The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m looking forward to presenting at “Histories & Futures of Comics Communities,” the first academic symposium held in conjunction with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Here’s the abstract for my presentation…

In December 2021, a conversation concerning the definition of the term “zine” unfolded on Twitter. This conversation arose from anxieties surrounding the recent rise of fandom zines that, while organized by amateur editors and limited in distribution, are nevertheless professionally printed and highly selective. Many comic artists lamented what they perceive as a betrayal of the DIY ethos of North American zine culture, while others have used quote tweets as a platform to remind their followers that anyone can make a zine.  

Surprisingly absent from this conversation is an examination of the largely separate zine cultures that have developed in parallel at comic festivals and anime conventions. Many exhibitors at local indie comic festivals continue to produce artistic but relatively low-budget personal zines. Meanwhile, exhibitors in the artist alleys of anime conventions have gravitated toward professional production methods for fanzines and associated merchandise, often taking advantage of the services of manufacturers based in East Asia.

I argue that contemporary North American anime fanzine culture has its roots in Japanese dōjinshi, which are typically created by aspiring and early-career creative professionals and tend to be manufactured by specialty presses that guarantee a high level of production quality. Dōjinshi-style fanzines spread to North America during the early 2010s via anime conventions hosted in cities on the western seaboard, particularly Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver. While tracing this transcultural development, I will reflect critically on the tension between DIY zine counterculture and big-budget fanzines and address how neoliberal values have affected public conversations on amateur artistic production.

. . . . . . . . . .

The “Comics Communities” event takes place on June 17, the Friday before the TCAF. You can find the schedule (here). The main exhibit floor of the TCAF is completely free and open to the public, but registration for the academic symposium is limited and already completely sold out. Which is very exciting! The symposium organizer is a fellow contributor at Women Write About Comics, and I hope to be able to publish my paper there soon so that it’s accessible to anyone who’s interested.

ETA: My essay is now available on Women Write About Comics (here).

#PitMad for Social Media Introverts

I participated in the #PitMad event on Twitter yesterday. You can read more about it (here), but basically, the goal is to pitch your ready-to-submit novel in a single tweet. If an agent or publisher is interested, they will like the tweet, signalling that you should feel free to get in touch with them. Many agency representatives will also comment directly on the pitch tweet, asking you to send a set of materials to an email address.

In theory, this is an interesting way to get yourself and your work out there, especially if you don’t live on the East Coast and run outside of traditional publishing circles.

In practice, Twitter is still Twitter, and #PitMad is a popularity contest.

Tweets generally gain traction because people “like” them (by which I mean that people click on the heart button), which causes them to appear on other people’s timelines, as well as on the feed for any hashtags you’ve used. Once a tweet accumulates a certain number of likes, that’s when people start retweeting and commenting.

Because the rules of #PitMad say that you can’t like a pitch tweet if you’re not an agent or publisher, however, the tweet needs to receive other types of engagement in order to appear on the tag and on people’s timelines.

For people who aren’t on the Horrible Birdsite, I should probably clarify that Twitter doesn’t show users a chronological feed of content, and that its algorithm doesn’t display the tweets of the people you follow unless it deems them noteworthy. Someone’s tweet can be noteworthy either because you’ve made an effort to go onto their individual page and “like” everything they post, or because the tweet has already gotten enough attention from other sources. Otherwise, the tweet is invisible, and it most certainly doesn’t appear on the tags.

So, in order for #PitMad to work, you have to make plans in advance for people to comment on and retweet your pitch tweet. These markers of engagement will render your tweet visible and will also push it far enough up the tag for agents and publishers to actually see it.

If you have friends in the literary community, or just friends in general, you’re going to need to convince enough of them to shill for you that your tweet passes the minimum threshold of algorithmic engagement to start getting attention organically.

And there is no shame in this! This is what friends and colleagues are for, to help and support each other and work together toward your shared and mutual success.

But what happens if you’re a shy and introverted person like me? Which is to say, what if you are deeply afraid of ever causing trouble for anyone or creating awkwardness by asking for help?

This may seem like an unreasonable thing to be worried about, since “Even if you delete it later, could you please retweet and comment on my #PitMad tweet” isn’t that big of a favor, especially if it results in someone you know getting a publishing deal and thanking you in the acknowledgments of their book.

