Minmaxer Fiction: The Intersection Between Dungeons & Dragons and Isekai

I saw a tweet recently from someone complaining about isekai series that introduce and highlight stats and numbers the way an RPG would despite ostensibly being set in non-game fantasy worlds. 

In response, I  wrote the above tweet to give my two cents on the appeal of such an approach. However, it also got me thinking in another direction that takes this RPG fantasy game genre all the way back to one of its roots—good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons—and I realized something: these game-esque light novels feel like they’re written by what tabletop RPG players call “minmaxers.”

I was introduced to playing D&D thanks to Alain from Reverse Thieves, and after years of playing with him, I’ve come to learn firsthand that roleplaying is a very different experience compared to prose fiction or a television show. Essentially, it’s more like collaborative interactive storytelling compared to other mediums, and one aspect of this nature is that many different people with different goals come to the same table. You might have someone who’s more into exploring the world. You might have someone who wants the glory of slaying the monster and saving the day. You might have someone who wants a dramatic narrative. Because this dynamic is so important, many people have devoted many hours to categorizing the various D&D player types and thinking about how to best cater to them or even deal with their worst excesses.

Among these player archetypes, a common one is the minmaxer: the person who’s all about designing strong characters from a statistical perspective by minimizing certain scores and maximizing others, often prioritizing power over all else. There are also less extreme versions of this, such as someone simply interested in game systems and how different stats interact with one another, but it falls in the same general space. However, whereas a Dungeon Master running a game might have to take into account all the potentially different priorities of their players, a web novelist or light novelist can write the stories they want without necessarily taking into account an audience composed of varying tastes, and instead tell a story where the “game mechanics” are front and center. Adding to this intentional rigidity is the fact that many of the light novels that fall into these minmaxer worlds are clearly more inspired by video games such as Japanese RPGs and MMORPGs, where mechanics mastery is often highly valued and encouraged by the games themselves—sometimes even over storytelling.

When you look at the typical trends of protagonists within these game-style fantasy worlds, this angle becomes all the clearer. Many isekai heroes are able to peer deeper into the inner workings of the world (So I’m a Spider, So What?), have some kind of special ability that lets them defy stat restrictions (Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?), or just know that there are game-like qualities to their world (My Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!). What these features have in common is that they “break” the rules, and it’s even easier when the rules are just numbers and calculations. If you’ve ever been or seen someone who wants to be praised for an interesting build or stat investment in a game (“Check out how I combine Helmet A with Sword B to deal with Situation C!” “I gave my monster 248 speed instead of 252 so I could add 4 to defense!”), it’s that same energy. When you combine it with the glory-seeking player type, you get the overpowered perfect light novel protagonist who masterfully exploits the mechanics, defeats the villains with ease, and gets the harem.

A picture of the four personalities of Kumoko from So I'm a Spider, So What? All of them are excited in different ways.
So I’m a Spider, So What?

Which isn’t to say that the minmaxer approach to writing stories is inherently bad or incapable of making for good stories. Rather, where I think the disconnect between those who want more classical fantasy stories and what light novels are offering today is that the minmaxer is traditionally very much not the kind of person who gets into writing or reading fantasy novels. To be that way, you have to come from an environment where numbered stats are even a thing in the first place, and that can only be the result of a world where Dungeons & Dragons popularized the notion of codifying fantasy-genre elements into stats with pros and cons for the purpose of gaming—a quality that then became the basis for many of the JRPGs that have influenced a generation of Japanese people, among them the writers of web novels and light novels. It’s a far cry from Lord of the Rings.

This contrast actually reminds me of an episode of the sitcom Home Improvement, of all things. In it, the mother character, Jill Taylor, is asked by her father (a retired colonel) to review his autobiography manuscript. But try as she might, Jill finds it incredibly boring and sleep-inducing because her father mostly writes about battle strategy and military formations, as opposed to dramatic exploits or anything emotionally resonant. Her father clearly values the mechanics of war, but what he wants his book to convey is not appealing to those with little interest in such things. Given this example, it’s also worth noting that D&D itself is descended from a miniature wargame called Chainmail, and one of the ways that D&D would eventually expand its audience was by adding elements that would appeal to those who care about things other than combat.

So while fantasy traditionally caters to those who want to witness a world of swords and sorcery where the sense of the mysterious and unknown is paramount, the minmaxer fiction that is so ubiquitous in fantasy light novels over the past decade or two is almost the opposite. In these worlds, all surprises can be overcome with deeper or prior knowledge. It’s no wonder why the latter approach can be so bothersome to those who seek the former, and there’s no Dungeon Master who can try to cater to both in real time.

The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.

The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there. 

The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.

The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.

The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.

A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.

Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles. 

I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

There are two success stories to tell about the 1981 giant robot anime Six God Combination God Mars. The first is about a combining giant robot that was better as a toy than as an animated figure in motion: toy sales were strong enough to extend the series beyond its first year, but the awkward stiffness of the titular God Mars itself is something of a running gag (as seen in the YouTube comments here). The second, and I think the one that should get more attention among English-speaking anime fans, is about the tremendous influence of God Mars on Japan’s female anime fandom and doujinshi scene. In a time when pairing same-sex characters from your favorite series was not yet the full-on cottage industry it is today, God Mars was a cornerstone title alongside Captain Tsubasa.

I personally came to know about God Mars twenty years ago, although knowledge about the two aspects of the series came at different times. It was a collection of giant robot anime openings around 2001 that introduced me to the show and its impressive-looking mecha, but it was actually 2004’s Genshiken Official Data Book (of all things) that first brought to my attention God Mars’s popularity with women. Years later at Otakon 2010, voice actor Mitsuya Yuji mentioned among his most popular roles a character from God Mars named Marg. Now, I have the entire series on physical media thanks to Discotek (with 25 episodes up for free on TMS’s Youtube channel), and I’ve finally come to understand what made God Mars one of the granddaddies of fandom pairing in Japan.

Simply put, it’s Marg. Once you know about him, it becomes crystal clear why a female fandom around God Mars developed.

Marg is not the main character. That honor goes to Myoujin Takeru, a guy with psychic powers who discovers that he is actually an alien named Mars sent from the planet Gishin to destroy Earth. However, Takeru manages to defy the evil Emperor Zul and use the very weapon originally meant to eliminate Earth to instead form God Mars and beat back the Gishin Empire. Along the way, he discovers many truths about his original home world, including that he has a long lost brother—Marg—in Zul’s clutches. The dramas that emerge from their familial relationship include attempts to reunite, the pain of separation, and even the crossing of swords due to various plot contrivances. 

