Archive for the ‘ Inclusivity ’ Category

How Zanzer Tem Got My Groove Back

Preamble: It’s been a rough time in the United States of America lately, a rough time reconfirmed yesterday with the Electoral College officially casting their votes. I’m not gonna lie — I don’t think this POTUS is going to be good for the country. I’m scared of what he’s going to try to do and what will be done in his name. I’m gearing up for a marathon of working to make sure the wheels of democracy turn for everyone, not just the already privileged and the hateful. I’m terrified, and already exhausted, and my mental health has been taking it on the chin since well before election day and only getting worse since then.

And that’s the thrust of it: I’ve been a bad friend for the last half a year, and while DJT is the catalyst it’s not an excuse. I totally dropped the ball on beta-reading for a colleague. I have been scattered and unproductive at my day job. The holiday one-shots I promised people I’d run basically all fell apart except for the few I got done before DJT sewed up the GOP nomination, and every time I think “I should run those” my mind turns to a dead radio station and I just hunch over my desk until the horror passes. Exercise has been difficult to make myself do (though the endorphins always really do help), and a lot of nights after work I get on the train and cannot focus on anything except doing my daily Duolingo lesson (I’m learning German, which is making me uncomfortable for historical reasons). Writing has basically been the only easy thing, and that’s great, but there are days that feels like fiddling while Rome burns. The tiniest thing will shatter my cool: a difficult-but-not-impossible work project triggered no fewer than six anxiety attacks over two weeks, and on Sunday I fell into a deep funk because we misjudged our time budgeting and I didn’t get to make Star Wars: Edge of the Empire characters with Sonya. I try to self-care and half the time it doesn’t work, because I inevitably come across something that makes me think of the election, something that isn’t funny anymore in context, something normal that I’m worried I won’t get to keep thinking of as normal or something horrific that I think might become all too common. And it’s not entirely getting better, though there are definitely moments, even sometimes whole days.

Some of this I can only do so much about. Some of this I have to handle as I have energy, not before, or risk making it worse. But last night, I got an unexpected shot in the arm courtesy of my wife’s Reddit Secret Santa gift.

When it arrived, it looked like a board game to me: long, flat, rectangular. She opened it while I was washing dishes and heating up dinner, and she told me it was two boxes of tea, which was great, but clearly not all that was in the package; I asked what else it was, and as I was washing, she suddenly said “Baby! Look!” And I came back into the living room, and I saw…this.

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The 1991 “Easy to Master” boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons.

I started shouting. I nearly started crying. This boxed set was a tiny piece of my childhood in Los Angeles, a birthday present that carried fond and also sad memories. Fond because this came into my life when I was just starting to figure out this “roleplaying” thing, when I used to try to read the 2nd Edition AD&D Player’s Handbook cover-to-cover and desperately wanted any sourcebook my parents could afford to give me (an urge that also got me Paranoia, which is still a favorite, and Shatterzone, which is…less so). Sad because…well…I never got to play it.

It took me a lot of years to find my people; I had friends as a kid, but nothing that endured the way friendships later in life did (such is growing up, I think). And this Dungeons & Dragons set serves as a reminder of that in-a-crowd isolation: the set that I pored over, got excited about, but could never actually execute. The closest I got was an offer from a post-surgery relative who wanted to play with me but wound up (understandably!) too low-energy to do so, and a cousin who when presented with my attempt at an elevator pitch said “Why are you talking to me about this? I’m not interested.” (At least he set strong boundaries…)

So last night, looking at this battered but never-played copy of this game that some thoughtful Redditor sent to Sonya, I felt a chance to do something that it never occurred to me I’d wanted to do, that it never occurred to me I’d ever have a chance to do: I could finally run a party through Zanzer’s Dungeon. I could finally run the encounters with Dmitri, and Axel, and everyone else in that little box. I could actually play that D&D set that lived, loved but unused, in my many childhood closets, even if it was a different copy from an entire continent away.

