Story Pile: Megatokyo

Throughout 2022 I made a bit of fun on social media by reminding people that Megatokyo, the webcomic, was still updating, and had through all 22 years of its existence, produced a plot that at this point spanned roughly a week. It’s one of those things that when you present it to people who remember reading it as literal children creates an interesting reaction that shows you what they remember.

But what of me? What did I remember? I thought that maybe I should go check it out, and see what I thought of Megatokyo, since after all, I’d stepped out well before the talking robot girl had made a schoolfriend who was also the avatar of female tragedy. What is Megatokyo now? And how has it changed? Is it what you remember? is it better? is it worse?

What would I answer to the question, What is Megatokyo?

Content Warning: Y’know, there’s a lot of pretty nasty misogyny in Megatokyo, though not anything I’d step up to the level of a content warning. What I would content warn, though, is the commonality with which they suggest an adult Piro date a fifteen year old.

Megatokyo is a webcomic that launched in the year 2000, immensely successful for its form and platform, and one of those ‘top ten most popular’ things in its genre for a number of those years. Famously slow paced, erratic and unreliable in its update schedule, its claims to fame early on mostly were tied to its high art quality compared to other webcomics of the time and its quirky mix of Anime Softboy Piro and Libertarian Gamer Largo, and that’s kind of where the simple summary breaks down. You can’t really look at Megatokyo as the thing it started as, or the reason it was successful, because those things are amorphous and there’s a lot of assumptions. I mean I assume it succeeded because it looked good compared to a dozen sprite comics and stuff that looked like Sluggy Freelance. What’s more, ‘why it was notable in 2000’ is really unimportant in 2022, where I’m trying to look at what Megatokyo, the whole text, is.

The best thing you can give Megatokyo at the moment is abridgement. Twenty-two years on, waiting between strips and the dead strips are all no longer being drawn out by weeks at a time. The first year or so of comic strips are a breezy read, around 129 pages, which load nice and quick and honestly ricochet through the narrative at a pretty breakneck pace. I started this article imagining in my heart of hearts thinking that I’d just read all of Megatokyo. All twenty years of it, which totals up to about 1600 pages. As I write this down now, the ‘jot notes down’ stage of things, I am at 412 pages, which puts me in March 2003. That means that within the first 3 years of the comic, a quarter of it got made, which is honestly pretty good — that’s around 72 pages a year, which is about two pages a week. You could do a lot worse than that in a lot of serialised publications.

Of course, then there’s the question about what is or is not ‘Megatokyo‘ in this context. At first, I started by noting how often pages were what I filed as ‘padding.’ They were dead art days, ringer days, diary days, explainers for delays in the comic, and my numbers found that first ‘chapter’ of Megatokyo was composed of 83 ‘strips’, and 38 pieces of filler content. I don’t know if that content proportion holds; honestly, I imagine it gets worse, with more and more dead art days over time, until updates are instead interspersed with great big gaps of nothing, but I won’t know until I get there.

I wanted to make sure I spent some of this time noting down my reactions to the characters, the ways the story was telling me things and the things the story seems to think of as important, though, because it’s a lot easier to give the benefit of the doubt at the end of an archive binge, when you’re trying to construct the narrative in your own head. And I think that it holds that some of the best things you can do for Megatokyo is cut out a bunch of Megatokyo.

I need to talk about Megatokyo‘s author. No, not Piro. No, not Fred Gallagher. No, not Largo, or Rodney, or Dom or Ser. None of those people, but rather instead, the Author of Megatokyo, in a Barthesian sense.

Fred Gallagher fell out with Rodney Carston. Fred Gallagher has had depressive spirals, and personal medical tragedy and breakdowns and collapses. Fred Gallager is a person, and that person has been influenced in immense ways by material needs and constraints, and I will talk a little about what I think of that. But Fred Gallagher isn’t ‘the Author’ of Megatokyo and should not be regarded as such, because Megatokyo‘s author is the single mind that created the first strip and the most recent strip. Both of those people who did that were called Fred Gallagher, but they were not the same person by any measure.

