Otherside Picnic is a portal fantasy… in a sense. Though you might be able to call it an isekai by a technicality, it certainly doesn’t have much in common with other “transported to a virtual world” anime among its contemporaries. It might be more accurate to call it a portal horror, because the titular Otherside is so delightfully eerie; constructed entirely of sweeping plains, ruined buildings, and strange inexplicable shapes and “glitches” in the landscape.
It’s scary because of the cryptids and folkloric monsters who roam the grasslands, but the horror is present even before they take centre stage. A sense of bizarre dread is baked into the setting itself. The Otherside is a monster in its own right, and the aesthetic of the world masterfully sets the stage for the psychological horror that is to come.
I read—and watch—a lot of stories about people growing up. Late in 2019, I officially narrowed the focus of my PhD to specifically zero in on YA fiction, which I was reading and analysing an awful lot of anyway. I also write a lot about anime, and I can’t help but notice that the series that really seem to carve out a special place in my heart—and jog my thinking brain—are the ones that deal with coming-of-age stories, or other examinations of the weird pocket of time between “youth” and “adulthood”. And gosh, it’s a weird pocket of time, huh?
As I write lecture material, and find myself going off on tangents enthusiastically explaining the literary and entertainment value of YA to my students, I also find myself wondering… well, how did I get here? Why YA? That’s a tongue-twister, Alex, why’d you even make me read that? But more to the point, why do we—as writers, readers, audiences, and a massive publishing industry—return consistently to the coming-of-age story, to examinations of youth, to high schools and final-summers-before-graduations and that weird transitional space between childhood and adulthood?
Well, I could get all Joseph Campbell on you and suggest something about how stories of “leaving the nest”, experiencing a ritual quest of rites of passage, and coming out the other side a grown human, are embedded in prehistoric tradition and are some of the tales closest to our hearts culturally speaking. And you know I have my beef with Campbell (affectionately so), but I reckon there’s something to his suggestion that this is an archetype fundamental to storytelling as a form, and I reckon there’s also something to his fondness for patterns.
The portal fantasy subgenre and its themes of displacement, liminality, and “strange” children coming-of-age in even stranger otherworlds, has been read queerly by many readers across its history. From foundational academics like Alexander Doty to contemporary authors like A.J. Hackworth, many have noted the thematic and allegorical undercurrents in the portal fantasy that resonate with, and provide valuable escapism and catharsis to, young queer readers.
Seanan McGuire’s 2016 novella Every Heart a Doorway takes a playful, metatextual approach to the portal fantasy, not only by interrogating its tropes and history but by unambiguously portraying queer characters in the genre. By giving her fantasy narrative to a cast of explicitly queer characters, McGuire acknowledges the queer resonance that has long been present in the genre and brings it to the surface of her work, creating a dual-layer of queerness in the text that interweaves magical metaphor with textual LGBTQIA+ representation.
Fate is a story where a bunch of retellings of myths are jammed together and sent to bounce off each other like pinballs—where would be the fun if it didn’t get meta about the nature of retelling myth? Obviously you can see a lot of examples of this in the Heroic Spirits themselves: heroes reflecting on the way their story has been passed down, what impact they’ve had on the world, and all sorts of fun themes to do with legacy, tradition, and the nature of transformative storytelling. A Heroic Spirit, after all, is a myth given form and agency. Would they do things differently, if they could, with their new knowledge? Challenge the patterns of their past? Or would they stick to the “canon”?
I love when Fate plays around with this, but it doesn’t just happen with the kings and knights and monster-slayers: one of the best embodiments of this theme is Shirou, the original protagonist who started all of this, and who burst into the scene ready to break and remake the patterns embedded in the worldbuilding around him. Continue reading →
Hey, guess who finally recorded and uploaded her presentation from last year’s writing conference? It’s a dive into the various shapes and forms the Trickster can take in popular culture, starring all manner of con artists, child geniuses, and… geese!
Today I want to talk about a thrilling, dynamic piece of media—a gripping cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger tale of espionage centred around the relationship between a notorious villain and the agent intent on hunting them down, two characters who get irreversibly tangled in one another’s lives until the edges between fascination, rivalry, and romantic tension become increasingly blurred.
I am, obviously, referring to the music video to Miiike Snow’s ‘Genghis Khan’.
