All posts by Karen

My First Comic Book Store Experience

There’s been some talk lately about how comic stores have been “historically” unwelcoming of women. Normally I would post the tweet of a person who said this, but whenever I do that sort of thing, I get a few of their friends yelling at me that I’m “being mean” for continuing a dialogue that was started in a public forum, and I don’t want people yelling at me today, so whatever. In any case, the idea that “women are made uncomfortable in comic stores” is something of an old chestnut in the realm of geek-shaming, so it really doesn’t matter who happened to say it today.

This idea is completely at odds with my own experience, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself; Just because I had, and continue to have, mostly good experiences in comic stores does not mean that all women necessarily do, and vice versa. In fact, my one, anecdotal story really doesn’t have any value, other than the fact that it’s my personal story, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of that. How many times have you seen a woman say “This is what happened the first time I went into a comic store?”, and talk about what actually happened? It could just be me, but I never see those stories; it’s always seems to be taken as an article of faith that “comic stores are creepy, amirite?”

So here’s one story of what happened when one woman, or young girl in this case, went into a comic book store for the first time, just for posterity.

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I was 11 years old, and I was obsessed with X-Men. The Saturday Morning cartoon wasn’t enough to sate my mutant cravings, so I decided it was time to seek out these strange things I’d heard of called “comic books.” I think I had been dimly aware that comics existed for a while, but it wasn’t until X-Men that I suddenly felt a need to know more.

My mom went with me to a comic book/toy store in a local shopping center. Standing behind the counter was a petite, 30-something brunette lady with a friendly smile; thinking back, she probably looked close to the way I do now, only I doubt my smile is as warm. A little nervous, I asked if they had any X-Men comics, and she cheerfully recommended several titles to me, and answered some of my questions, which I don’t remember, but I know I had some.

My mom, never one to miss an opportunity to make things awkward, asked “Is it unusual for a girl to like comics?” The lady laughed and said that some of the store’s regular customers were women who worked at Grumman nearby (this was before they merged with Northrup and became Northrup Grumman– hahahah DATING MYSELF HERE), and women reading comics was not uncommon anymore, if it ever was. My Mom was mollified, I walked out with some issues of X-Men Adventures, and everyone was happy.

The brunette woman who had been there that day co-owned the shop with her husband, and on return visits, it was usually the husband that was there. The sight of him didn’t fill me with the same warm-and-friendly feeling that his wife did, but he was still perfectly nice and was happy to answer any of my questions about comics. So began a period where, on Saturdays, my Mom would drop a friend and I off at the shopping center, with $10 to pay for lunch. If I had any money left after lunch, I went and bought comics. Amusingly, I thought I was supposed to give the change from lunch back to my Mom, so I used to hide my comics in my room like they were stolen booty. I only found out later that my Mom didn’t actually care that I was spending maybe $4 a week on comics, which was an amazing relief at the time.

This store was my first exposure to back issue bins, which were kind of overwhelming and a little bit scary at the time; the whole comics world seemed so huge, and I had maybe $3.50 from my Mom on alternate weekends, and it just seemed like I would never know all of this extensive comic lore that cool people knew. Nevertheless, I found it interesting flipping through those stacks and stacks of comics, imagining the day when I could get a job and buy them all. One day, I happened to find this issue:

SHE’S BACK, BITCHES!!!!

I was entranced. My favorite character, Rogue, fighting some kind of terrifying zombie creature? OMG so cool! I kept looking for stories about Rogue, and I always seemed to end up with issues about Jubilee finding herself, or some crap.  I wanted to find out how Rogue was going to get out of this jam so badly, and the fact that the cover art was kind of scary and grizzly only made it more appealing; it felt like reading this comic would be an initiation into a fascinating, dangerous adult world.

Sadly, the back issue was marked up to $8, which put it out of my price range. I remember begging my Mom to let me buy it, who said something like “Wait until you’re making $20 bucks a weekend babysitting, then you can buy expensive comics.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long– I don’t remember exactly, but I think I scrounged up some birthday money or something to buy Uncanny X-Men #269. I think the issue had been marked up too high (even during the speculator boom), but I will say that I got my money’s worth out of it; I copied practically every Jim Lee illustration in the entire comic. When I expressed interest in drawing comics, the guy at the store special-ordered How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way for me, which I devoured. I never really did learn to draw comics The Marvel Way, but I did learn how much I loved drawing.