2017 is likely to be as tough as 2016. Parts of it might be worse, as a person interested in tolerance and inclusivity. And it is likely to include a lot of triumph, too: The Imaginary Corpse will start going out to agents and markets next year, and I’ll mark three years of marriage to my best friend and favorite human, and I will get to finally unbox Sentinels of the Multiverse: OblivAeon and finish the game I started loving five years ago. But one of the things I know I can look forward to, one of the bits that will help me get through during the most slogging, bloody sequences of the year, is that I will finally deliver on a 25-year-old promise I hadn’t realized I’d made myself. In 2017, I will finally read the boxed text for Zanzer’s Dungeon to a group that is actually excited to have me read it. That’s a win money can’t buy.

So thank you, anonymous Redditor. You gave me hope, and you made us smile. And that’s what the holidays are really all about.

How Night Vale Made Me Less Scared

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(I’m abandoning the “On [TOPIC]” format for my titles…it’s a little too precious for me.)

CN: Anxiety, violence, profanity, mention of electoral politics

This past Monday night, I had the privilege to accompany Sonya to an author appearance by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, best known as the creators of Welcome to Night Vale; they were in conversation with Mallory Ortberg as part of a publicity and speaking tour for the new collections of WTNV scripts, Mostly Void, Partially Stars and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe. The conversation was funny, insightful, incisive, and full of very deep thoughts about the life of a writer; all three participants were charming, and I highly recommend you see any of them any time you get a chance to do so.

What this post is really about, though, is the big inflection point I experienced early in the talk. The exact quote escapes me, as does who said which part, but it should surprise no-one that with these three on stage, they started talking about anxiety, and this brought Ortberg around to the topic of Welcome to Night Vale‘s overall theme: the weird, scary, dangerous nature of this little desert town, and the way its inhabitants think of it as normal. The creators of the show agreed, and said that they felt this was a reflection of real life: That the world is full of some really scary shit you can’t control, and you have to just find a way to live your life. Specifically, that you have to say “OK, I can’t do anything about Donald Trump’s Twitter account…[or] about stomach cancer…” This would have been mind-blowing, but this year of all years it was really important for me to hear that.

(Begin election stuff) Look, I have made no secret of the fact that I am terrified of this year’s Presidential election in America. I’m not here to claim Hilary Clinton is any particular thing (I am in favor of her but recognize she is not perfect), but her opponent absolutely horrifies me. I believe that electing him will do genuine harm to the people of my country, especially people of color and LGBT people, and will set us back decades of progress toward equality of any kind, not to mention possibly kill a lot of people. I, personally, may not be seriously affected, living in California and being an able-bodied white man, but that doesn’t mean I am not scared, because there is no telling what a loose cannon with well-documented racist, sexist, and fascist ideologies will do with the power of the White House (especially if he also maintains a cooperative Congress).

(End election stuff) . I have not even been sure how to keep breathing day-to-day while waiting for this to be over, and I’m not sure if it will even be over in November. And that is on top of my normal everyday anxieties: My worry about police shootings and how they seem to keep getting worse. My worry that my diabetes is going to go back out of control. My worry that I might get cancer. My worry that tomorrow my wife and favorite person in the whole world could get clipped making the left turn she makes after dropping me off at the train. My worry that I’m going to be fired. And on, and on, and on. I get told not to worry about these things, and I get help calming down, and then I get right back on the big, fire-breathing horse. But somehow, hearing it from these two — from these two great creators — made dealing with it feel real and possible. Not because I needed to not be scared, but because I needed to learn how to live my life despite that fear.

