Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen

Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen Fairest of All: A Tale of the Wicked Queen by Serena Valentino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to this series as a fan of Serena Valentino's previous work, "Nightmares & Fairy Tales," a comic series which is also (as one might infer from the title) focused on telling fairy tales with a dark flavor. I was impressed then by her talent for the exercise, as many people try their hand at "dark fairy tales" but few succeed; Valentino always gave the stories sufficient horror without making them seem overly edgy, and notably, managed to preserve much of the original sweet charm to the tales as well. She also has a talent for weaving in important issues into stories—such as child abuse, LGBT+ rights, rape survival—without being anvilicious. As a member of black humor powerhouse Slave Labor Graphics, she has worked and is friends the likes of Jhonen Vasquez ("Johnny The Homicidal Maniac," "I Feel Sick," "Squee!," author of "Everything Can Be Beaten," creator of "Invader Zim"), Roman Dirge ("Lenore the Cute Little Dead Girl," poster artist for the band Scarling.—themselves an associated act of Marilyn Manson—writer for "Invader Zim"), Crab Scrambly (illustrator of "Everything Can Be Beaten," Hot Topic T-shirt artist, sculptor of "Spektors" toyline), Eric Jones ("Little Gloomy," "X-Ray Comics," "Tron: The Ghost in the Machine"), and many others.

So yeah, the lady's basically Spooky Scary Royalty. So when I heard about her being hired by Disney to write novels about their most famous antagonists, I knew there was no better person for the job and went in with high expectations.

The first book the series, as the name implies, is told from the perspective of the wicked stepmother of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," who much like in the movie is only ever referred to as "the Queen." Much of the old strengths of Valentino's previous works are on display here: The horrors to come are framed with flowery, elegant imagery—the blooming of apple blossoms, the shimmering of mirrors and jewels—but unlike other authors who merely use such tactics as a way of lulling the audience into a false sense of security, Valentino always places her lighter aesthetics in equal standing with her darker ones and incorporates both into creating a more complex, nuanced work of art. As mentioned before, she also weaves in real life issues in order to give the story more of a sense of grounding. It is for these reasons that I would not label Valentino as "grimdark," as nothing she does is without purpose and she has a good understanding of the fact that darkness needs light to better enhance it.

"Fairest of All," at its heart, is a story about the cycle of abuse, and the way things like addiction and depression contribute to it. We spend much of the beginning seeing what sort of person the Queen was before becoming the wicked witch we famously know her as, and are surprised to find a kind-hearted, vulnerable woman. It's easy to forget that the two are even the same character at first. The Queen grew up being physically and mentally abused by her father, whose primary weapon was his constant insistence that she was ugly and worthless, and it is only through her marriage to the King that she is finally able to know the joy of someone loving her (though her insecurities still linger.) Determined to be a better parent than her father, the Queen goes out of her way to bond with young Snow White, taking her to festivals and reading her letters from her dead biological mother. The early bond between the two is truly touching, especially when the Queen stands up for Snow White during the Christmas ball after being unfairly yelled at by her father.

It is only after the King dies in war that the Queen begins her downward spiral. Clearly depressed, she struggles to find motivation to continue being happy and begins to project this onto the people around her, including Snow White, twisting her bewilderment at their ability to move on with their lives as selfishness and irreverence for the King. After realizing that one of her mirrors, a wedding gift, has been enchanted with the imprisoned soul of her dead father, the Queen begins to cope by constantly forcing her father's face—the one that abused her and called her ugly her whole life—to tell her that she is the fairest in the land. In a clear parallel to substance addiction, this becomes the only thing capable of giving her a sense of power and motivation in life and suffers from severe withdrawals without it, and her need to preserve this high is what drives her to ultimately betray and abuse her own family members.