Marg is ridiculously beautiful both inside and out. He has lush locks of long green hair, and eyes that can express the deepest kindness but also the most fervent passion. His voice is gentle yet powerful, and his forlorn communications with Takeru express a longing and desire to see Takeru—unless he’s being brainwashed into being the enemy, of course, at which point his anger is spine-tingling. Whenever Marg shows up, he becomes the most captivating figure on screen.

Given that we’re talking about shipping and coupling, it’s not entirely accurate to pin it all on Marg. The popularity of a series among female fans traditionally hinges on the relationships between characters rather than singular personalities, and Takeru himself is no slouch. Not only does he look like a more handsome version of many a 70s robot protagonist, but he is perhaps the angstiest hero ever to grace a giant robot anime. Sure, Shinji from Evangelion is traumatized and depressed, and Heero Yuy from Gundam W is dark and brooding, but they don’t angst the way Takeru does. Naturally, more often than not, that anguish has something to do with Marg. And yes, they’re brothers by blood. Whether that was an additional awakening for fans in 1981, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Even before God Mars, there were plenty of good-looking and charismatic secondary characters in mecha anime. Between directors Tomino Yoshiyuki and Nagahama Tadao, they all but cornered the market: Prince Sharkin (Reideen), Garuda (Combattler V), Prince Heinel (Voltes V), Richter (Daimos), and both Char Aznable and Garma Zabi (Gundam). The key difference between these major rivals and Marg is that the latter is so many things in one. He’s an adversary at some times, but at other times he’s basically a damsel in distress.

There is something I need to make clear: Unlike so many later anime, which could be constructed from head to toe with a female audience in mind (or at least pay regular lip service to that side of fandom), God Mars is still built on the foundation of a toy-shilling kids’ anime. It is 65 episodes long, and not every episode is exactly compelling. There’s an unsurprising inconsistency in terms of the show’s quality with respect to storytelling and animation quality. In addition to the notorious stiffness of God Mars the robot, the anime is rife with fights between characters with psychic powers that revolve around dramatic poses in still shots in lieu of actual movement—a style of action scene the book Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga mocks for its laziness. And dashing canon hopes of brotherly love, the series pairs Takeru with a female character, albeit one with a connection to Marg. In other words, back in 1981, fujoshi had to walk uphill both ways to get their BL shipping fix. 

Even so, a girls’ fandom emerged out of God Mars, and plenty of evidence exists that the creators became aware of this audience eventually. The TV series keeps finding ways to bring him back in different forms. A 1982 movie recap of the first 26 or so episodes reduces the screen time of other supporting characters in favor of more Marg, and the poster advertising the film even features him prominently (see above). A later OVA released in 1988—well after God Mars’s heyday—centers around Marg entirely. A look at God Mars merchandise reveals both official and unofficial works where Marg takes up a lot of real estate.

When I was going over my own prior history with God Mars, I omitted one thing: the game Super Robot Wars D for the Gameboy Advance. God Mars is one of the titles included, and in the game, you can manage to not only recruit Marg to your side but also have him pilot an alternate God Mars from that 1988 OVA in which he’s the star. Once together, Takeru and Marg can perform combination attacks like the “Double Final God Mars.” I can’t help but wonder if there were both kinds of God Mars fans working on this game, bringing together the hopes and dreams of those whose lives were changed in some part by God Mars and its two successes.

The House in Fata Morgana and Full House: The Inherent Limits of “Pure” Translations

There has been a long history of English-language localizations doing their best to hide the fact that Japanese media is from, well, Japan. Old dubs of Gigantor and Astro Boy would have characters reading the “international newspaper.” Satoshi in Pokemon became Ash Ketchum, and onigiri became donuts, popcorn balls, and even photoshopped sandwiches. Phoenix Wright is suddenly practicing law in California, and a car with the steering wheel on the right side was “imported.” There’s enough that’s gone on over the years that fan skepticism towards translation can be justified, but more recently, there’s been a growing trend of negative criticism about the work of translators, accusing them of overly politicizing a work or introducing “Western” ideas that interfere with the “purity” of the original Japanese work. There are a lot of factors that go into this debate, and not always with the sincerest of intentions, but I’m going to elaborate on how (as the cliché goes) translation is more art than science, and why there’s an inherent limit to such purity arguments.

First things first: I do want to lay down that bad translations can exist. It’s subjective on some level, but I do believe that there is such a thing as a localization taken too far. One example I often think about is the English dub of Ojamajo Doremi, known as Magical Do-Re-Mi. Changing the names is one thing, but that version of the beloved magical girl series would inject extra dialogue and voice-overs to such an extent, often without any basis in the original, that it changed how the anime felt as a whole. At the time, it was an outdated philosophy on children’s cartoons transplanted onto a children’s anime. Another example is in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, where Ike’s line, “I fight for my friends,” sounds hilarious in English, especially with the monotone delivery, but that cheesiness is not in the Japanese. The original s closer to “I merely fight for those I must protect,” which changes the contours of what’s being conveyed.

However, there is a large spectrum when it comes to translation and localization. Translation cannot and will not ever be a 1:1 transfer, not even for two very closely related languages such as English and Dutch, let alone English and Japanese. There are cultural differences, disparities in lived experiences, and gaps in what might be considered “common knowledge, before you even get to the mechanics of languages themselves differing greatly.

One of the ground zero examples at the moment is a game called The House in Fata Morgana, and the epicenter of that debate is the translation of the word tsundere. In Japanese, it’s a slang word that’s been borne out of anime and manga fandom to describe characters who go from essentially hating someone to falling in love with them, or someone who acts like they hate someone but is secretly in love. Meanness and maybe even a bit of slapstick violence often come part in parcel. More importantly to this particular example, however, it’s become a celebrated trope. Tsundere girls are popular both because the inherent emotional conflict is powerful, but it can also have a fetishistic element. In Fata Morgana, the choice was to translate tsundere as “fragile male ego” because, as the translator explains at length, the use of the word tsundere is sarcastic here, referring more to the other character’s abusiveness. It’s not the only answer she could have arrived at, but it ultimately results in a translation that gets across not so much the nitty gritty of what’s being said in Japanese, but rather the essence and the intent behind those words. Yet, because the word tsundere has solidified in fandom, it’s seen by critics as a kind of “pure” concept that needs to be preserved.

