This is the pop culture that helped us survive 2018

As always, the first days of January are a time to look back on the previous year and wrap it up into a neat package, usually by thinking “Oh geez, did that actually happen last year? It feels like that was a decade ago.” That’s why it can be fun to look back on our favorite things of the year, the culture that endured with us past release weekend or the latest news cycle. Here’s what made a difference to us in 2018.

 Illustration: Renata Nolasco, via Twitter

The fan art phenomenon

When Noelle Stevenson’s Netflix reboot of She-Ra: Princess of Power dropped its first preview images online, a familiar dank, never-pleased subsection of the internet started griping about them. But a completely different area of the internet took inspiration from the new designs, and started creating and sharing She-Ra fan art. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s an important one in an pop culture environment increasingly driven by nostalgic, regressive, “Why can’t culture just stop at the point where I personally liked it most?” whining. The new wave of fan artists are predominantly young women, often students exploring their own styles by applying them to outside work. And they’re embracing and transforming culture they love, claiming ownership while still mostly sharing with each other. (Mostly. Even the fan art community has its bitter internal controversies. Like anything people use as a support and survival tool, it engenders strong passions, including proprietary and exclusionary ones.)

But for the most part, these micro-communities bring out some of the warmer and more approachable parts of fandom: the sense of authentically enjoying other fans instead of resenting them. Watching fan artists take on properties from Steven Universe to The Adventure Zone is a constant reminder that cultural critique can be creative, additive, and supportive, not just a constant process of sour complaining. —Tasha Robinson, film & TV editor

 Dami Lee

Botnik Studios

Botnik Studios broke through in late 2017 with the surreal fan-fic project “Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.” But the group’s work — which is derived from predictive keyboards trained on text like books or song lyrics — felt particularly meaningful in 2018. Amid fears about artificial intelligence-generated “deepfakes” and info-surveillance operations like Cambridge Analytica, Botnik offered a benign, hilarious application of AI and data analysis. And it’s all about people cooperating with machines, not being replaced or controlled by them.

Botnik projects are often funny because they show AI getting language a little wrong, but they also unironically celebrate the resulting creative weirdness. Its keyboards (which anybody can train and use) have produced absurdist Coachella lineups and new Sanrio characters like Mister Steam, the stylish manhole. This summer, I used them to help generate text for my Deus Ex fan fiction game Dark Patterns. Will the machines eventually realize we’re mocking them and punish us for our insolence? Sure, probably. But at least Botnik didn’t force them to watch a thousand hours of Olive Garden commercials. —Adi Robertson, senior reporter

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s “The Hamilton Polka”

If I sat down and tried to come up with the least cool entry I could possibly conceive of for a Verge year-end list, I’d have a hard time topping this entry in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s monthly “Hamildrops” series. For 2018, the Hamilton creator enlisted various artists to create remixes, covers, or new songs inspired by the hit musical. When he reached out to Yankovic, the result was a frenetic, five-minute polka medley that spanned nearly the entire show.

I grew up on Yankovic albums, and “The Hamilton Polka” contained the hallmarks of his best medleys, the syncopated rhythms and irreverent sound effects. At the same time, it nailed the harmonies that made Miranda’s musical such a massive success. I spent more time than I should probably admit singing the whole thing out, line for line. Other people may not have appreciated it, especially when I sang it on road trips (apologies to my wife Miranda), but “The Hamilton Polka” was a mainline injection of sheer joy. In a year filled with tension and drama, it was a welcome respite. —Bryan Bishop, senior editor

 Photo: A24 Films

Hereditary

Given that it’s one of the most unsettling, disturbing horror movies in years, Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary might seem like an unlikely selection here. I first saw the film during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and immediately thought it would end up as the scariest movie of the year. And it was. I’ve revisited the movie multiple times, both at other festivals and after its home-video release.

In 2018, most news headlines could be considered horror-movie fodder, so there was something cathartic about revisiting the claustrophobic world of Hereditary. It’s the way the film calls back to the horror trends of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s in Aster’s meticulous compositions, and the unnerving alien score from composer Colin Stetson. It’s the bravura lead performance from Toni Collette, who should be a no-brainer Best Actress nomination for the upcoming Academy Awards. And perhaps it’s because it is one of the select horror films that didn’t seem to draw directly on current fears about technology, or echo the current socio-political discord in the United States. Or maybe I just liked it because it was an exciting new filmmaker announcing his arrival in an arresting way. I just know I’ll continue to revisit this film for years. —also Bryan Bishop, senior editor

 Film Frame / Marvel Studios

Avengers: Infinity War

Picking the biggest release of the year as my favorite movie may be a little clichéd, but look, there’s a reason Infinity War was so popular. (More than $1 billion at the international box office!) Like most of the world, I’ve been watching these Marvel movies for the past 10 years, back to the first Iron Man, which I saw with my brother and dad on opening weekend. A decade into the franchise, these movies are still a family event for us — for Infinity War, my brother and I drove out to my dad’s place so we could watch it together.

