In Boldly Writing, an amazing history of Star Trek fanzines through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, Joan Marie Verba describes how she stumbled into fandom. At a speech festival in 1969, she met a fellow Star Trek fan who gave her T-Negative editor Ruth Berman’s number. After watching “The City On The Edge of Forever,” she called Berman up in a fit of fannish enthusiasm, and she never looked back.
Despite the forty decades and one very important difference—the Internet—between myself and Verba, my own fannish origin story isn’t all that different. Like Verba, I sought out the work of an older female fan, and, like Verba, it was the beginning of an entirely new way of understanding my relationship to texts and to other fans.
Of course, I didn’t fall under the spell of T-Negative in 1969. For me, it was the Lost Temple of Ishida at the dawn of the millennium.
One of the most important things to understand about millennials is that we all speak geek to some degree. Between Pokémon, which ruled our childhoods, and Harry Potter, which ruled our childhoods and adolescences, even the most steadfastly Alpha Beta among us has some passing familiarity with both of them. Older anime fans who had suffered for their chosen fandoms, trading bootleg VHS tapes and smacktalking in subtitles, had not suffered in vain. An entire geek generation who might have, in another decade, spun off into video games and cartooning separately, were spoiled rotten by the tide of dubbed anime rolling into the States.
In first grade, I prayed I would get home just as the Dragon Ball Z credits were ending on Toonami so I could watch Sailor Moon without having to look at big, muscly dudes. I traded Pokémon cards in the school yard. I was there when my hometown bookstore installed a massive manga section that’s still there to this day. As a kid, I had no need to seek out other geeks. Despite moving across the country in elementary school, a daunting task even for extroverts, I utilized this geeky lingua franca to find my people in my new home.
And then Digimon Adventure aired.
I have a distinct sense memory of watching the first episode, sitting cross-legged in my mother’s living room that August, and my little eight-year-old mind being blown. I’d been too young to grasp the emotional nuances and stakes of Sailor Moon beyond “cute girl superheroes” (ably unhelped by its American dub) and Pokémon… well, let's be real, Pokémon didn’t have stakes. Not until the movies, anyway. Ash was less of a character to me and more of a peer. After all, I was a Pokémon trainer too. I beat Pokémon Yellow with a Pidgey as my functional starter, for Pete’s sake.
But Digimon Adventure featured kids from our world dealing with a very real threat—first trying to figure just exactly what happened to them when they got sucked into the Digiworld during summer camp and then trying to save both worlds. The Digiworld didn’t have to hew to natural laws or logic, giving the setting an Alice in Wonderland vibe, and the time distortion featured later in the season as characters shift between worlds lent it some of the frightening, surreal air as the first chapters of Prince Caspian. The cute monster companions talked and had personalities. And it was funny, in a cheesy, kid-friendly way. (The Saban Entertainment English dub was intentionally joke-heavy, favoring off-camera jokes.) In an early episode, girly girl Mimi gushes to her Digimon Palmon about her “hair.” Palmon looks up at her and asks, “Do you think you put too much emphasis on appearance?” with the dead-eyed calm of Olaf declaring he doesn’t have a skull.
I was hooked. My two favorite characters were Tai, the friendly but impulsive and hotheaded leader, and Yamato (or “Matt”, per the dub), whose cool, snarky exterior masked a sensitive heart, especially when it came to his little brother. I loved watching them bounce off of each other, even if I couldn’t quite articulate why.
Unfortunately, not everybody else was hooked. The assumption that it was just a rip-off of Pokémon was rampant—in 2000, Entertainment Weekly jokingly called Digimon the “Worst Pokémon/Net Crossbreeding Attempt”. Among my friends, who eagerly dissected every episode of Pokémon and wrote epic self-insert fanfiction in our own shared universe, Digimon was tolerated, but it wasn’t loved on the same level. For the first time in my short life, I encountered a feeling familiar to fans since time immemorial—what was I going to do with all of these feelings?
Luckily, I was a child with shockingly unfettered access to the Internet and a lot of free time. If I was going to slake my thirst for more Digimon content, it made sense to go right to the source—the Internet.