The book does a good job of teaching several important lessons:

—That abuse, while never justified, often has deeper root causes other than just the abuser being an inherently bad person.
—That seeking validation from one's abuser will only lead to self-destruction.
—That seeking solace in addition, while more satisfying in the short-term, will ultimately only keep you from actually dealing with your problems. Finding solace in the support of loved ones, even though it takes more time and patience, will put you on the path to true healing.
—The best way to honor those who are gone is to live as they would have wanted us to; happily.

The ending is a very emotional one that can be read as both happy and ambiguous.

The happy:

The Queen, finally snapping out of it after seemingly killing Snow White and becoming devastated at what she's allowed herself to become, chooses to go down the path she knows will lead to her death. In spite of everything she's been through, Snow White happily imagines her father, birth mother, and stepmother all dancing with her at her wedding to the Prince, explaining that she always considered her stepmother to have "died" along with her father and that the wicked queen was merely what was left behind. i.e., She chooses to remember her stepmother as the kind protector she was before her downspiral.

The ambiguous:

Much like her stepmother before her, Snow White receives the enchanted mirror as a wedding gift. The Queen's face appears in it and tells Snow that she loves her and always has, which makes Snow smile. This parallels the way the Queen's father appeared in the mirror and told his daughter that she was beautiful, something she always wanted him to say, only it is now the Queen in the mirror telling Snow that she loves her, something the book establishes is what Snow always wanted her to say. Both are facing their abusers through the mirror and having them tell them what they want to hear. While this could be read as a happy ending—the freed soul of the Queen telling Snow her true feelings—it can also be seen as an open question of whether or not Snow White will also continue the cycle of abuse. The fact that this is open-ended though, and knowing Snow White's character, this question manages to give more of a sense of hope than dread, a kind of reassurance that it's never too late to make the right choices and end the cycle.

All in all, a very good story for those who love the Disney villains and also appreciate stories that deal with serious themes and message. I am not disappointed in Serena Valentino in the slightest and can't wait to follow her along with whatever project she takes on. (So long as she finally takes "Nightmares & Fairy Tales" out of hiatus! :P C'mon, I miss Annabelle!)

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Product Review: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga, Eternal Edition vs. 20th Anniversary Reprint

Sailor Moon, the Japanese franchise of legend, has been going through a superpowered Renaissance ever since it hit 20 years old in 2012. That Renaissance has still be going strong to this day, for reasons that I imagine have a lot to do with the fact that the strongest portion of its fanbase (Millennials and Generation Z) are now largely old enough to buy things for themselves. This resurgence has birthed many things, including a reboot anime, several new toys, statues, clothing, accessories, apps—all things I could have chewed off my limbs for back when I was a young child who could only confirm her memories of Sailor Moon even existing through long-abandoned websites on the internet.

One gift of the resurgence has been not one, but two reprints of the original manga series which started it all. Back in the 1990s, English translations of the Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga were notoriously difficult to come by in the West, having been distributed mostly as a feature in tween girl magazines before the franchise was phased out of mainstream America altogether for years. The prequel series, Codename: Sailor V, never officially made it to America and even amateur English translations were extremely rare. It certainly didn't help things that the series had been out of print even in Japan for years ever since its conclusion in the late 90s. For the few English manga books that actually were available, they suffered much of the same localization as the TV series, with character's names being changed, certain elements censored, and the images mirror-flipped in order to accommodate the left-to-right Western style of reading.

That all changed when the 20th anniversary hit and the Sailor Moon Renaissance was first ushered in by Kodansha Comics' announcement that they had obtained the rights to both Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon and Codename: Sailor V and planned on releasing a brand new, newly translated edition across the world. Everyone was thrilled, myself included, since it had been a lifelong dream of mine to read and own the entire Sailor Moon manga.

That dream has long since become a reality.

And I thought that part of my life was done with. Before I had to struggle to find a new goal to continue living for though, lo and behold, yet another reprint was announced. Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Eternal Edition.

I wasn't going to buy them originally since I didn't see what the point would be. As far as I knew, they were just the regular manga, but with different covers on them. I soon learned though that they also came with a number of bonus features, such as more colored images and better translations. So I said what the hell and sprung for the first copy.

