Saturday, August 31, 2013

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.

Friday, August 30, 2013

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.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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.


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. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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!

Monday, August 26, 2013

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.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

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.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Book Cover

So, it still needs a little work with the layout of the blurb, but... close. Very close.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: My Laziest Ever!

Many thanks to Derpmind for inspiring this with his comment on yesterday's lack-of-PTOTD.

So, what're your pony-related thoughts today?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Not a Pony Thought of the Day

Sorry, all. I have MASSIVE amounts of stuff to take care of this week, so there's no Pony Thought of the Day today. I'm afraid that I can't promise them this week--I will try to have at least a couple, but I'm pretty sure it won't be less than that, and could be less. Sorry!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mods Are Asleep (The Return of Queen Crysalis Part 1-4)

Special thanks to Harrison Barber, who gave me the trade paperback of the comic on the condition I did this review. Bribery: It works!

Last week, I talked about "Snowdrop" getting the "Applejack" approach to the show right, and a few months ago I talked about "Double Rainboom" getting the "Rainbow Dash" approach wrong. But what does getting the Rainbow Dash approach right look like?

It would be hard to think of a better example than "The Return of Queen Crysalis," the story comprised by the first four issues of IDW's My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic book, written by Katie Cook, art by Andy Price, with colors by Heather Breckel and lettering by Robbie Robbins and Neil Uyetake. To recap past discussions, the Applejack approach is characterized by adherence to the traditions of past generations of My Little Pony and sincere emotion, as befits the Element of Honesty; its primary pitfalls are a tendency to become cloying or overly sentimental. The Rainbow Dash approach, by contrast, is hip and modern and tries to reward fans by giving them what the want, as befits the Element of Loyalty. Its primary pitfalls are a tendency to become cynical or overly fannish.

From the start, "The Return of Queen Crysalis" is definitely fannish. Just in the first issue, we have the return of a fan-favorite villain seeking revenge for her defeat in the show, coupled with a host of geeky references to classics like The Prisoner, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Indiana Jones. Plus, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are kidnapped, which I'm sure was almost as satisfying to the fans who dislike them as their depiction as annoying and oblivious in the second through fourth issues. Throughout the series, the Mane Six act like exaggerated caricatures of themselves of the sort that drive memetic humor, whether it's Twilight discussing research papers on cave trolls while fighting one or Fluttershy being an enthusiastic walking encyclopedia of monster lore.

But "Double Rainboom" did the exact same sort of fanservice, and failed. Why does "The Return of Queen Crysalis" succeed? First and foremost, it is an extremely well put-together comic. Its use of layout is particularly masterful; one of the challenges of laying out a comic is that space on the comic page represents both space and time. In general, large panels suggest size and scope of a space or scene, as well as allowing for more detail, but they also slow down the passage of time. A full-page spread gives a sense of importance and size to a scene (as long as the comic doesn't overuse the technique), but it slows the comic nearly to a halt as the reader stops and looks at the page, subconsciously expecting, and therefore taking the time to look for, as much information as a standard six- or nine-panel grid, but still only receiving a single moment of the comic. By contrast, many panels arranged in narrow horizontal slices cannot fit much detail in any single panel, but give the impression of time passing swiftly as events flicker past.

Okay, who read my comic while
eating nachos and goop?
How, then, to create a sense of physical space while keeping the flow of time? One of the best solutions the comic finds is by using the panel borders to set a stage of sorts that fills the page, and then using the panels themselves to depict moments occurring on that stage. For example, in the first issue, when the ponies enter the changelings' lair in Ponyville, the panels are irregularly shaped, and instead of borders they're separated by the changelings' goo, which results in an entire page dominated by that goo. This creates an impression that the characters have entered a space that belongs to the changelings, one that is so defined by them that they even distort the panel shapes. This utter changeling dominance of the space could also have been established by a splash page showing the ponies small and surrounded by changelings, but at the cost of halting the story for that page; the approach chosen instead allows the story to continue to flow. The irregularity of the panels creates a sense of stumbling, being out of control, but the story doesn't slow or stop; it keeps flowing to the next page, where the regular panels in the midst of a splash page re-establish a pony space within the changeling space, allowing the ponies to begin fighting back.