I’d already spent countless hours online in the throes of Pokémania, looking up primitive CGI renderings of Pokémon and aggressively submitting hastily written self-insert fanfiction about a trainer named Lighting or Lightning, depending on if I could be bothered to spell in my feverish need to create, to fansites who could care less. I knew what I was doing. So I plugged “digimon matt” into Yahoo!. On the first page of results, I found a website titled The Lost Temple of Ishida.
Kids, let me explain—back in the day, we didn’t have tumblr or Twitter to scream at each other with. The borders of early Internet fandom encompassed many islands of web presences—news groups, mailing lists, forums, Fanfiction.net, LiveJournal’s earliest adopters (the service was invite-only until 2003), personal fan websites and, of most import to today’s topic, the character shrine.
Character shrines have largely fallen out of fashion in fandom—why bother, when you can just plug “kylo ren” into tumblr’s tag search and get everything you want—but they were central to my initial fandom experience. Character shrines not only hosted fanworks about certain characters, but they also collected as much information as possible about the character, from official character biographies to screencaps to concept art. For fans eager to gorge themselves on every last detail on their newfound favorite, they were amazing; for anime fans of the early aughts, they were essential. Character shrines helped you navigate the layers of canon inherent in properties that were aggressively dubbed and localized for American audiences (those weren’t doughnuts) and shared extra material you wouldn’t be able to find outside of Japan.
The Lost Temple of Ishida, as the name might suggest, was devoted to Yamato. Every single page of this quite sizable website was covered in information, meta, and media. Starved as I was just for conversation about my new favorite boys, I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. I systemically went through every page—which, seeing how it included screencaps from every episode with alt-tag captions for each, was no small task—and learned everything I could.
Which included learning about what shipping and slash were. Buried deep in the site’s navigation was a page entitled “The Beginner’s Guide to Taito.” It painstakingly explained that when a female character and a male character regularly share intimate emotional moments, fans assume they’re meant to be together… but when it’s two male characters, such as Tai and Yamato, fans suddenly claim that it’s platonic. At the time, fandom wasn’t as welcoming (or at least, as used) to same-sex ships as they would be in the future, so this was the first time I’d been exposed to the idea of slash.
And it made absolutely perfect sense to me. I'd deduced the existence of non-straight orientations via basic pattern recognition as a kid, and, miraculously, nobody had thought to tell me non-straight orientations were not okay. (They would later, but by then, it was too late for this little gay.) No wonder, I thought, that I loved watching Tai and Yamato interact. No wonder my little heart leapt when they held hands or when Yamato cradled a wounded Tai in his arms and declared how much their friendship meant to him. I loved their dynamic so much that I wanted them to be a couple. Luckily, the Temple’s fanfiction archive ably helped me in realizing that vision, making Taito the first formative ship of a long and storied career in the field.
But the most important thing about my discovery of the Lost Temple of Ishida was discovering other fans. There’s a very specific voice that I associate with this time in fandom, especially among the fangirls whose writings I devoured. Their voices were snarky, funny, theatrical, and, although the term had not yet been turned to its modern usage, a little thirsty. It was brimming with onomatopoeia, stage direction, and narrative conceits, usually by inventing a sidekick for them to be able to bounce off of. It certainly wasn’t perfect—it also featured the internalized misogyny rampant in fandom at the time that resulted in hate being thrown at female characters for… kind of just existing. For Digimon fans, that hate was thrown at kind tomboy Sora, Yamato's future wife (per an epilogue in Digimon Adventure 02 that revealed everyone's future). But these fans' writings were vivid, engaging and, to a ten-year-old, inspiring.
Looking back, these fans probably weren't much older than I was, but I still looked up to them. They gave me a new template and a new community to interact with the things I loved, even if my friends didn't. That template took me from fansite to fansite until I landed on LiveJournal, and the rest is history.
Sometimes, when it's late or I'm deep in my cups or otherwise indulging my inherent melodrama, I wonder if I was meant to discover fandom through The Lost Temple of Ishida. Because the webmistress whose voice I so loved? Her name was Clare, too. For someone who had only ever met Claires and spent too much time fending off erroneous "i"s, it felt serendipitious. Given the amount of influence she ended up having on my life, I hope she finds a compliment that sometimes I wonder if I'll need to pull a Back to the Future-style time heist, become her, and create the website to send back in time to make sure I became the full-fledged geek I am today.
I think she would. It's the kind of weird save-the-world stuff our mutual favorite boys wouldn't hesitate to do.