BHS Blogress Special Report: Ten Years of Stars Above

Ten Years of Stars Above

The whole thing started with a silly, harmless little role-playing game on the TV Tropes forum, though the fanfic didn’t officially start until almost a year later. I stumbled on it by chance; I did a search on TVT for Kagami Hiiragi from Lucky Star, my #1 Best Girl of Best Girls. Her name was in the title of the RP, and it had a small but dedicated page listing its tropes. Intrigued, I tracked down the forum thread and started browsing through the posts… and I was delighted to find that the person playing as Kagami had captured her character almost perfectly. On a whim, in hopes that I would get to interact with her, I joined in and started posting. Keep in mind, I had had some extremely negative experiences in group RPs in the past, so that I made such a quick decision to join this one should tell you something about the skill level of Kagami’s player. I was welcomed with open arms, and I spent a few months happily engaging in shipping shenanigans with the rest of the group. As I said, the thread was all very silly, comedic, and almost entirely plotless. In the meantime, I struck up a friendship with the Kagami player, Ashen Dream.

Then one afternoon in early 2011, I came home from my part-time job tired and irritable after a frustrating day. To blow off steam, I decided to introduce something to the RP that had never been seen in it before. I took the months-long running gag about Kagami and her twin sister Tsukasa being “the center of the universe” (because what little story there was up to that point revolved around them) and I made an honest-to-god plot out of it, complete with the sudden appearance of a horrible monster that attacked the twins, a development that was played for as much drama as I could get out of it.

Again, this was completely unlike anything that had been seen in the thread up to that point, a 180 from its usual insanity. It was my way of venting my frustration after a difficult day, so I expected it to be just a one-off thing. Instead, in the RP’s discussion thread, I was surprised to find widespread praise for my contribution, and a number of players asking where it was going to go from there. The seeds were sown. Ash and I began collaborating on future events, culminating in an epic battle against a ravenous horde of extradimensional monsters. After that, I thought I was done. This was around mid-March of that year.

And then Puella Magi Madoka Magica happened.

I’ve written before about the profound and personal impact PMMM had on me. I’ve written before about how despite hearing that it was “dark”, I checked it out anyway, both because buzz about it was growing and because some of my favorite people in the industry were involved in it. I’ve written before about how in a span of 48 hours, I went from mildly curious about it to counting it as possibly my most beloved anime series ever. The instant the credits finished rolling on episode 10 (the latest one at the time), I knew that I had just seen something that I would remember forever… It was the same feeling I had the first time I finished watching Princess Mononoke, a massive headrush of awe and new inspiration that’s only happened to me a handful of times. I was a devoted fan… and Homura Akemi (whom I remember initially dismissing as “just another edgy, emotionless type, a Rei Ayanami clone” when I started the show) was now one of my favorite characters in all of fiction.

So in the weeks-long interim between episode 10 of Madoka and episodes 11 and 12, caused by the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I had to satiate my fervor for the series somehow. Introducing Homura into the RP seemed to me a natural step, so I did. Likewise, having her interact with Kagami struck me as totally reasonable… my two Best Girls kicking ass together? Of course! Never mind that PMMM is a dark psychological drama / cosmic horror series and Lucky Star is a slice-of-life schoolgirl comedy. Never mind that both series have almost nothing in common aside from sharing one voice actor (my beloved Emiri Katou) and revolving around casts of Japanese schoolgirls. I wanted it to work and Ash was game to try, so we resolved to make it work. And soon we found that not only did the two click together in the weird little story we’d developed… they had chemistry that neither of us could deny.

Many of the other players disagreed. They didn’t much like the darker tone we were pushing, or that having Kagami and Homura as a couple threw a wrench into their all-but-confirmed-canon relationships with Konata and Madoka, respectively, in their own series. This conflict with the other players eventually led me and Ash to part ways from the RP in August of that year, and that should have been the end of it.

And yet. The ideas we had come up with still had so much appeal. We had the basic workings of a potentially great story here, and we felt that it would be a waste to let our hard work fall by the wayside. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure I was the first to suggest turning it into a fanfic. I do remember saying to Ash: “If we’re really going to do this thing, we need to go all in. This won’t be just another lazy mashing together of the two series… it needs to be epic, as awesome as possible.”

We talked it over for most of the following month, hammering out a rough path forward. Ash decided to write an original story called Nil based on the framework of the plot. Meanwhile, I resolved to take the plunge and go ahead with the first chapter or two of the fanfic, gauge the reaction from the readers, and decide what to do from there. Ten years ago today, I hit the publish button for Chapter One of Stars Above… a placeholder title which I thought had a nice ring to it. At the time, I had a very rough idea of where I wanted the story to go, but my approach was “make it up as you go and see what happens”.

That all changed when Ash emailed me with a new concept. We both knew that PMMM’s story was loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, she said… so what if we based ours on Dante’s Inferno?

I mentioned a few paragraphs back that there are rare and wonderful times when the dam bursts in my head, and a tidal wave of inspiration and ideas washes over me all at once. Ash’s email was one of those times: almost instantly, I had a real framework for the plot, I had my villains, and I had my ending. I’ve learned over time to trust my gut instinct as a writer most of the time, but this time that instinct was screaming at me: “This is perfect. Even if you plot for years, you will never come up with anything better than this, so go for it.

