On The Adventure Zone, Fandom, and the Pitfalls of Black-and-White Reasoning

On June 1st, 2017, First Second Books released art for their upcoming graphic novel for The Adventure Zone, a popular D&D podcast. The art featured redesigns for the three main characters who were all depicted as white in their original designs, as shown in the title image for this post. The redesigns made one character black and one character blue, leading to more outcry from the fans.

A good deal of the complaints from the fans, though, was justified. While podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale have had fandoms that have asked for more representation, they have also never sanctioned any one depiction of their characters. The Adventure Zone team has affirmed that the graphic novel’s depiction of the characters is not canon, but it will likely be the frame of reference for most fans.

For a complete run-down of the events, I’d recommend reading this post. The events around this uproar in the community, though, are something we’ve seen time and time again. The response from the creators of The Adventure Zone, though, touches on something that I think people in most fandoms should take to heart:

There’s not an easy solution. There just isn’t. We have fans who want us to do better, to have more diversity in the three main characters of this book. But those characters were created and played by white people who didn’t consider the ramifications of their every action when viewed through a specific cultural lens while playing. [. . .] The solution the whole team landed on for this graphic novel is imperfect. It has disappointed some people, and it is going to continue to disappoint some people. But there is no non-disappointing solution. And that’s not First Second’s fault, and it certainly isn’t [the artist’s] fault. It is completely because of the rock and a hard place that we’re positioned between, and all because of our failure to establish a solid foundation for these characters and their identities when we started this show. And for that, we’re so, earnestly, deeply sorry.

The problem I have found with most fandoms is that there are inherent dissonances in what a fandom wants and what the work is. There’s the dissonance between wanting a wide variety of representation and making sure representation isn’t given for the wrong reasons: another complaint in the Adventure Zone fandom was that one of the characters who was made brown was called a “deadbeat dad,” which has some worrying implications. There’s dissonance between what is problematic to the fandom and what is relevant to the creators when given context: one character’s backstory has been criticized for “fridging” a woman, but the character is played by someone who was responding to his mother dying when he was in his 20s. There’s dissonance between the fandom wanting a perfect solution to the representation and the problem that, as discussed, there simply is not an easy solution.

In most fandoms, there is a tendency to default to a black-and-white method of thinking. This isn’t to say that representation isn’t important, that being aware of the tropes you’re accidentally using is important, or that the fans are always wrong. As I said above, I think that most of the critiques of the new design are completely valid. The issue is that so many of the fans seemed to both expect and demand perfection, which is something that is just not attainable. If the creators had taken all of the commentary from the fandom and made all of the characters non-white (or, in Taako’s case, non-white-coded), there would still be complaints. People would still be upset. Perfection, especially in multifaceted conflicts like representation and racism, is not a reality. There are too many factors to account for every single one, especially given that the concern was largely over just three characters. This black-and-white reasoning has lead many fans to write off The Adventure Zone entirely or accuse the creators of being fundamentally bad people.

Another key dissonance is the relationship fans have with content creators. In most fandoms, this is almost a non-issue; most creators have Twitters, but they’re not going to read every tweet a fan sends to them. Podcasts, though, are different: most of their fanbases are still manageable numbers, and most creators enjoy interacting with fans or have to for marketing reasons. As described in their post, the creators of The Adventure Zone did not expect their show to have the huge fanbase it has amassed:

Justin once described the show as a “car that learned how to fly,” which I think is an accurate way of describing this friction. [. . .] Part of that I can lay at the feet of the fact that The Adventure Zone started as a one-off filler episode of [another podcast] that we published while Justin was on paternity leave — we didn’t have that conversation because we didn’t think this show would be a show.

More fans for this show means more accountability, which is a good thing. The creators have always responded to criticisms by making their show more open, more diverse, and more sensitive. There are canon LGBT+ characters. The plot has veered away from killing off more women. The creators have all responded to complaints with grace and sincerity.

The issue is when the fans start feeling as though all of their criticisms are on equal footing and worthy of immediate implementation into the content. When Adventure Zone fans started initially shipping a male and a female character, the creators ignored them–which then led to the woman being part of one of the show’s most positive female/female relationships. When Adventure Zone fans urged for a character to have a silly name, the creators decided against it–which evaded a choice that the creators felt would have been racist. What fandom often seems to ignore is that the creators have a right to ignore fans’ concerns and that, often, the creators make the choices they do for a reason.

There was also a camp of outcry at the outcry, saying that the creators should never be held accountable, that the criticisms weren’t valid, that race in fantasy doesn’t matter . . . That’s all too much to unpack here, but know that the creators active urge people not to be mad at the fans who criticize them.

This isn’t to say that the fans are wrong. This isn’t to say that creators should be protected from all criticism. This isn’t to say that fans shouldn’t want to see characters who look like them. This is to say that when it comes to content, like with all things, few things are as simple as fandom usually interprets them to be. There are too many factors for any decision to be perfect. The dissonances that inherently exist in fandom will always exist, especially when they stem from conversations on institutionalized oppression.

I hope that eventually, fandom will work through these areas of discomfort. I hope that creators learn to be more inclusive, and I hope that they follow in the footsteps of the Adventure Zone team with their sincere apologies. Until then, though, I’m going to get this graphic novel, but I’m going to understand that it didn’t do everything I thought it should. I’m going to keep listening to the podcasts I do and call out creators when lines are crossed. Mostly, though, I’m going to remember that nothing is perfect–not creators, not content, and not the ability to give great representation.

I’d love to discuss this further, so please feel free to comment down below if you have a response. You can–and should–listen to The Adventure Zone every other Thursday, and you can follow First Second Books for updates on the graphic novel.

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