But "Double Rainboom" had its technical merits as well. Ultimately, it is on the story level that it stumbled, and the story level on which "The Return of Queen Crysalis" succeeds. Starting with the second issue, the ponies leave the familiar portions of Equestria and set off into regions the audience has never seen before, escaping one of the major pitfalls of the Rainbow Dash approach, the tendency to fill the work with either memetic references (in the case of a meme depot) or continuity references (in the case of a cult show)--because we are in new territory, we have little opportunity for either memetic background ponies or locations and characters from past stories. Instead, we get new gags and references, such as the toy-collector troll or Pinkie Pie's costume (though the latter does suspiciously resemble Max Gillardi's design for Pinkie Pie in his .mov series of parodies).

Most importantly, Queen Chrysalis works well as a villain here, perhaps even better than in the show. She is able to use her minions to trick the ponies into fighting and splitting up, not too differently from Discord in "The Return of Harmony," but with the added wrinkle that she is doing it solely to convince the ponies she doesn't want them to reach her. In actuality, she does want them to confront her, so that she can drain Twilight's magic. Further, her trick against Twilight in the last issue, is, while fairly cliche--sticking to the letter of the agreement to not hurt Twilight's friends by making Twilight do it--nonetheless one of the most sadistic things any villain in the show has done. It fits well with Chrysalis' personality as it's presented in the comic, which is to say savvy, cruel, and ironically detached.

That last is a great way for the comic to avoid one of the other pitfalls of the Rainbow Dash approach, which is that too much irony in the story can detach the reader from caring about it, and render the story insincere. As I have said many times, sincerity is Friendship Is Magic's strongest point, so irony is a dangerous thing to play with. However, by putting the snide remarks and clever asides in the mouth of the story's villain, "The Return of Queen Chrysalis" is able to fully exploit the humor potential of that irony without encouraging the reader to join in it, since the characters we root for are still fully engaged and sincere.

For example, Chrysalis is disgusted and unsettled by the teddy-bear "Wuv" creatures, which is likely the reaction of most readers, but Spike happily embraces them. Additionally, throughout the story Chrysalis is impatient and snarky with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, while the Mane Six go to great lengths to rescue them and clearly care a great deal about them. Chrysalis functions as a way to give voice to the reader's tendency toward irony and cynicism, serving as the sort of knowing nod that categorizes the Rainbow Dash approach, but because she is the villain and therefore will be defeated in the end, we know that sincerity will ultimately win out.

In the end, "The Return of Queen Chrysalis" is exactly what it sets out to be, a well-executed, highly enjoyable comedy-adventure story of precisely the sort Rainbow Dash would choose to read.

Next week: The single derivative work I've been most requested to cover.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Pony BESM

If all goes well and the planets align, shortly after this goes up I should be holding the first meeting (pre-game discussion and character creation) for an FIM-themed BESM game! We will be playing using a modified version of Big Eyes, Small Mouths Second Edition (a.k.a. The Good One), a sadly out-of-print roleplaying game designed for anime-esque campaigns. My modifications can be read here--four new character templates, a handful of new Attributes, a skill-cost chart with a few new skills (the ones with specializations listed are new or modified, all the others use the default specializations), and a new game mechanic designed to reflect the power of friendship and solve one of the game's problems, which is that it's fairly common to make a character that has an Energy Point pool and no abilities that use it.

None of which makes any sense to those of you unfamiliar with BESM (likely all of you). It's Saturday and tomorrow's post is proving unexpectedly difficult, I'm afraid, so I was somewhat strapped for a PTOTD.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: I have crossed the line...

If I wasn't over it already, I am now: I have crossed into full-on irretrievable fanboy. I now have an OC--not in the sense of a character that I made up that isn't in the show, but in the sense of "if I wrote a self-insert fic, this would be my self-insert." (No, I'm not going to write a self-insert fic. I'm not THAT far gone, and hopefully never will be.)

