Cartoons, fan fiction and overcoming self-doubt


illustration by Andrea Nebhut

Junior English major Collin McGrath won’t soon forget the day back in high school when he and his younger sister were reclining on the couch, recovering from a particularly gruesome episode of the anime series “Attack on Titan.” McGrath said they should put on something happy. His sister’s response would change his life: “How about ‘My Little Pony’?”

McGrath shrugged and let her put it on. He wasn’t particularly interested in the show, but he had his Nintendo DS nearby and planned to play instead of really watching.

As the episode went on, however, he kept looking up from his game. He noticed that the pony named Fluttershy was a little like a character named Hinata in another series he loved, “Naruto.” He pointed this out to his sister, and she agreed.

Soon enough, the “Naruto” comparisons became reason enough to pay attention. Comparing ponies to “Naruto” characters was an addicting game, and with each episode, McGrath became more engrossed in the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” world. In his free time, he started to look up fan reviews and watch YouTube videos about the show.

“At one point I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to watch some more of this?’ I handed my sister the remote and she just had this smug little grin like, ‘You are a Brony now,’” McGrath said.

McGrath had struggled with self-esteem for a long time. Since middle school, he’d been relentlessly pursuing his dream of becoming an actor, but he never quite got his time in the spotlight. Actors with less experience were cast in lead roles. Even in college, where McGrath thought he would take on theater as a major, he was told he looked unnatural while acting.

“When it felt like I was giving it my all onstage, they said it looked wrong,” McGrath said.

As the theater dream slipped through his fingers, McGrath began to devote more time to writing. He was particularly fascinated by one “My Little Pony” character who wasn’t a pony at all, but a dragon named Spike, who Twilight Sparkle hatched from an egg as part of her magical entrance exam.

Where were Spike’s parents? How did Twilight Sparkle and Spike interact as a family? What would happen if the dragon were to grow too big for the library where he lived? There were so many unanswered questions about Spike, McGrath wanted to fill in the blanks himself.

“He just seemed like a character of infinite potential, and I guess I kind of related to him. I always felt like an underdog in my own life,” McGrath said.

Unlike theater directors, and even some kids at school among whom McGrath never seemed to fit, fan fiction patrons adored McGrath.

“I ended up getting a lot of followers and people who were actually commenting. The nicest thing somebody once said to me was like, ‘I just wanted to say I was reading a lot of stories online, and I realized that a lot of the really good ones were written by you,’” McGrath said.

Because Spike rarely makes an appearance on the show, McGrath rarely watches “My Little Pony” anymore, but does he write every day. McGrath has produced more than 343,000 total words of fan fiction. For reference, that’s about thirty percent more words than James Joyce’s 700-page novel, “Ulysses.”

“Writing helped me through my depression, and helped me realize I have self-worth. I am not useless,” McGrath said.

Some may accuse fan fiction of not being real writing, due to its focus on already-created characters and worlds. Fiction writing professor Andrew Porter disagrees.

“I think that any type of writing is great. Any time you’re engaging that part of your brain I think it’s wonderful,” Porter said.

Students who have written fan fiction tend to arrive in Porter’s classes practiced, talented and well-prepared to compose quality original work. Still, many are embarrassed to admit that their writing background primarily involves publishing fics online.

“They kind of always are a little bit embarrassed about it,” said Porter, “but they shouldn’t be. By the time I read their first short stories, I can see the influence of that experience on the work that they’re doing. Collin is a great example of that. He’s a really talented fiction writer, and I think he got his early experience from writing fan fiction.”

McGrath’s passion for “My Little Pony” even landed him onstage Dec. 12 of last year, when he told the entire story of his obsession live at the Texas Public Radio event, Worth Repeating.

The audience responded by laughing, whooping and cheering. Burgin Streetman, marketing manager of Trinity University Press and one of the event’s organizers, was impressed by McGrath’s storytelling.

“There’s a whole world of people who just do onstage monologues and one-man shows,” Streetman said. “He’s talented enough as a writer and as a storyteller; he could just be writing his own stuff. He doesn’t need to wait for someone to catch him in something.”

So, what does McGrath have to say about those who call “My Little Pony” too feminine a show?

“If a show can actually save lives like this and change people and help them through hard times, it doesn’t really matter if it’s weird for some guy to like it,” McGrath said.