I want to talk about what Megatokyo makes me think and feel and what it’s about as a historical millenial story. I want to talk about things that the text seems to me to be trying to do, because that seems the most reasonable way to treat this text as a whole object with its own ideas, and not as a diary of the breakdown of a man cursed in a way only capitalism can curse you. To that end:

The Author Of Megatokyo Is Dead, Because The Author Of Megatokyo Was Never Alive.

When I refer to Piro, I use that to mean the character Piro, and the fact that Piro is written by someone who for a while there wanted to be primarily known and seen as Piro is a detail that the diegesis can discard. It’s interesting if you want to particularly pick on him but I think that picking on him at this point is sort of redundant. The Author of Megatokyo then is the collapsed personality you can see in the work, a mind that would make the jokes that are made here and why they might make them. If a comic makes a particular kind of joke, you can probably reliably expect that the author of that comic finds that joke funny; just in the same way you can expect a comic made in English has an author that understands English.

Without delving too much into Megatokyo’s failings at this point, one thing I think is most important about Megatokyo‘s author is that they value nostalgia and impressions. There’s a shocking amount of things in the comic that claim, in some way, to be ‘about’ something in particular, or reference caring about a thing, but then demonstrate a breathtaking ignorance of it; if you told me the Author of Megatokyo had never been to Japan at all I wouldn’t actually doubt you. There are all these little giveaways, like the ways people have their meals, freely available guns, high speed highway chases, american-style health insurance and details like car accidents and a lack of attention paid to trains. This is not about Japan, this is about the Japan you think you like if you liked thinking about Japan a lot in 2000.

The Author has concerns outside of the comic that creep into them, too; there’s an antipathy towards internet forums and commentators, a distrust of normies, a shocking distaste for women and their agency, and a surprisingly common reliance on violence as a punchline in a way that makes me feel like they’re not very confident.

The confidence and distaste for women show up a lot more in the early parts, but don’t seem to have gone away around strip 500. Early strips relied a lot on the joke structure of someone being awful to a woman then being hurt for it, which meant, to make a joke, a lot of characters harrassed women. Repeatedly. A big part of this is a specific joke structure that was, I think, kind of Mcluahn-like, embedded in the form by another media.

Okay, okay, so this is a big reach, this is unprovable, but it explains a trend I lived through and I think that the story has some explanatory power. When I talk about it, please recognise this is a lens that works for me, this is an explanation for a trend that makes sense to me and I think helps me mentally avoid y’know, some creative problems.

I think that weeby webcomics are populated with a particular joke structure that occurs by trying to emulate an anime punchline.

If you watch a lot of 90s comedy anime, a very common thing is a character does something or says something funny but inappropriate, trying to get away with something they shouldn’t or being somewhere they shouldn’t, rather than stay and explain what’s going on or what they were doing, the show tends to keep things pacing on by having someone in the scene whallop them so hard they go flying out of the scene. This is a structure used a lot by Takahashi across her, let’s say, shithead-based narrative stories, and she used it for a lot of sex-based slapstick.

Webcomics that wanted to emulate anime aesthetics of the 90s were often being made by people who could reference that particular vein of punchline-PUNCHline moment. Also, and this is again, conjecture, I think a lot of webcomics were very keenly aware that they weren’t very funny. What’s more, they were often stuck with a four-panel structure, which means you’d get something like:

Panel 1: Framing for a joke

Panel 2: Setup for the punchline

Panel 3: The actual punchline

Panel 4: A reaction for the punchline

And I think, because overwhelmingly these were being made by people who weren’t boiling with confidence, panel 4 would be a reaction of violence, a shocking and abrupt ‘bam you got hurt for the thing you did,’ which was often a bad joke or a thoughtless line or a cheesy pick-up line. And that structure plays into how, in the early Megatokyo stories, a four panel comic that couldn’t come up with a use for its fourth panel would regularly have Largo say or do something misogynistic or awful, and then, the fourth panel is an understated observation of the aftermath of some violence. A doctor patching someone up, or a news report about someone getting hurt, or Piro hearing that something bad just happened to Largo.