There is a movement toward empathy in art over the past couple of years; toward the idea that it’s OK to feel things, that emotion, even negative emotion, is alright and that you don’t need to stop feeling it. You see it in Steven Universe teaching us it’s OK to feel. You see it in Jessica Jones‘ titular character being the second character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to wrestle with anxiety attacks. You see it in the heroes of Stranger Things being scared, confused, and angry, but still coming back together and being friends not despite it, but with it. It’s in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s in The Mighty Thor, and it’s in Welcome to Night Vale…and those words coming from that stage are what made two things crystallize for me:

1. We all have to decide to live our lives, despite how scary and overwhelming the world can be.

2. You can measure your privilege by what events are easy for you to decide to live your life through.

I am very lucky with the privileges I have been handed, and I owe it to the world to use my own ability to live through fear to help others to do the same, whether it’s people who need help coping with their anxiety, people who need shielding from the excesses of a certain spray-tanned politician, or people who just need someone to say “it’s OK to be scared of that.” And I owe it to myself to look fear in the face and accept it as a part of me, and figure out how to find the blooming flowers in the middle of the war zone that is life. Thanks to this weird podcast from the East Coast, I feel like I’m not alone in that mission.

So, that was my Monday.

On Mary and Also Sue

tl;dr: As of today I am going to make a conscious effort to use neither the term “Mary Sue” nor the term “Gary Stu” any longer, as after reading some very smart posts from my very smart friends and colleagues, I believe the roots of those terms to be misogynistic, misguided, and mean-spirited.

Disclaimers:

  • This all got started in my brain thanks to a Facebook post from a friend of mine. I want to give him full credit for inspiring me here, and to say that the root ideas here are his; I’m only not naming him because I don’t yet have his permission to do so, and it’s the Internet.
  • Trigger warnings: mention of violence, rape, racism, homophobia, transphobia.

Longer form commences. It may get a little essay-format in here. I have tried to avoid spoilers and do not mention anything about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So.

Mary Sue.

For a definition of the term(s), I turn to the august Web sites Wikipedia and TV Tropes.

From Wikipedia’s entry on “Mary Sue”:

Mary Sue or, in case of a male, Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities…”Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment…the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting…

From TV Tropes’ entry of the same name:

…the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.

Okay. That’s enough to go on.

Let me sum up my feelings: this is garbage.

I say it is garbage not because bad writing and wish-fulfillment do not exist; but because bad writing and wish-fulfillment should be allowed to exist, and shaming people for involvement in them is simple cruelty.

(Well bad writing should not be allowed to exist without criticism…I’ll follow up on that later.)

Life is hard. Life as an oppressed class of person (woman, person of color, LGBT, etc.) is especially hard. Wish-fulfillment, escapism, and fantasy are perfectly reasonable responses to how hard life is, and legitimate ways of coping with getting through the hard parts of life.

We could argue back and forth all day about how much escapism is too much escapism; we can throw around words like “addiction,” and maybe even ableist nastiness about discerning fiction from reality; but the bottom line is that basically everyone, in every culture, sees the value of living and learning vicariously through entertainment, whether that’s a win by your sports team, a painting that speaks to you, seeing a fictional character succeed in the face of adversity that looks a lot like your own, or seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.

Let’s hang on that last line for a second. “Seeing someone who looks like you be socially accepted and noticeably successful.”

You don’t have to look far to see the kinds of venom that are spit daily at women — say, rape and death threats when they criticize any form of media in any way — or at people of color — a potential Presidential candidate calling for all “Muslims” to be banned from the country or forced to sign a registry — or at LGBT people — the entire Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to link to real examples, because those monsters do not deserve the attention, but they are out there and easy to Google or ask your friends about.

If you have to deal with that on a daily basis, you probably want to see a ray of light somewhere, right? Some indicator that it is possible for someone who is like you to be a badass, strong in the face of difficulties, successful in the face of insurmountable odds? Hell, you probably want to see that on your harder days, even if it does not involve being threatened with sexual violence, right?

And you acknowledge the idea of “different strokes for different folks,” yes? You recognize that your wish-fulfillment/stress relief/enjoyment/whatever does not necessarily look like the method of achieving said state that works for spouse, or your best friend, or your next-door neighbor, right? If nothing else, do you understand intellectually that when your team plays the rival team, your idea of “fun” is probably going to look a lot different than the idea of “fun” held by most fans of the other team?

OK. Great.

So, assuming no-one is actually being hurt, and I mean actually being put in an actual negative place that lessens their actual quality of life…

Where do you get off deciding that another person’s way of having fun and feeling better about themselves is bad?

