen; her witch form is named Gretchen Kriemhilde, for example. Kyubey spends most of the anime trying and failing to get her to take the contract, before finally succeeding, just as Mephistopheles’ is frustrated in his first few attempts to corrupt Gretchen so that he can make her fall for Faust. Finally, her wish to guide magical girls away from being witches parallels Gretchen’s wish to guide Faust into Heaven. Madoka also takes on a role similar to that of the Virgin Mary; the end of Faust Part Two describes her as a goddess who presides over Heaven and guides people there, which is very much the role Madoka finally takes.

If not Madoka, who is Faust? Homura is a fairly close match. Like Faust, she makes a bargain with the devil to turn back time and correct the mistakes she believes she has made. More literally in Homura’s case, but then again Faust eventually time-travels, too. Her closeness to Madoka and desire to rescue her also reflect Faust’s feelings for Gretchen, and her power to stop time may be a reference to the conditions of Faust’s curse. Finally, like Faust she eventually learns that her attempt to turn back the clock has only made things worse.

However, Madoka also subverts Faust. In the end, Homura’s wish is not a mistake but key to breaking the cycle, and Madoka/Gretchen appeals to Kyubey/Mephistopheles, not Mary, to gain the power to guide others to Heaven. That is because Madoka is neither a character from Faust nor a Christian figure at all. Her true role is as a character from another mythology entirely.

Madokanon

Despite its connections to the Christian legend of Faust, Madoka is a very Buddhist story overall. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that desire leads to suffering, and this is very much the case in Madoka. All wishes lead ultimately to pain and despair; emotional highs are balanced by emotional lows. The series also talks about karma quite a bit. Karma is a very complex concept, and different sects view it very differently. The Buddhist view can be very loosely summed up as cause and effect: action plants seeds which grow (maybe in this life, maybe in the next) into consequences. Good actions lead to good consequences and bad to bad, but either way, it has the effect of trapping you in the cycle of karma, because those consequences lead to further action which leads to more consequences.

The magical girl happiness-despair cycle works the same way, dragging them steadily down to witch-hood. The weight of karma also binds people to a cycle of rebirth, forcing them live over an over again, facing the burdens of the karma from past lives. Episode 10, in other words. Enlightenment, the understanding of the true nature of the world, is the only way to escape karma–and it is only on the last cycle that Madoka learns both of Homura’s time travel (the cycle of rebirth) and precisely what the Incubators are doing (the nature of karma). Finally, Walpurgisnacht strongly resembles a lotus blossom (a symbol of Enlightenment) while at the same time the gear motif reflects the ever-grinding wheel of karma.

Buddhism also traditionally divides the universe into six levels of being, those of  Gods, Asuras, Humans, Animals, Preta, and Hell. The God-realm is occupied by devas, beings far more powerful than those of other realms, with powers of telepathy and illusion, and one class of deva are passionless and sexless, just like Kyubey.  The demigods of Asura, meanwhile, are more powerful than humans, characterized by jealousy and desires, and reborn as a consequence of good intentions that led to bad results–the magical girls. Lastly, the Human realm is actually the closest to Enlightenment, the one from which it is possible to step directly into Nirvana–and it is in timelines that Madoka spent almost entirely human that she attains her highest level of being.

As noted earlier, Madoka resembles a figure from Buddhist mythology, the bodhissatva Kwannon (traditional Japanese), also called Kanon (modern Japanese) or Guanyin (Chinese). Kwannon was a young girl who nearly attained nirvana, but stopped just before she reached it. She transcended space and time to reach out to others and help them to Enlightenment, before finally ascending to nirvana herself. This helps explain the Virgin Mary connection, as well–people who syncretize Buddhism and Christianity often identify Kwannon and Mary together, and when Christianity was illegal in Japan during the Edo period, underground Christians disguised statues of Mary as Kwannon.

Thus it is that after saving everyone across time and space as a bodhisattva, Madoka then crosses the threshhold to the next level. She becomes a force of nature, an incarnation of hope, dissolving her consciousness, and attaining Nirvana.