One option was to just keep the word tsundere, but to do so would be to assume that every person playing the game would already be familiar with the word. Moreover, no amount of more direct translations could succinctly convey the fact that it is indeed a stock phrase. This, I think, is where a lot of the criticism falls short, because it presumes that one’s own experience with a work trumps everyone else’s. I think back to the Anime World Order review of Dog Soldier, where the translator, Neil Nadelman, explains that he translated instant ramen as “instant noodle soup” because ramen was not ubiquitous enough at the time to just make sense off the cuff. Times have changed, but they haven’t changed enough for tsundere to be common parlance.

One thing that might help people championing the “purity” of translation is to think about the process in the opposite direction, from English to Japanese. Plenty of English-language films and TV shows get imported and adapted, and there are challenges on the other end to localizing those works. I once wrote about how Gone with the Wind has had multiple interpretations of the iconic “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” which don’t break it down word by word but rather try to communicate the curtness and rudeness of Rhett Butler’s dismissive attitude at the end. To translate that more literally would make it lose some of the impact of Rhett’s brevity.

In that post, I also discussed the challenge of giving particular personal pronouns and honorifics usage to characters from English to Japanese. If it were a so-called “pure” translation, there wouldn’t be any such distinctions, but this would be jarring to a Japanese audience, where those elements are woven into the fabric of both language and society. Since then, I’ve come across some interesting examples. First, is the Deadpool movies. Second, is the old sitcom Full House.

In Japanese, Deadpool refers to himself with the unique personal pronounce ore-chan, where ore is a very masculine and impolite way to say “I,” and chan is an honorific that usually is reserved for young children, girls, small animals, and the like. A rough equivalent in English would be “little ol’ me,” but it’s not used in the same way. The Japanese subtitles for Deadpool try to capture his character through his pronoun usage, interpreting and localizing his speech for the audience. 

Similarly, while in the original English-language Full House, many characters refer to Jesse Katsopolis as “Uncle Jesse,” they give the youngest daughter, Michelle Tanner, a unique way of referring to her uncle in Japanese: oi-tan, or a babyish pronunciation of oji-chan (uncle). Neither Deadpool nor Michelle’s phrasings are  “literally translated” into Japanese, but are rather localized based on the characters themselves—who they are, how they act, etc. In this sense, it’s not so different from The House in Fata Morgana and the use of “fragile male ego” because it’s trying to communicate more about who is speaking to whom.

I think the point that needs to be absolutely understood is that there is always, always some compromise when it comes to translating from one language to another. The question, then, is what are acceptable sacrifices in order to get something across most faithfully, given cultures, circumstances, and even mediums. For example, a novel (or indeed visual novel) has more space to give an explanation about some cultural aspect that would fly by in anime subtitles or a manga word balloon, but does the act of throwing in a long explanation shift the work or interrupt the flow of dialogue? Different readers have different priorities, and different translators have to interpret the original works through their own lenses. It’s why multiple translations of the same works exist. 

What I see in the purity arguments of Japanese media fandom is a desire to be rewarded for one’s specialized knowledge, and it’s the perspective of those who revel in being as hardcore as possible. As someone who has devoted decades of energy to anime and manga fandom, as well as thinking about how translations function, I can relate. The unfortunate thing is that it turns experiencing these works into a kind of measuring contest to see who knows more and who has the “real” access to Japanese culture, which is in a certain sense the opposite of what translation is there to do: make something accessible.

2010–2019 Part 2: Looking Back

Another decade of anime and manga has passed, which means it’s time to reflect on all the things that have happened in and around our favorite Japanese art and entertainment forms. With more anime than any time previous, there’s an overwhelming amount of history to look at, so I’m going to be focusing on what I consider interesting and/or important trends.

I also covered some of 2010–2019 through my review of my old predictions, so for the sake of keeping a long post from getting further out of hand, I’ve kept further discussion of topics there to a relative minimum.

Bookended by Tragedy

This decade more or less began and ended with painful events that have shaped and will continue to shape Japan and its anime and manga industries for years to come. March 11, 2011 was the day that a combined earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing nuclear meltdowns. July 18, 2019 was the date of the arson attack on Kyoto Animation, killing over 30 people, injuring even more, and leaving the famed studio’s main building in flames.

The Fukushima triple disaster was brought in part by nature but also human negligence at the highest levels of authority, and it destroyed villages, displaced people from their homes, took lives, and contaminated land and water. The area, one known for its rice crop in a nation where rice is a staple food, had to deal with the all-too-familiar fear that nuclear power conjures up in Japan via Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fukushima’s consequences are far, far bigger than any one industry, but that’s precisely why they have had an indelible effect on anime and manga. Suddenly, there was the realization that whatever anti-nuclear messages existed in pop culture weren’t enough. It was almost too poetic a timing that Coppelion, a manga about genetically engineered girls having to rescue human survivors in a post-meltdown Tokyo, began only months prior to Fukushima. Anime such as Madoka Magica that were aired during that period suddenly had their surrounding contexts changed.

But the disaster also brought support from across the anime and manga industries to Fukushima and the surrounding Tohoku region. Creators left messages encouraging and praying for a revival, and as the land has started to improve (though to what extent is up for debate), there’s an active push by the government to encourage tourism and purchase of local goods. Anime and manga also play a role here too as part of the campaign to bring people back.

In contrast, the Kyoto Animation attack was like a direct strike to the heart and soul of the anime industry. Not only was it the worst domestic attack since World War II—even worse than the Tokyo sarin gas attack—but KyoAni has been a pioneer of better wages and better gender equality in anime in addition to their creating popular and critically acclaimed works. It’s unclear how the anime and manga industries will react to this over time (aside from better security), but the biggest question mark will be about what could have been.

There was a lot of talent lost, notably The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi and Kobayashi-san’s Dragon Maid director Takemoto Yasuhiro, and it’s sad that they will have the chance to keep working and creating. There is one bright side, however: KyoAni has started up their animation school again, and their mission to prepare the next generation is more vital than ever.