That is one of my three root issues with the term “Mary Sue.” No-one should be shamed for enjoying wish fulfillment. No-one should be shamed for wanting to have a good time, so long as that good time is not coming at the cost of the well-being of others.

I’m going to tap into that last statement in a moment, but I want to finish up my issues with “Mary Sue” first. My second issue with the term “Mary Sue” is the inherent gendering of the term. Yes, we have now come up with “Marty Stu” and “Gary Sue”; yes, people talk about how the term is not gendered; but, as TV Tropes says, “The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character,” and if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

The term grew out of Star Trek fanfiction (specifically, it “comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’” [Wikipedia]), and it’s an accepted if not concretely observed notion that fanfic writers were, initially, largely female. It is also overwhelmingly applied to original female characters who get to be as important as canon male characters — and as it has grown into a term used in fiction at large, it has continued to be disproportionately used to describe female characters. The only male character that I hear routinely get called a Sue/Stu is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation; other male characters who are just as obviously given a disproportionate chunk of the spotlight (e.g., Wolverine and Cyclops from the X-Men franchise) or just as obviously get to save the day when the chips are down despite not being the only ones canonically capable of same (e.g., Batman in any DC universe fiction), either do not get slapped with the label despite qualifying, or get the label alongside so many jabs at either their “feminine” traits or their sexuality that it’s hard not to see this as being about shaming women for wanting to have rad protagonists available to them.

And that’s gross, people. Gross.

And now, my third and final issue with the term “Mary Sue”…it is generally used as a hallmark of bad writing, right? We are all agreed on this point? Well, bad writing needs to exist.

Writing bad stories is the only way you figure out what doesn’t work and get to good stories. Just like every hockey player (except maybe Wayne Gretzky) had to play some truly terrible games of hockey before they figured out how to reliably play well; just like every baker’s first-ever batch of chocolate chip cookies was likely inedible; just like if I went out today and tried to run a marathon, I would wind up calling someone to come pick me up in my new superhero disguise as the Human Cramp; every writer has to write bad stories. Most of us even keep doing it, because everyone has their off days!

Even if something is bad, it may represent the absolute best a person can do right now, not because they are in any inherently bad, but because they are still learning how to be good. Criticism is a part of helping that person to grow, but dismissive criticism may snuff out their fire while it is still just sparks. Also, not everybody is ready to be put on blast just yet; that’s why I don’t publish every rough draft I ever write on my blog, and that’s part of why fan-fiction communities exist. We need safe spaces to figure out how to be the best us we can be. Why invade and dismiss that just because you don’t think my How to Train Your Dragon/WWE crossover fic is the next Aenead?

Now, there are forms of (or elements present in) “bad art” or “bad escapism” that are truly, objectively bad. Those that uncritically glorify rape, racism, murder, or other forms of violence and hate. Those that reinforce negative and problematic social narratives, like the idea every rape victim “kinda enjoyed it” or that a person of color is “asking for trouble” by behaving in a certain way. Those that stir up hatred toward a real-world group. Those that encourage hateful and destructive urges rather than offer a catharsis that prevents the need for actualizing those urges. In short, things that actually hurt actual people, even if only by making it seem OK to hurt those people. And those do need to be taken out behind the woodshed sometimes, and called out as either “problematic” or even sometimes outright hate speech.

But…

Don’t deride people for doing their best, just because their best isn’t the same as somebody else’s best.

Don’t deride people for liking things that aren’t hurting anybody. Liking things is cool.

And don’t ever forget that everything is problematic in some way, and that criticism and dismissal are not synonymous.

Like stuff. Make stuff.

Figure out how to be you.

Figure out what doesn’t work.

Figure out how not to hurt people.

The world will be a better place.

That, in a 1700 word nutshell, is why I will never, ever again call any character a Mary Sue.

On Excuse Me?

I am trying to write fewer bellicose and/or lachrymose posts, but, then I saw this today, and I was reminded that some of it is the world’s fault.