Hope and Homura

Madoka represents hope, but a particular kind of hope. She is the hope that a higher power will help you, the hope that the universe is an orderly and friendly place and things will ultimately work out for the best. She is also hope in human goodness. Series writer Gen Urobuchi once wrote:

No matter what we do, we can’t stop the universe from getting colder, either, and on the same principle. This world is only maintained in existence by a series of logical, common-sense processes; it can never escape the bondage of its physical laws.

Therefore, in order to write a perfect ending for a story you must possess the power to break the chain of cause and effect, invert black and white, and act in complete contradiction to the rules of the universe. Only a heavenly and chaste soul, a soul that resounds with genuine praise for humanity, can save the story; to write a story with a happy ending is a double challenge, to the author’s body as well as the mind.

At some point, Gen Urobuchi lost that power. He still hasn’t recovered.

But Madoka was able to restore that hope, even for her author; by restoring her creator’s hope, she recreated her universe.

Homura is a different kind of hope. As the writer and philosopher Vaclav Havel put it, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”

Homura has no sense that things will work out, but she still carries on, because they *must* work out. and in her moment of despair, she gives birth to still greater hope. As Havel said, “Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

Consider the circumstances of Homura’s encounter with the world of magical girls, depicted in episode 10. The background of that scene is clearly heavily influenced by Picasso’s Guernica. Guernica shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. Guernica is a town in the province of Biscay in Basque Country. For over three hours, twenty-five or more of Germany’s best-equipped bombers, accompanied by at least twenty more Messerschmitt and Fiat Fighters, dumped one hundred thousand pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the village, slowly and systematically pounding it to rubble. It is a symbol of the brutality of war. However, The light in the center of the painting represents hope in a disaster, as small light sources traditionally have done in many paintings.

A reference to the painting is shown beneath Homura as she walks towards her first witch. It is not actually part of Guernica, but clearly references it with the similar cubist style and monochrome palette. For Homura this can represent her chracter arc fighting a war against Madoka’s fate and Kyubey.  At the time it showed up in episode 10 she was also at conflict with herself. Or it could just be the animators having a good time, but that’s a boring option.

According to Urobuchi, Homura is Madoka’s “evangelist,” the one who knows about Madoka and tells others that she is watching over and protecting them. Since magical girls’ bodies are being constantly healed, it is possible Homura lives a very, very long time; the final scene with her is suggestive of a post-apocalyptic future (possibly also hinted at by the appearance of a Mad Max character in the episode 4 next episode preview illustration). Perhaps she wanders the world, telling all magical girls of Madoka, helping to spread the hope.

In that final scene, she sprouts witch-like wings. According to interviews with the creators, the storyboards had those wings white, but the animators changed it at the last minute to be more mysterious. There thus appears to be no intended meaning. However, if you combine it with the mention that, in the new timeline, Sayaka “used the last of her power” to kill a witch, it may represent a sort of limit break, where a magical girl uses all her magic in one blast, beginning the transformation into a witch, but then Madoka kills/saves her. We thus get to see the end of Homuras journey, where, urged on by Madoka, she protects the world one last time before moving on to peace.

Despair and Destiny

If only every magical girl were so lucky in every time line. Sayaka represents a version of despair. She wishes for the benefit of another, but is really just being dishonest. What she wants is for Kyousuke to love her back, but that is not what she wishes for, with tragic consequences. She is unable to bear the price of her wish, and descends into a deep depression. She becomes self-hating and self-destructive.

Another way to look at it: She makes a sacrifice to try to be with her prince, but he instead falls for another. In her despair, she loses her form. Sayaka is the little mermaid (the original version of the fairy tail, where she dies), hence the tail on her witch form.