These are my comparisons of the two.

Physical Appearance

The Eternal Edition is much larger, as you can see. The Anniversary Edition isn't particularly small, just about the size of your average copy of manga, whereas the Eternal Edition is sized and weighs almost like a storybook. It's definitely more handy if you wanted to read the story with a child.

The Eternal Edition is also covered in holographic sparkles that appear in the light. Which, you know, if like Sailor Moon to begin with, is probably something that blows your mind way, way more than it should.

The whole design is definitely more elegant and heavy-set than that of the Anniversary Edition, which with the inclusion of flowing close-ups of the smiling Senshi and the chibi forms on the back, is going for more of a cutesy aesthetic.

The pages inside of the Eternal Edition are white and glossy, like that of your typical Western graphic novel, whereas the Anniversary Edition always has a few glossy pages at the beginning put has primarily regular paper, again like your average manga. (You'll be able to see this when we compare the translations.) The Eternal covers also have these bookmark flaps built into them, which are also holographic.

If you're familiar with comics, you'll know that chapter transitions are often marked by eye-candy pictures, usually of the characters just looking cool in various poses or outfits. In real life, these pieces are usually full-blown works of art that were hand drawn and colored by the illustrator (which in the case of manga, is often also their author.) In manga, which is often black and white and somewhat cheaply produced, these images are often also rendered in black and white. While this isn't always a bad thing, it can often ruin the appeal of some images that were originally richly colored but are rendered as just a mess of vague grey blots. In order to see the original colored images, you typically have to buy a supplemental "Art Of..." book to go with the manga or just look them up online.

The Eternal Edition, however, due to its glossy printing, is able to deliver these images in color right in the middle of the book where they belong. The large size of the pages also helps to better appreciate them, which is great since I consider Naoko Takeuchi a fantastic artist.

That said, it's worth noting that the Anniversary Edition also has some artwork, and even has some artwork that's not in the Eternal Edition. As you would guess, said artwork is at the beginning where its own glossy pages are. It's not a whole lot missing, but as I said, is worth noting.

One example of this is the contents page (Anniversary Edition on the left, Eternal Edition on the right):


The real draw of the Eternal Edition is the purported better English translations. Even though I appreciate the Anniversary Edition for what it is, even I had to admit that its translations were its weakest point. The problem is not that they're inaccurate, quite the opposite actually, they always struck me as a little too accurate.

Japanese, and indeed Eastern languages in general, have always been noted for their rough translation to English (and vice versa) because the building blocks of the cultural linguistics are so different. To see this illustrated, just try translating anything between the two with Google translate.  And as with most languages, depending on how you try to render or arrange certain words, it can even seem nonsensical.

As such, people who speak both Japanese and English will often tell you that to do it well you have to go more for translating the spirit of what was said rather than the absolute precision of what was actually said. When reading the Anniversary Edition, this is something I came to understand completely. There are lots weirdly phrased things in the Anniversary Edition that, while comprehensible, really take you out of things when you know that almost no actual English speaker would phrase it like that. You really do have to take liberties if you want the dialogue to flow naturally, though there is a lot of controversy among English speaking fans as to how much liberty is appropriate. (See Digibro's video on the trouble with translations for a better understanding of the subject.)

From what I've read out of the Eternal Edition, this issue was eased enormously. It's clear that this new translator did exactly what I had originally wanted and not only translated what was said but rearranged and tweaked much of it in a way that would come across as a more realistic English statement. The Anniversary Edition wasn't that bad, but the new translations are nonetheless refreshing for the way the little tweaks help an English speaker become more absorbed in the story as opposed to having to always stop and read a sentence twice to get what it meant.

Here are a few examples (smaller image Anniversary Edition, bigger Eternal Edition.) These aren't the worst translations the Anniversary Edition had to offer in their entirety, but since only the first book of the Eternal Edition is out, I had to work with what I've got.