Unfortunately, this was during the ’90s speculator boom, and barely a year after I’d first started buying comics, the crash came. A huge number of comic stores closed, including my store. I went on to frequent other stores over the years, all staffed by guys who were always encouraging my interest in comics without crossing the line into being patronizing…which, looking back on it now, is a pretty difficult balance to hold. I’m amazed I happened to luck into several people who could do that.

I’ve really only had one “bad” experience in a comic book store, and it was kind of questionable whether it had anything to do with me. At one store in Buffalo, the guy at the register seemed kind of dismissive of me when I was buying my comics, but he didn’t say or do anything specific, so for all I know, he could have just been in a bad mood that day (and to be fair, virtually no one in Buffalo is in a good mood, with good reason. Try living in Buffalo, you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ve drifted in and out of buying American comics since then, largely because I lost interest in X-Men and other titles I used to love (which is a topic for another day.) Lately though, I’ve started reading some comics again, and my local store is pretty cool. They have a big kids section, and I’ve gotten some children’s books for my daughter there, as well as gifts for other people’s kids. Plus, the owner is a family man, so he’s understanding on those occasions when I’ve had to come into the store toting a stroller with a cranky toddler. Sometimes his kids hang out in the store, reading My Little Pony and generally being adorable.

So…yeah. If comic stores have “historically” been hostile to women, this was a period in history I never experienced. I’m not saying it never happened, and there aren’t women who had legitimately bad experiences. The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy may be a stereotype, but it was inspired by something; some people like that surely exist. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience.

What I am saying, is this: please don’t erase me from comics history. Please don’t pretend like all girls and women faced animosity when entering so-called “geek spaces”, when it’s simply not true. It’s unfair to the genuinely nice men and women who ran most of the stores I frequented, and it’s unfair to me as an individual. If I say “I’ve always had a good time in comic stores,” because it happens to be true, I shouldn’t be accused of lying, or other nefarious intent.

Is my comic store story any more important than anyone else’s? No. But it isn’t any less important, either.

X-Men and The Fake Comics Diversity War

Some people think a female Wolverine is a cheap gimmick; this would be a more important concern if original-recipe Wolverine didn’t start out as a cheap gimmick too.

If you’re not a regular reader of American comics, you may not know that die-hards on all sides have been waging a ferocious culture war over them for the past several years. One side says that old, crusty comic book fans just can’t handle women and minorities taking over the roles of beloved superheroes, and these regressive, bigoted people need to either (preferably) die out, or get with the times; the other side says that a lot of the so-called “diversity” in modern comics is a cynical sales ploy used to deflect criticism from lazy, uninspired writing. They’re both right to a certain extent (in the same way that a stopped clock is still going to be right some of the time), but more importantly, they’re both kind of delusional.

But that’s not special; nonsensical arguments over pop culture that take place primarily on the internet are a dime a dozen. No, what makes this particular kerfuffle interesting to me is that it seems to take place in some kind of alternate universe where X-Men comics never existed. Now, considering the fact that Marvel has done basically everything to kill that franchise outside of taking it back behind the barn and shooting it, you may not believe this, but at one time, the X-Men were the most popular superheroes in the entire world; yet if you acknowledge that, the argument for not one but BOTH SIDES of this argument falls apart in pretty spectacular fashion. As tiresome as I find the “You’re a bigot!” “No, you’re the REAL bigot!” arguments, I have to admit to some fascination with this opportunistic, selective memory regarding comic book history…or, more bluntly, how can you ignore the evidence that’s right in your face?

Let’s examine the “Diversity is used as a cynical marketing ploy, and that just sucks,” side first.

Diversity for Diversity’s Sake…is Good?