Kyoko is another version of despair. Like Sayaka she wished for another, but where Sayaka lost everything because the person she wished for had no idea what she had done, Kyoko lost everything when the person she wished for found out what she had done. She pretends to feel no pain, and throws herself into hedonism, doing whatever she wants without restraint, as if this will make her feel better. Ultimately, just like Sayaka she is unable to live with her isolation, and dies to be with Sayaka.
The last major character, Kyubey, represents destiny. He perpetuates the cycle of despair that traps the magical girls and witches, and incubates the karmic seeds of the girls wishes into full witches. He claims to be emotionless, but this is absurd: He has goals, therefore he wants something, therefore he has emotions. What he lacks is passion and emotional empathy–he has intellectual empathy (the ability to know what someone is feeling; absolutely necessary to successfully manipulate someone), but not emotional empathy (the ability to share what someone else is feeling–feeling sad when you see someone cry or glad when you see them smile). That is the definition of a sociopath. Just as he implies that, by his species standards, humans are all mentally ill, by human standards, so is he.

Kyubey is actually working toward a good goal, however. He seeks to avert the heat-death of the universe. This is a reference to the laws of thermodynamics, and specifically entropy. Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system, which always increases until the system breaks down. The only way to keep a system running is to bring in energy from outside–for example, life on Earth is able to defy entropy locally because it has a steady supply of energy from outside the Earth in the form of sunlight. The reduction of entropy in turning dirt and air and water into a tree is more than balanced by the increase of entropy in consuming the Sun’s fuel supply to make the light that fed that tree. (Sound familiar? It is just like the hope/despair balance of magical girls.)

Since there is no outside the universe to get energy from, eventually the universe will run down. The universe will attain a state of perfect disorder, an enormous cloud of slowly expanding and cooling gas. This is known as the heat-death of the universe.

The emotional energy of magical girls is able to defy entropy and create energy from nothing, effectively bringing it in from outside the system of the universe. This allows the Incubators to delay the end of the universe, presumably saving billions of lives. It is also why some wishes can defy time: entropy is the difference between past and future; in physics, the future is defined as the direction in which entropy increases.  If you can overcome entropy, you can defy the arrow of time.

A Clash of Ethics

Kyubey thus represents the perfect utilitarian. Utilitarianism is the belief that the right thing to do is whatever most improves the well-being of the most people. Utilitarianism is very much a rationalist ethics; it is all about dispassionately gathering data and weighing outcomes to determine what does the most good for the most people, like a mathematical formula. In this case, even if delaying the end of the universe requires making a few girls suffer horribly, it is worth it for the greater good. To the Incubators, this is a perfect bargain, and since they cannot conceive of any other moral scheme, they cannot understand why anyone would object.

Madoka represents care ethics. Care ethics is the belief that the right thing to do is determined by empathizing with and caring about other people on an individual level, guided at least partially by emotion. Making the magical girls suffer is a violation of empathy, so, even to save the universe, it is wrong. Because Madoka is emotionally unable to accept that saving the universe requires sacrificing innocent people, she contnues searching fo ranother way where the Incubators have concluded there is not one–and she finds it. It is less efficient at saving the world, and therefore wrong according to utilitarianism, but it is far, far better from any remotely human perspective.

In the end, it is Madoka whom the series depicts as clearly morally superior, and it is difficult to imagine anyone favoring Kyubey (already notorious as one of the most hated villains in anime) over her. In the end, Madoka is nearly as damning a condemnation of utilitarianism as it is of moe.

To be continued eventually when I find the notes for our Anime Boston 2013 panel, Latin Latin Madoka More Latin 2: Thermodynamic Boogaloo. 

My Little Po-Mo is… transmuting?

It’s sort of ending, sort of becoming something new. Transmutation fits well, methinks.

Basically, my editor has been pushing me for a while to buy a domain name, specifically my name, and switch the blog over to it. This strikes me as being a good idea, so I’m going for it before the book comes out (so, within the next week or two).

I am planning to take advantage of this transition to solve another problem that’s been growing: namely, I’m getting a little burned out on My Little Pony. Specifically, working on book and blog simultaneously has proven extremely draining, especially with the (self-imposed, I know) requirement to have a Pony Thought of the Day each and every day that I don’t do a full episode analysis.