But even without that personal investment in the franchise, Infinity War was the kind of capital-E Event of a film that other franchises (like the ill-fated Justice League) could only dream of. Getting to finally see that 10-year journey pay off in a giant superhero team-up to end all superhero team-ups was just plain fun, in a way that so many superhero movies try to be, and don’t always succeed in being. Characters formed up into unexpected, interesting groups! Powers were mixed and matched! The long-teased villain actually mostly held up! The whole thing is just wall-to-wall filled with superhero action, in the best possible way. (At least until that downer of an ending, but that’s a topic for another time.) Marvel made some big promises over the last decade, and Infinity War delivered. What more could you want? —Chaim Gartenberg, reporter

Steven Universe

As an adult, I haven’t been a huge cartoon buff. I’ll watch stuff like Bojack Horseman or Bob’s Burgers if someone else puts them on, and I certainly get why people like these shows, but they just didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Until one day this summer, when our film and TV editor Tasha mentioned in Slack that she’d given up trying to get her friends to watch Steven Universe. It was the clip she shared, of Pearl singing the heartbreaking queer lament “It’s Over, Isn’t It?” that ultimately sold me.

Over the next few weeks, I blazed through all five seasons. The show has a beautiful color palette, a diverse cast of voice actors, and a rainbow of different bodies and sexualities and identities, each character more inherently, lovably human than the next. Most importantly, it’s unabashedly earnest about its straight-faced, snark-free belief that people are inherently capable of goodness. That all made it easy to just let the 152 10-minute episodes roll by. I didn’t realize until I was halfway through the series how much I’d needed that injection of pure-spirited optimism refilling my heart and sustaining me through what ended up being a truly garbage year. (Not to mention the beautiful, unfailingly catchy soundtrack, which I return to weekly, if not daily.) I might try Adventure Time now, but I’m pretty sure it’ll pale by comparison. —Devon Maloney, internet culture editor

 Photo: CBC

Kim’s Convenience

This lovable Canadian sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family that runs a convenience store wasn’t available in America until this year, when it came to Netflix — so by the time it arrived, the show had two seasons under its belt, with a third hitting TV on January 8th. I’m grateful, because each episode goes by quickly. There are currently only two ongoing North American shows featuring all-Asian casts — Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience. While both are great, Kim’s Convenience feels more grown-up and edgier than the wholesome ABC network show, which features much younger kids. Kim’s expertly depicts how it can sometimes be tough growing up with immigrant parents who have their own set of high expectations, while also being an interesting advantage of its own.

2018 was a year with a lot of great Asian content, including Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, leading to the term #AsianAugust getting created. Out of all these projects, Kim’s Convenience taps into the slice-of-life, day-to-day shenanigans of regular people in a way that feels extremely relatable. Each 20-minute episode ends on a kind of comforting note, which makes this series stand above countless others available on Netflix for binge-watching. —Shannon Liao, news writer

 Photo: Clarkesworld

Science-fiction magazines

A year ago, I realized I’d imposed some self-inflicted blinders on my reading habits, and I made it a point to try to read a bit more widely. 2018 was the year where that clicked into place — I’ve not only carved out more time to spend with the books I wanted to read, but also made time to read more genre short fiction. It wasn’t hard — it just involved picking up magazines I’d been meaning to get to. I revisited favorite print publications like Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, while other outlets, like Clarkesworld, offer up all of their stories online or as podcasts. (I recommend “Farewell, Doraemon” by A Que, translated by Ken Liu and Emily Jin.) Some are conceptual and enormously relevant, like Slate and Arizona State University’s Future Tense program (check out “The Minnesota Diet” by Charlie Jane Anders!) or Vice’s Motherboard. (A recent favorite was Sahil Lavingia’s “Across the Border”).

At the end of the year, I’ve read dozens of stories that broadened my horizons and opened up new and interesting worlds, introduced me to new authors, and generally gave me a better appreciation for the experimentation and innovation that authors are playing with when it comes to storytelling. But above all, I found that it’s a much better distraction and use of my time than endlessly scrolling through social media feeds. —Andrew Liptak, weekend editor

 Photo: Gacha Games

Gacha games

It started around the beginning of the year, as I tried Fate/Grand Order for the third time and it finally started to click for me. Since then, I’ve spent the last year jumping between Fate/Grand Order, Granblue Fantasy, and more recently, Dragalia Lost. In spite of playing three of these games on and off over the past year, I’ve managed to avoid spending much money on them, since I find it a more interesting challenge to see how well I can do without spending any.

Basically, each of these games is a free-to-play RPG where you construct a party from characters you earn while playing or win from a sort of slot machine. While the slot machine costs a rare currency you can collect by putting a lot of time into the game or by spending money, it’s also the only way you can collect the most powerful characters.

What’s kept me playing these games, despite this somewhat shady money-making mechanic, is that the characters are actually really interesting and so playing to learn their different stories has become my main focus. In Fate/Grand Order, for example, the characters you collect are some of the greatest heroes from history — but they’re also spirits, amalgams of the original person and what legends say about them. So seeing them wrestle with their strange circumstances, in addition to their pasts, has led to some fascinating stories that keep me coming back to the game. —Michael Moore, reviews coordinator