of taverns and tabletops

This is probably going to be messier than usual, but I guess that’s just a reflection of everything ping-ponging around in my head, trying to find some kind of traction. Usually I’d try to make a tweet thread, try to find the center of what I’m feeling in a briefer way nowadays (who has time for long-form writing, am I right? hooooo), but there’s just too much, so a long-winded blog post it’s gonna have to be. (I’m also now realizing I haven’t really written proper since New Years, which is…not the best, all things considered. But I’ve been struggling with worrying that these sorts of things read as too self-serving, editing before I even start writing, so maybe I just have to throw the emotional spaghetti at the wall and see what happens.)

It’s been a whirlwind. A hurricane? A large weather formation of some sort. Metaphors.

It feels like there’s only two modes in my life lately: absolutely nothing, or everything all at once. In the last month alone, I’ve co-launched a podcast (that included at least two months of pre-production) and then proceeded to jump into the deep end right off the bat with it (in a good way!), thrown myself back into the job-searching ring, tried to keep a weekly comic updating regularly, saw Hamilton (something I thought would never happen), had a bunch of big conversations of trying to understand what I’m trying to do with all of [waves hands indiscriminately] this, just got back from Gen Con…I really should be catching up on sleep at this point, but instead I’m writing because it all feels like a dam about to burst (“how do you write like you’re running out of time”, etc etc.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. The physical thing, sure, but also just…making art. What point it serves during the act of art-making and what place it holds when it’s done. The whole deal. The increased anxiety about general existence too, which is kind of intrinsically tied to my own art.

To me, art is a blanket that covers an infinite number of things. If it’s something you’ve put energy into to create, that’s art. It doesn’t need a museum or a set medium, shit, it doesn’t even have to be good (especially since “good” is subjective), the act of creation alone makes something art. At its core, it’s a transformation of energy.

Is that the most pretentious art-school-y bullshit? Maybe. I say it earnestly though.

I’d also say “would you believe a lot of this existential pondering came out of like, a collective two extremely sincere minutes from a fantasy improv podcast?” but at this point that’s kind of on brand for me.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record about this but maybe some preamble is in order: if you follow me literally anywhere else online (or have like, I dunno, seen me and talked to me at any point between now and last October), you know that my jam for the last ten months or so has been a podcast called Hello From the Magic Tavern, the aforementioned fantasy improv show where in about (as of writing this) three years and six months ago, a man named Arnie Niekamp (played by…Arnie Niekamp) fell through a portal behind a Burger King in Chicago into the magical, fantastical world of Foon, where he hosts a weekly podcast with his two co-hosts: Chunt (Adal Rifai), a shapeshifter/usual badger, and Usidore the Blue (et al) (Matt Young), a wizard, and a rotating assortment of guests from a tavern–The Vermilion Minotaur–in the town of Hogsface.

To put it simply, it’s extremely good, hilarious, unexpectedly heartwarming and has definitely made me cry, which is a fun thing to say when trying to get friends to listen to it, because that kind of statement is usually a seal of the highest approval from me (lookin’ at you, TAZ), but then they start listening to it and the first few episodes are extremely butthole-heavy, but the emotional stuff is there and it hits you like a goddamn freight train in complete darkness. Which is good. It’s good, is the thing. It just has to lull you into a false sense of security with the referential jokes and stuff first.

It’s also been a huge source of creative inspiration for me: it’s helped to rekindle my passion for character design and illustration, helped me to push myself artistically and try complex compositions and projects I might’ve considered too ambitious before. I can’t overstate how important that is to me. I think I might’ve mentioned at C2E2 that I haven’t been this inspired and motivated to create art since I first started listening to the Adventure Zone a couple of years ago, and that’s not an exaggeration, it’s the honest to god truth.

I’ve noticed this trend in media that resonates with me deeply, which I’ve shorthand started calling the “Princess Bride effect”: when something that’s typically a comedy throughout suddenly is able to sucker punch you with a serious moment without becoming exceedingly dark from that point on, and it’s just pure truth. You dip into unflinching honesty, but you can still laugh after it again, because life–which we relate to in stories–naturally has those ebbs and flows. The Princess Bride as a movie is funny and timeless, and when it hits you with a moment of true sincerity and emotion, it doesn’t hold that punch in the slightest. The air feels like it gets sucked out of the room no matter how many times I’ve seen Inigo Montoya avenge his father’s death, but then it arcs back up, returns to something lighter. The moment is there, but it’s not a mire, and nor should it be.

Hello from the Magic Tavern, for me, has a lot of those moments. Maybe it’s a connection to the down-to-earth sensibilities that ground the show, the joy in the absurd in every episode, the fact that it’s so clear, even in audio, that the people who make this thing truly enjoy making it. Maybe I’m projecting too much of my own anxieties about change, the future, and uncertainty on a silly fantasy narrative about a magical world where flowers can talk and drink booze, three goofuses and a banana become mayors of a town, and a mysterious man in an even more mysterious space bunker berates the hosts while continually and caustically reminding the listener that the following podcast is not real. I’ve thought about that last one so much that I just went and made a comic about it a few months back.

It’s been rough lately. (To be fair, I feel like I’m always writing when it’s rough, but maybe that’s just when things need to be written.) Or, maybe more accurately, it’s been weird lately. On the one hand, I’m working on things that make me so incredibly happy, with people that I love, even when everything blows up in my face and I have to figure out how to fix it on the fly in a state of panic (hi, hello, my audio production knowledge is basically “one time I knew how to use Premiere and After Effects, that’s similar, right” and a prayer); I’ve been a part of projects that I’m so incredibly proud of and humbled to be included on, to contribute to a whole greater than myself; I am constantly floored and humbled by the kindness of friends and strangers alike, and I feel like I’m becoming part of a community, not just viewing it from the outside.

On the other hand, I feel directionless in terms of a professional career. Having a day job is normal, I’m by no means knocking that (and lord knows I need some kind of stability, for my own sake), but I feel stuck in a place with no upward trajectory whatsoever, I’m not even really doing the thing I was hired for anymore, and in every other direction, I’m hitting a brick wall because of decisions I can’t control. On better days I can see how far I’ve come, moved in directions I couldn’t’ve even imagined back when I was graduating from college (it’s weird to go back and read some old work and feel like a completely different person from the me who wrote it), but those days are mixed in with some of the lowest days I’ve had in a while, days where I’ve really questioned why I didn’t chose a different career path, where I’ve asked if the struggle is worth it.

(The answer is the same as it’s always been, even if it’s hard to believe some days: yes, because I truly can’t see myself happy trying to do anything else. At least that’s one constant to hold on to when everything else feels out of control, but when I doubt even that, it’s like a foundation starting to crack when the whole house has already been torn apart. This is the thing that isn’t supposed to waver. This one thing. I don’t know what it is, really. My best guess is a fun combination of anxieties and imposter syndrome all rolled into a tangled ball.)

The moments of sheer, unflinching honesty in the show would probably hit me regardless of the circumstances because I’m kind of an emotional goober (a fact that I am proud of, by the way), if that wasn’t already clear, but with everything else, it runs me right through every time. The genuine honesty in the performance is seemingly able to dig right down into the core of my anxieties–fear of failure, of success, of change, of loss of stability–and in the same moment say “hey, you’re not alone.” It’s one of those things where logic dictates that already, I mean, law of large numbers and everything, but there’s a difference between knowing it and hearing it. It doesn’t solve it, doesn’t make it go away, but just the breaking of isolation is so incredibly important. Even when hearing it from a fictionalized version of a person trapped in another dimension, or a shout wizard, or a 90%-of-the-time badger.

Something’s happened with Magic Tavern that hasn’t really happened with any other thing I’ve gotten into before though. I realized the other day that I’ve made fanart for podcasts since back in 2012 when I got into Night Vale, and I guess even then was contributing to communities in creative ways, but for some reason Magic Tavern has resulted in something more than just creation inspired by other creation: it’s birthed an incredibly tight-knit community of people that I’m so, so friggin’ blessed and humbled to call friends. It’s not every day that a weird fantasy podcast causes a bunch of people to end up meeting in real life at C2E2 and then going to Gen Con together, right?

Also, right, this thing is also kind of about Gen Con. But really it’s about community. And art. A big ol’ art and community and humanity katamari, basically.

Outside of being able to spend my first Gen Con with this amazing group of people, it also felt like a profound sense of home. It was packed, the exhibit hall was huge, the entire convention felt like a mini-city nested within Indianapolis. Walking through the halls of the convention center, seeing people set up with games they’d just bought, roving musicians, still surprisingly quiet for the number of people who were in attendance, I felt like I belonged there. Here was this community, from all over the world, here to play games and have fun and for one weird, long weekend. To indulge in the magic of other worlds and revel in the joy of creating them.

This is hitting me so hard because I don’t think I’ve ever really had that feeling of community in anything before. Even though I love comics, been making them for years, I still feel like an outsider to the community. Maybe that’s an imposter syndrome thing, maybe it’s a time and place and opportunity thing, I don’t know. But last weekend I was overwhelmed with such an incredible feeling of belonging: among my friends, people I’d just met, creators whose work has deeply inspired me alike. As I was at the Magic Tavern live show Friday night, I was struck with why this podcast has become so important to me in such a short time: the people who make it fucking care. They care about this thing that they’re doing, each other, the people who come out to support it. It shines through in every moment of the show already, but seeing it, watching everyone clearly have the time of their life performing and making each other laugh, chatting with people after the show, it’s as clear as crystal.