An aside: One odd bit of humor to come out all this was that the days after the disasters, the only commercial on Japanese TV was apparently ads telling people to greet each other more. These drove Japanese viewers nuts, so some of the more artistic ones started turning the animal mascots in these commercials into transforming robots.

Fujoshi Integration and the Permanence of the Otaku Hero

Back when I originally started Ogiue Maniax in 2007, one thing I was interested in was the portrayal of otaku characters, and by extension the fujoshi characters that began appearing more and more at the time. Going into 2010, this feeling was still quite strong, but as I continued to keep an eye on series with otaku in them, it became harder and harder to keep up. The Fujoshi Files, my on-going archiving of fujoshi characters, is on semi-hiatus right now because I’ve simply been overwhelmed by the fact that you just never know when a fujoshi character will show up for two episodes in an obscure TV series. In other words, otaku characters aren’t just commonplace now—they’re arguably an over-saturated archetype.

This is especially the case with the isekai genre and fantasy light novel series, where having an otaku of some kind (it doesn’t necessarily have to be an anime otaku) is de rigueur for the kinds of power fantasies that are ubiquitous in that realm. But the prevalence of the Otaku hero isn’t even limited to that particular world. Onoda from Yowamushi Pedal and Deku from the wildly popular My Hero Academia, both straightforward shounen leads, have otaku minds. At this point, sometimes it’s easier to ask whether a protagonist isn’t an otaku.

Moe in Moderation

Throughout the 2000s, it was “moe” this, “moe” that. There were haters, there were supporters (me included), and those caught in the middle. In 2019, however, it’s past its prime (at least in the old familiar form) to the extent that the term itself has faded immensely in the otaku lexicon.

In hindsight, I think of moe as like a food with a very intense and peculiar flavor that is probably good in reasonable doses. The problem is that people gorged on it until they got sick, and had to eventually learn when less is more. The occasional smorgasbord happens, not now you see hints or accents of moe in more things—music, horror, and even the most serious and mature titles. It’s part of why I think sports series have started to gain traction in the United States when there was like success in the past: people realized that the core appeal of sports anime and manga was less the athletics themselves and more the human drama that comes with exploring characters’ weaknesses and struggles. Even a softer shounen hero like Tanjiro in Demon Slayer has moe qualities that quite possibly outstrip even his sister’s tremendous qualities.

I one commented to anime podcaster and ex-Crunchyroll guy Evan Minto that Eureka Seven was a moe show. He found it absurd, but I was serious, because moe came from empathizing with its characters vulnerabilities. Just because a character can be moe doesn’t mean they’re useless, and I think that’s a big lesson that has been taken to heart by anime and manga as a whole.

Plus, you can still totally find all-you-can-moe buffets whenever you feel the need to go nuts.

American-Style Superheroes

Perhaps due to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the American conception of the superhero (in contrast to the Kamen Rider, for example) is now a regular part of anime and manga. Putting aside the Marvel and DC co-productions, this decade has seen Tiger & Bunny, One Punch Man, and My Hero Academia all reach enormous success (albeit not always for the same reasons). You also have series like Heroman, and the fact that Disney’s Big Hero 6 film has a Japanese protagonist perhaps says something about the desire for international appeal.

It’s interesting that so many specifically embrace an American aesthetic, whether it’s red, white, and blue motifs in its characters or American-style cities as settings, and it really speaks to the fact that they’re aiming for that “capes” aesthetic. However, what’s even more noteworthy is the way these manga and anime have been embraced by superhero comics fans as being better at telling superhero stories than many current American comics.

Superheroes also create an amazing bridge for being American comics fans to come to manga and for manga fans to check out American comics. It’s perhaps easier than ever to transition between the two.

Steps Towards Mainstreaming LGBT

Queer romances have long been a part of manga and anime—Hagio Moto’s Heart of Thomas from the 1970s is generally considered the first one shounen ai manga. The portrayal of BL and yuri can differ significantly from real relationships, with the former often being for the pleasure of non-queer audiences, but this openness has attracted many fans, and there are more and more works that try to support a queer audience as well. But Japan is still in many ways a conservative culture, and positive mainstream depictions of non-heteronormative characters can come with a lot of baggage.

While there is still a ways to go, there is a general trend towards more consideration for LGBT characters these past ten years. Gatchaman Crowds, for example, features three characters each with different types of non-cishet expression, going beyond the original Gatchaman and Berg Katze’s dual genders while keeping them respectful. Genshiken Nidaime (aka Second Season aka Second Generation) has a crossdressing fudanshi with complicated feelings at the center of it’s story who tries to navigate the difference between BL fandom and homosexuality. Yuri!!! On Ice features the gradual development of a clearly gay relationship as its core, but its lack of standard BL flourishes engendered a debate about whether it should be called BL at all. Tagame Gengoroh’s My Brother’s Husband won both Japanese and international acclaim.

One stand-out example of LGBT becoming a little more mainstream in anime and manga, to me, is how it’s been handled in the Precure franchise. While it’s always had its yuri fans, and Kira Kira Precure A La Mode even strongly hinted at something between two of its characters, it’s 2018’s Hugtto! Precure that made an entire subplot out of the burgeoning gay relationship between two minor characters—one of whom is implied to struggle with his self-directed homophobia. While the franchise still doesn’t have the courage to say the word “gay,” it at least has these characters holding hands, giving hearts to each other, and telling presumably very young viewers to not let anyone else define who they are. Sailor Moon had Neptune and Uranus, but this is another layer.

From Sekai-kei to Game-like Isekai, Ironic Isekai, and Beyond

In the previous decade, one of the popular genres of Japanese fiction, especially in the realm of anime and manga but also light novels and games, was sekai-kei. Literally meaning “world-style,” it’s actually almost the opposite of what you probably think. Instead of being focused on world-building, it’s about stories where the outcome of the world rests upon the relationship between two characters. I would call Haruhi an example of sekai-kei because their fate rests upon Haruhi and how Kyon interacts with her.

I feel that, since 2010 or maybe even a little sooner, we’ve been seeing fewer and fewer sekai-kei stories. In their place has been a surge in isekai (transported to another world stories) that’s impossible to ignore.