The pushback against more diverse character types in comics is not about hatred of women and minorities…in most cases. (I mean sure, you can find a small group of legitimate bigots for whom that is the issue, but that’s a subject for another day.) No, the pushback is how diversity is shamelessly used as both carrot and stick for readers. Example: GenericHero, who has been portrayed as male for 40 years, suddenly passes the torch to a female successor. Marketing goes crazy: “It’s GenericHero, like you’ve never seen HER before! Forget everything you ever knew about GenericHero, it’s a new era of Ass-Kicking!” Every ad for this “event” features heroic pin-ups of GenericHero looking hella awesome, complete with her sexy (but not TOO sexy) redesigned-yet-classic costume, and from all the hype, you’d think this was the biggest thing to ever happen to comic books since Batman decided to put on a cape.

Then the new comic with GenericHero debuts, and the character does exactly the same boring shit he/she has been doing for the last 30 years; the only difference is that she often makes snide comments about how the bad guys underestimate her now because she’s a woman (or if the writers want to be REALLY edgy, they might insert a comment that vaguely alludes to the fact that she has a menstrual cycle.) When readers complain, “This is not the revolution of GenericHero that we were promised,” the answer from the creative team is invariably “Shut up, you just can’t handle the fact that there are women in comics now, you pathetic, basement-dwelling misogynists!” Then comic fans go “Umm, excuse me?”, and sales plummet. Then industry pundits say “Sales of GenericHero plummet since the mantle was taken up by a woman; indisputable proof that comic book readers CANNOT HANDLE CHANGE!” Rinse and repeat with the next costumed hero.

God, it’s tiresome.

Anyway, so we can all agree that Diversity for the sake of Diversity, or Diversity used as a mercenary selling point, doesn’t work, right? It’s always forced, and boring, and never as good as if the writers had just focused on the traditional char…..

…Oh, right. Uncanny X-Men happened. Diversity For the Sake of Diversity can actually be awesome when done right.

Make no mistake, the 1975 relaunch of the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men started out as tokenism at its finest. “Look, there’s a Native American! And a Black Woman! And a Russian, and a German, and a Japanese Guy! There’s even a Canadian named ‘Wolverine,’ because wolverines are from Canada!” Seriously, the entire concept behind Wolverine’s initial character was “let’s have a Canadian superhero, because we don’t have one yet;” then when the character failed to become popular immediately, the only thing that kept him from being written out of the book was the fact that the one Canadian who worked for Marvel lobbied for him. The only thing missing from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 was a giant sticker that said “Look How Progressive This Comic Book Is! Do We Get A Gold Star????”

If things had continued in this vein, it would probably have been a pretty cringeworthy comic, and sometimes it was (See: Banshee the Irishman and his literal castle full of leprechauns.) But writer Chris Claremont took these created-via-checklist characters and did something interesting with just about all of them. Instead of being a stereotypical Earth Mother type, it turned out that Storm’s “all-loving African Goddess” shtick was a lie she told herself to escape from the horrors of her past, and when she let go of that role, she wasn’t sure she liked the person she was underneath. Nightcrawler explored religious guilt while still being charming and swashbuckling, and never committing the cardinal sin of becoming humorless. Soviet-born Colossus struggled with life in America for reasons having little to do with his superhero identity, especially when he started to have feelings for a young Jewish girl with a vastly different upbringing. And of course, Wolverine’s character went on to explore all these huge themes that have made the character one of the pillars of the genre: the nature of violence, which victimizes even its perpetrators; the role that memory, which is fallible, plays in identity; the concept of Logan as a sort of quintessential war veteran, suffering a kind of ongoing PTSD that never gets better, because there’s always another war.

This was stuff that really hadn’t been explored in comics, and rocketed the comic to a completely unexpected level of popularity; instead of being an oddity, UXM became the standard against which other comics were judged, rightly or wrongly. And it all happened because Claremont made good use of the “Diversity First” concept he was given; taking the opportunity to tell stories that hadn’t been told, couldn’t be told, with someone like Spider-Man. The promise of all-new, all-different stories wasn’t a marketing ploy, because the stories actually were new…and that’s something that’s much easier to do when you’re starting from a different place than you were before. Diversity, whether you want to tag it with the label “forced” or otherwise, can be a great jumping off point for creativity.