You see, art–no matter what anyone says–is not a solitary action. It cannot exist in a vacuum, no matter how hard some people might argue that what they create is devoid of politics or other inner meanings. If you put your heart into something, no matter what it is, it’s going to shine through. Like attracts like in that way, because people can see it, people can see that you care and love this thing that you’re doing and making. And if that inspires them to create something themselves? Speaking as an artist, that’s the best damn result, and hearing that something that I’ve made has wanted someone to make their own thing is the greatest feeling. Because there’s room for everyone in this, it’s not a secret club locked off to only a small few.

You’re putting energy into the world when you create. You can choose whether that energy is positive or negative; it will bloom in kind.

(That energy could also result in the most powerful photo in human history of three people in badger costumes dabbing in the lobby of a college arts center. Like I said, it’s your choice.)

It’s been exceedingly difficult lately to not feel like making art isn’t worth it, given the state of the world as a whole. It feels pointless, an exercise in futility, and there’s only so many times you can drag yourself through it alone. But you’re not. And while we’re all going through the same shit, or variations of the same shit, at least we’re all in it together, and sometimes all you need is a little bit of company, someone to cheer you on, to remind you why you create.

Because here’s the thing: the big bad of Magic Tavern isn’t the Dark Lord, or the Mysterious Man with unexplainable motives holed away in some space station. It’s not the achingly polite yet clearly evil baron, the necromancer chef who’s made of a bunch of snakes. It’s the Void, a cosmic force that seemingly consumes every world in its wake, and the only way to defeat it is creation. No matter how silly, no matter how much skill you think you have or don’t have, that’s the key to stopping the most absolutely terrifying force in the world. And we’re gonna do it together.

A few months ago, I listened to an interview where something Arnie said about starting new creative endeavors really struck me: “Figure out what communities you’re involved in, and they’ll be excited to be a part of what you’re making.” When I first heard it, I got caught up in my own head because I felt like I couldn’t answer that query in the slightest. If imposter syndrome is feeling like you’re gonna get kicked out of the party, the imposter syndrome new game plus I was grappling with was feeling like you were trying to pull an Ocean’s Eleven style heist to break into somewhere that might be a party. When we started pre-production on Guilty Treasures, I realized what Arnie meant, as friends and peers expressed excitement at wanting to be a part of it. And this Gen Con weekend, trying to do my best to articulate how much this show and the honesty that shines through it has meant to me, thanking the people who make it for their incredible kindness, excitedly recapping the favorite parts of the show on the ride back to the hotel with the amazing friends I had met just a short time ago but felt like I’d known them for years, it solidified something that has become so important to my philosophy.

I don’t want to regret telling someone what their work means to me. I stumble over my words sometimes because I can’t find all the right ones in the right order, or there’s just too many, all vying for their moment. I chide myself for lack of eloquence, for getting choked up in the middle of a conversation. To call back to what I said Saturday night, dressed in a goddamn badger kigu: I just worry I’m being weird.

But man, fuck it. Life is short, and there’s no time for half-caring. Care with your whole heart, throw yourself into the deep end and learn how to swim, because in doing so, you’re going to wind up with the people you’re meant to be with.

but a faint gust of hope

Well, hey, 2017 is over. Or, almost over. You know what that means: your regularly scheduled year-in-review post where I get sappy and introspective and all that junk.

This year felt like five years jammed into one: impossibly long and arduous and stressful, so much so that it feels like events that happened in February and March were experienced by a different person entirely. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe my past self would not have been able to weather the storm that was this year.

As a whole, I’m tired. I can barely keep my thoughts straight to write this, because whenever I hit that point of “well, I think I’ve covered everything!”, I remember something else that invariablely did happen in this whirlwind of a year. I know time is an arbitrary measurement, but a new year at least still brings the promise of a new start and that is desperately needed right now. I want to put a cap on everything that fits under the umbrella of 2017. I’m exhausted by it. It was good and bad and a seemingly endless string of stress on a national and global level that I felt myself buckle under the weight of. I can only do so much.

But it was good, too. That’s the weird thing about it. It feels strange to write about all the good things because there’s so much garbage. But maybe that makes it all the more important to celebrate the good.

Anyway, in no particular order, some points:

  1. Adventure and friendship.

I mean, ok, technically we started playing Dungeons and Dragons in 2016, but we really got into the thick of it this year, so I’m counting it now. It was a challenge, for sure: trying to coordinate four peoples’ schedules to find a single day to play fantasy characters and roll some dice is often an impossible feat. But we did it. Time and time again, no matter how hard, no matter how many times we said “ok, how’s next month look then”, we all made the effort because it was important to us. Being able to carve out a day, or a weekend, and sit around a table with three of my best friends in the world and make up some goofy fantasy world where a dwarf throws his teammate at any chance and flirts with literally every single enemy, or where an elf who was meant to be a mythical hero accidentally became a babysitter for her other two party members, or where a child is adventuring with aforementioned dwarf and elf and stealing everything she can get her hands on, where all the while I’m building the sets that they help shape and interact with…it was terrifying, at the start. I didn’t want to let my friends down: after we had finished the pre-packaged adventure, I was writing all of the campaign, all of the encounters, all of the story, often running on fumes trying to finish prep with my busy schedule, and my number one priority was always that they had fun. It’s what I think the most important part of being a dungeon master is. But the late nights, the worry, the self-imposed pressure–it was all worth it to spend time with my friends, to see them get into the world, to get invested in the story and in the characters I presented and to do things I would have never expected in a million years. I look exasperated in these moments, sure, but I love them so much, and I love them so much. It means everything to me to get to build a story with my favorite people on Earth.

It’s silly, sure, to place something like this at the top tier of importance. Maybe someone would argue that it doesn’t mean anything, all things considered. But I think these moments of joy are a rebellion, especially this year. Especially this year.

We didn’t get to road trip as much, which was a bummer, but the ones we did were precious and special: in February everyone loaded into my car to drive down to Cincinnati to see an Interrobang live show, which pretty much everyone only knew of by my explanation of it. It was an incredible evening, filled with laughter and love and tears (the good kind), and I still hold in me that feeling I had as we walked back to our hotel, down the streets of downtown Cincinnati, the chill in the air that was cold but still too warm for a late February night. It was just purely in the moment, with people I love, sharing the things that I love, and it was electrifying. I can only hope that 2017 brings more of those moments.

  1. Got my first Big freelance job.

“Emily, when are you gonna stop talking about that time you did a poster for a My Brother, My Brother and Me live show?” Never, because a) it still baffles me even though I literally have a proof I made of that poster hanging in my cubicle at work and b) I can’t believe that was this year because it feels like AGES AGO (which just goes to show how harrowing this year has been, hoofa doofa.)

Doing a project this big and this important to me was a lot of weight on my shoulders, and though there were some hiccups along the way, I learned a hell of a lot doing it, and it was all worth it: there is something so incredibly touching and humbling about the thought that someone picked up a print of your art and for them, it will be a reminder of an amazing night they had, an incredible show. A tiny part of me got to be a part of that, and I could not be more grateful for that, or for the McElroys for giving me the opportunity. All I want to do with my art is spread joy. And I got to do that.

Plus like, someone took a picture of my poster with a haunted doll, and that’s the coolest thing ever? That’s incredible?

  1. Dealt with a pretty severe anxiety spiral that lasted for months.

Well, they can’t all be good, you know.

To some extent, it felt like the first third of 2017 was front-loaded with good vibes. I was going on cool trips with friends, I was hopeful for advancement in my day job, I was landing pretty cool freelance work. I felt like I had finally grown comfortable with myself and who I was, and then that armor of self-confidence took blow after blow after blow from my own self-doubt. I forced myself through it for months, still tried to make comics and other work to try to distract myself from it, but it took a toll on me. I started to convince myself that any previous success was unearned, or given out of pity. “You’re an annoying weirdo, they’re letting you do this so you’ll shut up,” my anxiety constantly shouted at me, and despite my logic producing evidence to the contrary time and time again, it ate me up inside. I started to distance myself from the things that brought me joy because of the fear that I was somehow “imposing” in someway. Hell, I’m still doing this now, with new things I’m getting into, because suddenly this fear kicks in that I’m “too much.” Too much what, I have no idea. Anxiety is fun that way.

For some reason, the “who cares if I’m too much, I’m me” attitude I had built last year was shattered. I’m slowly putting it back together, piece by piece, a little differently than last time, hopefully stronger. The struggle I went through this year is motivating me to take better care of myself in 2018: physically and mentally. I’m going to try to give myself more breaks, to cut myself way more slack, recognize when I’m spiraling and try to stop it instead of letting it fester and grow. Little steps.