What I’m saying is that an attempt to be Takahashi made Megatokyo into Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

Part of what bothers me in the reread is how much Megatokyo seems to have the edges of some ideas, as it is filled with conversations about media, games, and culture, but these ideas are so basic and stupid and dead-end with cliches. There’s this whole recurrent thread about how Piro liking dating sims was a problem because it made him weak, and not Piro objectifying real women was the problem.

It wants to comment on games because of Largo liking games but it has no idea about how people interact with games. It’s full of characters who clearly like hentai but is deeply dismissive of sex work, and in the same way, these characters seem to always be looking for a woman who is to blame for the things that are going wrong in their lives! Largo spends a huge chunk of the story at war with a girl because he thinks there’s something sus about her, and there is something sus about her, but even the ways he tries to address that involve approaching her as a problem who needs to be solved.

It’s not like this isn’t a story with some ideas in it. It’s definitely trying with both hands to pull together a bunch of different ideas, ideas that maybe had some purpose once, when the story started but as the story persists, the longer it goes without being able to resolve or conclude those story bits, the Author just keeps stapling together things they like. It also creates this weird phenomenon of backpedalling, sometimes as quickly as two panels immediately after one another, with a day between them. There’s a sequence where a teenager finds Piro’s books and her reaction at first implies that she’s looking at hentai he draws, but then the next panel, on the next day, opens with her saying ‘well I’m definitely not looking at hentai here.’

Then what the fuck was that first reaction?

This character’s reaction to Piro’s art is one of those other ways the story seems to be telling me ‘hey, here’s what you should think about this,’ and it’s also one of the ways the story underscores the theme of sadness. It keeps bringing up sadness, the sadness of a character, the sadness of an art, the sadness of a fandom, the sadness of a particular interest, and it keeps bringing up sadness itself as if the sadness is what makes someone interesting. This art is so sad, this artist draws sad characters, he was drawn to this character because there was a sadness to her (even if that wasn’t actually who she was).

I think Megatokyo is a story about how being sad is the same thing as being interesting. And hoping that other people in the world think that too. That a character with the right aesthetic presentation, the right drowned babymanchild, is inherently interesting. You should care about Piro because he’s sad. Piro cares about characters because they’re sad. That’s why he draws them to be sad. Piro’s emotional state is soooo strange, so unlike other boys, so much so that a brain-warping AI that manipulated people assumed he was a female player and he didn’t take well to being hit on in a game, where he was also, again, sad.

You can unpack a whole thing there if you want. Seems you can’t manipulate lesbians over the internet.

Good Girl.

There’s a lot of a particular kind of softboy fantasy to Piro. The character is the hub of a lot of attention from people who value him and his opinion a lot when one of his only acts of selflessness so far was giving away someone else’s money. And I don’t get why I’m meant to like that. I don’t feel like Piro is interesting because he is sad, I feel like he is sad, because he gets to be sad, because he keeps seeming to resort to sadness as a personality trait. He complains about the people around him, especially women, and that’s why he’s sad – because people are making him sad, and that’s not interesting. It’s wretched.

According to the timescale of Megatokyo, there have been about twenty days since the start of the story proper, with a two week timeskip early in chapter 0 to set up the predicament of our freeloading idiot protagonists becoming homeless. It means that the world of Megatokyo is a historical one; it is set in a year 2000 Tokyo where Fukushima Daichi hasn’t happened, where no global financial collapse happened, no impeachment of Park Geun-Hye or assassination of Shinzo Abe happened. Hell, in Megatokyo, Sega is still in the eyes of the gamer audience, a leading console manufacturer, which is why they have black vans and sick-ass secret cops with guns. The PS2 is a loathed upstart console made by an Enemy, Love Plus is eight years away, and Metal Gear Solid 2 isn’t out yet.

The entirety of this story then, is the work of a millenial weeby author, perhaps fresh out of college, writing and creating about the way they felt in that one period of time, as the memories get fuzzier and the culture moves on.