Meet Post Mod. He's a short, chubby Earth pony, and his cutie mark is Not A Pipe.

No, his special talent isn't smoking. Why does everyone always
ask that? If his special talent were smoking, his cutie mark
would be a pipe, but it's Not A Pipe.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Where Does Magic Come From?

There's two basic ways magic can work in fantasy: It can be innate, in which case creatures can use magic until they either tire out or exhaust some inner reserve. This is how most video games and anime work, as well as how magic works in Middle-Earth, among other settings.

The alternative is ambient magic, in which the magic-user taps into an energy source outside themselves and channels it toward whatever end. In ambient-magic settings, magic users can keep using their magic until the external source is depleted or the flow of energy becomes too much for them to handle. The energy source might be something that is available everywhere (such as the Force in Star Wars or geothermic energy in Fullmetal Alchemist), or it might be something that has to be drawn from specific magically-charged objects and places (such as in most real-world magical systems).

Note that both systems may have the use of objects as sources of magic; the difference is that in ambient systems an object has magic because it is a magical object, whereas in an innate system the object has magic because someone put magic in it (for example, the One Ring has immense power because Sauron put much of his personal power into it, which is why he wants it so badly and why it's so important he not get it).

It's also possible to hybridize the approaches. For example, in the (excellent, by the way) Enchanted Forest Chronicles, most magic-users use innate magic, but wizards have none. They are forced to steal their magic from others, which is what their staffs are for.

So, the question is, what about ponies? Certainly there seems to be a lot of evidence for innate magic, what with unicorn-horn telepathy and cutie marks and all. However, there are also some hints of ambient magic, most notably the Elements of Harmony--certainly the implication I took was that they were not created so much as discovered, and as such represent a source of magical power outside the ponies who wield them. I also suspect that Earth ponies use ambient magic--channeling and cultivating the existing magic of the world rather than creating their own. Certainly that seems to eb the relationship between Granny Smith and zap apples, at any rate.

What do you think? Is the pony world all innate magic, or is some of it ambient? Or can you make an argument for it being all ambient?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Snowblind

I've said before that Friendship Is Witchcraft doesn't so much make fun of Friendship Is Magic as use it as a medium through which to parody other things, mostly fanon and fan reactions. "Snowblind," their parody of "Snowdrop," is a good example. It doesn't so much parody "Snowdrop," but rather replaces it with a darker and funnier subversion of the same narrative "Snowdrop" is subverting, the Christmas-martyr "Little Match Girl" glurge.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Background Pony

Who's your favorite background pony? Mine's Lyra, at least today. I don't actually buy into the whole "human fan" thing, I just think she likes to sit weirdly because she's comfy that way, and she doesn't give a damn what anybody else thinks is a "normal" way to sit.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

[Pony] Is My Waifu (Snowdrop)

You know, I really wish I hadn't already used
"20 percent cooler" in a previous article title.
It’s March 21, 2013. In the news this week, the Steubenville rape trial, coverage which has helped wake up the mainstream to the concept of rape culture, reaches a guilty verdict; the Voyager 1 space probe reaches the edge of the solar system yet again, because "edge of the solar system" is not a well-defined concept, and My Chemical Romance breaks up. The top movie this weekend is "The Croods," and the top song is Bauur's "Harlem Shake."

The big news in the brony community is that the much-anticipated fan-made episode "Double Rainboom" goes live on YouTube in a little over a week. But quietly, just ahead of the big episode, a small group of fans known as Silly Filly Studios releases “Snowdrop,” a short animation written by Meredith Sims and directed by Sims and Marshal “Zedrin” Watson. 

Way back in the “alchemy” series of reviews in the first season, I posited that Applejack and Rainbow Dash could be read as representing opposing visions if the show. The Rainbow Dash Show is flashy, cool, fun, and exciting, but also a bit heartless and excessively fannish, while The Applejack Show is sincere, honest, and remains true to the core values of the show, but is also prone to sentimentality and  a tad on the boring side.