  1. Made a lot of comics that I’m really proud of.

I didn’t really realize how much I had made this year until I was sitting down and doing that 2017 Summary of Art thing and struggling to pick out a piece for each month but: man I made a lot of comics this year. A lot of comics that I really, truly dig. I could write about them all but instead, check this Twitter thread I made with some of my favorite ones. I think it’s better to let them speak for themselves.

As a whole, I’ve always felt weirdly outside of the “comics world”, because my main project lately has been short-form auto-bio, but I’m becoming more comfortable with my voice. Sure, I make ham-fisted self-insert comics that talk about the merits of storytelling and celebrate the things I love, but if I’m not gonna do that, then who is?

  1. Got my art shared by some really cool people.

Oops, this one is just a humblebrag section, but one of my resolutions for the oncoming year is to not feel guilty when I talk about things that happen to me that I think are really cool and there’s no time like the present!

Like hey, my art got shared by Joel Hodgson of MST3K on the official Kickstarter blog? (MST3K staff asked me if it was cool before this happened and I said yes, which was sweet of them.) What? What?

And double hey, my comic got shared on the Hello from the Magic Tavern Facebook page? And retweeted by a bunch of people? And I might have cried seeing people resonate with it and understand what I was trying to say about storytelling with it? A MYSTERY THAT WILL NEVER BE SOLVED (I did cry.)

  1. Did a bunch of stuff I would have been too afraid to do before.

Like, yo, I solo-tabled at an expo this year! I went to a live show in a different city by myself! (Granted that one was subsequently sullied by my garbage anxiety brain, but I still did the dang thing!) I went to MaxFunCon East again and met a bunch of new people, and stood in front of them and talked about my anxieties and self-doubt, and made a bunch of friends! I went to a TWRP concert and met a friend I’ve known online for years in person for the first time! Even though I struggled harder than I have in a while with a lot of things, I’m proud that I took these steps, despite the fact that they absolutely terrified me. I only hope that 2018 brings more opportunities for that! Twenty-serpentine can be every year if you keep zaggin’ on ‘em.

  1. Helped to organize three charity zines that raised thousands of dollars for incredible causes and strengthened friendships.

In a year that has been so shitty on the grand scheme of things, the moments where I could do something to help became precious. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to work on Super Zine Bros, Kirby’s Zine Land, and Scary Zine Squad with the incredible teams who worked their butts off to get them off the ground, artists who made amazing work that made these books possible, and the people who gave their blessing for us to do these projects. We’ve been able to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association, Meals on Wheels, and Make-a-Wish, and I’ve also been able to get to know so many lovely people and become closer friends with the people behind the organization of these projects. The power of these communities moved me again and again this year, and when things seemed especially bleak, I found strength in the good we were able to do all together.

  1. Made new friends, found new communities, kept going.

This was a year of a lot of loss and frustration. For one reason or another, I abandoned a lot of the places I would turn to for creative inspiration and comfort. In the end, it’s for the better, but that sort of thing still stings, and makes it hard to find those spaces again because I doubt my judgement more and more after being hurt like that. But going to MaxFunCon East in September and feeling completely at home among everyone there, meeting up with old friends and getting to know new ones, or joining an artist Discord where people support each other, not just professionally, but as people…it’s a precious feeling that I’m going to hold onto in the new year. It reminded me that it’s ok to let my guard down again. It’s ok to find enjoyment in art, especially when you can share that enjoyment with others. Even just in the last month, getting into Hello From the Magic Tavern, I’ve made new friends through a shared love of a goofy fantasy improv podcast. Twitter and the internet in general sucks a lot of the time, but it’s nice in this one specific way where it doesn’t quite suck.

Through thick and thin, we’ll stick together. We’ll surge forward into 2018, into the great unknown, but at least we’ll have each other by our sides. And we’re not going anywhere, at least not without a fight.

So here’s to you, 2018. May we fight for you to be better than the last.

don’t try to write your name in the clouds from the ground

It feels weird to write lately.

It feels weird because there’s so much going on in the world–what feels like a constant string of chaos after tragedy after panic–that it feels somehow wrong to write about a good thing. I feel like my head is on a swivel: I’m constantly checking the news, on friends in the path of natural disasters, so on and so forth. It’s a permanent alert state. Good things feel like they’re not supposed to happen right now, or it feels like writing about a good thing trivializes all of the bad things, pretends they’re not there.

I know that’s not true. Writing about and celebrating moments of joy and hope and community are even more important now, because they’re what tie us together, what keeps us going in the face of it all.

But it still feels weird.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about MaxFunCon East before the moment is just another marker on a calendar, or a lanyard hanging on the wall, or photos in my phone to wistfully flip through on a quiet night when I’m feeling sentimental, and I keep coming up empty. (Actually, I didn’t really take a whole lot of photos this year. Part of that is a little bit of a bummer, but it’s mainly because I didn’t really pull my phone out too much this weekend, which is a larger success, in my opinion.)

There’s something about MaxFunCon East that I wish I could bottle and save, keep for those days that are especially rough. And maybe in some way, writing about it is that, but the fact that you can’t bottle it up, that it’s such a unique and special experience just makes it even more dear to me, I think. I know that sounds cornball to the max, but it was what I kept coming back to through the whole weekend: there’s no good way to describe MaxFunCon to other people. I could call it a podcast conference, I could call it a creative retreat (this one is my go to when I talk to people at work about it), but mainly it’s an experience with a bunch of like-minded but diverse people and a reminder that we’re all here for each other, that we’re all in the same boat trying to keep going.

You see, the boat is…the world, I guess? And MaxFunCon is just one of the ways we’re able to bail it out for a moment and take a reprieve from the next wave that’s going to come crashing down on it? I’m losing this metaphor.

Attending MFCE last year was a) one of the highlights of my year and b) one of the most stressful things I’ve done. I don’t regret it in the slightest, but thinking back on it, it does bum me out that I didn’t quite relax and allow myself to really enjoy it until halfway through the event.  And while I was certainly anxious this year too (spoiler alert for every future thing I ever write: I will always be anxious), stepping into the resort lobby in the Pennsylvania mountains two weekends ago was like coming home.

(My home is a haunted resort, have I never mentioned that before?)

It wasn’t long before I was among familiar and new faces: catching up with people I had met last year, meeting first-time attendees. There was no pressure, no worry that I was talking too much, or that I had said the wrong thing, because I knew we were all feeling that like, and it nullified the anxiety. It gave me the bravery to face it head on: I stood in front of everyone on Saturday afternoon during Jean Grae’s incredible keynote and talked about how much I struggled with imposter syndrome and feeling like I “deserved” to be an artist.

“I know everyone feels like this,” I said. “I just wish knowing that changed something.”

“You say you feel like you’re faking it as an artist,” she told me, “but you came up here and introduced yourself as one.”

Oh. I thought. Oh shit, yeah.

Later that night, multiple people came up to me to thank me for going up there and speaking up. Because they felt the same way too, and I had vocalized it for them.

It’s sounds so simple when I write it down, but I’ve been thinking about it constantly because it struck me right to the core. She was so, so right. I said it. I introduce myself as an artist all the time, and I don’t think twice about it, and yet I feel like I have this cloud of imposter syndrome following me wherever I go, like at any moment someone’s going to point at me and yell “wait, she doesn’t belong here! She’s not a real artist!” and usher me out of the room. Something definitely clicked for me in that moment, and while nothing will be the magic spell to make me not feel anxious about my work, it’s another moment I can use to remind myself, another tool in my back pocket to fight against my own anxiety.

MFCE felt almost somber at times this year; the stand-up, showcase the talks, our conversations…they didn’t refuse to acknowledge the world we live in today. It just simply asked “what can we do to keep trying to make it better?”

That’s why events like MaxFunCon East are so important. They’re a moment to take a break from the stress, to laugh at silly jokes and passionately talk about Dungeons and Dragons, sure, but they don’t pretend that the world around them doesn’t exist. Sometimes you need a reprieve, of course (and sometimes that reprieve is singing along to the Talking Heads at the top of your lungs with a room full of people), but it’s not hiding: it’s restoring strength so that you can come back to the fight ready to roll, with new vigor.

This incredible weekend with this community–the first community I’ve felt truly accepted and welcome in–is another moment to remind myself that there’s a reason to keep going, and keep fighting, and keep creating, even if it’s silly or feels meaningless, because there is so much in the world that would say “stop”. But that’s when it’s most important.

But hey. I’m an artist. And you’re an artist too, in whatever you decide to do, even if you don’t think it counts as “art”. (It does. Who gives a shit if it doesn’t belong in a museum?)

And we have each other, through all of this.

And we’re gonna make art.

not all exits are made equal

I can’t promise this will be graceful. It will likely be rambly and sappy, and it will likely be things I’ve said hundreds of times over. But here we are, you know. You come to me for the rambly, emotional blog posts about media that has affected me. Y’all know the drill.

The Adventure Zone has done so much for me in the last year and a half that it’s genuinely hard to fathom. I found it through some online friends and started listening to it on a lark. It got me through painfully routine and crushing days at a crummy temp job. I listened to it while working on comics in my basement, processing my burnout through art. It was an escape and a comfort when I needed it most, when I didn’t even really know I needed it: I felt mired in indecision; I felt like a failure, but I could listen to these three brothers and their dad play Dungeons and Dragons and make silly jokes and roleplay beautiful moments that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe, that stopped my dead in my tracks, that made me cry, that struck me right through the heart. I can’t list them all, can’t even begin to try.