And the result, my friends, was Stars Above: thirty four main chapters, two spin-offs plus bonus material, three-plus years of work, 120% of my effort, and one of the proudest achievements of my life. It was the first time in ten years that I’d given my creative all to something that wasn’t Tasakeru, my original fantasy novels… that was almost unthinkable at the time, but look where it got me. We set out to make something epic, and by most accounts we succeeded.

In essence, the above paragraphs have been a very, very long introduction to prepare for writing about what Stars Above means to me, and about the surprising developments that happened over those three-plus years… so please bear with me, this thing isn’t over just yet.

Stars Above was a new experience in many ways. I consider myself a hopeless romantic in the dramatic sense, but in real life? Absolutely not. By most standards, I’m a very strange choice to write a story that was intended from the start to center around two characters falling in love. Many readers wrote in to marvel at how we were able to make the relationship work, but if I’m being honest here, speaking as the one who did the majority of the writing: I think I can attribute the success of Kagami and Homura—and all of the cast, really—to the strength of the characters. Talent obviously had something to do with it, but especially with the two main characters… I can tell you that their voices were always crystal clear in my mind, from beginning to end. I rarely ever had to wonder “Is this something she’d say? Is this something she’d do?” because I connected so deeply with them that my first instincts were almost always the right ones. I wrote with the kind of confidence I wish I could summon at will, and the words just flowed out of me until the story was done. Element after element clicked into place like puzzle pieces, and it all came together in ways I couldn’t have foreseen when I started.

On a related note, there’s Desideria, the Second. I’ve mentioned this in other places before, I think, but Desideria was not originally intended to be the story’s main villain. Ash and I wrote about half of the plot with the intention that she would be the second-to-last of the Demons of the Nine to die. She was to be the most visible face of the Nine, and thus front and center for most of the story, before being killed off in a spectacularly gruesome (but satisfying!) manner to make way for the Ninth to emerge as the true threat. Desideria herself derailed that plan; I always intended her as a thoroughly nasty character, but when writing her interactions with the heroines, I actually ended up disturbing myself with the depths that she sunk to. She was one of those rare characters who wrote herself and ended up going in a direction I never expected. Clearly, she struck chords with the readers, too: by the time we hit the halfway point, I was getting comments along the lines of “Desideria is a fantastic villain, but holy shit I hate her so much. I want her to die horribly.”

This, I realized, presented a problem. No matter what awful things the Ninth did, he would inevitably be overshadowed by Desideria, and the final battle against him would seem like an anticlimax by comparison. And yet, I already had her death scene planned out and foreshadowed… As I wrote to Ash in a panic, “We’re in trouble: Desi is a better villain than the Ninth will ever be. I’d have her kill him and take over, but I can’t cut her death scene. What do we do?” It took more than a month to think of a workaround for that problem, but was it worth it in the end? Hell yes it was. I got to have my cake and eat it too.

And oh, that final battle with her. On a frigid late-January weekend in 2014, during which our house was snowed in by a massive blizzard, I had a surge of motivation the likes of which I’d never felt before and haven’t since. In what I can only describe as a frenzy, I wrote something like a hundred pages of the finale in three days, working almost all day the whole time and only stopping occasionally for food and sleep. Fight scenes are normally the bane of my existence because I can’t stop myself from being self-conscious about them dragging, but this one! Once again, my gut instinct kept screaming “Go with this, go with this!” and the results… well, I reread Chapters 29 to 34 again quite recently, and I found myself amazed at how well everything worked. There are minor grammatical issues and things I’d tighten up, but all these years later, I’m still proud as hell that I pulled it off.

That last sentence really sums up Stars Above in a nutshell. For one of the only times in my life, I not only saw a project to full completion, but it turned out pretty much exactly the way I wanted it. I got my epic story, and I got my perfect ending. That so many people told me they got emotionally invested in the story, that over a dozen of them said the ending made them weep… well, I’d call those added bonuses, but that’s vastly underselling it. Stars Above was a gamble from its inception: a crossover between two beloved but radically different series. A continuation of one of those series, which many consider to have a perfect ending. A romance between two characters with almost canon love interests. A collaboration between two creative minds. On top of that, a story that contained mature content, which carries its own set of risks. I started out wanting to tell the story primarily for me (and Ash, of course), but expecting other people to care about it? I thought I knew better than to hope for that.

You all proved me wrong. Every one of you who told me the story touched you, every one of you who wrote in telling me to keep on going because you had to see what happened next… you all proved me wrong in the best way. Without exaggeration, you changed the course of my life. My crazy little idea from a silly little RP thread became something that I consider a personal masterpiece, something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my days.

When I hit the publish button ten years ago today, I had no idea what would come of it. And though many terrible things have happened in the decade since… Stars Above will always be a highlight of that time. I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Thank you to Ash, for lighting the flame. Thank you to Drake, my beta reader and my best friend, for giving me a fair evaluation of pretty much every word I write. And finally, thank you to all my readers, everywhere. Go forth, and if you remember nothing else I’ve written here, remember the Virgil epigraph I used to open the final chapter: “Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori.” For those of you who don’t know Latin: “Love conquers all, and we, too, must yield to love.”