"Sendai-zakaue is where five hill slopes meet, it is a very unusual place. But there's an urban legend of a rarely-seen sixth slope of this hill. The "Demon 6:00 PM Bus" is said to be sucked into that sixth slope and vanish. Do you know the name for such an occurrence?"


"Sendai-zakaue is a rare place where five hill slopes meet. According to legend, there has always been a sixth phantom slope. The six o' clock demon bus is drawn onto that sixth slope, where it vanishes, or so the rumors say. Do you know what they call it when people disappear like that?"


"Yes, Bride-san. Your groom is right here. Shall we begin our wedding ceremony in hell?"


"Hello there, my lovely bride. Your groom is here for you. Won't you join me for our wedding.. in Hell?"


"Stealing the sacred form of the blushing bride and whispering of "love"! We won't stand for it!"


"I will not stand by and let you use the sacred image of a blushing bride and the echo of whispered sweet nothings for your own evil ends!"


"You will refrain from underestimating women! And with Mars Power, you will burn! These high-heeled legs will deliver your punishment!"
"You were controlling and tricking people?! You mean you weren't serious? Damn... it! I'll let you know about a woman's pure feelings with raw strength!"


"I'll teach you not to underestimate the power of a woman! My Mars power will incinerate you! In my chic heels, I'll punish you!"
"You were controlling him? You tricked me? He... doesn't really love me? Dammit! I- I'll show you the true force of a girl's pure heart!"

All in all, I'm very pleased with these editions and plan to buy the rest as they come out. Because that's what us nerds do: waste all our money on slightly altered versions of things we already have.

Also, this made me sad:

This has to be explained now?! Am I that old?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-

Friday, October 12, 2018

VOW: To End Child Marriage

I love using what little platform I have to promote good causes. One of my main pet issues is that of child marriage. Contributing to that cause, I introduce VOW, the new fund that uses the wedding industry to fund various groups that are fighting child marriage across the world.

Use your decision to say "I do" to help a child make their decision to say "I don't."


New fund taps $100B US wedding industry to help end child marriage

A new initiative wants to galvanize the United States wedding industry to help stop forced marriage for girls around the world. VOW, launched this week, will allow brides, grooms, and the businesses that cater to them to donate to the fight against child marriage. Contributions will go to underfunded grassroots organizations in six countries with a high prevalence of girls married before the age of 18.

VOW has secured commitments from influential companies, such as The Knot and Crate and Barrel, to donate a portion of profits from products and wedding registries to the new Girls First Fund, which will award grants to local organizations standing up for girls’ rights and against child marriage. Couples can also select VOW as their preferred charity when they create their wedding registry with a brand partner.

The idea to use funds around a wedding to stop a marriage elsewhere may seem counterintuitive, but it was first inspired by her own experience at a wedding, said Mabel van Oranje, chair of the board of international NGO Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1,000 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage.

The bride and groom provided their guests the option of gifting an item from their registry — or making a direct contribution to Girls Not Brides.

“I remember seeing that and thinking ‘that's genius,’ but Girls Not Brides doesn't need the funding as badly as some of these local organizations need it.”

Each year, 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18 — some at just 8 or 9 years old, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Young brides are at much greater risk of domestic violence, ill health, poverty, and dropping out of school. But child marriage and the drivers behind are different in Nepal than they are in Niger, for example, and it’s vital that people working in the communities are familiar with the local constraints and decision-makers, van Oranje said.

“And yet pretty much none of the funding that is going to ending child marriage now reaches grassroots organizations that work to end child marriage,” she said. “What we want to do is then identify these very impressive individuals and local organizations that work in these communities to end child marriage, but empower them to do what they think needs to be done.”

Girls Not Brides also wants to be able to shepherd donors who come to them and ask how best to support community-based organizations. Now, the $27 million Girls First Fund, which counts Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Ford Foundation among its founding partners, will support local organizations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, India, Nepal, Niger, and Uganda.