(The first one that got me was Sloane and Hurley. I had to put down my brush pen and ended up sobbing so hard that I was supporting myself with my drafting table. The second one was Lucas’ biting “I’m not sorry” as he justified his actions in his attempts to save his mom, for reasons that hit a lot closer to home.

There have been many, many others since then.)

I found this podcast at a time where I was very disillusioned with why I wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t in the industry, wasn’t good enough, and so I felt like I had failed. Despite logic, there was something inside me that said I had been kidding myself with wanting to pursue my passion to make comics and art and tell stories because I hadn’t hit some arbitrary “accomplishment mark” yet. I felt like I had wasted four years of my life at college–heck, not to mention my entire life up until that point–chasing an impossible dream. Everything I made felt trite and cheap, and I was running into brick wall after brick wall. Why did I think I could be an artist? Why did I even want to be one to begin with?

I want to make sure that the gravity of that statement comes across. Art, in all forms, is a part of me as much as breathing. If I sit back and think about what I might do in my life if it didn’t involve art and storytelling, I genuinely can’t answer that. It’s cliche to say I was the kid that always had a sketchbook, that was always drawing but…I was. And I had lost that joy, somehow. I was lost in a fog: this part of me that I felt sure in for so long–one of the only things I felt sure in–was almost completely detached from me after college from burn out, from feeling like I was spinning my wheels trying and failing to find a job that I could fit in and grow into. It was a weight that I woke up with, that I carried around with me every single day, and I didn’t know how to even start shaking it off.

But listening to The Adventure Zone, listening to the McElroys joke and laugh together, listening to Griffin build his world and story that was so nuanced and captivating…it reminded me. Of why I wanted to go to school for art. Why I wanted to write stories and draw pictures since I could hold a pencil.

Because I want to do all of these things with the people I love.

The passion that Griffin has for this story and world has been and will continue to be a core inspiration for me. In a time where I was so close to throwing my dreams away, his work became a beacon that has become essential for me. TAZ, to me, says it’s ok to make that self-indulgent comic, that goofy illustration. It says to cherish the moments you get when you can sit around a table with people you love, dearly and truly, and play a silly game of pretend for a few hours, and make meaning out of that. It says to love, without shame, wholeheartedly.

Art–I believe–is a living thing. It cannot grow in a vacuum. Art isolated is stagnant, unchanging. And that’s not bad by any means, but god, how much greater stories are when you tell them with other people. The moments that catch my breath in The Adventure Zone are a group effort. They’re Griffin setting the stage, Travis, Justin and Clint building off of that in wonderful, unimaginable, unplannable ways, Griffin reacting, repeat until you’ve got sixty-nine (nice) episodes of a story that started as a goof-filled romp and ends as an incredible epic.

I finished that comic about my burnout, Hometown Ghosts, last May while listening to the Crystal Kingdom chapter. It was the first fully realized story that I printed and could hold in my hands. I dusted off my books for the first time in four years and learned how to be a dungeon master so I could play D&D with my friends because of this podcast. When they started listening to The Adventure Zone too, that was another thing we could share while the stressors of the world hefted themselves onto our shoulders.

Like, seriously: my Dungeons & Dragons group, one of the lights of my life would not exist if not for The Adventure Zone. I would not get to build an incredible and fun story with three of my best friends if not for this podcast.

These characters, too, taught me so much. Taako gave me confidence in being myself and being unashamed of that. Magnus showed me love, protection, and true strength: asking for help, becoming more powerful together than apart. Merle reminded me that family is what you make of it, and sometimes, you just have to dance. I related deeply to Lucretia’s selflessness, found power in Lup, so on and so on for practically every character in this world.

As cheesy as it sounds, one thing struck me over and over again during this podcast: love. Characters who love each other, who protect each other, who fight for each other and the family that they’ve made. When everything around feels bleak and hopeless, this podcast is a stubborn reminder that the bonds we make with others are the strongest force in the world. The Starblaster is powered by love, but so is the entire world, and I don’t mean just Feyrun: the love that the McElroys have for each other, and this story, and this community. I’ve met so many dear friends because of The Adventure Zone. There’s nothing that can quite describe the moment I had last year at MaxFunCon East, where I walked into a room full of strangers, completely alone, and walked out of it making lifelong friends because this podcast had brought us all together.

In the world we live in now, we need these points of light. We need to keep creating, to keep encouraging and rallying around things like The Adventure Zone. Sometimes they’re all we have to fight off the darkness.

Because here’s the thing that I feel like The Adventure Zone drives home: it’s so easy to not care. It’s so easy to look at someone else’s life, to look at the world, say “this doesn’t affect me” and move on. And sure, that’s a way to live, and I’m sure to some extent someone could be fulfilled by that. And sure, the road that’s paved with empathy is also, at times, extremely and painfully difficult.

But I’ll choose that road every single time. Because life is so much richer, so much fuller, so much more beautiful when you focus on the role you play in other’s narratives. And it’s so much more fun together.

So thank you: Griffin, for this incredible world and story full of love and hope; Justin, Travis, and Clint for these characters that have brought so much to my life; all of you, for the loving community that this story has fostered.

It feels so weird, to have this story that’s played such a pivotal role in my life for the last year and a half be over, but it’s also joyous and celebratory. It’s that strange giddiness that you only feel at New Year’s Eve: the closing of one part of a story, but the beginning of a new one. I feel like I need champagne or something right now, just to punctuate it.

This may be the end of this story, of Taako and Merle and Magnus’ journey, but it’s not the end of the adventure, and while I’ll miss this world and these characters dearly, I’m excited to see what’s in store for the future.

I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.

a sign-off

I was going to wait to post this on Thursday, but, well, I have zero chill. Negative chill. It’s summer but I am below freezing constantly, that’s how little chill I have.

It’s hard to say goodbye to something that has brought so much to my life, something that has grown beyond an hour-long weekly podcast that became a part of my Thursday morning routine: trying to grapple with my own struggles while I listened to two very compassionate, empathetic, learning and growing people grapple with their own. It became a moment each week where I confronted the fact that the road that we call life is long, and winding, and hard, but those things don’t make it any less worth walking. Even more so with people you care about.

I think a lot about a day I had last fall, walking around on a crisp afternoon during my lunch break, having just finished up a backlogged Interrobang episode. The scope of the particular episode meandered back and forth through friendships: toxic ones, trying to keep that bridge built when the other person would just let it fall apart. I know it’s cliche to describe things as “clicking into place”, but in that moment, I realized a key component in my life that was actively making me miserable, and decided to finally do something about it.

This podcast–this ongoing conversation–helped me take steps to take care of myself. It helped me realize things about myself; helped me understand that I still need to grow, still need to keep trying. That I will screw up in all of those things, but I will stand up and keep going when that happens.

Ever since I graduated from college, the shows that I listen to and the communities I’ve become a part of have been a rallying cry for myself and my friends–something we can all gather around in the hectic whirlwind of our lives. I’m so wonderfully lucky to have a group of amazing people who, when I approach them with “hey, you wanna take a road trip to Cincinnati to see a live show for a podcast you’ve never listened to but I talk about all the dang time?” respond “hell yeah, when do we leave?” and “I’m gonna make matching back patches for our jackets. Bedazzled ones.” That road trip still means so, so much to me: driving down I-71, screaming along to “Stacy’s Mom” as we pass the infamous “Hell is Real” sign (bless Alex for capturing that moment it all of its glory), having drinks and the most amazing barbecue wings I’ve ever eaten in my life at a bourbon house in downtown Cincinnati as I cry while telling my friends how much I love them, meeting so many lovely and caring people in one small span of time, watching two friends crack jokes, have serious conversation, and say things that resonated with the crowd on a deep level. Everything about that day was electric. I couldn’t help but beam as my friends and I finally collapsed in our hotel room late that night, still laughing and soaking in the energy of that theater, those people, the city.

I’ve always expressed my compassion and thanks to people through art. It’s who I am, an innate part of me that I can’t detach or separate. I can’t say enough how absolutely humbled and honored I feel to have been able to contribute to something that has brought so much self-growth to light for me, and has shown me that I still have so much growing to do. (It is also extremely surreal to see my terrible cursive handwriting on a sticker. Because, uh, that’s about as neat as my cursive ever gets.)

At the February live show, I was able to ask a question to Travis and Tybee; or, rather, pose a topic of discussion as I meandered through my explanation of the ouroboros of frustration that I felt (and, honestly, still feel) in my own life: of knowing things take time but being frustrated in the moment now, and being frustrated because I knew all I had was the moment, but if I knew why was I frustrated, et cetera, et cetera. I relisten to that bit a lot: Travis nailing how I was feeling dead-on in a way that didn’t quite hit me until the Monday after when I was sitting at my desk back at work, the jovial “You’ll feel that way till you die!” that caused all of us to burst into laughter, Tybee’s anecdote about cataloging moments for reflection, the humble wisdom of “divine Tybee” and “zen Travis”. It’s almost surreal to have that moment bottled up, to listen back to and think about how I felt then and how I feel now, think about how people came up to me after the show and thanked me for volunteering my frustration because they felt that way too, or had been there before and empathized with me. I listen back to that episode and think about walking back to the hotel with my three best friends in the entire world, a little fuzzy from gin and champagne, the too-warm-for-late-February air whipping down the quiet streets of Cincinnati, present in the most serene way.