My own experience, however, was that I lost almost ten followers on Twitter during #PitMad yesterday. In other words, a handful of people who followed me got so upset and offended that I’m trying to pitch an original project that they didn’t just mute me, but they actually went through an additional sequence of button presses to unfollow me. And that’s tough to handle, especially since my pitch tweet didn’t actually go anywhere. I think it’s fair to say that this experience didn’t inspire me with a sense of self-confidence.

I know there might be people out there reading this and thinking, “Well, maybe your pitch just wasn’t that good.” And you know what? Maybe! But this isn’t about whether any given pitch is actually good or not; it’s about how Twitter functions as a platform.

Essentially, if you’re not comfortable enough on Twitter to already have the sort of following that you can reach out to, both broadly and at an individual level, in order to get people to shill for you and engage with your #PitMad tweet, then you’re going to have a disappointing experience.

If you are comfortable with this level of interaction on Twitter, then you’re going to need at least a hundred retweets and two or three dozen comments (including your own replies) in order for your pitch tweet to start gathering steam. Based on what I saw ysterday, publishers and agents started to be interested in tweets that had at least three hundred retweets and fifty or sixty comments. Again, this is just based on what I saw, but the people who were able to pull this off tended to have at least 2,500 followers.

To emphasize this once again, #PitMad is a Twitter popularity contest.

And being on Twitter isn’t that easy. Some people take to the platform naturally, of course, but it can be difficult to gain and retain followers, even if you have a brand and a niche and the time and energy to produce a constant stream of content. It’s been a struggle for me personally, especially as someone who’s become very sensitive to the general ambiance of outrage, hot takes, and assorted unpleasantness that feeds Twitter’s engagement algorithms. It’s important to be able to curate your online experience, but Twitter is infamously bad about showing you things that are specifically designed to upset you. Even if you surround yourself with friends and allies, and even if you’re diligent about blocking and muting, Twitter can be a mental health nightmare.

So I guess I have two recommendations.

First, if you’re going to participate in #PitMad, you need to plan for it in advance, and you need to be aggressive in signing on friends and colleagues to boost your pitch. In all honesty, this is probably good practice for promoting your published work.

That being said, a lot of people – especially other writers – tend not to like it if they feel that you’re cultivating their friendship or goodwill for the sole purpose of promoting yourself, and being around someone who is constantly hustling can be exhausting. If you’re the sort of person who is naturally extroverted and crowd-pleasing, and if you don’t mind certain quieter people drifting away from you, then you probably have a ton of followers on Twitter already.

And this isn’t to say that people like this don’t write and publish amazing and fantastic books! I also don’t want to suggest that “fake it till you make it” isn’t a legitimate strategy. Really, go out there and live your best life, but be aware that participating in #PitMad requires planning and prepwork.

Second, if you’re more introverted and tend to keep the time you spend on social media limited, then #PitMad can be a good way to strengthen the ties you have with your writer friends while hopefully making a few new friends along the way.

Still, because of how Twitter works (and doesn’t work) as a platform, the event has the potential to be a disappointing experience that punches you right in the self-esteem, and you might be better off connecting with potential agents and publishers on a more personal level.

In any case, all of the pitches I saw yesterday were excellent. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun to read through the hashtag, and I would happily sit down and spend time with every single one of those books in the making.

Bullying on Tumblr

About a month or two ago I posted a picture of a man holding a pig on Tumblr. It was a cute drawing of a cute anime character holding a cute cartoon pig in a cute way. It wasn’t exactly like the manga cover above, but it was close. The caption I used for the image was essentially this: “Even though this character is a jerk, I like to think that he has a soft spot for animals.”

One of my mutuals reblogged this picture with the hashtag “animal abuse” and then proceeded to reblog several posts about how pigs don’t like to be held and how cruel it is to pick them up. Because this person frequently writes about Steven Universe, my drawing came to the attention of a small but vocal segment of the Steven Universe fandom that has dedicated itself to “calling out” people who post “problematic” things on Tumblr. I ended up being sent a dozen violently angry messages, and I was tagged on several posts featuring videos in which pigs were harmed in legitimately upsetting ways. I didn’t respond to any of this, so the activity faded after a day, but the episode was quite disturbing.

This is not the first time that something like this has happened to me on Tumblr, and it didn’t surprise me. It still took me more than a month to decide how to respond to it, however. Should I unfollow the person who reblogged a cute drawing of a cute anime character holding a cute cartoon pig with the tag “animal abuse,” or should I just accept it as normal and move on?