So, I’ve decided there are two things that won’t change when I move: There will still be content every day, I will still be writing about media and the arts, and there will still be an analysis of a Friendship Is Magic episode every Sunday (except for Derivative Works months and guest posts).

Instead of Pony Thoughts of the Day, however, there are going to be Thoughts of the Day. Could be about ponies, could be about other cartoons, or it could be about a show I’ve been watching or a book I read, even a game–anything that fits into the general heading of “media studies.” In addition, Wednesdays will be a bigger article about something in the world of media, though at least at first it will probably mostly be write-ups of my convention panels.

I’m trying out the new approach starting tomorrow, and as soon as the new site is ready I am changing this site to a redirect. I’ll keep you posted as we get closer.

Pony Thought of the Day: The Nature of the Everfree

So, the Everfree Forest. It’s a pretty weird place, full of monsters and strange creatures and an ecology and weather patterns that function without pony involvement.

There’s an odd contradiction there, at least to my thinking: The monsters imply that the Everfree is more magical than the rest of Equestria, but the self-directed nature of it is more like our world, implying that it’s less magical. So… which is it? I lean toward it being less magical, with the monsters bringing in their own magic from outside, but what do you think? More magical? Less? Both? Neither? Something else entirely?

This is a wild speculation post! Feel free to reply with your own ideas, the more wildly speculative the better!

Pony Thought of the Day: The Man Who Accidentally a Convention

So, at Intervention (a small convention in Rockville, MD) this weekend, I snuck my way onto the brony panel Saturday, where one of my copanelists related the tale of how DerpyCon came to be. The short version of the tale:

He was in a low-budget film set at a convention, and since they didn’t want to use the name of a real convention, he suggested calling it DerpyCon. After the film was shown at a couple of conventions, people started recognizing him as “the DerpyCon guy” and asking him where and when the convention was–they thought it was a real brony convention and wanted to go! As a joke, he played along… and a year later found himself in the early stages of organizing a real convention. DerpyCon currently only has a couple of staffers, no location, and no date except “some time in 2014 we hope,” but they’re actively recruiting staff and seeking funding, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they actually get a convention to happen.

Bronies: Reifying the imaginary since 2010.

The Glorious Lunar Republic (The Lunaverse, Season One)

“Anypony could,” Trixie said, as she felt eldritch might gathering around her – but oddly, not within her. In each of her friends, yes…but she, herself, contained nothing. Not yet. That wasn’t Magic’s role in this. “Anypony could have become the Elements. You’re wrong, Corona. Power isn’t magic. Friendship is magic.”

Corona paused at that. “That,” she proclaimed, “ is the stupidest, most insipid, worthless dross I have ever heard!”

A highly inaccurate depiction of the Lunaverse.
Mostly because the buildings aren’t on fire or in ruins.

Once again, we’re discussing something that can’t quite be pinned down in  time, but we’re somewhere between early 2012 and the present, which seems fitting given that the beginnings of the Lunaverse are an exercise in disorientation, regardless of whether one regards those beginnings as the first Lunaverse story written, Rainbow DoubleDash’s “Boast Busted,” or the first story of the Lunaverse’s first season, “Longest Night, Longest Day.”

Both stories begin without explanation, thrusting the reader into a situation that is at once familiar, yet distorted. In “Boast Busted,” just as in the episode “Boast Busted,” Trixie puts on a self-aggrandizing magic show only to be disrupted by hecklers. In “Longest Night, Longest Day,” the personal protege of the Princess is sent to Ponyville to oversee a solstice celebration. But in the former story Trixie is a resident of Ponyville and it is her heckler, Twilight Sparkle, who is the wanderer newly arrived in town; in the former Trixie is the protege, and the solstice in question is winter, rather than summer.

But if the Lunaverse were simply a matter of reversals, it would not be worth writing about–just another fanfiction based on one simple idea that cannot stretch very far, as opposed to a vibrant universe at the heart of a vibrant community and hundreds of thousands of words of fiction by multiple authors (due diligence: including a very slow-to-update story by myself). Thankfully, it does something more.