The most important thing this show has done for me is help me to be more comfortable with the person I am, the person I truly know myself to be. Tybee and Travis’ honest conversations have helped me fight that anxiety that continually tries to convince me that I’m “too much”: too sincere, too sentimental, too sensitive, too talkative, so on and so on. But the fact of the matter is that’s who I am. I write long, mushy blog posts about podcasts or comics or tv shows or books, I gush about my friends on Twitter and in person because they mean the absolute world to me and are the reason I make art, I care so dang much and I don’t want to be quiet about it. And all of that is ok. Because it’s me, and I shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.

I struggled for a while to write this the right way, because I couldn’t quite find the words that felt like encompassed the whole of the gift that this podcast has given me. The closest I can get is catharsis, and I think that’s pretty dang powerful, at least for me.

I feel more comfortable in not having all of the answers because of Interrobang. In letting things settle and percolate before approaching them again. In understanding that sometimes I might just not have the words. In living in the moment, and knowing sometimes it’s alright if the moment isn’t great, because this is just one moment, and there are countless more down the line.

That’s the thing about moments, both good and bad and everything in between. They end, and then a new one begins.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet both Travis and Tybee: at Candlenights last year, at the February Interrobang live show, and despite this I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I’ve said thank you enough. They’ve been the direct reason for some of the most amazing moments in my life in the past year, and are also two of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I can’t wait to see what new projects and new moments will lead from this one.

So, thank you both. Thank you for this show, for your honesty, for your openness. Thank you for being a catalyst for self-reflection for me, for moments of clarity. Thank you.

what will you fight for?

Foggy memories of being a kid playing the GBA port of Final Fantasy IV are really the only truth I can claim about my history with the game. I can’t tell you how or where I got it from: I probably convinced my parents to buy it for me at some point because I had played the GBA port of Final Fantasy I. They knew I loved things like Pokemon and Zelda, but I can’t imagine them picking it out for me on their own.

Apparently the GBA port of Final Fantasy IV came out in the US in 2005, which would have made me 12, which meant I was either a 6th or 7th grader in Southern California: a displaced Midwest girl, deep in the throws of puberty in an unfamiliar state with my brother in college in New York and my friends thousands of miles away in my childhood neighborhood in Ohio. Single-player games became increasingly important during these two tumultuous years in which I lived out West: I needed stories I could experience on my own, because—as melodramatic as it sounds—I was the only person I had in that regard.

My parents were never really into video games the way my brother and I were: we had a Mattel Intelevision that my mom would play this first-person Advanced Dungeons & Dragons dungeon crawler on, and she was also a bonafide Dr. Mario master. I remember buying the GBA port of Dr. Mario around the same time and hooking it up via the Game Boy Player on the GameCube so she could play it on the TV (a huge and bulky CRT monstrosity; this was right before plasma and LED became the Thing for televisions).

I picked up Final Fantasy IV again the other day because I never quite beat it as a kid. I got close, but had orchestrated a situation that would have required hours of level grinding to get through the end, and it’s likely I got distracted by something else. I can’t tell you if that was because of bad pacing or just me being a complete dolt in terms of how you should play an RPG, because 23-year-old me hasn’t really gotten stuck at all in this play through, so I’ll let you be the judge of that. Maybe I’m just more dedicated to fighting every random encounter I run into now?

On the surface, the story of Final Fantasy IV is pretty unremarkable. Bad guy wants to take over the world, a bunch of heroes all band together to stop him and in turn relationships form as they’re whisked away to different fanciful locales (including but not limited to: forest villages, islands, mystic caves, the underworld, a dwarf kingdom, the magical land of summons, the moon). If you strip down the details of pretty much any fantasy RPG, you get the same formula, for the most part (plus or minus the moon). Replaying it last weekend—with a little more life, a little more experience under my belt as 23 year-old person (but not a huge amount by any means, don’t get me wrong)—I struggled to understand why this game captivated me as a kid. It seemed so basic and barebones, but I have vivid memories of playing this game, curled up in a beanbag chair in the loft of a house that didn’t feel like a home, and being in awe as I piloted a little 10×10 pixel airship around a sprawling fantasy realm.

And then it hit me.

This will involve spoilers, so you might want to stop reading if that’s important to you: Final Fantasy IV is mainly the story of Cecil, a dark night from the kingdom of Baron—a kingdom that has grown more and more imperialistic under the rule of a corrupt king. The game opens with Cecil carrying out some pretty heinous deeds under the orders of the king: the village of Mysidia is invaded and innocent people are murdered in order to claim the crystal they protect, and one of the first actions you do as the team of Cecil and Kain (Cecil’s childhood friend, dragoon, and eventual certified douchenozzle) is travel to the village of Mist and inadvertently destroy it with a hidden bomb you were given (to give credit to Cecil (and I suppose, yourself), he didn’t know any of this: he was simply ordered to go to Mist).

Basically, in the first twenty minutes of the game, you witness our hero commit murder in the name of a corrupt kingdom, and then you as our hero destroy an innocent village.

Uplifting, right?

Shortly after this, Cecil renounces the king he thought he once knew: this was not why he became a dark knight, this was not why he dedicated himself to the king, the man who raised him as a child who was know unrecognizable to him (you later find out the actual king’s been dead for a while and the acting king is one of the four elemental lords so like, no hard feelings Cecil, you couldn’t have known, I guess?). He pledges himself to destroy the empire Baron has become and eventually gathers a motley crew of rebellion: Rosa, a white mage and his love interest; Rydia, a young summoner and the only survivor of the desolation of Mist; Yang, a devout monk of the kingdom of Fabul, and Edward, a sheepish prince who has lost both his kingdom and his lover in the wake of Baron’s reign.

The story’s on an upturn from here: the party secures a ship to sail back to Baron and infiltrate the castle in order to steal an airship, when Leviathan suddenly intercepts the boat, causing the group to scatter. Cecil wakes up in Mysidia—the city he personally seized in the beginning cutscene of the game—alone.

There’s some stuff about prophecy here that ties into later story junk, but what strikes me in this moment now is Cecil himself: a dark knight trying so hard to redeem himself, to set right what once was wrong, who is now completely and utterly alone in a place that hates him (rightfully so; he admits this himself). The love of his life, the young woman he swore to protect after being the cause of her hardship, the monk and prince that he fought side by side with against the armies of the place he once called home are all—as far as he knows—dead. He has nothing.

And yet, he strives for good. He rolls into a town that despises him, wishes him dead, and yet continues to ask “How do I become better?” He travels to Mt. Ordeals—a harrowing journey that few return from—just based on the hope that he may renounce the dark sword that lead him down this path. And he returns from this journey a paladin, a holy knight. In order to do this, he fights himself—his reflection and dark knight persona.

Except he doesn’t. You can’t win the battle if you continually attack Dark Knight Cecil. The only way to progress is to defend or heal for five or so consecutive turns. After this time, the shadow addresses Cecil before disappearing:

Some fight for justice.

Some fight for love.

What will you fight for?

12-year-old Emily lost her mind at this, by the way. Sure, the “fight your shadow double” is a pretty wrote trope in genre pieces, but I hadn’t encountered it, and it completely enthralled me. Even if I didn’t fully grasp the character of Cecil the way I do now (because, let’s be honest here, the writing is bare-thin throughout this whole game, especially compared to how lore-heavy recent Final Fantasy games are), there was a gravitas to this moment that I couldn’t shake, because I had never witnessed such an about-face in a character before.

And here’s the kicker, the thing that video games allow you to do that books and movies don’t: I wasn’t just watching this character go through this transformation. I was a part of it. Both 12-year-old and 23-year-old me allowed Cecil to progress through his struggle through our input. I don’t think 12-year-old me really appreciated that agency, but 23-year-old me certainly does.

The dialogue, in retrospect, is cheesy. The plot is filled with cliches and stereotypical struggles between good and evil. The gameplay—like most RPGs—is repetitive and tiresome. The whole “twist” near the end is absolutely ridiculous.

But it doesn’t make this game’s impact on my life any less important. I wrote differently because of Final Fantasy IV. In some respect, the artist I am today has Final Fantasy IV to thank for opening my eyes to writing characters that exist beyond the binary of good and evil.

Also, the whole “going to the moon” thing is pretty cool.

only the good old days

new-year

(I typically try to write a “year in review” sort-of post every year I’ve kept a long-form blog, but since a lot of stuff happened this year, I’ve decided to split it into multiple ramblings. Enjoy.)

2016. Hooooofa doofa.

After I wrote my big ol’ MBMBaM post, I kind of lost steam on my 2016 reflections. I mainly hadn’t realized how much of this year and the good things that happened in it were as a result of the things I did and the opportunities I got because of everything surrounding that podcast and community. Well, I mean, I did those things, credit to the tools and all but more credit to the carpenter, I guess. But after all that outpouring of love, fatigue hit me like a sack of bricks.