To anyone who isn’t active on Tumblr, the answer should be obvious. If someone feels comfortable looking at the cute cartoon art you created and calling it “animal abuse,” then they are not your friend. You should unfollow them, and you should probably block them for good measure. Even if it wasn’t personal, and even if they didn’t intend for me to feel (or actually be) attacked, this sort of behavior is extremely unkind. Yesterday I wrote that it’s important to be patient with people who make mistakes on social media, since we’re all figuring out this method of social interaction together, but there is a world of difference between tagging someone’s face on a group photo on Facebook in 2009 and sending someone a message that says YOU DESERVE TO BE SLAUGHTERED on Tumblr in 2018.

The problem is that this sort of thing is normal on Tumblr. Sending someone hate mail or tagging them on a video depicting graphic violence is clearly harassment, but this type of harassment is so commonplace that even sane adults in their late twenties and early thirties seem to think it’s acceptable to do hurtful things if it’s for the purpose of promoting social justice. It goes without saying that harassing someone online has nothing to do with social justice, however, and the discursive atmosphere on Tumblr has become so radical that people’s views of what is offensive are completely skewed. Of course it makes sense to critique something that celebrates or otherwise promotes misinformation or discrimination, but “critique” is so valued by the affective economy of Tumblr that many people go out of their way to find and denounce problematic messages that don’t really exist. In other words, it makes sense to critique real animal abuse, but placing a cute anime drawing in the same discursive category as real harm done to real animals is bananas. To give an analogy, I think it’s fair to say that most rational people would not get as upset about the manga cover above as they would about the sort of cruelty depicted in the film Okja. Unfortunately, on Tumblr, there’s no longer any distinction between the two.

So this was my dilemma. On one hand, I don’t want to be associated with the Tumblr hate machine in any way, and I certainly don’t enjoy it when it targets me. On the other hand, isn’t this just the price of admission for Tumblr? And how can I be sure that it’s not me who’s the guilty party? Maybe it was in fact wrong of me to have posted that drawing? Maybe I should think long and hard about what I did to deserve being sent death threats from strangers…?

I recently started rereading the Harry Potter books, and that ended up being what it took for me to reorient my moral compass. There are a lot of bullies in the novels, and they’re bullies because they can get away with it. Other people see this happening, but they do nothing to stop it. Reading these books for children helped me remember something very simple: Bullying is cruel, and people who are friends with bullies are cowards. In order to be a good person, it’s not enough not to be a bully; you also have to refuse to be friends with people who tolerate bullying. Watching something awful happening and staying out of it because it’s none of your business is not a neutral action. By being friends with people who instigate bullying, or by remaining friends with people who don’t care if other people get bullied, you’re essentially saying that you don’t care who gets hurt as long as it isn’t you.

This is basic schoolyard logic, but this scenario is being played out by adults on Tumblr for the ostensible purpose of promoting social justice, which is why it’s been so difficult for me to recognize bullying for what it is. Nevertheless, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that going out of one’s way to send hate mail or to leave awful tags on someone’s post is a choice, as is associating with people who routinely do such things.

I’m not extremely active on Tumblr, but I maintain a solid presence there, and I’m starting to get the feeling that the platform has passed its peak. The community has become increasingly toxic, and many content creators are leaving for greener pastures. For most of the writers and artists and genius shiposters I once followed before they left Tumblr, “greener pastures” seems to mean Twitter, which is sad, because… If Twitter seems like a friendly and sane alternative to your social media platform, then you might be in serious trouble.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with PillowFort, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of activity there at the moment. More on this story as it develops, I suppose.

Social Media and Character Development

I got on Facebook in June 2007 but didn’t really start using it until July 2008. At the time, there wasn’t a well-defined code of Facebook etiquette, so I did what everyone else was doing. What everyone else seemed to be doing back in 2008 was posting tons of pictures of themselves and their friends on Facebook while tagging everyone involved, so I blithely jumped onboard. My friends and I were all young and beautiful, so everyone was happy and no one complained. When I posted a picture of myself and my classmates in March 2009, however, one of the people I tagged sent me a message asking me to take the photo down. I told her that I would just untag her, so she followed up to insist that I delete the picture entirely. I was a bit confused at first, but after another exchange of messages I apologized and did as she asked.