This whole thing makes me feel gross. These characters are iconic examples of millenial internet culture, and looking back on them, they make me revolted to remember who they were, how they were. I printed out some of these comics and had them in my schoolbooks. I quoted them. I probably still do, without realising the source of the phrases lingering still in my head.

I recoil from Piro, even remembering my time as a depressed boy who wanted to be prettier than I was and wished Girls Would Just Appreciate How Different I Was. I see the way that his behaviour and thoughts all seem to reflect a disdain for the women around him, and the way he used selfishness and indulgence as an excuse to treat his friends badly. Largo is meant to be the relief from Piro, and he makes me gamerphobic. Someone who has nothing in his life but Being A L337 G4M3R, whose ability to even process emotion is morphed around that, obsessed with his interests in a way that harms other people, and constantly seeking alcohol.

When viewed as page after page of a single text it’s very hard to think of Megatokyo very well. The characters are dreadful, and you sort of need to make excuses for them to put up with them long enough to watch the character development. They were rough, self-insert characters of thoughtless men, they can’t help it, how were they supposed to be good at storytelling?

There are two things in this comic, in the first five hundred strips that stand out now, in hindsight as needing particular explanation. Firstly, at one point early on, Erika and Hayasaka, two Japanese girls from Japan in Japan are having a conversation, and the topic of Hayasaka’s coworker Piro comes up. Erika asks if he’s American, and Hayasaka responds with ‘I don’t know.’ Now, the specific wording there is very obviously easy – after all, any given white boy could be from Canada, Scotland, Romania, Australia, or indeed, Japan as well, there’s nothing about his appearance that makes it obvious.

But these are Japanese characters from Japan speaking in Japanese, and Japanese has a way, as a language, to signify if someone is from Japan or not, and what’s more, in Japan, it’s really obvious that people judge and assume how Japanese you are or are not, based on how you look. That Hayasaka reacts with an ‘I don’t know’ is really weird, and makes me uncomfortable because it almost feels like it’s asking a specific question, “is he white” and the answer is meant to signify “how should I be able to tell?”

It’s a recurrent thing with how people talk about perceiving Piro, the character. He’s seen as female by a mind-warping AI in an MMORPG, a group of girls describe him as attractive (but also a lady), and the Erika moment leave me feeling like this character, in some tiny way, is meant to be a very obviously white boy, who can somehow be seen, in Japan, aracially; that he would ‘pass’ as Asian in a culture that is very aware of what that means.

Oh and one of those groups perceiving him as a ‘her’ includes a group of fifteen year old schoolgirls who are shocked to see a boy reading shojo manga. This is once again one of those things that projects that image of Japan, rather than being set in Japan, because lots of boys buy Shojo manga, it would not be an oddity that children gawp at. But it does let us chain into the other thing that I cannot stop thinking about:

Piro’s Conscience stops the story and has a chat with him about how he should not find those girls attractive, because they are fifteen and he is something like 23. And that’s almost a thing that you could point to as character development, except it’s weird that he needs to be told that by an outside agent, and it’s weird that the Author would think of that as an example of a way to have this character improve. You kind of don’t tend to need to explain ‘by the way, this character is not a sex criminal.’

But okay, the story says ‘Piro will not have sex with that teenager, as a point of ethical growth.’ Cool, not the example I’d leap to but I’m glad they do it. But and oh no there’s a but – but, they then have other characters remark on that, and there’s a plot arc about ‘oh no, what if this teenager hits on him?’

Yeah, what if?

What if this character who is definitely not a sex criminal now, because that’s a thing that the plot said he wasn’t, gets invited to do a sex crime? Well, maybe he’d do it? Because that character development is uncertain? Which means he’s probably a sex criminal, really?

These are the things that make me wonder about the Author of Megatokyo. It makes me wonder, as with other works before it, why would you bring that up?