This here is Very Important Comics Creator, Erik Larsen, speaking out against “practical” womens’ outfits, and implying that they somehow diminish how attractive the female characters are, and that most people prefer them the other way.

I don’t even know where to start peeling this onion of stupid. Fortunately, three major players in comics right now were there to tell him just how stupid he was being, and I want to first and foremost focus everyone’s attention on Gail Simone’s really excellent discussion that is far more than Larsen deserved. If you’re going to read that or read my blog post, read that.

For those who are still here, let’s make sure we are clear on exactly why what Larsen said is not at all innocent and particularly heinous. Larsen has:

  • implied a one-dimensional axis of attractiveness that requires (we presume) a more revealing outfit. (Presumably he is suggesting one of the classic Carol Danvers “Ms. Marvel” outfits shown here, as opposed to the most recent one she wears as “Captain Marvel”)
  • implied that sexy is more important than practical in female superheroes’ outfits via his assertion that “practical” is different than “attractive” and that practical is somehow bad or undesirable.
  • downplayed and vilified those fans who like more practical outfits, which includes not only feminist readers interested in outfits that are less objectifying (note I did not say not objectifying; these are still superhero comics), or readers who do not feel being sexy is the main point of female characters (or even something characters in comics need to be doing for us as readers), but readers who find something sexy that is different than what Erik Larsen finds sexy.
  • dismissed any amount of progress away from classic comic portrayals of characters as the work of a vocal minority, which even if we are very nice and assume he didn’t just mean “women” does imply that disagreeing with Erik Larsen means you can’t possibly have any kind of popular opinion.

So, in other words, Erik Larsen is a Gator. He’s not as vitriolic or criminal as GroperGarb members tend to actually be, but he is touting essentially the same idea about comics that they are about games: that women are a vocal minority who are fucking it up for everyone else, that any amount of change is a sin, and that there is only one right way to Comics and anyone who Comicses differently should be called out for the damage they are doing to the hobby. I would be inclined to be as incredibly magnanimous as Simone has been here and say that Larsen probably just put his foot in it, but given his involvement with the somewhat infamously sexist Image Comics titles of the 90s*, I do not have it in me to forgive right now.

I’m not currently calling for a boycott of Larsen, but I am trying to make sure I boost the signal here that he has said stuff like this, and to make sure my readers get an opportunity to understand exactly how much words matter, and how much stories matter. And also to make sure you all know how awesome Gail Simone, Jamie McKelvie, and Stephen Wacker are so you can decide if maybe you want to check out their work. Wicked + the Divine and Captain Marvel (which is not Wacker’s book, but, since he helped with the costume design I wanted to mention it) both come with my personal seal of approval already, and this makes me feel even better about spending our money on those things. I think after this I might also check out The Movement; Simone deserves a little more of my support.

Also, I want to call attention to what Simone said: “When I am done making comics, I hope it is very clear that I wanted to be on the side that was for INCLUDING people, not excluding them.” Those are the words that I want to resonate for her, and for me when I’m done making art, and for every other artist out there. That what we — the feminists, the activists, the allies — are doing is not excluding; what we are doing is including. It only looks like excluding to people like Larsen because they have not yet opened their eyes to just how magically multifarious humanity actually is. They’re Blue Meanies, unable to figure out that turning everything blue and shutting out music because they dislike it has caused them to miss out on…life.

And that’s why I don’t feel the need to boycott Larsen. Frankly, I think living like that is the worst punishment of all.

Edited to Add: Oh, hey, Larsen is doubling down! Never mind, boo this man and do not buy his silly little funnybooks.

*And also given the fact I am not a woman working in the same industry as him and am therefore not as (rightfully) concerned with avoiding damage to my brand (please note it was two men who had to do the actual calling out here). NOTE: I am not saying Simone was at all cowardly; I am saying Simone is in a position where she cannot talk as stridently to Larsen as he perhaps deserved without significant backlash. Wacker and McKelvie are men and so will suffer less professional damage than she is likely to for saying the same things. That’s me, pointing out how unfair the world is.