Now, of course, I would never post a picture of someone without asking for their permission first. Common standards of civil online behavior have evolved since Facebook went public in 2006, and I’d like to think that I’ve grown as a person and developed a more nuanced understanding of how social media works since then.

Earlier this year, someone sent me a link to a long comment my former classmate posted on a popular cosplay blog explaining how upset she was when she had to ask someone multiple times to remove a picture of her from Facebook. It’s likely that she wasn’t talking about me, but seeing her comment triggered my memory of this interaction. I’m not criticizing this person for being upset, because she had every right to be upset. The reason I’m telling this story is because it seems so strikingly obvious to me now that what I did then was thoughtless and wrong.

About a month ago, a friend of mine retweeted something that someone I used to know had written about a short conversation we had on LiveJournal at some point during 2012, when she was struggling with depression. I was also in a dark place at that point in my life, but my attempts to seek treatment had failed, so I was managing as best I could on my own. I therefore didn’t have any formal language to communicate my sympathy to her, so I left a comment on one of her posts saying something to the effect of “I hope you feel better soon, but in the meantime it sounds like you could really use a drink.” She sent me a long response telling me how insulting it was for me not to have taken her depression seriously, and how ignorant I was for not understanding that alcohol and anti-depression medication don’t mix. I apologized immediately but then, like an idiot, tried to excuse myself by saying that I didn’t mean to offend her – which is, of course, not something that someone who’s just been offended wants to hear.

Since then, there’s been an ongoing discussion on social media and in the broader culture about how conversations relating to disability and neurodivergence can and should play out. I now understand that the correct response to the situation I described above would have been for me to express concern at the escalating despair evident in my friend’s posts, to ask if there was anything I could do, and then to step away. I also recognize that it would have been appropriate in that situation to explain that I was speaking as someone who was struggling with depression myself. Talking about mental illness is always going to be tricky, and I don’t think there are ever going to be solutions that work for everyone. Still, it’s much easier to stay educated and informed about how to reach out to people who seem like they might need help in 2018 than it was in 2012.

Again, I’m not criticizing this person for complaining about the stupid thing I did, because what I did was obviously wrong. It was wrong of me to make a facetious remark about someone’s mental illness, just as it was wrong of me to post a picture of someone on Facebook without asking for their permission first.

I didn’t do either of these things out of a sense of malice; rather, I just didn’t know any better. That doesn’t excuse my behavior, of course, but I think this general situation is probably relatable to anyone who’s grown up along with the internet. We’re given rules about how to behave in real life, but we’re more or less on our own when it comes to figuring out how to be good people on social media. I think that, as a result, we’ve probably all done something that, in retrospect, was undeniably unkind.

After reflecting on these snapshots of my past self, there are two lessons that I want to take away. The first is that it’s important to learn from your mistakes and keep growing as a person. Second, and more specifically, it’s also important to give the benefit of the doubt to people who make stupid mistakes online. This is not to say that you have to perform emotional labor for everyone who insults you on the internet, because some people are just assholes. If someone does something offensive but seems to be coming from a good place, however, it can be useful to remember that it’s probably not personal. After all, social media hasn’t actually been around all that long, and we’re still figuring out the best practices for how to interact with each other online.

The State of Airbnb in Japan

Nick Kapur has a great thread on Twitter about the controversy (or rather, the catastrophe) concerning Airbnb in Japan. This is something I’ve been following closely as it’s descended into true madness over the course of 2018, and Dr. Kapur gives an excellent summary of what’s happening and why it’s so upsetting. This perfect storm of xenophobia and irresponsible market capitalism is going to impact a lot of people, and it’s well worth taking a minute or two to read the thread all the way through.

https://twitter.com/nick_kapur/status/1004930586954420225

As a grad student friend of mine wrote in response to a Facebook post on the matter, “The big issue that [Kapur] doesn’t mention is that Air BnB has been a lifesaver for foreigners doing research in Japan for less than a year. Almost all Japanese housing contracts are for two years, and most home owners don’t accept foreigners (often being openly racist about their preferences). This leaves students and other researchers with extremely overpriced long-stay hotels, or with share houses that offer a dormlike setting with little privacy, often questionable living spaces, and sometimes a complete unwillingness to communicate with foreigners.”