Isekai is nothing new, and there are examples in modern Japanese fiction dating back to the 1970s. Even Gundam director Tomino’s Byston Well series is an isekai. The big difference now, however, has been the game-like approach to isekai. Whether the hero is literally trapped in a video game (Sword Art Online, Log Horizon) or where it’s simply an extremely game-like universe (KonoSuba, Re:ZERO, Overlord), there’s a presumption about RPGs as a common-knowledge experience. Here, the fate of the world usually rests on the hero who’s simultaneously underpowered and overpowered. Rather than necessarily being about exploring the new world, these stories have been mostly either power fantasies or responses to power fantasies.

Japanese scholar Azuma Hiroki wrote about “game-like realism” in the sense of a reality with no beginning, middle, and end, and plenty of alternate realities. While it doesn’t map perfectly, current isekai can be seen as a kind of attempt to wrangle these notions back into a straightforward, albeit open-ended and often meandering format.

Isekai has gotten so prevalent that some online novel contests have even begun to forbid isekai entries. But it also means that it’s ripe for parody. The Devil is a Part-Timer! is a reverse-isekai where a hero and a demon lord end up in modern Japan. The Hero is Overpowered But Overly Cautious plays on an idea that many RPG players are familiar with: making absolutely sure everything is perfect to the point of virtual neurosis. They’re not all winners, but there’s a desire to explore isekai as an archetype, and it’ll be interesting to see how far this goes.

The Ascendance of Mobile Games

Part of the story of the 2010s the world over is the rise of mobile games, and in Japan this translated to character-focused gacha. These digital waifu and husbando slot machines are a powerful thing, and the devotion they engender can veer straight into “gambling addiction” territory, but it also can’t be denied how much of an influence they’ve had on anime, manga, and fandom.

Consider the Fate franchise, which went from being once defined by its original visual novel to being known primarily through the absurdly successful and profitable Fate/Grand Order mobile game. Also look at Granblue Fantasy, which helped make the company Cygames into a major player—the Granblue Fantasy anime shows a budget few can even dream of.

Even The iDOLM@STER, which began as console games, has in part taken on new life by having a virtually limitless selection of idols to obtain through its apps. Love Live! found success through various channels, but there are many people who became fans solely through the School Idol Festival game. And Kantai Collection technically started as a browser game, but it’s cut from a similar mold, and it’s notable that it’s become one of the franchises that dominates Comic Market.

There have been tons of light novel anime and manga adaptations, but the amount of works based on mobile games steadily increased over the decade as well. This doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad—Rage of Bahamut Genesis is one that sticks out to me as exceptional—but it’s certainly become a crowded field where “adaptation as advertisement” and “adaptation as mark of prestige” exist in the same space.

Anime as Faithful Reproduction Instead of Creative Interpretation

In decades past, whenever there was an anime adaptation of something with multiple paths—a dating sim, for instance—the common approach was to synthesize all of the different routes into a single story with the canon heroine being the winner. But starting in 2010 with Amagami SS (or possibly something even sooner) it started to become more common to adapt every path. Each couple of episodes was basically a different what-if where the protagonist ends up with a different girl. The most extreme version of this might be the movies fully dedicated to the alternate stories of Fate/Stay Night, Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel.

In a way, it’s an extension of what we saw with Kyoto Animation’s adaptations of Key games. While those shows still synthesized all the routes, there was a more active adherence to the look and feel of the source material, right down to using the original theme songs. Anime, rather than trying to do its own thing with the material given, is more likely to try and stick to the script. Filler arcs or anime-original material were out, and season delays were in, for better or worse. 2009’s Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (intentionally made to follow the manga’s story more than the first anime) also set a precedent.

Fantastic Remakes

Not everything is about adhering to a source material, however. While nostalgia is a strong force in media and entertainment, it’s still possible for a remake or re-imagining is able to go well beyond and turn into something unique and special. Every decade has its own fair share of excellent revivals, but I found the 2010s to be full of especially smart and creative takes on classic franchises. The aforementioned Gatchaman Crowds took the idea of the superhero team and pushed it into an age of social media and gamification. Devilman Crybaby is essentially the original Devilman manga retold, the signature art style of Yuasa Masaaki gave it new life and also highlighted the fact that a lot of the 1970s manga’s theme resonate just as much, if not more today. The Rebuild of Evangelion movies have all been impressive and have dared to go in strange directions, though we’re not actually seeing the conclusion until 2020 rolls around. In the most on-brand move possible, director Anno Hideaki became depressed after the third film, and it wasn’t until he directed the excellent Shin Godzilla (another update to a classic franchise) that he found the spark to go back to Shinji and friends.

Official Simultranslations

Once, getting translated anime and manga the day after release in Japan was a foolish dream. Then, with the advent of high-speed internet it became technically possible—but it was the domain of speed subbers and speed scanlators, with the requisite decline in quality. But now we’ve had a decade of not just quick releases but ones that are official, whose success can and will be noticed by Japan. Crunchyroll, HiDive, and Comixology are among the many resources available to fans, and while Netflix is often not technically a simulstream most of the time, its presence in the world of online streaming can’t be denied.

This is partially a tale of the direction of technology. More smartphones and better tablets mean streaming decent-quality images is more likely than ever before. Gone are the specific limitations of the past that made trying to view anime and manga a chore. It’s also the story of Japan being dragged into the current age, as much as its companies (especially manga) have tried to resist the digitizing of these mediums.

The amount of legal digital anime and manga options is ever increasing even in Japan. Comic Walker and Book Walker make following new releases almost trivial. Bandai Channel is more expansive than ever. Many manga publishers have series that start off as free webcomics now. Notably, the second iteration of One Punch Man started on Tonari no Young Jump. The amount of digital users keeps rising around the world, and it’ll likely not stop for a long time.

What Lies Ahead

While it’s mere coincidence, the fact that Japan is heading into the next decade of anime and manga alongside a newly coronated emperor seems poetic. For Part 3 of the 2010–2019 series, I’ll be giving my predictions as to where I think anime and manga will go in 2020 onwards.

2010–2019 Part 1: Prediction Results

Ten years ago, I made a blog post titled 2000-2009 Part 2: Looking Forward, where I tried to foresee where anime would go over the next ten-plus years. Now that we’re in 2019, it’s time to see how it turned out!