“Double Rainboom” begins as everything right about the Rainbow Dash approach and ends up being everything wrong about that approach. “Snowdrop” starts as everything wrong about the Applejack approach, and ends up being everything right about it.

Snowdrops, like many flowers, are quite redolent with meaning, almost to the point of being oversignified. They are small, fragile flowers that bloom just at the beginning of spring, and thus often appear while there is still snow on the ground, which together with their small, white blossoms gives them their names. They are frequently cited as one of the first signs of the end of winter; for example in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the appearance of snowdrops is one of the earliest indicators that the power of the White Witch is starting to break. Like any other symbol of winter’s end, they therefore represent rebirth, restoration, and thereby also origins and beginnings, but the power of these meanings is belied by their frailty, small size, and the simplicity inherent in being a plain white blossom.

It is thus fitting that the small, white, fragile filly Snowdrop should be named for one. Her character seems designed to evoke sympathy as directly and hamfistedly as possible: she is blind, shy, picked on, and melancholic, but at the same time never shows signs of giving up or lashing out. She is very close to the Japanese anime-fan aesthetic of moe, which translates roughly to “that which provokes protectiveness.” In shows that employ the aesthetic, moe characters (who are usually female and either childlike, hyper-sexualized, or (in the most disturbing cases) both) are depicted as weak or shown suffering physical or emotional traumas, in ways meant to evoke a desire to protect them in the (mostly male) audience. It is in essence fiction designed to fulfill the audience’s White Knight fantasies.

White Knight fantasies represent a desire to save others in the abstract—that is, not an altruistic and response rooted in empathy for the real, material, concrete suffering of a specific person or group, but a self-centered, abstract desire to save generic others and thus acquire an increased sense of self-worth or affection. As such, they are closely related to Nice Guy Syndrome, in that both involve greater focus on what the White Knight/Nice Guy wants to give, rather than understanding what the object of the fantasy/syndrome wants to receive, and both substitute a self-centered desire for entitlement to emotional rewards, rather than any actual empathy.

In addition to the moe aesthetic of the character herself, the winter setting of “Snowdrop” also recalls any of the large number of mawkish, emotionally manipulative Christmas tales that employ the suffering of a “pure” character to teach the audience some lesson, such as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl.” These stories are frequently sentimental to the point of sappiness, and it is difficult to say whether the ones where the suffering, pure little girl (it is usually a girl) gets her wish are more obnoxious than the ones (such as “The Little Match Girl”) where the suffering girl is “too pure for this world” and gets “rewarded” by dying horribly. Such stories are the epitome of glurge, stories so blatantly emotionally manipulative that, even when intended to produce positive feelings or responses, they are still vaguely nauseating. And for most of its running length, “Snowdrop” looks exactly like one.

Except then Snowdrop makes the first snowflake and presents it to the Princesses, and everything changes. The one thing moe characters never get to do, the one thing the Little Match Girl cannot be permitted, is to tell their own stories, to contextualize their own experiences under their own terms. Snowdrop, however, gets to express herself artistically. She creates the snowflake to represent the sound of stars twinkling that she alone can hear; since she is blind, she presumably does so by touch, and this is an animation. Her snowflake is therefore a visual representation of the tactile experience of hearing a star.

That concept alone makes any flaws in “Snowdrop” worthwhile, but in addition to making art, the narrative also affords Snowdrop a space to make an artist’s statement. She is allowed to explain the why of the snowflake, and in so doing touches one of the listening ponies, Princess Luna. We know this is set in the far past of the series, because Celestia’s opening narration frames this as a flashback even as it shows familiar ponies in the now; because Celestia’s hair is pink instead of rainbow-hued, which is commonly used in fanart of her as a young pony; and because the paratext tells us so in the form of a video description. This is thus Luna before she became Nightmare Moon: it is a Luna who is at some point in the (possibly quite near) future going to allow herself to be consumed with jealousy that no one appreciates her night who hears Snowdrop explain that snow isn't useless.