So the argument “Forced Diversity Never Works,” is somewhat undermined by the fact that, historically, it can work. And as to whether or not it’s cynical…how do you even judge that? “Let’s call the Canadian character Wolverine because wolverines are from Canada and it’s a new gimmick,” sounds pretty cynical, not to mention simplistic, but look at what writers have done with that character; look what James Mangold did with the film Logan, earlier this year. Just because someone has the gall to be cynical enough to hope that something catches eyes and makes money, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be thematically cynical. It doesn’t mean anything, really. If a great story comes from a cynical place, it’s still a great story; if a bad story comes from an idealistic place, the best you can say is “Well, at least your heart was in the right place, dear.”

Old Comic Fans Can’t Handle Diversity, Except When They Do

Okay, so we’re all on board that diversity in comics is awesome, right? No, we still have to worry about those old, regressive comics fans, who think a character named “Iron Man” should probably be a man and not a fifteen-year-old girl. These old fossils just can’t handle women, particularly minority women, in positions of power, and all of their arguments about so-called “forced writing” and “cynical marketing” are just a smoke screen for their hate! They just want to go back to the bad old times when superhero comics were predominantly WHITE and MALE and–

In this issue: Strong black woman beats up white men because they are dumb and totally deserve it.

In this issue: Strong black woman demands the return of her superpowers from brilliant Native American engineer/shaman, because that’s just how the ’80s rolled in superhero comics.

…Oh, right, the time when Uncanny X-Men was the best-selling comic in the world was during the time when it was led by Storm, who happened to have no superpowers at the time; having lost her powers, she was leading the team with a combination of street smarts and pure chutzpah. I’m confused: are these crusty old comics fans who can’t handle minority women in the spotlight, the same comics fans who were buying Uncanny X-Men in droves during the ’80s? Or were these different fans? Considering the fact that UXM was the best-selling comic, if readers had a huge aversion to minority women in positions of power, they had a really funny way of showing it.

it’s almost like readers accept diversity without comment when diversity leads to characters they love and stories they feel invested in, and only have a problem with it when the diversity itself is used as a stand-in for telling a decent story. So the argument was never really about diversity in the first place, but about the fact that many, if not most, American Superhero comics have been fundamentally directionless for decades and need a new raison d’être if they’re ever going to be worthwhile again. What we hear over and over again, bleated as though from a group of sheep, is “Diversity this, Diversity that, grrrr!”, when what we could be talking about is “What role does the superhero comic serve now in the age of immersive videogames, where you can really feel like you have superpowers? What can a superhero comic do to remain vibrant beyond serving as mere fodder for the summer movie franchises that have all but replaced it in popular culture?” These, to me, at least, are interesting questions. “How many of the people who loved Storm in the ’80s have become misogynist bigots since then?” is not an interesting question.

An admission: yes, I’m basing a lot of this on the one-time popularity of UXM, which was only one comic among many. That said, it was not only the best-selling comic, it was essentially the flagship title of the entire industry for many years; it was the comic people gave to their friends to get them into comics. While UXM may have only been one title, I don’t think you can brush it aside as an exception when it was seen as not just a good comic, but the standard to be emulated. How can we act like “Old” comic fans are the problem, when the most popular comic from decades ago was filled with all of the things they supposedly aren’t progressive enough to handle today? How can we act like all sales-driven diversity initiatives are bad when they gave us Wolverine, which led to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? It boggles the mind.

TLDR: This whole fight over diversity in comics is a total sham. Yes, some bigots exist among comics fandom, and yes, some writers use gender and racial diversity as a shield to deflect criticism of otherwise poor writing; both of these facts are largely irrelevant to what the medium is and where it’s going.

Hi y’all

One thing I learned the hard way a while back is that you should never talk about whatever creative thingy it is that you’re doing on the internet: either do it, or don’t. Post the episode, post the art, post the episode recap, post the comic page, whatever, and if you have nothing, let it be nothing. What you absolutely should not do is write a long, detailed post about “Why I am taking a hiatus from [insert thing]” or “Why it’s is taking me longer than expected to create [insert thing],” and so on and so forth. It’s just boring, and no one cares, and they’re right not to.

