Mods Are Asleep (The Return of Queen Crysalis Part 1-4)

Special thanks to Harrison Barber, who gave me the trade paperback of the comic on the condition I did this review. Bribery: It works!

Last week, I talked about “Snowdrop” getting the “Applejack” approach to the show right, and a few months ago I talked about “Double Rainboom” getting the “Rainbow Dash” approach wrong. But what does getting the Rainbow Dash approach right look like?

It would be hard to think of a better example than “The Return of Queen Crysalis,” the story comprised by the first four issues of IDW’s My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic book, written by Katie Cook, art by Andy Price, with colors by Heather Breckel and lettering by Robbie Robbins and Neil Uyetake. To recap past discussions, the Applejack approach is characterized by adherence to the traditions of past generations of My Little Pony and sincere emotion, as befits the Element of Honesty; its primary pitfalls are a tendency to become cloying or overly sentimental. The Rainbow Dash approach, by contrast, is hip and modern and tries to reward fans by giving them what the want, as befits the Element of Loyalty. Its primary pitfalls are a tendency to become cynical or overly fannish.

From the start, “The Return of Queen Crysalis” is definitely fannish. Just in the first issue, we have the return of a fan-favorite villain seeking revenge for her defeat in the show, coupled with a host of geeky references to classics like The Prisoner, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Indiana Jones. Plus, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are kidnapped, which I’m sure was almost as satisfying to the fans who dislike them as their depiction as annoying and oblivious in the second through fourth issues. Throughout the series, the Mane Six act like exaggerated caricatures of themselves of the sort that drive memetic humor, whether it’s Twilight discussing research papers on cave trolls while fighting one or Fluttershy being an enthusiastic walking encyclopedia of monster lore.

But “Double Rainboom” did the exact same sort of fanservice, and failed. Why does “The Return of Queen Crysalis” succeed? First and foremost, it is an extremely well put-together comic. Its use of layout is particularly masterful; one of the challenges of laying out a comic is that space on the comic page represents both space and time. In general, large panels suggest size and scope of a space or scene, as well as allowing for more detail, but they also slow down the passage of time. A full-page spread gives a sense of importance and size to a scene (as long as the comic doesn’t overuse the technique), but it slows the comic nearly to a halt as the reader stops and looks at the page, subconsciously expecting, and therefore taking the time to look for, as much information as a standard six- or nine-panel grid, but still only receiving a single moment of the comic. By contrast, many panels arranged in narrow horizontal slices cannot fit much detail in any single panel, but give the impression of time passing swiftly as events flicker past.

Okay, who read my comic while
eating nachos and goop?

How, then, to create a sense of physical space while keeping the flow of time? One of the best solutions the comic finds is by using the panel borders to set a stage of sorts that fills the page, and then using the panels themselves to depict moments occurring on that stage. For example, in the first issue, when the ponies enter the changelings’ lair in Ponyville, the panels are irregularly shaped, and instead of borders they’re separated by the changelings’ goo, which results in an entire page dominated by that goo. This creates an impression that the characters have entered a space that belongs to the changelings, one that is so defined by them that they even distort the panel shapes. This utter changeling dominance of the space could also have been established by a splash page showing the ponies small and surrounded by changelings, but at the cost of halting the story for that page; the approach chosen instead allows the story to continue to flow. The irregularity of the panels creates a sense of stumbling, being out of control, but the story doesn’t slow or stop; it keeps flowing to the next page, where the regular panels in the midst of a splash page re-establish a pony space within the changeling space, allowing the ponies to begin fighting back.

But “Double Rainboom” had its technical merits as well. Ultimately, it is on the story level that it stumbled, and the story level on which “The Return of Queen Crysalis” succeeds. Starting with the second issue, the ponies leave the familiar portions of Equestria and set off into regions the audience has never seen before, escaping one of the major pitfalls of the Rainbow Dash approach, the tendency to fill the work with either memetic references (in the case of a meme depot) or continuity references (in the case of a cult show)–because we are in new territory, we have little opportunity for either memetic background ponies or locations and characters from past stories. Instead, we get new gags and references, such as the toy-collector troll or Pinkie Pie’s costume (though the latter does suspiciously resemble Max Gillardi’s design for Pinkie Pie in his .mov series of parodies).