The First Digital Generation

In about 20 years or so we are going to see an entire generation of adults in Japan (and around the world) who have grown up primarily on digital animation…. Over time, I think that the peculiarities of digital animation, such as the computer-based shortcuts, will become part of the style itself, but less direct about it than, say, Studio SHAFT’s current output…. But if there are any, they will be making in-jokes and references about the early, nostalgic days of digital animation and not light boxes and such.

For better or worse, as a new range of ideas and techniques emerge, parts of animation technique and philosophy born out of cel-based anime will fade away, perhaps forever. After all, Miyazaki can’t live forever.

Digital animation has been embraced in full, with the last cel-based series, Sazae-san, switching over to digital in 2013. The style of early-2000s anime is understood, but the nostalgia for anime is still somewhere in the 1990s, so we haven’t reached the point where those early digital animation works and their aesthetic are a part of the cultural lexicon.

While digital animation is the industry default now, it’s not as if the more daring uses of digital animation have become standard. At the same time, I would argue that integrating 2D and 3D animation has been much more successful—something that is made easier by the transition to digital. Two works that stand out to me in this regard are Girls und Panzer and Kids on the Slope.

As for Miyazaki, he’s still around, and he’s coming out of retirement for what may be the 500th time. He also used this decade to make one of his most daring films ever, The Wind Rises.

Flash Animation

In light of the anime industry’s history of low budgets, I think that more companies, be they animation studios, broadcasters, or otherwise, will start to look at Flash as a viable method to keep things low-cost and at-home. Now I don’t think it will eliminate today’s more “traditional” animation, especially when it comes to bigger-name, bigger-budget works, but it will be an appealing tool for those middle-of-the-road shows, and shows for kids.

Nothing dates a prediction post quite like hyping up outdated technology and programs, huh! The world, including the anime industry, has moved away from Flash animation, but the simple, flat style can still be seen in the many short anime (as in 13 minutes or less) that have come out since, such as Inferno Cop and Ai-Mai-Mi.

Looking away from Flash specifically, many tools have emerged that facilitate creating anime with limited resources. Most notable among these is the 3D animation program Miku Miku Dance—itself an extension of Vocaloid as an artistic tool for creators both professional and amateur—and the bizarre yet endearing shows that have been made using MMD. Most of the time, that meant oddities like gdgd Fairies and Tesagure Bukatsumono, but also the surprise smash hit that was Kemono Friends.

Changing Views on Hikikomori and NEETs

The chronic shut-in known as the “hikikomori” is a topic that Japan for the past decade has been in debate over….

But the reality of the economy is such that not having a good job (or a job at all), living at home, and having your parents’ support will be an increasingly common sight. Some will become hikikomori and try to close themselves off from the world, but there may be a sizable group that is only partially hikikomori, who will not completely lose their ability to interact with others or to engage in meaningful activity, and they will have a cultural and social “pulling” effect on the full-blown hikikomori….

The result may be that Japan’s view on the hikikomori and the NEET, especially in the face of having these groups increase in size, will be a mixture of greater panic and greater relief as they will fret once again that this is potentially very dangerous for Japan, while the internet will provide this larger hikikomori population with the group setting in line with Japanese ideas of “group….”

In many ways, the image of hikikomori and NEETs hasn’t changed that much, with the same criticisms about them being a drain on society still persisting. I think one thing that is becoming clearer and clearer to the younger generations both in Japan and around the world is that the blame cannot be laid squarely at the feet of the shut-ins. The adults of the world have failed the youth on some level, and the kids are only starting to fight their parents in the street to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.

There’s also been a rise in a kind of “NEET pride” that permeates anime, most notably in the ascendancy of light novel isekai—series that often have hikikomori heroes who possess powers tied to their previously less than stellar lives. In a good work (e.g. My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong, As I Expected), these characters, and their struggles and growth, tell stories about being human.

Perhaps no example is bigger than the transformation seen in No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Unpopular, aka Watamote, started off in the early 2010s as the story of an utterly hopeless otaku girl whose personal vices made her a relatable character to the self-proclaimed losers of 4chan. Despite Tomoko’s seeming fate as a perennial failure of a human being, even she has begun to change in the series.

Thematic Responses to the Economy

In about three to five years, I predict that we will begin to see both anime and manga which address the idea of global recession itself and incorporate it into the themes and settings in these works, to have it become a concept that is to be explored, whether directly or indirectly. Evangelion and other shows were responses to the recession that befell Japan starting in the early 90s, and I don’t think it would be unusual for an international economic downturn to have a similar effect.

With the global recession on everyone’s minds 10 years ago, it’s no wonder that I thought it would become a bigger subject. There have been anime that touch upon money and politics, but it’s not as if there was a huge influx. Back in 2009, Japan was already in the middle of a decades-long recession, so it didn’t affect them quite in the same way it did the United States. Instead, it would be tragedies like the Fukishima Triple Disaster that would highlight the real cost of greed and neglect.

While there were few anime made in response to the global recession, there were series that tried to highlight the challenges of political participation and governance ethics in the second decade of the 21st century, such as Psycho-Pass and Gatchaman Crowds.

The New Escapes

There are two basic forms to “escapism.” The first is a type of introverted escapism, that is, to become increasingly insular. The second is an extroverted escapism, where you want to project outwards, to go beyond yourself….

In that sense, I think that in the near future the escapism for anime and manga will be increasingly introverted, but will soon give way to a more extroverted form as a response to the desires of more and more fans who want to be released into other worlds…. I think we will see a lot of stories about worlds with wide scope focused through the lens of personal characterization, and in a way in which the former affects the latter significantly and vice versa.

One of the big genres of the 2010s has been isekai, i.e. being transported or reborn in a different world, and I think that it is a prime example of mixing both internal and external escapism. There is literally another world to explore, and the protagonist is often simultaneously special and unspecial, allowing readers to indulge in both dominant power fantasy and being the underdog. But there is often a lingering awareness of who the protagonist was in their previous life, and in a sense, their fears and doubts are still akin to the more introspective and flawed heroes of the past.

It’s also this decade that Madoka Magica took fandom by storm, and while that series isn’t exactly lighthearted, it too feels like a work responding to the desire for stories to be both more internal and more external. And when it comes to looking inward but going beyond, My Hero Academia is a series where that’s a central theme. You can even extend this to series such as A Place Further Than the Universe, where instead of going to another world, the characters find themselves through a journey to Antarctica.