“Ten Years – The Brightest of Stars”
“At Peace”

– BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: July/August 2021 – Bamboozled (But in a Good Way)

July/August 2021 – Bamboozled (But in a Good Way)

Well, the weeks certainly got away from me, didn’t they :P

As of today, I’ve finally finished and posted the Koikatsu cards for all ten of the core Sailor Senshi, with my beloved Saturn being the last (and most difficult). It’s a hell of an accomplishment, I think, and I’m proud as can be of my work. Knowing that people love my creations and are willing to support me to see more… well, that’s the dream. I got a thrill several weeks ago when I found that a Japanese artist on Pixiv had used my blank Senshi fuku to create their own Senshi OC. That’s exactly what I made it for, and it’s gratifying to see it put to good use.

I feel justified in taking another break after all the good work I’ve done. Originally it was just going to be for a week, but that would mean I’d be set to post my next release on my birthday, so since it’s right up at the end of the month, I thought why not start fresh in September. No, I am not finished yet, there’s still far more I want to do.

Madoka Magica news has been happening lately! I didn’t really comment on the announcement of the long-awaited fourth movie back in April… I know, I know, shock and horror. Other stuff was going on. :P Anyway, of course I’m thrilled. I don’t want to make any predictions or bring in any expectations; I just hope that SHAFT and Magica Quartet know better than to give us another enormous cliffhanger that leads to another near-decade-long wait for the next installment. As long as that doesn’t happen, I’ll be satisfied.

Then they followed that up with a surprise announcement at the end of June: that Magica Record Season 2 would be launching in a month. I’ll be honest, I’ve been a little turned off by MagiReco in general since they shut the English version down, but I figured there was nowhere to go but up after a somewhat uneven season 1.

And boy howdy, did they come out of the gate swinging.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

I was expecting a relatively straightforward run-through of the story’s second act, with some allowances made for the (mostly minor) differences that season 1 had from the game’s plot. What I (and I gather most other people) did not expect was that the first episode of Season 2 would essentially be like a lost episode of the original series for the vast majority of its runtime! After season 1 took pains to remove almost all of Madoka’s appearances from the game in those same events, I was straight-up flabbergasted by her grand return to the small screen. Not just her, but Homura was back too, taking the game’s intro scene and expanding it into an absolutely gorgeous showcase for her, Madoka, and Sayaka working together. This, my friends, is how you open a season. Judging by the high-quality setpieces in episode 2, they seem committed to giving us a wild ride for the remainder of the run. And if you’ve played the game and know what’s going to happen in the third and final season, coming in December… if they keep this up, I think we’ll have a winner on our hands.

SPOILERS ENDETH

The other thing I want to gush about here is a series that as of last month now ranks among my all-time favorites: Zombie Land Saga. I am somewhat well known for how much I normally detest idols and idol culture, so it was surprising enough that I gave the first season a chance, and even more surprising that I liked it as much as I did. The second season, though? I’ve been telling pretty much everyone who will listen that ZLS season 2 is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how to do a second season right. It gave me everything I wanted and a ton of stuff I didn’t know I wanted, and its spectacular finale left me salivating for the inevitable season 3.

So enamored was I, in fact, that I talked Drake into watching the series again with me, start to finish… and later in July, I did the same thing again with another friend. In the space of two months and changed, I marathoned both seasons twice… and from there I gained a whole new appreciation for the show, its characters, and its peculiar genius.

Because you see, much like SHAFT did and continues to do with the Madoka franchise, Mappa manages to bamboozle ZLS’s audience, but in a good way. The show got almost no advertising, and what there was of it portrayed it as a generic “cute girls meet zombies” horror series, something like School-Live! That it was actually not just a comedy but an idol show only became apparent halfway through the first episode. The inherent ridiculousness of the (actual) premise won it a ton of fans right out of the gate: an insane and spectacularly hammy producer/talent manager forms an idol group made exclusively of reanimated dead girls, in order to “save” a prefecture that was basically Japanese flyover country… though the how and why of this plan of this, he refuses to explain. The first five episodes lean hard into absurd comedy, and they pull it off with aplomb.

But starting with episode 6, and this is where it gets brilliant, the show pulls a rug out from under the audience a second time, by starting to take the characters and their journey seriously. This is a much more low-key and subtle bamboozlement: without losing the comedic edge it’s built up, it starts introducing dramatic elements as it explores the characters’ backstories and gives them an astonishing level of depth. I’ve seen this happen to me and to two others now, and it gets me every time… before you know it, you honestly care about the girls of FranChouChou and you want to see them succeed.

The true message of the series, when it hits, is a powerful one. Far from being just about wacky zombie idol antics, it’s about following your dreams and reaching for the stars, even if the world is against you. Doing it because the world is against you… and that’s the other thing I think is special. As hard as Sakura and her friends try, they do fail sometimes, and fail often… hell, season 2 opens with the group having bombed a huge concert, become a laughingstock, and plunged deep into debt. However, they’ve proven in the course of two seasons that nothing will keep them down for long: not limited recognition, not emotional tragedy and trauma, not interpersonal friction, not lack of money, skill, experience, and/or venue, not just plain rotten luck, not natural disasters, not even their own deaths. It sounds like the weirdest thing, but in its own bizarre way, ZLS has become one of the most inspiring series I’ve seen in recent memory. It speaks to the part of me that’s always longed to get up on stage and perform, damn the consequences. I keep trying to describe it to people and they keep looking at me like I’m crazy, but I swear, it really is a phenomenal achievement, and one of the best anime in years. That the guy who stubbornly refuses to get into anything idol-related is telling you this should be proof enough. Come for the comedy, the adorable characters, and/or the wide variety of fantastic music… stay for the message. It’s worth it, I promise.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: June 2021 – Recharge

June 2021 – Recharge

As of a few days from now, I’ll have posted a new Koikatsu model every week for the past seven weeks in a row. It’s been paying enormous dividends; I’m getting more exposure, my Patreon has never been more successful, and I’m having a ton of fun despite how much work it is to get each model out there… and it does take a lot of work. This past week alone has seen me do about four separate Koikatsu projects in addition to the regular model releases.

