On Tatsuya Ishida

By | Monday, April 08, 2024 Leave a Comment
I've noted before how I started reading webcomics regularly in 2004, thanks primarily to Girl Genius. I was a fan of Phil Foglio dating back to the 1980s and his comics in Dragon Magazine and followed the print version of Girl Genius when they made the switch from periodicals to online only. At the time, I decided that since I was "committing" to reading webcomics in some form, I ought to check out what else was available. At the time, I had difficulty finding anything of interest to me. The webcomics landscape looked incredibly different back then, with what comparatively few comics there were mostly being about video game humor, sporadically updated and crudely drawn. But Tatsuya Ishida's Sinfest stood out in that he was one of the few web cartoonists who seemed to know art, updated regularly, and didn't do tons of video game jokes that I didn't understand.

I read the strip for a while and it was... fine, I guess. It was never at the top of my list, despite being better illustrated than many others. I don't know how long I continued reading it, but I certainly had stopped by the time iGoogle was closed down in 2013. None of the screen shots I have featuring iGoogle show Sinfest anywhere in sight, so maybe I didn't follow it at all and only looked at it sporadically. In any event, I was definitely aware of it and knew it well enough to return to looking at it again in 2017/2018 when I was writing the bulk of my Webcomics book. I recalled that Ishida had taken the tone of the strip in an abrupt new direction, but I think I only knew that from the fan noise that came up -- I'm pretty sure I wasn't actively reading it to notice the shift directly. But I thought that made for a good example in my book: how a creator can develop a following and then subsequently alienate them by doing something different. Some creators have done that when they stop one strip to start another, but this was a more notable example because there wasn't an obvious jumping-off point like you'd get with a comic strip concluding.

Cut to 2023. Many webcomics stopped updating when COVID started and never really ramped up again. I wasn't happy with my previous webcomics reading option, so as I mentioned here, I went old school and wrote up my own page of HTML to present a bunch of comics I could read each morning. A lot of my initial choices were more about using comics that had a regular update schedule and a consistent file naming pattern, so it was easy to code something. (I'm no expert developer, by any stretch!) And so I dropped Sinfest onto my new custom funny pages because he was still updating daily and the image file names he uses are literally just the date. That's about as bare-bones-simple to code for as possible.

But as I've been reading them, I found that I wasn't understanding them. I thought at first it was mostly because I just started into it without doing any back-reading, so maybe I was missing context from a previous story. But I'm several months into it now, and I was continuing to stay baffled. Like, I could kind of tell he was making some kind of commentary on Israel's genocide of Palestinians, but I couldn't parse what his message actually was. It was a little like looking at a Ben Garrison cartoon -- you can get the general subject and understand that he has an opinion of some sort, but the visual metaphors he chooses make so little sense as to render the entire comic incomprehensible. So this weekend, I finally broke down and started some searches with variations of "what the hell is Ishida talking about?"

One reason I held off from those types of searches as long as I did was because I knew that was a not uncommon search phrase for folks in the early/mid-2010s already. I was already aware that he switched the tone of the strip to promoting what he called radical feminism and, while he never said why he switched, he was pretty clear that he didn't care if it alienated some readers in the process. I wanted to understand what had happened since then.

I thought I'd actually start by checking on the official Sinfest forums. Maybe see what his fans were talking about and maybe their takes on recent strips. That actually left me more confused. It didn't seem like the forums had been shut down or closed, but there hadn't been any posts by anyone since November. I had recalled going through the forums a bit while working on my book to see if I could find some hint of an explanation for Ishida's changing the strip's direction, and there seemed to be regular conversations going on among a variety of users, even when they weren't discussing the strip itself. It looked now like a virtual ghost town.

Fortunately, when I did resort to some simple Google queries, I discovered that I wasn't the only one who was wondering what was going. My concern about getting results on whatever Ishida is doing currently were quickly allayed as apparently quite a number of other people have been asking the same thing for a few years now. In fact, I soon found a Sinfest Reddit thread that had a moderator message updated as recently as last month that starts...
Perhaps you're a new reader, perhaps you're an old veteran looking for a place where people are still discussing what Sinfest has turned into today.

