(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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.