Most importantly, Queen Chrysalis works well as a villain here, perhaps even better than in the show. She is able to use her minions to trick the ponies into fighting and splitting up, not too differently from Discord in “The Return of Harmony,” but with the added wrinkle that she is doing it solely to convince the ponies she doesn’t want them to reach her. In actuality, she does want them to confront her, so that she can drain Twilight’s magic. Further, her trick against Twilight in the last issue, is, while fairly cliche–sticking to the letter of the agreement to not hurt Twilight’s friends by making Twilight do it–nonetheless one of the most sadistic things any villain in the show has done. It fits well with Chrysalis’ personality as it’s presented in the comic, which is to say savvy, cruel, and ironically detached.

That last is a great way for the comic to avoid one of the other pitfalls of the Rainbow Dash approach, which is that too much irony in the story can detach the reader from caring about it, and render the story insincere. As I have said many times, sincerity is Friendship Is Magic‘s strongest point, so irony is a dangerous thing to play with. However, by putting the snide remarks and clever asides in the mouth of the story’s villain, “The Return of Queen Chrysalis” is able to fully exploit the humor potential of that irony without encouraging the reader to join in it, since the characters we root for are still fully engaged and sincere.

For example, Chrysalis is disgusted and unsettled by the teddy-bear “Wuv” creatures, which is likely the reaction of most readers, but Spike happily embraces them. Additionally, throughout the story Chrysalis is impatient and snarky with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, while the Mane Six go to great lengths to rescue them and clearly care a great deal about them. Chrysalis functions as a way to give voice to the reader’s tendency toward irony and cynicism, serving as the sort of knowing nod that categorizes the Rainbow Dash approach, but because she is the villain and therefore will be defeated in the end, we know that sincerity will ultimately win out.

In the end, “The Return of Queen Chrysalis” is exactly what it sets out to be, a well-executed, highly enjoyable comedy-adventure story of precisely the sort Rainbow Dash would choose to read.

Next week: The single derivative work I’ve been most requested to cover.

Pony Thought of the Day: Pony BESM

If all goes well and the planets align, shortly after this goes up I should be holding the first meeting (pre-game discussion and character creation) for an FIM-themed BESM game! We will be playing using a modified version of Big Eyes, Small Mouths Second Edition (a.k.a. The Good One), a sadly out-of-print roleplaying game designed for anime-esque campaigns. My modifications can be read here–four new character templates, a handful of new Attributes, a skill-cost chart with a few new skills (the ones with specializations listed are new or modified, all the others use the default specializations), and a new game mechanic designed to reflect the power of friendship and solve one of the game’s problems, which is that it’s fairly common to make a character that has an Energy Point pool and no abilities that use it.

None of which makes any sense to those of you unfamiliar with BESM (likely all of you). It’s Saturday and tomorrow’s post is proving unexpectedly difficult, I’m afraid, so I was somewhat strapped for a PTOTD.

Pony Thought of the Day: I have crossed the line…

If I wasn’t over it already, I am now: I have crossed into full-on irretrievable fanboy. I now have an OC–not in the sense of a character that I made up that isn’t in the show, but in the sense of “if I wrote a self-insert fic, this would be my self-insert.” (No, I’m not going to write a self-insert fic. I’m not THAT far gone, and hopefully never will be.)

Meet Post Mod. He’s a short, chubby Earth pony, and his cutie mark is Not A Pipe.

No, his special talent isn’t smoking. Why does everyone always
ask that? If his special talent were smoking, his cutie mark
would be a pipe, but it’s Not A Pipe.

Pony Thought of the Day: Where Does Magic Come From?

There’s two basic ways magic can work in fantasy: It can be innate, in which case creatures can use magic until they either tire out or exhaust some inner reserve. This is how most video games and anime work, as well as how magic works in Middle-Earth, among other settings.

The alternative is ambient magic, in which the magic-user taps into an energy source outside themselves and channels it toward whatever end. In ambient-magic settings, magic users can keep using their magic until the external source is depleted or the flow of energy becomes too much for them to handle. The energy source might be something that is available everywhere (such as the Force in Star Wars or geothermic energy in Fullmetal Alchemist), or it might be something that has to be drawn from specific magically-charged objects and places (such as in most real-world magical systems).