It’s been difficult the last few weeks trying to remind myself that there was good that came out of this year, especially with all the loss we’ve been bombarded with in the last few days alone. But I’ll try my best:

I held three separate jobs throughout this year, and am currently in one I actually really like. The people I work with care about me; I feel like part of a team, for once.

In March I sat on a tiny bridge in the middle of a resort in Orlando, in darkness, listening to a cover of Wish You Were Here and decided to make my next big comic project. And I finished it. When someone bought a copy of it from me at Matsuricon in August, they asked me to sign it. I almost cried. (In addition: I did my first three-day con! And didn’t die! Which would have been impossible without Alex there to help me and find ginger ale for me when I was a shambling husk of a human at one point.)

I used to be terrified of driving: this year alone I road-tripped with my best friends in the world to both Indiana and West Virginia. I found solace in the peaceful drives back from Alex’s apartment, listening to a podcast, one of the few cars on the turnpike.

My music taste broadened, and new songs became my anthems, my shields. This seems silly to list, but there’s nothing more blissful than hopping into my car after a crummy day of work and hearing those first few chords of Run Away With Me wash over me.

I mean, heck, even the last month along was bizarre and surreal! I did a design commission for one of my favorite podcasts! There aren’t words to describe how honored I feel to do that, to help contribute to something that has helped me make decisions in my life that have lead to me being happier and healthier.

I made new friends, who have–in such a short span of time–changed my life. I’ve become more confident. I’ve become stronger.

There was a moment, the morning of November 9th, where I was absolutely devastated. I almost couldn’t drag myself out of bed. The fear of what the future might bring was a weight on my chest that was crushing me more than ever.

That weight and fear is still there. But I’m ready to fight. I’m the type of person to wear my heart on my sleeve, and that’s who I am, and I’m not letting hateful people change that.

So get ready, 2017. I’m not holding back.

(Also hey, I made a short end-of-the-year playlist, if that’s a thing you’re into. It’s stereotypically me. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.)

take a chance

candlenights

(I typically try to write a “year in review” sort-of post every year I’ve kept a long-form blog, but since a lot of stuff happened this year, I’ve decided to split it into multiple ramblings. Enjoy.)

“The McElroy brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed…”

It was late March 2016 and after a brief period of unemployment (after leaving a job that was basically draining the life out of me), I landed another freelance gig through the same agency—this time at a marketing firm. The work had a little more variety than the previous corporate “design” slog I had dealt with since last August, but it wasn’t long until the days started to drag on: I would wait for feedback, wait for emails, wait for more work after I had quickly finished up whatever was on my plate, wait wait wait. With all of the free time I seemingly had, I decided to make good on a recommendation from a friend of mine, and found myself typing “my brother my brother and me” into my browser search bar.

Onsta really likes this podcast, I thought. And like, she’s got good taste. So maybe I’ll like it too.

Onsta and I had become fast friends through collaboration on some previous Game Grumps fan projects, and MBMBaM often made its way onto my Twitter dashboard through her retweets before I got into it proper. With a little bit of hesitation, I loaded up a recent episode, and threw caution into the wind.

It took less than that episode to drag me in (I think it was MaxFunDrive season at the time, so I want to say it was 295? Honestly, it was probably the Very Tall Wife bit that absolutely sold me). I was hooked. I quickly found myself having to stifle my laughter at my desk for fear of passersby judging me as the podcast became a part of my daily work routine. I backtracked through the archive, bounced around in years, and found precious comfort these three dudes who seemingly struck my sense of humor perfectly. The podcast became something that kept me company during both my day job and my own (and at this time, often lonely) art endeavors.

The freelance design job didn’t last long: I was unceremoniously dropped from it after they had run out of things for me to do in mid-May. Even while I was there, I didn’t feel welcome, despite their appreciation for the quality and timeliness of my work. I remember looking up from my computer—after slogging away for hours at some inconsequential corporate whitepaper design, a MBMBaM episode the only thing keeping me sane—to find the entire office empty, except for me. They were down the hall, having a party in the conference room. I want to say it was for Cinco de Mayo, but I can’t quite remember. I wouldn’t have even known where they had gone had I not walked down the hall to grab my lunch from the break room.

A frame from Hometown Ghosts.
A frame from Hometown Ghosts.

The work at my first freelance position might have been shit, but at least the people were kind and made me feel welcome. Here, it was obvious I was the hired gun, and the exclusion hurt. I found myself back at square one, again. The difference was that—at this time—I had started working on a short comic project, Hometown Ghosts, and so the mornings became job hunting, and the evenings became comic work and podcasts. Here began my love of The Adventure Zone, as I listened to episode after episode while I penciled and inked huge comic pages. It’s probably one of the reasons Hometown Ghosts ended like it did, with a promise of hope, of continuing effort. My initial drafts were…dire, to say the least. I needed something to shake me out of the creative and emotional pit I was digging for myself, and as goofy as it sounds, the adventures of Taako, Magnus, Merle, and the captivating cast of supporting characters were the ladder I needed to pull myself out.

I made prints of the player characters (and Angus!) for the McElroys at MaxFunCon East: these are them! (Spoiler alert: I was very nervous but it was super cool.)

This would become a recurring theme throughout the year. In rough moments (and hoooo boy, there were a lot of them, lookin’ at you, November) I would find myself trying to quell my anxiety by taking a few deep breaths and listening to an episode of MBMBaM, or Sawbones, or Rose Buddies. (Rose Buddies in particular has been a healing salve of podcasts: I was on vacation in November during the election, and one of the few times I was able to stop myself from spiraling into an anxiety pit was when I turned on an episode and just buritto’d myself in blankets. Good times, November.)

In May, I started drawing fanart of both MBMBaM and Adventure Zone—comics of bits that I liked, character design tests for The Adventure Zone—because it was fun for me, a way to destress and relax. But here’s the thing: I was getting feedback. Like, a lot of it. Way more than I had ever gotten before, even in fanart measures. Retweets, replies, just this complete outpouring of love from strangers that knocked me off my feet every time. And here’s the kicker: they would then go on to read my original comics, or look at more of my work. That had never happened to me. It might be egotistical to say, but knowing I’ve brought someone happiness or just something good through my art is the best feeling, and I’ve gotten so much of that kindness from the community that has built itself around the McElroy family of products. They’ve brought me so much comfort, and being able to return some of that is the least I can do.

My favorite thing about drawing fanart for stuff like The Adventure Zone is watching my personal designs for the characters develop. Main changes: Magnus became more “Looks Like He’d Be Good at Hugs,” Merle became 150% more beard, and Taako…well, Taako now permanently has “Flip Wizard” on his hat, because I can (also it’s a Discworld goof).

(Ok, preemptive apology: this is gonna start getting a little braggy. I constantly live in a struggle where I am humble and don’t want attention but simultaneously want to stick my leg out and pose dramatically every time a cool thing happens.)

dairy-queen
A frame from my comic, Steamed Veggies: The squad returns home from a June adventure, and I play MBMBaM the whole drive back, because I’m driving, and that’s my gosh darn right.

I genuinely can’t begin to properly quantify the amount of joy and love that has accumulated throughout this year as a result of these cool people and their work. I played some MBMBaM episodes for my friends Alex and LiZz in June when we went to IndyPopCon, and one tiny bit in the Candlenights 2015 live show became such a thing for us that LiZz made us keychains of it for Christmas. I’ve written at length about MaxFunCon East already (and, as my friends know, I still can’t shut up about it), but I really consider that weekend to be a personal level-up. Like, I left the Poconos and saw the little experience bar fill up with a satisfying ding! I still think about Justin’s benediction when I find myself at a low point, for whatever reason that might be.

One of various comics I did reflecting on my MaxFunCon East adventures. That is still the first thought I have whenever I pull up that photo.

Fast forward from there to the end of September, where a bunch of us from all over the Midwest and Northeast US who had become friends during that fateful MFCE weekend met up in Huntington, WV for the Candlenights live show (which is just an absolutely ridiculous sentence to type). The second I got in my car to drive home the day after the show, I burst into tears; full of so much emotion that I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

I finally started a Dungeons and Dragons group after kicking the can on it for 4+ years, mainly because of The Adventure Zone. I get to build an amazing story with some of my favorite people in the world, and this podcast lit the fire under my butt to get it going. Even the little things: I send my friends clips of the show when they remind me of them, my friends and I frequently sit down and watch new Monster Factory episodes when they drop, the discussions on Interrobang have lead me to finally take some control over the toxic relationships I kept fostering in my life, and have ultimately helped me be a happier person.

Candlenights! Candlenights! (Burgers! Burgers!) [Please note my good good fashion sense.]