Now, as I said, doing this is a lot of fun… but having finished the core five Sailor Senshi, after I publicly release Eternal Sailor Moon’s cards tomorrow, I think I’ll be taking a bit of time off, and releasing the next model in the Sailor Moon line on July 17th. The last thing I want to do is burn myself out, after all… and finishing the next one up will be a particularly intensive process. The public release of Sailor Mercury’s cards will still happen on schedule on July 12th.

In the meantime, I’d like to get the next chapter of Shattered Skies out if I can. The story’s heading into some big events, so I don’t want to keep my readers waiting for too long. Of course, I didn’t realize I’d get so invested in KK, which is the primary reason for the delay. Knowing people are paying for models sorta incentivizes making them a priority. :P I hope all my new Patrons will understand my reasons for the break and stick with me. So far, the vast majority of you guys have, and that does my heart glad.

So goes another month! Keep on plugging.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: 2021, May – Growth At Last

It’s finally happened. After twenty years spent trying to build an online presence, after so much time and so many failed attempts to make a name for myself, I’ve finally discovered a way to get known and make some money by doing something that I love.

I didn’t have many expectations when I released the Sailor Moon Koikatsu card last week. I was proud of the work I put into it, absolutely, and I thought that if anything I’d made in Koikatsu deserved to be paid content for a while, it was that… but the last week-plus has seen more success than my Patreon has had in the four years I’ve been running it.

To all my new Patrons, I’m more grateful for your support than you can possibly know. I wish there were a way I could show you how much confidence your generosity is giving me… it really feels like I’m flying high right now. The release of the Eternal Sailor Moon card yesterday was its own milestone; it’s the first time I’ve been able to successfully import an MMD model into CharaStudio, which means that I now have a massive new source for models, costumes, and props. Every day I’m learning a little more, it seems, and once I’m able to create stuff from scratch, you’ll be seeing more content than ever.

I’ve been so busy with Koikatsu, in fact, that that’s one of the reasons May’s Blogress Report is a week late. The other primary reason was that last week I my Windows installation underwent a catastrophic failure which eventually necessitated buying a new hard drive. Drake and I spent four hours trying to repair the installation, and by the end of it I was understandably in no mood to write anything. My essential apps and settings have all been transferred from the old one, but I still have some work to do before everything is back to normal.

But anyway. I’ll be spending most of the following week house- and pet-sitting from morning to evening, so I’ll be away from my desktop and thus unable to do KK stuff as much as I’d like. That’s fine; I want to use the time to get some more done on Chapter 52 of Shattered Skies and catch up on some reading. The last time I worked for this client, things went pretty smoothly, so I hope that holds true this time.

Drake convinced me to give the Jujutsu Kaisen anime a shot recently, and I’m definitely glad I did. All I knew about the series beforehand was that it was supposed to have lots of body horror. That it does, and of course that’s right up my alley, but I was unprepared for how much comedy the series has. Yuji Itadori is one of the flat-out funniest protagonists I’ve ever seen in a shonen anime, with a gift for goofy meme faces, unexpected wisecracks, and some truly spectacular comedic/dramatic entrances… but as much as I love the humor and the gooey squishy fleshy bits, I gotta say that the animation is probably the number one reason I love this show. Whatever they’re paying the folks at MAPPA is not enough, because JK features drop-deap gorgeous sakuga in almost every episode. Ninty recently made an unsuccessful attempt to get me into Thunderbolt Fantasy… its fight scenes were one of biggest problems I had with that show, because all of them were a mess of rapid-fire cuts that made it migraine-inducing to try to follow what was going on. I realize that it had to be that way to make the puppets look like they were fighting, but it’s an editing technique that I can’t stand. The fight scenes in JK are like somebody took all my complaints about Thunderbolt Fantasy and resolved to do the exact opposite. Plain and simply, these are stunningly beautiful battles, with tons of long, unbroken tracking shots and spectacular, dynamic camera work that always retains a rock-solid handle on where the characters are and what they’re doing. As of this writing, Drake and I are halfway through the first season and I can’t wait to see more.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Sailor Moon Eternal. Both movies dropped on Netflix on Thursday, and I finally got a chance to sit down and watch them with Drake this afternoon. Adapting the manga’s Dream Arc was always going to be a tricky prospect, but I’m happy to say that Toei succeeded. They hit all the major points of the arc, they didn’t tone down too much (aside from the one spectacularly gruesome nightmare sequence, but I always doubted that would get animated anyway), they look and sound gorgeous, and oh yeah… all the stuff that got cut from the 90s anime’s first season in favor of endless filler? It’s all there, present and accounted for. The lore, the familiars, the new costumes, the Sailor Quartet… all of those are things I’ve wanted to see animated for twenty years, so of course I’m happy. And if this means we’re going to finally, finally get a faithful anime adaptation of the manga’s Stars arc down the road… buddy, I am 10000% there.