First of all: welcome! You are not alone!

The tale of Tatsuya Ishida and Sinfest is a 20+ years old, long story of a reclusive man who went from writing a beloved comic for over a decade into a sharp nosedive into being a social media obsessed conspiracy nut.
The moderator goes on to note...
Over the years that followed he added COVID conspiracies, MAGA support, open discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, lizard and paedophile conspiracies, alt-right propaganda, getting in bed with white supremacists and who knows what else by the time you read this introduction.
... and then offers dozens of links to various sites trying to explain and/or analyize Ishida and Sinfest. Some are a bit dated but many were written up in the past year or two, but they increasingly become guesswork as Ishida has become more and more reclusive. (The "News" portion of his site started back in 2000 with the stated intent at least to be weekly, but it settled into roughly monthly for several years before dropping quickly to yearly in 2007 and becoming even more sporadic since then. His last note is from 2022 when he notes he was kicked off Patreon, and his Twitter account since then seems to be nothing but re-posts of his strip.) With his Patreon gone and no Sinest merch available (he hasn't had anything published with Dark Horse since 2011), his income seems to be limited to advertising on his site, but even if he still had the traffic he once did, that wouldn't amount to anything because so many people run ad blockers any more. Which is not a recent phenomenon, by the way -- according to multiple creators who relied on the revenue, the ad market for webcomikers bottomed out in 2016! So he's either got a 'regular' job to pay the bills (although I have trouble believing it could be an office job; his overall attitude and demeanor online suggest he'd run into massive conflicts with most office managers) or he has a substantial benefactor, a devout fan and/or relative who is keeping him financially afloat.

This isn't the first time we've seen a comic creator slide into a headspace that seems at odds with reality. (I hesitate to call this type of behavior a mental illness; I think that can be a bit reductive and, barring a psychological examination, probably not accurate anyway.) What's interesting here is that, in most cases, the creator's work was published with enough distance between installments that it can be hard to pinpoint what might've triggered them to go down this path, but Ishida has been publishing daily for decades now. You can follow his work in real time and see precisely when/where turning points occur.

Bitter Karella actually did that, reading through the entirety of Sinfest in order in 2022 and offering commentary on Twitter. This was after it was purchased by Elon Musk but before he rebranded it X, and Karella found herself shadowbanned expressly because of it. The individual posts are still apparently all available, but the thread is broken up so it's excessively difficult to read everything. She summed things up almost too succinctly with "it's not good." I would be curious, though, if a trained psychologist went through and tried to understand what exactly was going on and where things might have gone differently. As has been pointed out by others, Ishida seems to be in his early 50s now and has been working on (as far as anyone can tell) nothing but Sinfest for the the past 20+ years.

To quote Ryan Broderick, who wrote a summary of everything you need to know about Ishida and the downward spiral of Sinfest not long after Kaella's thread, pointed out why people's fascination might now be piqued here and Sinfest is worth examining...
But what makes Sinfest such a useful archive of the last 20 years of internet culture is that Ishida uses a lot of the same characters as stand-ins for various topical issues. Which means you can start to see how he’s connected different ideas over time. A character that, 15 years ago, was meant to represent the predatory porn industry, which looked like a pick up artist and was constantly trying to lure women into dangerous careers as sex workers is then rebranded as a purple-haired “woke” agent of Big Pharma that is apparently working for the leftist illuminati and using social justice as a cover for sex trafficking. As completely incoherent and ridiculous as Ishida’s ideology is, expressed over thousands of comic strips, it actually becomes a very clear depiction of how a lot of men grew up online: The long, rambling, and hateful journey from 4chan nerd who loves anime to shameless pornography addict to conspiracy theorist to TERF to Christofascist extremist.
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