Note that both systems may have the use of objects as sources of magic; the difference is that in ambient systems an object has magic because it is a magical object, whereas in an innate system the object has magic because someone put magic in it (for example, the One Ring has immense power because Sauron put much of his personal power into it, which is why he wants it so badly and why it’s so important he not get it).

It’s also possible to hybridize the approaches. For example, in the (excellent, by the way) Enchanted Forest Chronicles, most magic-users use innate magic, but wizards have none. They are forced to steal their magic from others, which is what their staffs are for.

So, the question is, what about ponies? Certainly there seems to be a lot of evidence for innate magic, what with unicorn-horn telepathy and cutie marks and all. However, there are also some hints of ambient magic, most notably the Elements of Harmony–certainly the implication I took was that they were not created so much as discovered, and as such represent a source of magical power outside the ponies who wield them. I also suspect that Earth ponies use ambient magic–channeling and cultivating the existing magic of the world rather than creating their own. Certainly that seems to eb the relationship between Granny Smith and zap apples, at any rate.

What do you think? Is the pony world all innate magic, or is some of it ambient? Or can you make an argument for it being all ambient?

Pony Thought of the Day: Snowblind

I’ve said before that Friendship Is Witchcraft doesn’t so much make fun of Friendship Is Magic as use it as a medium through which to parody other things, mostly fanon and fan reactions. “Snowblind,” their parody of “Snowdrop,” is a good example. It doesn’t so much parody “Snowdrop,” but rather replaces it with a darker and funnier subversion of the same narrative “Snowdrop” is subverting, the Christmas-martyr “Little Match Girl” glurge.

[Pony] Is My Waifu (Snowdrop)

You know, I really wish I hadn’t already used
“20 percent cooler” in a previous article title.

It’s March 21, 2013. In the news this week, the Steubenville rape trial, coverage which has helped wake up the mainstream to the concept of rape culture, reaches a guilty verdict; the Voyager 1 space probe reaches the edge of the solar system yet again, because “edge of the solar system” is not a well-defined concept, and My Chemical Romance breaks up. The top movie this weekend is “The Croods,” and the top song is Bauur’s “Harlem Shake.”

The big news in the brony community is that the much-anticipated fan-made episode “Double Rainboom” goes live on YouTube in a little over a week. But quietly, just ahead of the big episode, a small group of fans known as Silly Filly Studios releases “Snowdrop,” a short animation written by Meredith Sims and directed by Sims and Marshal “Zedrin” Watson. 

Way back in the “alchemy” series of reviews in the first season, I posited that Applejack and Rainbow Dash could be read as representing opposing visions if the show. The Rainbow Dash Show is flashy, cool, fun, and exciting, but also a bit heartless and excessively fannish, while The Applejack Show is sincere, honest, and remains true to the core values of the show, but is also prone to sentimentality and  a tad on the boring side.

“Double Rainboom” begins as everything right about the Rainbow Dash approach and ends up being everything wrong about that approach. “Snowdrop” starts as everything wrong about the Applejack approach, and ends up being everything right about it.

Snowdrops, like many flowers, are quite redolent with meaning, almost to the point of being oversignified. They are small, fragile flowers that bloom just at the beginning of spring, and thus often appear while there is still snow on the ground, which together with their small, white blossoms gives them their names. They are frequently cited as one of the first signs of the end of winter; for example in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the appearance of snowdrops is one of the earliest indicators that the power of the White Witch is starting to break. Like any other symbol of winter’s end, they therefore represent rebirth, restoration, and thereby also origins and beginnings, but the power of these meanings is belied by their frailty, small size, and the simplicity inherent in being a plain white blossom.

It is thus fitting that the small, white, fragile filly Snowdrop should be named for one. Her character seems designed to evoke sympathy as directly and hamfistedly as possible: she is blind, shy, picked on, and melancholic, but at the same time never shows signs of giving up or lashing out. She is very close to the Japanese anime-fan aesthetic of moe, which translates roughly to “that which provokes protectiveness.” In shows that employ the aesthetic, moe characters (who are usually female and either childlike, hyper-sexualized, or (in the most disturbing cases) both) are depicted as weak or shown suffering physical or emotional traumas, in ways meant to evoke a desire to protect them in the (mostly male) audience. It is in essence fiction designed to fulfill the audience’s White Knight fantasies.