That about does it for now. Expect more good things to come soon.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: 2021, April – New Avenues

April – New Avenues

Well, when I least expected it, I found a new creative outlet. How about that.

I bought Koikatsu at the beginning of the month as an impulse purchase… I got an unexpected payday and it had been in my wish list for a while, so I went ahead and took the plunge.

What I expected was a dating sim/h-game with a robust character creator and a thriving modding community. I got those, sure… but I also got a massive virtual toybox filled with almost every anime character I’ve ever loved, the means to recreate the few that are missing, and literal millions of props, backgrounds, and special effects to play with.

If you’re reading this on DA, you’ve seen the results: all month long, I’ve been busily making scenes with the characters I’ve downloaded, both for my own enjoyment and for others. I’m making a concentrated effort to build up my skills with both KK and the CharaStudio add-on, with the eventual goal of illustrating as much of Shattered Skies as I can with it. To that end, I’ve begun the long and sometimes frustrating process of digging into the guts of the character models, learning how to alter textures, wireframes, and code… Some of them won’t be recreated without a lot more work and tweaking, but I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to learn in such a relatively short time.

As I’ve been telling people all month, the possibilities here are nearly endless. With thousands of character models from anime, video games, comic books, western cartoons, and movies at hand, and the skill to make more of my own… hell, I know at least half a dozen people who do commissions for KK characters on Patreon and make some impressive money for it, maybe I could turn this into a lucrative side project!

That’s not to say it’s all been a blast. Last Sunday in particular, I discovered that the process for converting one article of clothing into an accessory, without changing its model or anything else, is somewhat akin to learning Greek. After three hours spent with an experienced modder walking me through it step by step, I conceded temporary defeat in that regard. I do intend to pick up the more advanced modding techniques eventually, but until I truly understand the tools I’m using and the relevant terminology, I think it’s best if I just work with what I have. That still leaves me with a hell of a lot that I can do, though!

Anyway. This week marked ten years since the airing of Madoka Magica’s final episodes. It’s for that reason, I suppose, that there’s going to be a special tenth anniversary live event in Japan tomorrow afternoon. I briefly considered buying a ticket for the livestream… but then I found out that it would be happening at 4 AM our time tomorrow morning, and that settled that. Massive PMMM dork though I am, I’ve reached a point in my life where I just can’t disrupt my sleep schedule like that anymore. Hell, I stayed up past midnight tinkering with KK for a number of nights in a row earlier this month, and last weekend I paid for it, and hard. PMMM is a massively important and influential series for me, and I’m thrilled to think of what might be announced at this event… but I already slaved away to make my tribute back in December and January. I’ve shown my love of the series multiple times over, I think… I have nothing to prove by waking up at an ungodly hour to watch a live stream, and paying for the privilege at that. No, this is fine. I’ll see the news, whatever it is, when I wake up. In the long run, I know I’ll be happier for it.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: 2021, March – About Him

March 2021 – About Him

I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a couple weeks now, and I’ve found it tremendously difficult, for a number of reasons. Please bear with me as I do my best, because despite how little my opinion on the subject matters in the grand scheme of things… because of how close to home it is, and how it impacts me, I think I need to get it out.

It’s time to address Joss Whedon.

Around thirteen years ago, a close friend, a friend with whom I shared an incredible number of interests and whom I trusted implicitly, told me that after around three years of knowing each other, it was time that she introduced me to Whedon’s work. She was a devoted and proud Whedonite, who counted attending one of the first screenings of the Serenity movie as one of her fondest moments. Her enthusiasm transferred to me in short order; over the next couple months, I marathoned Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Serenity, I streamed the premieres of each episode of Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog within hours of their uploading, and I watched each episode of Dollhouse live. In Whedon, I had found someone whose work spoke to me… a kindred spirit, I thought. A talented creator who knew what it was like to be the underdog, a man who suffered greatly and undeservedly but kept on getting back up whenever he was knocked down. A champion for the weirdos, the misfits, and the downtrodden. An outspoken feminist who made his girls and women just as badass as the men, if not more so. An innovator for LGBT+ representation, using his platform to give us one of the first lesbian couples on a network series, at a time when that was almost never done. He became one of my idols, a huge influence on me. Discovering his work had the same kind of impact as discovering Miyazaki, or Madoka Magica… a watershed moment. He was my hero.

Over the years, I followed each step of his career. I mourned when Dollhouse was undeservedly canceled, and I cheered when it was announced that he would write and direct The Avengers. 2012 was Whedon’s year… the third highest-grossing film of all time, the new cultural touchstone that everyone saw, had my idol’s name on it. And just to top it off, he released two other films that year (well, one for which he shares the credit with Drew Goddard, though Goddard is often overshadowed), both of which also got rave reviews. And he was coming back to television to launch Agents of SHIELD, the first Marvel Studios TV series! And he was already signed on to write and direct Avengers 2! After so many years of being stepped on, it finally seemed to be his time to shine.

Three years later, when Age of Ultron released, it was clear that his relationship with Marvel fell apart over time. Ultron was like a tug of war between Whedon and the studio, and once his obligations were complete, he broke ties with them. I was saddened, but no worries, I thought. He’ll bounce back. He always does.