Snowdrop isn't useless; she has a creative power, just like anyone and everyone else. Luna isn't useless either, nor is her night; is it any wonder that Luna refers to Snowdrop as "the only one who ever truly knew my night?" She's not talking about blindness--the fact that ponies have a word for it suggests that other blind ponies have existed. She's talking about that feeling of uselessness, of wanting to prove she has value. Jealousy isn't greed; it isn't simply a matter of wanting something you don't have. Jealousy is resentment, as much a feeling that what you have is worthless as that what someone else has is desirable. Luna feels less valued than Celestia, and therefore feels less valuable; her night is used for rest and recovery (just like Snowdrop's winter), instead of fun and happiness like the spring or Celestia's day.

Snowdrops, in praising winter, is also telling Luna that she's wrong about the night, that it isn't worthless and can be celebrated. But critically--and more than anything else, this is what saves the short from the dangers of glurge--Luna doesn't listen. She continues to feel that her night is worthless and unvalued, continues to stew in jealousy, and ultimately tries to seize power as Nightmare Moon. Snowdrop's sweet, disabled, martyr-like moe purity cannot prevent Luna from becoming a monster.

Yet Luna remembers her as a friend anyway. Snowdrop doesn't fail; she transforms winter forever, and is never forgotten by the night. At the same time, there is a limit to what she can accomplish; the end is thus not sickly sweet, but bittersweet, as Luna mourns her absent friend and the mistakes which meant she never got to say goodbye.

The last of Snowdrop's snowflakes--which is recognizably the first--drifts to the ground, landing on a snowdrop, which slowly blooms. Sadness and cold and darkness exist. It is not as easy as simply being pure and sincere and trusting that everything works out perfectly--but even in the midst of snow, the first signs of spring can bloom.

Next week: There is a reason this is called Derivative Works Month, not Fanworks Month. This is why.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Equestria Girls Liveblog!

Putting this up early so I can link to it/procrastinate on transcribing BronyCon interviews.

This is where we'll be liveblogging Equestria Girls! The way it works is, we'll all queue up copies of the movie in whatever format (I actually bought the DVD for this, because I am a good little pony), and at 3p.m. EST we all start watching simultaneously and commenting with anything we feel like saying in response to the movie.

Well... almost anything. Just a couple of rules:

1) If you're new here, there is a comment policy. It's a lot of words that basically boil down to "Play Nice."

2) No spoilers of any kind. That includes content spoilers ("Example Pony dies!"), negative spoilers ("When Example Pony showed up, I thought she was going to hook up with Sample Pony, and I'm still bummed she didn't") and even anticipation spoilers ("I still can't believe what happened to Example Pony!") Anything which implies anything about something that happens later in the movie is a spoiler, so please don't post them. If you absolutely MUST say something spoilery, apply the ROT13 filter first.

That's it! See you all at 3!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: If Only Snow Had a Smell...

In "Snowdrop," Snowdrop presumably makes the first snowflake by touch, but seeing as it's an animation we can only see it. The snowflake is thus the visual representation of the tactile experience of the sound of a star twinkling. The phrase "Bwa?" comes to mind.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Utopia vs. Utopian

There are fewer than two hours left on the Kickstarter! This is the absolute last chance to throw money at My Little Po-Mo: Volume One and get the Kickstarter-exclusive essay, along with all the other rewards!

Friendship Is Magic is a utopian show, but that doesn't necessarily mean it depicts a perfect world. Allow me to split hairs a moment: Utopias are a literary genre that depict better (at least in the author's opinion) societies than our own. A good pop-culture example is Star Trek's Federation, which has no poverty, little crime, and no bigotry. (Except all the gay people are mysteriously missing, and there's at least one episode of TOS that depicts there still being a glass ceiling for women, and...) Likewise, Equestria has no war, little crime, no institutionalized bigotry, and no poverty--it's a pretty darn perfect place to live, monster attacks notwithstanding. Depicting a utopia, however, is not quite the same thing as being utopian. A utopian work doesn't even necessarily depict a utopia; what it does is assume that utopia is achievable, and suggests ways to get there. Star Trek: The Next Generation depicts a utopia, but is not utopian--there is no real indication of how to get there from here. Star Trek, the original series, however, is utopian--it gives rather strong hints of what 1960s American is getting wrong. And Friendship Is Magic is most definitely utopian. Most obviously, that's what the letters to Celestia are all about, but putting that aside there's still the depiction of a society where fear does not dominate, where interpersonal connections are valued over material success, where people actually belong to communities and take time to try to contribute instead of only thinking about what they can get out of it. It is, if you give it the chance, ferociously critical of our society, and quite consistent in depicting what it sees as the way to somewhere better.