In the bigger sense, I’ve felt validated as an artist through the conversations I’ve had with these rad people, which is something I’ve always struggled with. I was surprised when Justin mentioned the piece I wrote about MaxFunCon East to me at the Candlenights show. I’ve thought about that moment a lot and my reaction, whether it’s a self-esteem thing or what have you. I’m still not quite sure what the surprise says about me: maybe it’s just hard to step outside of myself and the things I make because, well, I’m me and I make them. So when someone takes the time to appreciate something I’ve made in response to their work, and say that…I can’t put into words how much that means to me, especially as someone who’s felt like they’ve been on outside of a lot of communities, both online and in real life, big and small.

What it comes down to is that for the first time in a really, really long time, I let myself have fun. I didn’t worry if it was “ok”, or if I deserved it, or if I could have been spending my time better by working on my portfolio or furthering my career or whatever. I just enjoyed the moment, and the people around me, and it’s good to find that again.

Let’s be real here: this year, in a lot of ways, in many “grand-scheme-of-things” ways, was horrible and terrifying. I’ve been hugging people a lot tighter lately. I’ve been looking at the future with steeled determination. But I know there’s good in the world, and these people—these podcasts, the opportunities I’ve had to grow because of them, the friendships I’ve formed and strengthened because we’ve rallied around something beautiful and kind in a world that sometimes feels so harsh—remind me of that fact.

I’ve said it on Twitter various times, I’ve said it in my art, and I’ve had the opportunity to say it in person, but it bares saying again, to the entire McElroy family: thank you. Thank you for your kindness, the genuine community that has been cultivated because of that kindness, and your commitment to giving us something to laugh about, especially when the going gets rough.

**greatjob**

firewood

firewoodI’m writing this now because I want to grab a hold of these feelings while they’re still fresh and new, while I can still grasp them at a moment’s notice and feel them well up inside of me, full to burst. Right now, the reflection comic I’m working on is piece-meal—thumbnails scratched in the margins of my work notebook (before you scold me, mainly during lunch! But sometimes during meetings. Don’t tell my boss), a few proof-of-concept approaches, but not much else. I’d love to have the comic done by the end of September, but looking over at my calendar shows that practically every weekend is booked this month, so we’ll see what happens.

I initially wasn’t going to go to MaxFunCon East, to be honest with you. It was a lot of money, I had already planned multiple other trips and expenses this year, and frankly, I didn’t feel like I deserved to go: I was (at the time in June) a recently unemployed artist/designer, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life, applying to job after job with no avail. Which is ridiculous in retrospect, but I felt like I had to do something in order to earn the right to be in a room with a bunch of other artists and creators that I greatly admire; something big. It was my mom who convinced me to make the trip, despite her not entirely understanding what it was. I guess she saw, somehow, that I needed it.

During the whole week building up to it, I was a constant ball of nervousness and worry. I barely slept, I spent my workday jittery and anxious, drank way too much coffee in an attempt to focus on things that needed to get done, scarfed down meals and immediately jumped into illustration work the minute I got home (I had known I wanted to make gift art for months, but with other convention prep bogging down my schedule previously, it got pushed off till the last minute, like you do). Thursday night was spent sitting on my basement floor, punching as many buttons as physically possible as podcasts I had already listened to three or four times mumbled in the background.

This was also the first time I was doing anything big like this totally by myself. Other events and conventions, I was a part of a group of well-known friends, but this? One solo ticket, please and thank you.

It was a six-hour drive to the Poconos, and I spent it with my brother, who—due to both of our lives being ridiculously busy—I don’t get many opportunities to have good conversation with. I think the trip alone was worth it for that drive: being able to talk with him about workplace efficiency models, social issues, video games, and everything in-between was a blessing. It wasn’t until the last 15 minutes of the drive that all of the anxiety hit me square in the stomach, and I was positive I would spend most of MaxFunCon East hiding in my room, too afraid to talk to anyone.

Being an early arriver meant that, while festivities hadn’t officially started yet, there were groups of people congregating at the hotel bar—a place I’ve never felt comfortable at, let alone by myself. I hung out in the lobby, checked my phone, doodled in my sketchbook, pulled up Pokemon Go (which I hadn’t done in weeks, so I knew I was reaching at that point).

How to cope with feeling socially anxious: draw your feelings, I guess? That's a cool thing to do.
How to cope with feeling socially anxious: draw your feelings, I guess? That’s a cool thing to do.

Alright, Kardamis, I thought after what felt like an eternity. Suck it up and get in there.

The second I stepped into the bar, I was greeted warmly by a bunch of people I had never met before, and that overwhelming wave of anxiety reduced to a mere drop as I ordered a drink and broke the ice with a prepared moment that I milked the whole weekend: “Hey, um, do you guys want Adventure Zone buttons?”

(On a side note, that hard cider I bought was SIX FIFTY and it was only a WOODCHUCK CIDER. I can get a six pack of that here for six fifty. Highway robbery, that is.)

As Friday progressed, I felt more and more comfortable with this group of strangers: it was like we had all known each other for years, but had just never met face to face. My roommate Whitney and I finally located each other at the welcome reception (she was looking for me too, asking everyone she talked to if they’d seen an Emily around), and we hugged jubilantly—you would have never known that the only words we had exchanged previously were a few emails earlier that week.

It was Justin McElroy’s benediction that made everything fall into place.

I’d hate to try to paraphrase it, because I don’t feel like I could do his words justice, but it turned into a resounding theme for the weekend: believing in people—even when they do terrible, terrible shit—is a choice; a kind of faith, if you want to call it that. I thought about that a lot as we had quickly built up a small group of us that met for lunch and dinner in between classes on Saturday, seeing the constant assurance that people were ok and comfortable throughout the weekend, everyone making sure those who needed water after that wild party Saturday night had it, the beautiful feeling of being welcome that soaked into the place, making it feel like more than a maybe-haunted inn nestled away in the Poconos, but a home.

He cracked a bottle of brandy and addressed the crowd: “I know when John Hodgman does this, he normally gets the expensive stuff—“ as the bottles started to get passed among us. With my incredible coordination, I poured maybe half of the swig of Paul Masson I took onto myself and quietly choked down the other half (smooth, Emily. Also: pretty sure this was the first time I ever had any amount of brandy, and I’m kind of glad it was from a shared bottle with a room full of other amazingly lovely people). And while I was already a little misty-eyed from his speech, Travis approached from the side of the stage with a guitar, and Justin continued, “So, I’d like to play my favorite Regina Spektor song.”

The opening chords to Firewood started, annnnd yep, whoops, full-on crying. This is why I don’t wear mascara, my dudes.

I’ve been to a lot of conventions, had a lot of opportunity to meet people who have made things that have influenced my work and my life, and let me be honest with you: a lot of them sucked. I hate how uneven those moments feel, that weird interaction that happens between fan and artist, especially when you’re a fan who is also an artist. I never know what to say, never know how to express my appreciation, because what I really want is to feel equal. I want to have a conversation, I want to acknowledge that, despite my knowing of their work and it affecting me deeply, we’re all just people who are trying to figure out how to fly together in this huge and confusing world.

There’s some quality about being an artist (and I’m using this term broadly, way more broadly than any of my art professors would appreciate, to describe anyone who makes things) where you know you can fly, and the goal is less about showing off that ability, but showing other people that they can fly too. The sky is a very lonely place when you’re up there all by yourself.

MaxFunCon East wasn’t like other conventions. Was I nervous when I stayed after the Adventure Zone live show to give them the gift art I had made? Absolutely. But there was something magical about that moment, because suddenly, the mysticism was shattered (I was also mainly thankful I didn’t trip on stage), and everything was just…normal.

Look. I’m not a party person. I’ve never been. My definition of “party” in college was a couple bottles of cheap wine, drunk games of Ticket to Ride and Super Smash Bros, and Chopped reruns.

That party Saturday night was one of the best nights of my life.

I danced like an idiot. It wasn’t even that I didn’t care if anyone was judging what were likely the worst dance moves on the face of the earth: I knew no one cared. Myst was being projected on the ceiling, the music and dancing was so ridiculous that the floor was shaking down the hall, there was a conga line, an Under the Sea singalong, the most uproarious rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody I’ve ever been a part of (someone stepped on my foot during that bit, and I didn’t even care. The bruise is still there, and it’s pretty nasty, but it’s a badge of honor, honestly). I worked up my nerve enough to talk to Justin after the crowd cleared out a bit—as festivities had started to move to the aforementioned hotel bar—to tell him how much his benediction meant to me (confirmed fact: Justin McElroy is one of the best huggers), played a rousing game of Codenames in the game room with people I felt so lucky to call friends: people who were strangers twenty-four hours ago. It was surreal and amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling the whole night.

I keep thinking about these little moments from the weekend, little gestures that stick out like lit torches in a dark cave: conversations, promises, mementos that mark an unforgettable experience. Some of these I want to keep for myself (or, rather: brag a little bit about during conversation with friends) because they’re reminders of the kindness in this world, even when it seems bad sometimes.

There was a time in college (and right after graduation, only a year ago) when I was in a really, really rough place. I’ve talked about it here before, I’ve written comics about it, I got my first tattoo to commemorate stepping up and taking control of my life.

There are only so many moments you get, only so many memories you can make in life. I made a promise to myself in deciding to go to MaxFunCon East that I would take any chance I can get my hands on, but more importantly, appreciate and love all of the people I meet along the way. And the little hint of melancholy that’s welling up in my chest as I write this tells me I stuck to it, because I already miss the amazing people I met and the moments we shared.