Then in 2017, that article came out. The one where his now-ex-wife, Kai Cole, called him “a piece of shit” and said “he’s not the person you think he is”. The allegations were damning: infidelity and emotional abuse and manipulation, which had lasted for almost their entire marriage. Worse was his response, essentially gaslighting the poor woman just as he had been all that time, refusing to admit his fault in it.

It gutted me. It broke my heart and hurt me in ways I couldn’t describe.

I didn’t want to believe it. I had faith in Whedon, in the image he had cultivated. My idol, my hero, the champion of the underdog, the outspoken voice for feminism, just couldn’t be the same person that Cole wrote about. That would go against everything I thought he stood for. Much as I tried to remain in denial, though, he had already been tainted in my eyes. Others tried to tell me that the signs had been there all along, and I’m ashamed to admit that I willfully ignored them. For those who made the attempts, there are no words sufficient enough to apologize.

Over the past four years, I’ve watched with growing sadness as Whedon’s career has more-or-less disintegrated. There was the J*stice L*ague fiasco, which I won’t go into because Z*** S*****’s rabid fandom has a tendency to pounce down the throats of anyone who dares question him. There were the allegations of racist and unprofessional behavior on the set of the reshoots. There was Whedon being booted off of his new HBO show, The Nevers, before it’s even started airing.

And then came January. Charisma Carpenter, Buffy and Angel’s Cordelia Chase, who had worked with him from the beginning of the series that launched him to stardom, finally came forward and bared her soul. She wrote a tremendously brave public statement in which she revealed that Whedon had been emotionally abusive and toxic to her, to the point that she was hospitalized and ultimately fired. In the days afterward, many former Whedon cast members spoke up in support of her, confirmed that she was telling the truth, and shared similar stories.

Now it appears that it’s over. The ugly details are out in the open, and Whedon’s reputation is almost assuredly damaged beyond repair. Hopefully, his many victims will now get the therapy and support that they need, and can move on with their lives…

So in that spirit, I need to move on with mine.

The man was my idol, someone I admired on both a personal and professional level. His work was and is a tremendous influence on my own. He wrote some of my favorite lines and scenes in all of fiction. For a long, long time, I was proud to call myself a Whedonite… but no more.

While I still enjoy his body of work, from now on I do so in spite of his involvement, not because of it. I cannot hold any amount of respect for an emotional abuser, not after being abused myself for so long. I cannot hold any amount of respect for a man who has been exposed as a particularly awful hypocrite, who spent two decades speaking empty words about the importance of respecting women and positioning himself as an ally. I cannot hold any respect for a man who betrayed nearly every principle he ever espoused to have.

This entry pains me to write. As I said, I’ve been trying to get it out for many weeks now, ever since I read Charisma Carpenter’s statement… It’s difficult to overstate how much part of me wants to just ignore everything about it, shut myself off from it completely.

But I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t stand by my principles. That would make me little better than he is.

I won’t lie: I was a Whedonite for over a decade. Being his fan defined me, and for a while, I would defend him against almost any criticism. He was my hero. His work moved me, it influenced me, it brought out new things in me. But being seduced by his image was my failing. I want to acknowledge that failing here and now, and in doing so prove that I can do what Joss Whedon apparently can’t: recognize my own faults and try to be a better person.

I used to think Whedon was unique, a creative voice unlike any other. Now I see that the person he actually is is all too common… there are too many abusers and hypocrites like him. That’s why I think it’s more important than ever to not be like him. To treat other people with kindness and respect, to humbly admit our flaws and try to learn from them.

Maybe something happened to him to make him this way, or maybe he was like this all along. I don’t know, but now I don’t much care to know. This entry represents a clean break for me. I hope I’ve clearly laid out my story, and why I needed to write it. In the grand scheme of things, my words may not matter much, but… some of my favorite stories are the ones about the small voices, the downtrodden, the ignored, and the oppressed. In those stories, the outcasts rise against the powerful, with no regard for fame or glory. They speak up not for personal gain, but because it’s the right thing to do. The irony here, of course, is that the one who was once considered an outcast and an underdog is now on the opposite end of the scale, the powerful and corrupt figure who has deservedly been laid low.

Funny how things like that turn out. See, his work has some worthwhile stuff still.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: 2021, February – Healin’ Goodbye

February, 2021 – Healin’ Goodbye

Apologies, I really should have posted this last week… but due to being wiped out, I didn’t actually see the final episode of Healin’ Good Precure until last Sunday.

HGPC has come to an end, and I think that while it was a generally solid entry with characters that I loved, I’d put it as “above-average” at best. However, I don’t think a lot of the faults the show had were necessarily its fault. HGPC is always going to be remembered as the series that had the terrible luck to air during the COVID pandemic, and that probably affected it more than we’ll ever know. It got dealt a bad hand, plain and simple: not only were the themes of the show a lot harder to watch given the real-life circumstances, but they had to scrap a lot of what they originally planned thanks to the ten-week hiatus. Tragically, my girl Hinata got the brunt of the damage, with the show’s production staff confirming that her intended character arc was one of the casualties. I wish I knew why the yellow Cures so often seem to end up being neglected…

The season had a number of high points: Hinata was one, and Pegitan is one of my favorite mascots in recent memory because ANXIOUS PENGUIN. He’s basically anime Opus! Nodoka’s development was strong, and there was her amazing shutdown of Daruizen at the end, refusing to let him take advantage of her kindness. That’s a message that absolutely needs to be pushed, especially nowadays. Daruizen was a more complex and compelling villain than I ever expected him to be, a worthy foe and a truly nasty piece of work… all the villains were, really, and I applaud the writers for not resurrecting them or granting them unearned and undeserved redemption arcs as they did with Star Twinkle and a few other series. As usual, the voice work was on point, especially Madoka Magica’s Aoi Yuuki as Nodoka and O Maidens in Your Savage Season’s Hiyori Kouno as Hinata. There was solid humor and action throughout, and most of the things the series did, it did well… it just didn’t shine like some of the others have. Nodoka’s rejection of Daruizen was the only absolutely indelible moment of the show, I think… and that saddens me. It’s a good show, but it could have been so much more.