Increased International Integration in Collaborative Efforts

…I predict that over the next decade and beyond, we will be seeing collaborations on animation and comics where the staff producing these works will be much more closely integrated. International collaboration isn’t new to manga and especially not to anime, but the work is usually cleanly divided between the countries involved. So it’ll be less Gurihiru drawing for Marvel’s Power Pack and more Oban Star Racers.

This decade saw more and more international artists working in anime and manga. Thomas Romain, who worked on Oban Star Racers, is a staple of Studio Satelight shows. Animators such as Bahi JD from France contribute the world over, whether that’s Toei Animation’s Philippines division, or freelance animators outside of Japan working on key frames/genga on a variety of shows.

But one other big development has been foreign funding for anime, especially through Netflix, which solidified itself as perhaps the go-to streaming services and has been expanding into anime ever since. In some cases, such as with Devilman Crybaby, the production team and creative is still mainly Japanese. In others, such as LeSean’s Cannon Busters, they’re developed cooperatively with artists and creators abroad.

Another important note is the success of Studio Trigger (Little Witch Academia, Kill la Kill, Promare) in their desire to appeal internationally. Many studios attempt this, but I think it’s Trigger that has best understood the international market, especially the Western market.

Age Demographics in Japan vs Age Demographics Abroad

…I believe that in time the manga audience in the US will slowly mature and eventually reach a point where they want something that is more in-line with how they feel about entertainment, their lives, and the world at large.

The key however will be whether or not Japan realizes that age demographics do not map one-to-one between Japan and the US … and they will have to somehow find a way to understand just what this slightly more matured manga-seeking audience is looking for, possibly through the greater international collaboration.

I think the overall maturing of the anime fandom abroad has happened in a big way, and it’s clear from the kinds of series that have found better success over the past ten years, and it’s not just because people got older. While shounen fighting and other popular genres stay evergreen, I believe that stranger-looking series such as Land of the Lustrous and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure needed the non-Japanese fandom to develop to the point that they could be better appreciated. There’s also the increasing popularity of sports series, which were once a death sentence in the United States.

As for Japan understanding that age demographics don’t line up, I think it’s happening because they themselves are aware of it happening in Japan.

Multimedia Customization

I think that starting in the next few years this is all going to start changing until we reach a point of personal customization in our anime and manga: You will be able to make exactly the purchase you want with exactly the things that you want, on-demand.

This definitely did not happen. In fact, we’ve seen some companies release even more deluxe editions that only hardcore fans willing to shell out $400 or more can ever obtain. At the very least, many of these expensive series are available streaming, thus giving access to those who can’t afford to own them.

New Paths for New Talent to Appear

I think anime is heading in a direction where people won’t have to be skilled at every aspect of animation production to be considered a Big Deal. One possibility I’ve thought of is “anime festivals” for amateur creators, be they industry-sponsored or independent, with competitions and awards for categories such as storyboarding and writing in addition to full-on animations. More importantly however, these anime festivals could take place entirely online.

Manga too will start to have online festivals…. It’s not so much specialization as it is realizing again that not everyone talented is multi-talented.

While there’s nothing quite like an online-only Comic Market, there have been projects to encourage new artists.

On the anime side, three main examples have emerged as opportunities for young animators to show their skills. First is the Young Animators Training Project, which has less experienced Animators animators work with established studios to create anime shorts. Little Witch Academia is probably the most famous work to result from this. Second is the Japan Animator Expo started by Evangelion director Anno Hideaki, which encourages more experimental work. Third is the more practical Animator Dormitory Project, a crowd-funded way of giving young and old artists a place to blunt the cost of living in Tokyo on a meager animator’s salary.

On the manga side, I look less at the competitions which exist and more at the fact that sites like Pixiv have brought about a number of success stories. Among the series that began as amateur webcomics on Pixiv are Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san and Wotakoi. Seeing them go from creator pages to Pixiv Comics to physical releases to full-on anime adaptations has given me joy.

Overall

I’d say I was about 50/50 in terms of predictions. Nothing hit the target dead-on, but I think I was able to see at least in part the various trends and where they were headed. In some cases, I was maybe too ambitious or naive. Let’s see how I do in the next ten years, but before that, next time will be a more thorough look back at 2010–2019.

Welcome to This Crazy Time: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for October 2019

October is a special month for many reasons, including New York Comic Con and the fact that it’s my wedding anniversary month!

I’d like to express my thanks to my supporters on Patreon and ko-fi. You give me even more reason to keep writing.

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Highlights from September:

Girls und Panzer and the Potential for Propaganda

My conflicted view of being a Girls und Panzer fan today.

The Real Pressures of Being Asian-American: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang’s comic is over 10 years old at this point, but it still hit me hard

River City Girls and the San Fransokyo Aesthetic

What happens when a game tries to be Japanese and American and retro at the same time?

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 20 is a good story about friendship, but has some unfortunate elements.

Patreon-Sponsored

Trick and/or Treat: Halloween in the Aikatsu! Franchise

Closing

Last month, I said something about doing more anime and manga reviews, but that didn’t end up happening as much as I’d hoped. And now a new season of anime is pretty much upon us. Luckily, I do have some posts ready, so I’m looking forward to making up for what I couldn’t provide in September. I know I didn’t make any promises, but I still want to make sure Ogiue Maniax is an anime and manga blog first and foremost even as I approach other topics

 

The Pros and Cons of $20 Anime Figures

I was asked by my long-time Patreon sponsor Johnny Trovato about my thoughts on “The effect of budget figurines (like Banpresto sells for $20 each [2,000 yen]) on the anime figure scene.” My first reaction to this was simply, “Figures are expensive, man.” That pretty much sets the stage for my opinion on the subject. They fulfill a necessary space in the grand scheme of anime merchandise, but they could always be better–not in terms of quality but rather honesty.

Personally, I prefer to get higher quality figures even if it means I have fewer overall. The Banpresto figures tend not to have the best paint jobs or face sculpts, and pricier figures just have more attention to detail that I appreciate. I don’t typically go for the most costly ones, though, unless I really, really want it.

But the balance between quantity and quality is different from person to person, and figures can end up being an absurdly expensive hobby. I’ve known people like that, and I’ll be upfront when I say that I don’t think I’ll ever make enough in a year to comfortably keep that up. So in that respect, Banpresto figures are a nice compromise. They’re not going to be the best, but they’re not supposed to be. They’re a valid option for people who want figures but simply can’t or won’t pay for more. And unlike trading figures, which is designed to be a bit of a gamble (you never know which one you’re gonna get!), you know what the figure is going to be.