The work will likely look different in each country. Some groups might focus on facilitating dialogues with local religious leaders and other authorities in the community to raise the legal age of marriage. Others will provide stipends or modes of transportation, such as bicycles, to help keep girls in school, or encourage young women to regularly meet and talk about their lives and goals, so they know how to support one another.

Importantly, contributions to the fund are new and are not being pulled from other pots such as girls’ education or sexual and reproductive health, Girls Not Brides Executive Director Lakshmi Sundaram told Devex.

Request for proposals will be issued in the coming weeks, but Girls Not Brides wants to be careful to cater to community-based organizations who often find it difficult to access funding from the international sphere.

There will be a learning component attached to the grants, and Girls Not Brides will spend the first year working with the grantees to help reduce the barriers that often deter local organizations from accessing this type of funding. To begin with, the Girls First Fund is working to make it possible for grassroots groups to apply for grants using the cross-platform messaging service Whatsapp, a common and free form of international communication for those with smartphones.

In the meantime, five wedding dress designers have promised to put a portion of the profits of specific dresses into the VOW initiative, and Crate and Barrel will launch a line of VOW-specific products next year. Each time an eligible retail gift is purchased from a couple's wedding registry hosted on popular wedding planning website The Knot, the company will donate a portion of the cost of that gift to VOW in the couple's name.

But major brands aren’t the only ones van Oranje wants to see join this movement: “What we hope is that every local bakery will feel excited about this initiative and will want to be part of it. And we'll put a certain proportion of the profits that they make off some of their wedding cake sales into VOW and really try and build this sense of global solidarity.”

Players in the giant U.S. wedding industry are the first to come on board, but the goal is to eventually tap into established wedding markets in Europe as well, she said.

“Americans spend tens of billions each year saying, ‘I do,’ and VOW is about investing part of those funds in supporting girls to say, ‘I don’t,’” van Oranje said.

Domestic Abuse Billboards — Good Job!

Just wanted to give some well-deserved attention to these billboards for a domestic abuse hotline that were floating around. Not only is the message simple, straightforward, and important, but the acknowledgement that women can be abusers too is a breath of fresh air. Too many domestic abuse advocates shy away from the reality of female abusers, content to only acknowledge it in asterisk* form rather than front in center, because they fear that it will somehow "take away" from or diminish the reality of male abusers. Let's be clear: this is an absolutely ridiculous notion. Accepting that women can hurt people too does not make women getting hurt less serious or important. Sympathy and empathy are not limited resources, stop treating them as such.

And I've sadly heard too many justifications that "it was only once" or "it's only when they get really mad" — once is enough to leave. Once is too many times. Call and get help.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Photo Album: Autumn Is Coming

Today I took a walk to the park and then to the library. It still felt like summer temperature, but some of the trees were already taking on fall colors. This was the first one I saw that looked full-on autumn-y. Like most things, it was much more beautiful in person, my camera work doesn't do it justice. It towered above me and made a dome of fiery, rustling colors when you walked underneath. Enjoy these moments of fall, when it's all orange and beautiful, instead of just brown and miserable.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Video: "Give Me Your Hand (Best Song Ever)" ASL Lyrics Video

This is one of my favorite music videos, and it's not even the main music video for this song. A lot of fans have the same opinion, favoring this one over the main video for its interesting approach of "singing along" in American Sign Language, befitting for the title of the song, "Give Me Your Hand." There's something very sweet and charming about it despite being so simple.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

New Van Gogh Notebook

I'm one of those people who has tons and tons of notebooks that are either empty of half-finished because I love their designs and I can't decide what's worthy enough to be written inside of them. This is one such notebook.

For a GoodWill item, it's pretty great. Only $0.99, and two of the things I love: Vincent van Gogh and the night sky/outer space. I couldn't not get it. I'm thinking I'll probably use it for my self-help stuff, mostly stuff I learned from Jonice Webb's "Running On Empty," but a little bit of Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia" too (which I'm planning on re-reading soon.)