Today, of course, was the premiere of the next Precure series, Tropical-Rouge Precure! As the first ever Precure premiere to be simulcast to overseas audiences, it was a historic occasion for the franchise. I hosted a live stream of it on my Discord server… a live stream which was slightly hampered because while Crunchyroll loaded the episode on time, the English subtitles were missing for over half an hour. Despite that, we all had a rollicking good time.

First impressions: this is definitely going to be a lighter and sillier series than its predecessor, and that’s perfectly okay! 2020 was rough for everybody, a more comedic series is just what we need. They did this with Smile after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and Smile gave us one of the greatest casts of characters and some of the best comedy in the franchise’s history… not to mention the best villain. Anyway! Manatsu, our new leader, gives off amazing gremlin energy, but hers feels distinct and different than that of Hana, the last gremlin type. Her meme faces are already amazing, and she’s goofy and likeable enough to carry the series easily. I love how physical she is, doing cartwheels and backflips and charging around even out of her Cure form, and that sets her apart from her predecessor. Laura the mermaid, the second of the main cast to be introduced, is a very different character than I expected. From her character bio, I expected someone along the lines of Towa from Go! Princess: a sweet, demure ingenue lost in the human world, a fish (well, half-fish) out of water. Instead, my first impression of Laura is… she’s kind of a brat, really, and I like it! I like it a lot! Precure doesn’t have enough (initially) abrasive personalities among its main cast members, which is a shame because being difficult to be friends with is such a great tool for character development. People who are just instantly best friends with each other with little to no difficulties (*cough*the Mahou and StarTwi teams*cough*) are boring to watch, as a general rule. Laura’s monologue gloating about how “Human children are sacrificial pawns for me!” was flat-out hilarious, and a perfect indicator of her personality. Her meme faces only came in behind Manatsu’s because Manatsu had so many spectacular examples, and the dynamic between them has caught my interest right out of the gate. We’ve got our physical fight scenes, we’ve got our Chekov’s Guns for the overarching plot, and we’ve got gorgeous animation, so I’d say we’re off to a very good start!

In personal news: after a long time struggling with one particular scene, Chapter 50 of Shattered Skies is now one-third done. I’m gonna try to put in as much work on it as I can tomorrow. I dunno if I’ll hit my goal of getting it posted before the month is over, but I’ll give it my best shot.

And there’s another thing that impacted me… but considering that it’s a downer and I really don’t want to finish on that, I’ll save it for next time. It’s not going anywhere.

Onward to March…

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: 2021, Week 4 – I Breathe Again

Week 4 – I Breathe Again

I’m not going to go on and on about it, because everybody else is already doing or has done their takes on Inauguration Day. Suffice to say, I feel immensely more at ease since Wednesday. In fact, I feel more like myself, more normal than I have in years.

I attribute part of my recovery to my decision to watch the Les Misérables movie again… I had been meaning to save it until I felt secure again, as a release for all my pent-up emotions. In that regard, it worked like a charm: I had myself several good cries, which was exactly what I was hoping for.

See, I had been worried, because sometime around spring of last year, after months upon months of anxiety and upheaval, I just started to go numb from it all. I still felt sad, but in this awful, dead-inside way. I knew it wasn’t normal, being as emotional a person as I normally am. The longer that feeling lasted, the more scared I got. I started worrying if I had just… broken, under all the stress I was going through.

So I saved Les Mis for post-Inauguration, because I legitimately didn’t know if I’d be able to handle seeing it again it beforehand. Anybody who knows the story knows that it’s not a happy one; the title does translate to “The Suffering Ones”, after all. What elevates it above other stories and other musicals, though, is its message of hope at the end, after all the heartbreak and bloodshed. Yes, the rebellion failed and the students who tried to overthrow the corrupt government didn’t last the night, but they paved the way for those who came after them and did succeed. It wasn’t all for nothing in the end, and that makes all the difference.

After the trauma of the last few years, being able to let go and cry it out and feel hopeful again was… cleansing. My emotions weren’t irreparably broken after all. I made it through the storm, and I’m on the other side of it now. It still remains to be seen where I go from here, but I’m finding myself smiling a lot more often… it’s a start. One step at a time.

– BHS

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BHS Blogress Special Report: You Are Not Alone

You Are Not Alone

Puella Magi Madoka Magica first aired ten years ago today. Of all the many works of media I’ve seen, read, listened to, or experienced in the last decade, only Steven Universe has had the same kind of massive impact and influence as Madoka Magica has on my life, and on who I am as a person.