ETA: And the Kickstarter is over! $1,026 total raised, which is kind of astounding. Thank you all so much!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Seed No Evil

The Kickstarter has only 1 day left! If you want the Kickstarter-exclusive essay, this is your last chance to pledge!

You guys have been amazing, but due to backers reducing their pledges I am now down to $1000, $200 shy of the stretch goal where I do TWO reaction videos, one to a Gen 3 ep and one to a Gen 3.5 ep. Will I have to suffer through the horrors of "Over Two Rainbows?" Or will I escape that fate by the skin of my teeth? It's up to all of you to decide!

It's gauche to ask, I know, but if any of you have a platform from which you can spread the Kickstarter--a blog, Twitter, actual meatspace interaction with human-type peoples, now is the last chance to tell any of them about this drive. Although we passed the initial goal a while back, that was based on my editor's initial quote before he saw the book--it's actually requiring more editing than he expected, and therefore costing more. As it stands now, the Kickstarter is just shy of covering my actual costs--which I can cover, the book will definitely still happen, but it'd be nice to say I broke even.

The latest episode of Friendship Is Witchcraft, "Seed No Evil," is one of their best. It's exactly what I needed to get the foul taste of "One Bad Apple" out of my mouth. I'd embed it, but Blogger is being wonky and forcing me to write this in HTML, so I'm merely going to link it instead.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: I Have Acquired Equestria Girls, Time for Some Planning

The Kickstarter has only 2 days left! You guys have been amazing, but due to a backer reducing their pledge I am now just $10 shy of the stretch goal where I do TWO reaction videos, one to a Gen 3 ep and one to a Gen 3.5 ep. Will I have to suffer through the horrors of "Over Two Rainbows?" Or will I escape that fate by the skin of my teeth? It's up to all of you to decide!

It's gauche to ask, I know, but if any of you have a platform from which you can spread the Kickstarter--a blog, Twitter, actual meatspace interaction with human-type peoples, now is the last chance to tell any of them about this drive. Although we passed the initial goal a while back, that was based on my editor's initial quote before he saw the book--it's actually requiring more editing than he expected, and therefore costing more. As it stands now, the Kickstarter is just shy of covering my actual costs--which I can cover, the book will definitely still happen, but it'd be nice to say I broke even.
So, I picked up the DVD of Equestria Girls at BronyCon this weekend. Still haven't watched it and my spoiler-avoidance has been mostly successful, so at this point my knowledge of it consists of the two trailers, the titles of a couple of the musical numbers, and that it has a character named Sunset Shimmer whom people don't like? Except the people who do? Also several people telling me it's less bad than they expected. So, now that the DVD is out, it's time for the promised liveblog! The liveblog will occur this Saturday, August 10. At noon EST a placeholder post will go up on this blog, where people can comment as they please (but NO SPOILERS). At 3 p.m. EST everyone will hit play on their DVDs simultaneously, and we can all start watching together and commenting on what we're seeing as the movie plays. Let me reiterate: NO SPOILERS. On this post, on past posts--anywhere on the site between now and the end of the liveblog. I normally don't care because I can almost always predict the plot of something within a few minutes of starting it, but the whole point of this exercise is for me (and anyone else who chooses to join in) to give a moment-by-moment reaction to first encountering the movie, in contrast to the usual planned, thought-out analyses of things I've seen multiple times before I start writing. Anyway, I'm looking forward to this. I think it'll be fun, and in a different way than the blog usually is.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Brony the Movie