The core conceit of the Lunaverse is that the Princess who tried to seize sole control a thousand years ago was Celestia (known mostly in the stories as Corona, the Tyrant Sun) rather than Luna. Corona is motivated by pride more than Nightmare Moon’s jealousy, and as such proves rather more resistant to redemption; as of the end of the first “season” (that is, the first 26 canonical “major” stories and an assortment of minor “webisodes”) she is still at large, though she has mostly attacked through proxies and minions. The first story of the season details her escape from imprisonment from the sun during the midst of the Longest Night Celebration in Ponyville, and the attempts by six ponies to acquire the legendary Elements of Harmony to stop Corona: Trixie, who becomes the Element of Magic, of course, and five minor and background characters from the show: Cheerilee, the Element of Laughter; Carrot Top, the Element of Generosity; Raindrops, the Element of Honesty; Lyra Heartstrings, the Element of Loyalty; and Ditzy Doo, the Element of Kindness and best pony. (What is it with me and Elements of Kindness, anyway?)

Nothing in the premise is in and of itself particularly compelling–the idea of an alternate Mane Six is pretty much a cliche in the fandom, as is the idea of Luna being good and Celestia evil. What makes the Lunaverse is what it does with this premise; namely, while some of the stories are alternate versions of stories already done by the show (including the two already mentioned and “At the Grand Galloping Gala,” the season finale–all three by Rainbow DoubleDash, Emeral Bookwise’s “Griffon Over the Line,” and several more), others are entirely new adventures, such as “Helping… Hands?” in which Trixie accidentally turns Lyra into a strange sort of hairless ape, much to both their horror, or GrassAndClouds2’s “Symphony of the Moon and Sun,” in which a series of musicians over a period of centuries try and fail to play a piece about Celestia’s transformation into Corona and banishment despite Luna hating all prior attempts.

One of the best examples of these is GrassAndClouds2’s “Carrot Top Season,” in which the titular farmer ends up the representative of the smaller farmers of Ponyville in conflict with the large and powerful Sweet Apple Acres, owned by Applejack. This version of Applejack serves as a type case for the differences between the Lunaverse and Maneverse (as the Lunaverse community refers to the world of the show): she is recognizably the same character but slightly twisted, just that little bit darker, with the consequences of her beliefs more fully explored: Obsessed, prone to working to exhaustion, and totalizing everything–she believes both that the slightest setback could spell the end of the Apple farm and that the Apple farm alone stands between Ponyville and starvation–she quickly becomes tyrannical, turning the entire town against her as she tries to pressure them into supporting her farm.

The resulting story (one of the Lunaverse’s longest) ends up an exploration of the perils and pressures of competition, the organization of labor, and the dangers of capitalism far more complex than “The Super Cider Squeezy 6000” could ever achieve, because it is not that there are good and bad ponies that is the problem in “Carrot Top Season”; it is that the pressures of business have so warped Applejack’s worldview that her good impulses lead her to act like a petty tyrant, and the consequences of her actions leave her more isolated than ever.

That one word, “consequences,” more than any other defines the Lunaverse in comparison to the show. Swapping Trixie and Twilight doesn’t just make a cutely flip-flopped story; setting a giant space bear loose in a town is a crime, and Twilight isn’t just fleeing embarrassment but the authorities as well–not to mention that Twilight has a family, and their responses to her altercation with Trixie end up setting the stage for the season finale. Another of the early stories, “Family Matters,” involves Ditzy Doo (or, more accurately, Ditzy’s daughter Dinky) facing the consequences of her youthful indiscretion, and of course one of the main differences between “Longest Night, Longest Day” and “Elements of Harmony” is that in the Lunaverse Corona isn’t instantly reformed, only weakened and driven off–she is still out there, gathering power and occasionally sending minions into Equestria, and the consequences of that influence several stories throughout the season.