I didn’t think much of it at first. I saw fan art flying around, but you always see that happening with whatever the hit anime of the season is. I was interested because it was magical girls, but I heard it was really dark, and I was afraid it would be some tasteless bloodbath gorefest. It was only when I heard that my beloved Emiri Katou, my favorite voice actress and voice of my girl Kagami Hiiragi from Lucky Star, was in the cast that I started to take notice. My interest picked up further when I heard that Yuki Kajiura, who had written two of my favorite anime soundtracks ever, was the composer… I love Kajiura’s music so much that I count her soundtrack for Noir as one of my favorite OSTs ever, despite the fact that I’ve only seen one episode of the anime. Both Katou and Kajiura… I decided it was at least work checking out.

I went in with tempered expectations at best. I distinctly remember my first impression of Homura being “Oh, great. It’s the show’s obligatory Rei Ayanami / Yuki Nagato clone. She’s going to be tiresome.” An early guess of mine as to the twist was, “It’s some kind of sadistic game they’re being set up to play, I bet. Like magical Hunger Games.”

And then episode 3 happened.

Within 48 hours of starting the series, it was one of my all-time favorites. When I finished episode 10, the latest at the time, I sat shivering in my chair, stunned, with tears in my eyes. I had that same feeling that I had when I finished Princess Mononoke for the first time: the absolute certainty that I’d just seen something that would change my life. My entire world felt upended. This wasn’t just my new favorite anime… it was something powerful and meaningful that spoke to my soul. An exquisite, devastating, almost perfect tragedy… but one with enough of a chance that it might turn out okay that I couldn’t despair. I couldn’t. There was still a chance. That’s a delicate balance to pull off, one that most dark series fail.

For the next month, my love for the series grew as I waited for the final two episodes. The Great Tohoku Earthquake had just happened a week or so before, and the last two had been delayed due to the sensitivity of the apocalyptic imagery. Understandable, I thought. I saw rampant speculation leading up to it: how painful would the finale be? Would they kill everyone off? Would the real-life circumstances force SHAFT to change it? Would it air at all?

And then, on Good Friday 2011, appropriately enough… the ending, at last. With that, Madoka Magica ascended in my mind from “excellent” and “mind-blowing” to “masterpiece”. I wept, as I do every time I watch the final episode. Endings are always hard to pull off, anime endings especially so, and hyped-up endings nearly impossible… and Madoka’s was perfect. Glorious. Victorious. Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. A triumph of hope from the depths of despair… and for someone who knew those depths, who felt trapped in them at that point in my life, seeing people who should have been lost overcome their pain and rise up stronger in the end… it meant more to me than I can express.

There’s more that I love about Madoka than I could say if you gave me a thousand pages: the masterful execution of its twist in episode 3. The intricacy of the plot. The depth of the characters. The gorgeous art design, which incorporates multiple mediums in order to portray a feeling of wrongness. The majesty of the soundtrack, Kajiura’s finest work of her career.

But the primary reason I treasure it, and will treasure it forever, is because of how close to my heart the story hits. As I’ve said, I’ve been in the depths of despair. I’ve been lost in the abyss, feeling like I’m worthless to the world and would be better off dead. I know all too well the feeling that the sun will never shine on me again. Madoka understands that feeling, the raw emotional agony of it. And likewise, I know the feeling of meeting someone for whom simple love or friendship seems too prosaic a word… someone who pulls you out of that darkness you didn’t know you were in and shows you light you never knew existed. I know the anguish of seeing people like that suffer, the all-consuming need to do whatever you have to do, go to whatever lengths you need to go, to save them like they saved you. Yeah, I know those feelings. That’s why Homura’s story speaks to my soul.

When Madoka Magica first aired, it was at a time when I needed both hope and emotional release, and it brought both. It’s continued to do so for ten years now. I’ve used the great words from the final scene on any number of occasions, during some of my darkest hours. The idea that someone would love the world so much that she’d make kind of the sacrifice Madoka did… I’ve never been a particularly religious person despite being raised in a Christian household, but after seeing that finale, I told people that I finally got it. I finally understood the idea of a loving and omnipresent God. A higher being always watching over you, no matter where you are or how far you go, with a love that’s absolute and all-encompassing… If people can find comfort in that idea, well, I can get behind that even if I might not believe the same way as they do. Yeah, there’s obvious Biblical symbolism there, but the series earns it in a way that very, very few pieces of media can ever do.

That’s what it comes down to, for me. That’s what makes Madoka different from all the clones that it inspired: it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light at the end. It’s about hope overcoming despair, and love overcoming loss. I can’t think of many things more inspiring than that.

Of course, Madoka has had a phenomenal influence on my creative work as well. It was in September of 2011 that I started Stars Above, working off an intial frenzy of creative inspiration that still has yet to really peter out all these years later. I put three years of my life into that story, into writing something that I hoped would affect my readers as deeply as Madoka affected me… and I’m still damned proud of the results. Without Madoka and without Stars Above, I wouldn’t have rediscovered my love for the magical girl genre, and it goes without saying that Shattered Skies: The Morning Lights, my other hugely ambitious fan fiction project, wouldn’t exist without it. Without Madoka, I wouldn’t have made the dear friends that I have in this past decade… I wouldn’t be part of this community that I’ve given so much to, that’s given so much to me in return. It’s no exaggeration at all to say that Madoka Magica changed my life for the better. I can think of no higher praise than that.

Times have been dark, and the world seems to have grown crueler. But when I’m lost, I try to think of those words…

Don’t forget.

Always, somewhere,

someone is fighting for you.

As long as you remember her,

you are not alone.

-BHS

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