Yet, here I am breaking my own rule, because I’m talking about what I am doing with my blog as opposed to just blogging, and I swear I learned this lesson something like 15 years ago back when I first tried to do webcomics (and on that note, OH GOD has it been a long time). But, hey, my life is very different now than when I first started doing any of these little internet projects, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to stop for a moment to take note of that. If it comes off as a massively self-indulgent rant, well, there’s plenty more internet for you to read out there, I guess.

I realized a few months ago while struggling to keep up with editing of the Otakusphere podcast that I just don’t love anime the way I used to. Don’t get me wrong, I still like it; I’ll probably be watching it, to some extent, for the forseeable future. I just don’t feel the huge need that I used to to know as much as possible about it and be included in “the conversation” about it, whatever that means. Maybe I’ve just realized that there really is no Greater Conversation, there’s just tons of little private ones, and do I really feel the need to make my private conversation public? (which, come to think of it, is literally what a podcast is.) Podcasts are another thing that, while I still like them and I’m glad they’re around, I don’t feel this compulsion to try to be a part of them.

I’ve been trying to figure out for the last few months what I should do with this little blog named Otakusphere. Shut it down and start something new that doesn’t have anime associations? No, that’s dumb. I’ll probably have the urge to start something new a few years from now anyway, and then I’ll just be on a treadmill of constantly starting new blogs that never get anywhere. Besides, this blog has been around long enough that there are nifty links to it from all sorts of weird corners of the internet, and it seems like it would be a waste to just discard that; I like the fact that people come here all the time because they followed a link about Tomb Raider, or wanted to read commentary on the 2011 Madhouse X-Men anime.

But I’m not sure how much blogging I’m going to be doing. As I get older, and free time to myself becomes more precious (parenting will do that), I’d rather spend time doing my own creative stuff rather than commenting about other people’s creative stuff. I thought I was done with drawing comics, only to realize I could probably enjoy making comics and make some good ones if I didn’t approach it 100% completely wrong, in the wrong format, with the wrong goals, which is what I did the first time. So I’m currently working on a comic book, albeit very slowly. I also have my fantasy books, which I’d like to do more of; they’ve been pretty well-received, but they need more professional presentation and they need some form of marketing that’s more aggressive than “you can find them on Amazon.”

And yet, there’s going to be a time when I want to write 10,000 words here about some old game, or cartoon, or something, and on one level it’s a total waste of time, and on another, well…that’s just what I do. So I guess what I’m saying is, I still want to do my semi-random enthusiast blogging about sundry topics, but I don’t want to be responsible for a regular podcast, or anything too time-sensitive, really. I do apologize to those who were enjoying the anime podcast especially, because I think that was filling a niche that still needs filling, but at this point in my life, I have to find what works for me. I’m not some college kid who can stay up all night writing recaps of five of the latest anime episodes and then sleep through my biology class; sometimes I wish I were ten years younger, but I’m not, and engaging in any kind of fandom is a smaller part of my life now.

Really, with the exception of discontinuing the podcast, nothing has changed much; this will remain a sporadically updating blog that will feature whatever nerdy stuff I’m psyched about on that particular day, and probably occasional sociological rants with no pictures that will become an immediate embarrassment five minutes after they’re published. I’m just saying that I’m no longer going to make periodic attempts to make this more of “an anime site,” or a whatever site; it’s just my lil’ blog, and maybe for the first time, that’s okay.

Or, you know, I could start blogging One Piece and Attack on Titan from the beginning tomorrow, because sometimes I’m just random and stuff. But probably (hopefully?) not.

Otakusphere Weekly #26: No One Ever Expects Drill Boobs

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Karen’s great “please God let me catch up on the podcast backlog” project continues, with this episode covering the first of the Fall 2016 anime finales and plenty of the other usual nonsense. Personally, I think this episode’s greatest contribution to the human race is our well-reasoned decision to pick Bakuon!! Jesus over Drifters Jesus as the flagship Anime Jesus, but we’ll let posterity be the final judge of that.

Otakusphere Weekly #25: Cleanse Your Palette With Death Parade

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Guess who got behind on her podcast editing HAHAHAHAHAHA *cries* yeah I’m really behind.