But this focus on the stories can partially obscure the truth of what the Lunaverse is. The Lunaverse forum on FIMFiction is as much a part of the Lunaverse as the stories are, because it is there that story ideas are debated and modified and the world and characters fleshed out. That community is a huge part of the Lunaverse, and an excellent example of the difference between fanfiction and commercial fiction in general.

It is a received wisdom that folk culture is dead. After thousands of years of people deriving entertainment by telling each other stories and singing songs together, a century and change of first radio, and then television–of music and stories crafted by experts and delivered directly into our homes, replacing the amateur story nights and singalongs that once occupied them–have wiped folk culture away.

This is nonsense. Television and radio can fulfill the craving for story and music, but they cannot fulfill the need to create that so many people share. We still make up stories and songs–and we still take the common myth cycles of our people and transform them for our own purposes. It’s just that instead of Thor and Loki getting into drunk shenanigans, it’s Kirk and Spock having sex–or six “wrong” ponies getting the Elements of Harmony. Fan culture is folk culture, and like folk culture it is influenced by the top-down “canon,” but produces its own works in a bottom-up process. Yes, it has its leaders–Rainbow DoubleDash has the final say on what is or is not part of the Lunaverse canon–but ultimately anyone can write for the Lunaverse, and a number of very different people have. The results are necessarily messier, more chaotic than a polished, commercially produced show (not to mention all the inherent differences between prose fiction and television animation), but also more (for lack of a better term) authentic. There is no line between the authors and readers of the Lunaverse–even people who haven’t written a story can help shape one by commenting as chapters are posted.

Like any folk community, the central tension of folklore is present, between the creative impulse (which, as it is a drive to create something new, is therefore always a drive toward change) and traditionalism, which is always present in a context where the main method of creation is modifying something that was handed down by others. There is a tension between those who want the Lunaverse to be its own creature, and those who want it to be a reflection of the show–for example, whenever some new development in the show contradicts something established in the universe, there are those who want to incorporate it into a story and either retcon the Lunaverse to match or explain away the difference, and those who don’t care because the Lunaverse isn’t the Maneverse. 

“At the Grand Galloping Gala” is a good example. Its climax hinges on a weird blend of populist ideals (“the nobles are corrupt, and us good peasant folk need to do something to straighten them out”) and royalist sentiment (“we just need to get the Princess involved, and she’ll straighten things out”). Such a juxtaposition is not at all uncommon in folktales, where it isn’t unusual at all to find a clever, plucky peasant outwitting the evil, corrupt nobles–and being rewarded by marrying a princess and becoming nobility themselves, presumably so that the next clever peasant has someone to outwit. The revolutionary, anti-authoritarian impulse is tempered by an almost-worshipful treatment of traditional, “good” authority.

But such is, as I said, the nature of a folk community.

In the end, the products of the Lunaverse are amateur work. Grammatical errors abound. Stories are sometimes clumsy, characterization is uneven, and jokes sometimes don’t fit (shoehorned-in Babylon 5 references are nearly as common as in Time Lords and Terror and its sequels), but in exchange there is a vibrance to it, an ever-changing and growing supply of stories (about a half million words in the canon portion of the first season alone), and an active and extremely welcoming community. It is an expression, in other words, of everything bronies love about ourselves–a micro-folk within our larger folk community.

Next week: Everything new is old again. It’s time for yet another Apple-sode.

Non-Pony Related Thought of the Day

I have a guest article up at Study of Anime, Charles Dunbar’s site. If you don’t know Charles, you have clearly never been to an anime convention on the U.S. East Coast; he is probably the most prominent and easily the best academic-panelist, and goes to A LOT of cons. Also he’s editing my book, and doing a bang-up job.

If you have any interest in anime, you should give his site a read; there’s a lot of great insight on their into Japanese culture, fan culture, and folklore, as well as the ongoing “ID Project” guest posts where fans write about different aspects of being a fan.

My own article is about being a third-generation geek–at least three of my grandparents could be considered “geeks” as the word is used today, and both my parents and my older brother easily were. It was basically inevitable that I would one day end up doing *something* like this blog.