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.