“Uh, this is a little weirdly personal,” I found myself saying to Griffin McElroy on Sunday, “but I just wanted to say, I’ve been going through some rough shit, and um, the podcasts and everything, they really help. So thank you.”

“That’s good to hear. Uh, not that you’re going through shit—”

“Haha, no, yeah, I get ya.”

There’s always going to be hard days. There are going to be days where getting up out of bed seems like an insurmountable task. But you keep going, because there are only so many moments. And sometimes you need help from people to light those moments up when they seem darkest.

Believing in people—and by extension, believing in yourself—is a choice. It’s a choice you make every single day you wake up and face the world at your doorstep. And sometimes, it’s a damn hard choice to make. But moments like MaxFunCon East make it hell of a lot easier.

Everyone knows you’re going to live. So you might as well start trying.

(And hey. See a bunch of you at Candlenights at the end of the month, eh?)

rain: and, a Hometown Ghosts postmortem

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I think what sucks the most is that I don’t feel like I belong anywhere at the moment.

The sun isn’t out this morning, replaced by a gray wash of clouds and a gentle drizzle making a syncopated rhythm on my windshield. I turn the wipers on as I pull out of the driveway. It’s seven thirty AM, Eastern Daylight Time.

I’ve been living at home for a year now. Saving up. Trying to find a stable job so I can actually have the security to move out into a place of my own. I’m getting there: I now have a part-time job at a local university, doing web design. My own job, not through a temp agency or anything. I have business cards, a placard on my desk. I don’t feel like the hired gun in the workplace for the first time in my professional career. I’m still doing temp work on the side, which results in ten- to twelve-hour days at times, and I’m feeling physically and mentally exhausted, but it’s getting there. Slowly, like I know it does.

At my last job (temp, design agency), people in the office would have parties and I wouldn’t be invited. At all. I didn’t even know they were going on half the time: I would just look up from my work and realize the entire office was empty, except for me. Here, it’s different. People learned my name immediately. I’m starting to feel like part of a team, finally. There are still some hurdles to overcome: I’m the youngest in the office by about seven years, so that’s a weird feeling, but I’m treated as an equal despite that, even if some of my coworkers have kids who are my age.

I turn onto the road that runs through the local park system. It’s not the fastest way to get to work, but I like it more than hopping on the freeway. Plus, work is only fifteen minutes away; the freeway wouldn’t even shave that much time off.

I’m terrified to let my roots grow anywhere, let myself feel like I belong, for fear that the second I do, I’ll have to rip them up and start fresh again. Plus, I know myself all too well: I don’t handle isolation great. If—when—I move out, I need to have a roommate, or else I will very likely hole myself up and become a miserable hermit who is convinced that everyone hates me. Hi-five, anxiety, thanks for showing up to the party today.

A lot of people have moved on from this city, understandably so. One of my best friends since childhood has lived out west for going on three years now. My best friend from high school is off in the service. A good number of us are still in the state, at least, but even being an hour apart is a struggle to coordinate our lives to meet up.

Memories associated with this place feel weird and overlapping. I vividly remember small moments that weren’t significant at the time, like sitting in the living room of my friend’s childhood home as a big group of us watched a poor-quality subbed version of Kiki’s Delivery Service that we had to stream from his computer, but scarcely remember things that should be important, like my high school graduation. I couldn’t even tell you who I was sitting by, but I can tell you that the group of us watched Clue more times than I can physically count, and could quote the entire movie at will.

Now, there are moments that exist here that are outside of that “high school” narrative, and there are days where I feel like I’m stuck in a time warp alongside days where I don’t even recognize the city I grew up in. They demolished the old middle school a few weeks ago, built a fancy new one behind it. They’ll be demolishing the middle school I attended sometime next year. I haven’t driven by the high school in years: the thought makes me reel. I’m done with that, part of me thinks. That story is done, and I have to live in this one.

I turn onto the street the university is on, and wince as my car wheel bounces in and out of a pothole in the road. They’re supposed to be resurfacing this street soon: right as students return to campus. Fantastic timing, as always.

I’m filled with an unfulfilled feeling of wanderlust. I feel like a ball of potential energy that’s just waiting for a spark for it to explode into a thousand lights. It’s a similar feeling to how I was right after graduation, like a skier on a hill waiting for the signal to start, but not quite the same, and I can’t quite place why. Maybe time has made a difference, maybe life experiences.

I realize this is probably what spurred on Hometown Ghosts in the first place: a perfectly-timed listening to Subdivisions just pulled all of those feelings up to the surface, shoved them in my face and made me look at them dead-on. And I—like I am wont to do, apparently—poured those feelings into a comic in an attempt to process and cope with them.

I didn’t go into making Hometown Ghosts thinking it would be a cathartic release of some of that energy. It started with a walk around my neighborhood, Rush blaring through my earbuds, and the thought: I feel like a ghost that haunts these streets, this city. It was going to be an exploration of that idea, both metaphorically and literally. It was going to be a horror comic at first, believe it or not. There were going to be literal ghosts in it.

As I wrote it, it quickly became an exorcism of sorts, a way to communicate the frustration and futility I was feeling that was running a through-line in my daily thoughts. Some of the original inspiration kept its ground in the finished product: the wall was an idea that appeared during that initial walk, and while the metaphor is heavy-handed in retrospect, there are days where I feel it in my chest (and, in turn, days where I can feel it crumble, little by little).

They’re still not done with the parking lot by the administration building: the building where I work. I turn down a side street and keep driving toward the student union so I can park there. It’s a walk, but it’s not terrible, even with the rain.

It’s sometimes hard to explain why I make these sort-of-auto-bio comics a lot. Some people get concerned for me when they read them, friends I haven’t talked to in months texting me out of the blue and asking me if I’m “ok”, and I get it (even if it is, in some respects, infuriating): comics are one of the few places where I don’t dilute what I’m feeling and what I’m saying, and that can be startling, especially to people who only know me on a certain level. But I make these things, these “sad comics”, to cope. I draw them on the page so they’re not floating around in my head and weighing on my chest every day. I make them physical so I can look at them and know that I can make it through this. It’s why I made Paper Cranes. It’s why I make practically all of my work, now that I think about it, no matter how removed from reality it might be. I see those elements in the lighthearted fantasy work I make, the goofy slice-of-life comics. It is a fundamental urge that drives me to create. And when you give an intangible feeling physical form, suddenly it’s a lot less scary.

I pull through into a parking spot. My stereo is loudly blaring a song from Rent: La Vie Boheme. Mark loudly declares through my speakers, “The opposite of war isn’t peace: it’s creation!” It’s still raining. The song dies as I click the keys into the off position, and I start digging around my front seat to find my umbrella.

I have a convention this weekend: Matsuricon, my first three-day convention as an artist. I’m a little nervous, a little excited, a little thrilled just to be able to spend time with friends who have been so amazing and supportive and encouraging and I love them very, very much. I’ve reached the point where what’s done is done in terms of merch and prints to sell: the rest of my week leading up to it will likely be filled with eight-hour days at the university, followed by freelance design work at home. Two weeks from this convention, I’ll be up in the Poconos mountains trying to convince myself that I belong in the same room as a ton of other really cool creative people who make things that I actively enjoy on a day-to-day basis (did I mention that a good chunk of time working on Hometown Ghosts was spent listening to The Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother and Me? Because, hah, hahahaha, hahahahahah, oh god what am I doing).

I feel both absolutely detached from and exactly like how I felt two months ago when I made Hometown Ghosts. It’s unsettling and confusing. There are days where my identity and personality feels muddled and lost in a fog, trapped behind a wall. I worry about how I appear to other people, how I present myself, how I’m perceived. I don’t remember having any of these anxieties at this level during my senior year of college. What happened to the confident person who stood in front of a panel of professors and convinced them that an experimental interactive visual novel could be presented in a gallery?

It takes a minute of searching before I realize my umbrella is still in my bag from last Thursday; I had never taken it out and placed it back in the car. I chide myself and pop it open as I step outside, fumbling with keys in an attempt to lock my car. I push the Night Vale Community Radio tag out of the way to press the lock button on my key fob-actual key combo. The locks click and the car beeps complacently. 

Hometown Ghosts wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. I had initially planned an extremely dour ending to the short comic, one that suggested lethargy and complacency, instead of the promise of a wall that, even though looks insurmountable, will be destroyed with enough effort. Maybe that’s why I was surprised when some people responded with concern when they read it: the ending, in my mind, was hopeful, much more hopeful than I had initially felt when I had the idea. I think, despite everything, I’m an optimist at heart. I have to be.

I cram my keys into my pocket and start walking. It’s not too hot out, not unbearable. The rain relieved some of the oppressive humidity from the weekend, but my hair is still frizzing out and suddenly I’m Hermione Granger, and all of the effort I put into getting my hair straight this morning is gone in an instant. A few raindrops sneak under my umbrella as I walk down the street. I smile.

If you haven’t read Hometown Ghosts yet, it’s up on Gumroad for free download. Check it out. It means a lot to me.