On the plus side, this was a pretty good episode, where we discussed a lot of stuff and not just the current simulcasts, including some shoujo manga, the Sword Art Online Vita and PS4 games, older anime like Death Parade and Ristorante Paradiso, and so on and so forth. We also learn that Evangelion was Lifesong’s Gateway anime, and there’s something more than a little disturbing about that. Like, everybody else got into anime with Sailor Moon or DBZ or something normal like that, and Lifesong watches Shinji slowly turn into a vegetable from trauma, but then somehow thinks “hmm, this is a pleasant art form that I now plan to engage with at some length.”

In other news, I would know how intense Izetta: The Last Witch  had gotten if I hadn’t dropped it, Magical Girl Raising Project kills more magical girls before 9 AM than most people do all day, and we may be the only people on earth concerned about the animation quality in Yuri on Ice!!! and not just dissolving into a puddle of mush over Victor and Yuri. Oh, and we want actual Christians to give us their take on Drifters Jesus, since he’s a lot like real Jesus when you get right down to it.

Otakusphere Weekly #24: Finally, Anime Hitler


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In this slightly disturbing episode, we discuss Moe Magical Girl decapitations, evil witches put into stasis as part of a Nazi plot, and the fact that Drifters has given us the anime version of Adolf Hitler that we never knew we wanted. Err, we also discuss some lighter stuff, like funny shipping wars in Kiss Him, Not Me, love between figure skaters and ice dancers, and the fact that Kaiju Girls portrays neither kaiju nor girls with any real enthusiasm.

In other news, LB is reading Welcome to the Ballroom, which he’s not that keen on, but we all need to buy it to prove that a market for ballroom dancing manga exists. I’m just still stuck on the fact that someone made a ballroom dancing manga and tried to make it all shonen-y; now I want a shonen manga all about home redecorating or something.

Otakusphere Weekly #23: I Want You, Main Character Girl!

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This week Kae gets fat again and then unfat really quickly, Ren temporarily jazzes up Uta Pri by declaring his inexplicable feelings for evil succubus Nanami, Izetta handles it’s spying plot in perhaps the most obnoxious way possible yet somehow makes up for it by giving us the visual of Fine eating pie, and uh…something something gay figure skating? Look, I’ll give you a better synopsis next time, I think the Tofu Turkey I ate might have temporarily broke the thing in my brain that allows me to summarize podcasts. The yams though? Those yams were DYNAMITE!

Otakusphere Weekly #22: There Are No Admins

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This time around, Keijo!!!!!!!! and Yuri on Ice!!! continue to earn their exclamation points, Izetta: The Last Witch and Magical Girl Raising Project leave us with some doubts, and this season of Uta Pri continues to be stultifyingly boring. In other news, we have now confirmed that Drifters‘ Jesus is a bad guy (what?) and none of the monsters in Kaiju Girls are ever going to have a cool fight (WHAT?)

Otakusphere Weekly #21: The World Revolves Around Tonkatsu, Once Again

marchlions

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This time around, we discuss March Comes in Like A Lion and how we would all like to either a)Have an Akari-figure in our lives or b) Be Akari. In other news, Magical Girl Raising Project surprises everyone, Keijo!!!!!!!! treats the Vacuum Butt Cannon issue with the seriousness it deserves, and Gakuen Handsome is…there is no describing what Gakuen Handsome is.

Oh, and Drifters featured the Second Coming of Christ and apparently only 1/3 of the audience even noticed. Maybe religious people should be concerned?

Otakusphere Weekly #20: Monologues from Cats

flipflap

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This time around, we jump down the rabbit hole with Flip Flappers, discuss the hidden meaning of the cats’ dialogue in March Comes in Like a Lion, and ponder the proper diet for a modern Keijo player. Additionally, is Girlish Number annoying, or is it just so brilliant in its recreation of workplace incompetence that it’s just painful for anyone who has ever held a job to watch? These questions, and more, answered* on this week’s** episode!

*To be perfectly candid, we don’t really answer these questions. But they are posed, and that should count for something, right?

**Our podcast timing has gotten weird and I have no idea if saying “this week’s episode” makes any sense, but whatever, I’m not getting into “fortnight” or what have you.