The problems with $20 anime figures  come from two things, both related. First, their true purpose is as prizes for crane games in Japan. While there are apparently ways to master crane games and obtain them for reasonable prices, most people will probably end up spending more, perhaps even without success. Second, one of the big differences between more expensive figures and less expensive ones is whether you can look at the actual figure itself. Higher quality merchandise has clear packaging that lets you see what you’re buying, whereas the Banpresto stuff is hidden in opaque boxes covered in promotional photos that try to hide the flaws as much as possible. This is intentional but also disingenuous, as it potentially tricks people into getting a figure they wouldn’t have otherwise. In a sense, seeing them unboxed and on display at an anime con is a better thing, but in those cases they’re often marked up.

Ultimately, I don’t think Banpresto’s $20 figures are inherently a bad thing, and they definitely serve a part of the anime fandom that should be catered to. I just wish there wasn’t a degree of deception baked into the whole thing.

Spoilers Matter

Between Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones Season 8, and the upcoming Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker—all concluding parts for their respective stories—pop culture has been in prime “spoiler warning” territory. If you’re plugged into any sort of social media, and you don’t have the opportunity to watch things as they’re released, it can be a struggle to avoid any and all information. This also means it’s incredibly easy for a few trolls to ruin other people’s days, but what I’m even more concerned about is a recurring notion I’ve been seeing, about how people’s anger and frustration over being spoiled is some kind of sign that these works are less about art and storytelling and more about shock value and surprise. They might even say something like, “Truly good works are good even when spoiled.”

Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps they’re not. Either way, it still doesn’t mean that a desire to go in relatively “blind” is somehow valueless. In fact, I find it to be quite rude and even a little elitist to value a work over people’s own desires to such an extent that negatively impacting their experience is somehow “okay” because it shows how “limited” both the people and their “shocking” entertainment can be. While it’s true that some things stand the test of time better than others, and that a piece of media that can be enjoyed over repeat viewings is strong in many ways, you still only get one chance to see something for the first time regardless. Just because something is even better the second or third time around doesn’t mean that the initial exposure should be diminished.

Granted, even without spoilers, “going in blind” means different things to different people. Some might have ideas as to what they think will happen, and will be bracing for the moment that their pet theories are confirmed or denied. Others might be looking at character interactions and trying to see if their chosen characters have any romantic developments. Personally, I purposely try to avoid pushing my expectations onto a work as much as possible. But whatever one’s approach, and even if a work holds up after spoilers, being aware of what happens changes the way a work is experienced. You go from trying to navigate the work on your own terms to being aware in the back (or front) of your mind that an Important Thing is going to happen. That’s not necessarily bad, but if you view a work once without spoilers and then a second time with spoilers, it means you get to have both experiences.

Note that there are a few caveats. The choice of spoilers vs. no spoilers is anything but binary, and that something as simple as a movie trailer can be “too much” for some and “not count as spoilers” for others. There’s also a difference between “being okay with spoilers” and, say, people who want advance warning on anything that might trigger them and cause deep psychological pain. And for instances where a work might come from a very unfamiliar time and culture, and not knowing the proper context can mean not catching many of the meanings and signals that are assumed to be “obvious” or “common sense” to anyone from that original time or place. Foreknowledge can be significant, but having it isn’t inherently better than not having it. First impressions can potentially be based in ignorance, but that ignorance can be corrected afterwards. You can’t take back a spoiler.

If all a film, TV show, book, or whatever has is shock value, so be it. If it has more to offer, all the better. That still doesn’t make those who wish to be surprised or who wish to focus on the unexpected somehow symptoms of an ailing entertainment industry, or make their experiences trivial. They can always come back, and if the problem is that people don’t want to revisit after the first go-around, that’s not an issue with anti-spoiler culture—that’s an issue with time and its usage. But ultimately, if people only have enough time to see something once, they should be able to do it on their terms, and not ones set by some externally imposed values rooted in notions of how “true quality” is defined.

Changing of the Guard in Fandom

ComicsGate, or what remains of it, has been a thinly veiled campaign to bully women out of comics, and the “movement” itself is hardly worth talking about as anything more than unjustified harassment. However, I find that it pulls its energy from a profound change occurring in readers of the superhero genre: the ever-increasing presence of women as both readers and creators, and with it, a change in how the comics-reading community determines what is worthy of praise. I’ve seen it on a personal level, as I went from understanding comics fandom as a boys’ club filled with casual sexism and jokes about Hal Jordan’s punches to one where a mutual understanding and acceptance of such things can no longer be assumed.

I previously wrote a blog post exploring the interaction between canon, fanon, and headcanon, and in it I used those terms the way one would when talking about narrative continuity. However, I think the contrast between those concepts still exists if we use the other definition of “canon”: the commonly accepted masterpieces of a given medium. The challenging of “canons” and “fanons” in that sense is what I’ve seen as a result of the changing demographics of superhero and comics fandom. Over the course of many years, women and girls have come in with their own ideas about which artists to respect and what ideas should be taken away from a given comics, and those deeply entrenched in the older ways feel the ground shifting beneath them. Guys like that can be vulnerable to a smooth-talking neckbeard snake whispering to them, “They’re changing the rules. They’re outsiders. What happened to the things that matter?” Losing the place they belong can be more important to some than trying to address political issues in communities.

Fandom is built in partly on passion, partly on accruing knowledge and experiences. This combination lets fans both embrace that which they love—be it a book, musician, film, or anything else—and perhaps even take it to places that the work by itself would never travel. Fandom creates communities and communication, and it encourages fans to pool their resources together and establish some common ground. But when that common ground is challenged, or finds its foundation shaken by newer generations eager with different preconceived notions of what’s good or acceptable in both people and works, it can create schisms between fans.

In a way, it reflects the world’s politics at large, as previously established majorities have seen their numbers slowly dwindle in ways where numbers alone will not let them hold onto power, and a loss of influence can be downright frightening for those accustomed to always being on top in their own universes. Even if there’s an intellectual understanding that the actions of today are meant to address certain past injustices, it can be a bitter pill for those who assumed a stable foundation in their comics fandom.