The Kickstarter has only 3 days left! You guys have been amazing, and we hit the $1200 mark where I do a reaction video--so as a special gift I'm doing TWO reaction videos, one to a Gen 3 ep and one to a Gen 3.5 ep. The question now is, in the little time remaining, can we get to me doing analyses of these two episodes as well? I haven't actually seen any of the brony documentaries floating around, but of the ones I've heard about this seems like the most interesting. I saw the director and some of the people involved talk about it at BronyCon, and the clips they showed look great--it's got some great cinematography, and I'm intrigued that although it's using lots of interviews with bronies, it's framed as an outsider's view. According to the director it's effectively finished--they have a complete, feature-length cut and are just doing things like proofreading titles at this point. They've also got a distributor, so basically everything except a release date is in place.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Haters gonna hate. (My Little Po-Mo)

Christ, what an asshole.
August is Derivative Works Month, where I take a break from episode reviews. Instead, each Sunday I cover a different fanwork or licensed work from outside the show. This week's derivative work is the analysis blog My Little Po-Mo.

This is another one of those things that runs for months, so once again please forgive me for not listing movies, music, and headlines.

My Little Po-Mo is a fairly obscure and extremely pretentious analysis blog by a fan who goes by the screen name Froborr. It describes itself as being postmodern, but for better or worse displays little of the linguotextual carnivalization that characterizes most post- (and post-post-) modern literary analysis.

As its author points out in the very first entry, My Little Po-Mo is almost entirely an imitation/intimation of the postmodern Doctor Who fan/analysis blog/book series TARDIS Eruditorum, but where that work is a tour-de-force that recontextualizes the fifty-year history of Doctor Who and uses it as a window into and emboitment of meditations on British history, politics, philosophy, and art, My Little Po-Mo lists top songs, movies, and headlines from the air date in the opening paragraph of each article. TARDIS Eruditorum does that as well, of course, but while TARDIS Eruditorum frequently uses the songs and headlines to set up themes for the article and locate the episode in a particular and peculiar temporal locus, My Little Po-Mo usually just states them and moves on; given that the most historically distant episode it addresses (not including guest posts) aired in late 2010, there appears to be little historical context to give.

The majority of posts (on Sundays, at least; the blog posts pointless little "Pony Thoughts of the Day" the other six days of the week, but they are largely disposable and frequently inane) are cases of severe overreach, such as an attempt to align an apparently randomly chosen sequence of four first-season episodes into the traditional four stages of making a philosopher's stone, as reinterpreted by Jung into a grand narrative of spiritual awakening. Remember, this is still My Little Pony we're talking about!

This "alchemy" series ignores a significant fact and thus becomes a telling example of the overreach that characterizes the blog. Specifically, the alchemy posts discuss episodes that aired very early in the show's broadcast, at a time at which the brony fandom barely existed; further, due to the long lead time required for most animated works, the episodes' scripts must have been in a finished (insofar as any unviewed work can be considered "finished") or near-finished state significantly prior to the airing of the first episode of the show, and therefore before the brony fandom could exist. The central argument that the episodes represent a struggle (and ultimately alchemical wedding) between appealing to geeks and remaining true to the show's roots requires viewing the show as an independent gestalt from its creators, a viewpoint that is not only never articulated, but actively undercut at points.

At other times, the blog takes a turn for the distressingly aggressive/righteous. Repeated tirades against show writer Amy Keating Rogers have little basis other than the microanalysis of social justice issues read into (as opposed to out of) the space of the text, and perhaps a modicum of tokenism surrounding (but hardly absorbed by) Zecora, a character Rogers didn't even create. In particular, accusations of sexism regarding "The Ticket Master" and "A Dog and Pony Show" require extensive de- and reconstruction to support, and the articles in question leave much of that process in the realm of the assumed, never actualizing it; the article on "Bridle Gossip," meanwhile, never initiates the process at all, and amounts to little more than an extended rant.