White Knight fantasies represent a desire to save others in the abstract—that is, not an altruistic and response rooted in empathy for the real, material, concrete suffering of a specific person or group, but a self-centered, abstract desire to save generic others and thus acquire an increased sense of self-worth or affection. As such, they are closely related to Nice Guy Syndrome, in that both involve greater focus on what the White Knight/Nice Guy wants to give, rather than understanding what the object of the fantasy/syndrome wants to receive, and both substitute a self-centered desire for entitlement to emotional rewards, rather than any actual empathy.

In addition to the moe aesthetic of the character herself, the winter setting of “Snowdrop” also recalls any of the large number of mawkish, emotionally manipulative Christmas tales that employ the suffering of a “pure” character to teach the audience some lesson, such as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl.” These stories are frequently sentimental to the point of sappiness, and it is difficult to say whether the ones where the suffering, pure little girl (it is usually a girl) gets her wish are more obnoxious than the ones (such as “The Little Match Girl”) where the suffering girl is “too pure for this world” and gets “rewarded” by dying horribly. Such stories are the epitome of glurge, stories so blatantly emotionally manipulative that, even when intended to produce positive feelings or responses, they are still vaguely nauseating. And for most of its running length, “Snowdrop” looks exactly like one.

Except then Snowdrop makes the first snowflake and presents it to the Princesses, and everything changes. The one thing moe characters never get to do, the one thing the Little Match Girl cannot be permitted, is to tell their own stories, to contextualize their own experiences under their own terms. Snowdrop, however, gets to express herself artistically. She creates the snowflake to represent the sound of stars twinkling that she alone can hear; since she is blind, she presumably does so by touch, and this is an animation. Her snowflake is therefore a visual representation of the tactile experience of hearing a star.

That concept alone makes any flaws in “Snowdrop” worthwhile, but in addition to making art, the narrative also affords Snowdrop a space to make an artist’s statement. She is allowed to explain the why of the snowflake, and in so doing touches one of the listening ponies, Princess Luna. We know this is set in the far past of the series, because Celestia’s opening narration frames this as a flashback even as it shows familiar ponies in the now; because Celestia’s hair is pink instead of rainbow-hued, which is commonly used in fanart of her as a young pony; and because the paratext tells us so in the form of a video description. This is thus Luna before she became Nightmare Moon: it is a Luna who is at some point in the (possibly quite near) future going to allow herself to be consumed with jealousy that no one appreciates her night who hears Snowdrop explain that snow isn’t useless.

Snowdrop isn’t useless; she has a creative power, just like anyone and everyone else. Luna isn’t useless either, nor is her night; is it any wonder that Luna refers to Snowdrop as “the only one who ever truly knew my night?” She’s not talking about blindness–the fact that ponies have a word for it suggests that other blind ponies have existed. She’s talking about that feeling of uselessness, of wanting to prove she has value. Jealousy isn’t greed; it isn’t simply a matter of wanting something you don’t have. Jealousy is resentment, as much a feeling that what you have is worthless as that what someone else has is desirable. Luna feels less valued than Celestia, and therefore feels less valuable; her night is used for rest and recovery (just like Snowdrop’s winter), instead of fun and happiness like the spring or Celestia’s day.

Snowdrops, in praising winter, is also telling Luna that she’s wrong about the night, that it isn’t worthless and can be celebrated. But critically–and more than anything else, this is what saves the short from the dangers of glurge–Luna doesn’t listen. She continues to feel that her night is worthless and unvalued, continues to stew in jealousy, and ultimately tries to seize power as Nightmare Moon. Snowdrop’s sweet, disabled, martyr-like moe purity cannot prevent Luna from becoming a monster.

Yet Luna remembers her as a friend anyway. Snowdrop doesn’t fail; she transforms winter forever, and is never forgotten by the night. At the same time, there is a limit to what she can accomplish; the end is thus not sickly sweet, but bittersweet, as Luna mourns her absent friend and the mistakes which meant she never got to say goodbye.

The last of Snowdrop’s snowflakes–which is recognizably the first–drifts to the ground, landing on a snowdrop, which slowly blooms. Sadness and cold and darkness exist. It is not as easy as simply being pure and sincere and trusting that everything works out perfectly–but even in the midst of snow, the first signs of spring can bloom.

Next week: There is a reason this is called Derivative Works Month, not Fanworks Month. This is why.