When I talk about “the Trickster archetype” here, I’ve been using it to refer to fictional characters, with “archetype” being essentially a synonym for “really old codified trope”. But this phrase has also been used in more psychological contexts, specifically those drawing from the work of Carl Jung, who played with the idea that we each have our own inner Trickster, a manifestation of our playful, childlike, perhaps even animalistic subconscious. Creativity can be considered a “trickster impulse”, as can the urge for rebellion (a combo of the two is perhaps the most powerful modern Trickery there is—Helena Bassil-Morozow talks about this a fair bit in The Trickster and the System). I keep saying that we come back to this character type again and again because it means something to us, and whether I intend to or not I’m being pretty Jungian with that statement: maybe Trickster characters have such a strong appeal because they scratch a deep subconscious itch, call to us on a fundamental psychological level, and are ultimately “fantasy figures who do what we cannot or dare not” (to quote Lori Landay), fulfilling an ancient and intrinsic yearning for power and playfulness, and, well, to be a bit of a shit now and then. Continue reading →
[This post contains minor spoilers for Stars Align, and mentions of domestic abuse, bullying, and homophobia]
Earlier this year, Netflix released an original movie called Tall Girl. With the title describing the subject matter with almost light-novel-like precision, the film was about a girl who was tall, and how difficult her life was because of this. “You think your life is hard?” The Tall Girl asks the audience, in a scene now immortalised in meme form. “I’m a high school junior wearing size thirteen Nikes. Men’s size thirteen Nikes. Beat that.” Now, while there’s a valuable conversation to be had about how traditional beauty standards expect and demand that women be petite and delicate and thus a lot of taller ladies feel left out of the loop by this, a lot of people felt it was… perhaps a bit of a stretch to pass The Tall Girl off as oppressed for her height in the way the movie seemed to indicate.
After watching the trailer with my circle of friends, conversation immediately turned to the fact that she was still, as far as we could tell, cis (a movie about a trans girl who overcomes her insecurities about her height and finds love could make for a great inclusive cheesy rom-com!), straight (“why doesn’t she just date a girl? Sapphic girls love tall women!” – WB, paraphrased, but nonetheless spitting wisdom), white, and well-off enough to live in the American suburbs and attend a Hollywood-pretty high school (and of course afford those size thirteen shoes).
If they wanted to write a story about a young person dealing with the pressures and daily traumas of being a social Other… basically, they could have gone a million different ways, and having their hero be tall seemed like a bit of a cop-out. Again, while this isn’t to say that this character has no problems in life and should stop whining, the marketing material seemed to be working overtime to highlight a marginalised status for The Tall Girl that ended up feeling horribly insincere by the end of things. And, when you’re telling stories about young people struggling in the marginal place they’ve been pushed by societal norms, sincerity really is key. Continue reading →
Sex is considered an intrinsic part of being human, and the development of a relationship with sex and sexuality an intrinsic part of growing up. This societal narrative leaves people on the asexual spectrum—those who do not experience sexual attraction—on the margins and considered abnormal. This can have an especially negative effect on asexual adolescents who are not experiencing the ‘rite of passage’ that is sexual desire and experimentation with sexual relationships. This is why—as with all queer identities—it is important to represent and normalise asexuality within fiction, particularly fiction aimed at young people.
In this paper I examine two young adult novels with asexual protagonists—Kathryn Ormsbee’s Tash Hearts Tolstoy (2017) and Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love (2018)—and how their protagonists’ asexual identity is woven into their coming-of-age stories and romance arcs. I explore the tropes, stereotypes, and misconceptions that have traditionally informed media depictions of asexuality, and how these novels divert from them to provide a more accurate and nuanced representation of the asexual experience; and, in doing so, establish patterns and tropes of their own from which a uniquely ‘asexual narrative’ suggests itself.
Often the most fun and fascinating worldbuilding details are the ones that come from very everyday situations. What do people do for fun, in this speculative setting? What do they eat? Where do they get that food from? What are folks buying and selling, and how are they going about this? What about all the background characters in those stories about saving the galaxy—what are those people doing day-to-day, what are they dreaming about, aspiring to, distracting themselves with to get by on their daily grind? While these are often incidental, extra details that pop up in (and enhance) the background of more epic adventures through space, they’re at the heart of Carole & Tuesday. Continue reading →