Meanwhile, simple propositions, such as the argument that pony society resembles a community of geeks, are given elaborate arguments that meander through largely unrelated spaces before arriving at a conclusion that could likely have been argued in a much smaller space. More damningly, episodes such as "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well," which valorizes bullying techniques that have been used for decades, primarily against young women, are given a vigorous (but ultimately inadequate) defense. The author also seems hypercritical of the character Spike, and is determined to read the worst possible motivations into everything Spike does. Loathe as I am to try to read author motivations into a work, a certain degree of iconoclasticism and a kneejerk contrarian streak seem likely to be at work here, along with almost certainty an element of projection.

Occasional posts are, in the author's words, "experimental," which appears to here mean "deliberately obtuse." These include a two-column post on two episodes that heavily overemphasizes their thematic similarities, and a post on "The Return of Harmony" that appears to have been written normally and then had the paragraphs rearranged semi-randomly, because that's just less than entirely unlike Discord's actions in the episode. These little microcarnivalizations do little or nothing to enhance the posts, but serve as an excellent vector for the substitution of inaccessibility for depth.

Ultimately, one has to ask whether this blog is serious or a joke. It seems like it cannot possibly be serious, but that rests on the assumption that My Little Pony is inherently unworthy of this kind of attention. That, in turn, requires that something have inherent (un)worth, which necessarily requires some authoritative measure of worth which can be used to gauge said unworth. Such an authority would completely invalidate human freedom, which requires the assignment of worth to be an idiosyncratic, highly personal subjectivity, and therefore said authority cannot be permitted to exist.

On the "this is actually serious" side falls the months-long effort and Kickstarter campaign to launch a book, which is not being marketed as humor. But that then returns us to the problem of the author's qualifications and skills, which he himself noted in the very first post are inadequate to the task. So is this simply a serious attempt executed poorly?

But how can anyone take seriously such passages as "The conflict between Rarity and Applejack is one of class roles and expectations; it is about conflict in the ways the two ponies construct their worlds, and thus can be resolved by a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The conflict between Applejack and Rainbow Dash is not as simple, because it is a conflict of personalities and essential natures. A world which contains both of them is necessarily a world which contains conflict. It seems as if they cannot coexist." Somewhere beyond overreach and overreading lies the space in which claiming that "The Elements of Harmony" prefigures Arab Spring and the Occupy movement can possibly be considered as a serious argument. Frankly, anyone involved in either group of protests would be fully justified in taking significant offense.

Of course, as previously stated (un)worth cannot be considered inherent, but is necessarily always a product of the socially constructed value-schema of the observer. Nonetheless, My Little Po-Mo makes a solid attempt at invalidating that worldview, and stands out as a strong candidate for the (empty) set of works useable as a zero-line for value as analysis/entertainment.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Book Update

There's only a few days left to donate to the Kickstarter! As of writing this (way back in the dim recesses of history known to legend as Thursday), we're only $35 bucks shy of the second stretch goal! In terms of what's actually going on with the book, I've completed the first round of edits and sent them back to the editor. These included a complete rewrite of one of the new chapters and the addition of another new chapter, a brief guide to Equestria for people who've never watched the show. (I don't think anyone who doesn't watch the show is likely to buy the book, my editor (who doesn't watch the show) does. We'll see.) To give you an idea of what I mean by "revised and expanded," the Sunday blog posts from the introduction through "Best Night Ever" comprise about 35,000 words. The book is clocking in at 70,000 at the moment. Also, the cover artist (the inestimable Viga) projects having it done by the end of the day today (meaning Thursday, not Saturday). So that's exciting, I'm hoping to give you all a peek of it soon!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: Anyone at Bronycon and Want to Be In the Book?

I'm at Bronycon in Baltimore today! And I'm interviewing bronies about their experiences so I can quote them in the book. If anyone's interested, come to one of my panels (My Little Panel; Brony vs. Brony) and I'll be doing interviews after.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pony Thought of the Day: I'm on a Podcast!

Viga (my partner in crime and designer of the logo for this very site) and I are on geek comedian Uncle Yo's podcast today. We were on the show to talk about Adventure Time!, but I did get to plug the MLP book really briefly at the beginning. Anyway, if you ever wanted to hear my horrible nasal voice talking about something other than ponies, this is your chance?