It’s hard not to be bitter about Megatokyo. Megatokyo was wildly successful on the con circuit, it had printed books and cosplayers and the creators in the first year of the comic’s life went from ‘nobodies with a comic’ to ‘celebrity guests at major conventions.’ And this is in that period where of 121 strips, 38 were just empty filler. There was a lightning strike of it all, and I know that impacts how I feel about it in hindsight. We were hanging on to see the plot developments? From this? At that point? A year in, knowing that twenty-one years later, many of those initial plot points are dangling or forgotten?

But, and now I’d like to talk about Fred Gallagher the person, and not The Author of Megatokyo. I think Fred Gallagher received a special kind of torment that only capitalism can truly give. In a fair or sensible world, Fred wouldn’t need to do this art in a way that generated revenue; he’d be able to do it in his free time when he wanted to and release it at a schedule that pleased him and find a stable feedback loop that worked for him, all while his other needs were met. He wouldn’t need to work as an architect, then as a bus driver, in order to make ends meet while he pushed on with Megatokyo, a thing that he can manage to update maybe twice a month with a single page, often a page full of wordswordswords.

Megatokyo got successful in a capitalist way, and it demanded that in order it work, it had to be consistent, it needed attention, it needed monetisation, it needed to be a hustle, and the result of it really looks like every part of that sucks. Gallagher has written about being a temperamental writer and artist, and doesn’t that bear out in a work which could have months of breaks between its haphazardly crafted plot beats?

Megatokyo is a project that could benefit now with a good editor going through a draft manuscript and saying ‘hey, is this not important? Maybe we get rid of this’ or ‘what are we doing with this?’ and maybe ‘a few less jokes about the fifteen year old flirting with an adult, perhaps?’ and then letting the perfectionist who wanted to drive the story come back through that process and engage with it in its own time. It doesn’t need to be a commercial platform that justifies its existence; it could be a shed project, something someone who loves it does to work on it a little at a time.

But it isn’t.

And the demands of making A Business, a Brand, are clearly things that really hurt its actual existence. The more upset and the more struggle that Gallagher has to go through to make it, the less likely it seems to me that it gets made. That’s the story of what happened to the visual novel (which still shocks me in that it seems like it’d be very easy to get something out, but which now, all that money has dried up).

Gallagher has a patreon. It pays for Megatokyo and it pays for his other webtoon work, which seems driven by improvisation and speed. It gets updated a fair bit more often than Megatokyo with more coherent, directed sequences. I do not wish ill of this man, and for all that I wish the culture had venerated something else, uplifted someone else, I do not want this project to be a failure, to be gone. I’d like it to be better – boy, I’d like it to be better, such as discarding all the jokes about the fifteen year old flirting with an adult, could we please stop that.

But it’s hard sometimes to think about it, about the unfairness that this got to be a Cultural Touchstone where someone nearly twenty years older than me got to be one of ‘the voices’ of my cultural space, and where now he gets to continue making a page or two a month, while some of my friends have to negotiate ‘groceries or rent’ problems with their online presences and the art they give away.

Is Megatokyo, the project, worth a few thousand a month? I mean, yeah, absolutely.

But it doesn’t seem fair to me that this project, this project, limping along over twenty two years to tell a story that is awkward and illformed and thoughtless and selfish and indulgent and focused on some characters who are kinda rotten assholes, gets to be the place where the cyberpunk dystopia is unevently distributed.

There’s an impulse to pull the punch here, or to be crueller. That somehow I should either be kind enough because Gallagher’s been through a lot (and he has! I don’t mean to downplay any of the realities of Being The Megatokyo Guy!) or be able to lay a knockout punch on the work and get rid of it, which, no, of course not; Gallagher should be happily working on this project in his own time in a way that appeals to him, it doesn’t have to go anywhere or have a goal. In this house we don’t do disrespectful teleologies. Maybe I should be ‘aw shucks, well, that Piro learns his lesson after four straight years of narrative,’ but to get there I have to slog through twenty two years of archives, most of which is irrelevant and boring.

Ah well.

Make art, make rent, help others do the same. And helping others make art can be stuff like reading your friends’ work, and asking them if they want to do things differently, or better, or with fewer jokes about flirting with underaged girls.

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