Photos from ponandzi.com
Retro Access Memories is a monthly column that aims to analyze digital artifacts of the internet’s old days. This exercise of nostalgia unpacks the deeper aspects of forgotten memes, viral experiences of the past, and how the internet has grown with us.
I remember my teenage years as being spent in a constant state of tortured hyperawareness. Concurrent shifts in both my body and my surroundings sent all sensory concerns careening towards the amorous. Why was everybody talking about being in a relationship? Why was romantic love a thing to want at all, want it though I did, bright and injurious? I didn’t know. And it’s not like guidance counselors were equipped to compete with a burgeoning emo movement (we just got fresh off the senti trend, and bam! Secondhand Serenade!) that reified wild gestures of devotion and embraced the melodramatic.
The years 2004 to 2009 were pretty wild. And if there were characters who could stand as mascots for this specific chapter of emotional development for our generation, it would be Pon and Zi.
Pon and Zi is the name of a webcomic created by Californian artist Jeff Thomas who, with his illustrations, absolutely dominated the emo tag of deviantArt before his work spilled into the other prime digital spaces of its time, whether it was the tiled web pages of Multiply or Yahoo! Messenger profile pictures. In a way, Pon and Zi totally crystallized the dominant art styles of its time. The emo movement was in full swing, and in the middle of developing the “scene” aesthetic we know today, which merged cutesy and dark (i.e., pink and black where the color palettes of choice, and puppy dog eyes complemented bleeding hearts).
The webcomic Pon and Zi brings us back to the time of deviantArt, the emo movement, and carefree adolesence.
The characters themselves (Pon’s yellow, Zi’s the blue one) are amorphous, humanoid blobs with no explicit gender coding, which allowed surprising openings for queer interpretation. (Fun fact: Jeff Thomas is gay! He has a boyfriend!!!) Their only significant features were the cartoon hearts on their chests, their very being defined by their capacity to feel. And feel they did.
It isn’t enough to say that Pon and Zi espoused childish ideations of love, and even then, that didn’t matter much. In the whirlwind of adolescence, when the mere idea of holding hands felt like smuggling the very pulse of God, how could we not cling to expressions of love that managed to be both infantile and fully realized? Their relationship was not so much a product of intellect, but an innate capacity, maximized. “What do I think of love?” Roland Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse, because goddamn right we’re going there. “As a matter of fact, I think nothing at all of love. I’d be glad to know what it is, but being inside, I see it in existence, not in essence.”
Pon and Zi was pabebe before we could even comprehend the full semiotic weight of the term.
In the world of Pon and Zi, there are no taxes, no governments, no school, no system or infrastructure that could dull the throttle of love. They don’t even fight! There was only night, and day, and the sea, and hearts that could bulge 10 times their original size, and spiders to vanquish, and butterflies. It was carefree, and yet supercharged with care. Every single object in Pon and Zi’s world only served to inflame the experience of romantic love, a life that orbited only the beloved. There is an airport, but no countries — only the looming distance, the missing, the imminent reuniting.
The characters themselves (Pon’s yellow, Zi’s the blue one) are amorphous, humanoid blobs with no no explicit gender coding, which allowed surprising openings for queer interpretation.
Pon and Zi was pabebe before we could even comprehend the full semiotic weight of the term. It empowered the adolescent, melodramatic tendency of the personal fable, as chibi blobs sublimated sweet nothings to absolutely saccharine everythings. To engage Pon and Zi meant precluding any disaffection or ironic distance — wild gestures of devotion leave no room for such performances. Its closest webcomic descendent is probably Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet, the way both elevate mundane experiences of feeling by highlighting their absurdity. (Have I ceased to love you? Deception: I have not.) Except, you could laugh at absurdity. Pon and Zi’s text could be structured like a pickup line, but Lord, this love is not a joke. Looking at a Pon and Zi image warranted a kind of relishing, drinking up its sentiment like cupped hands dipping into a lake. This is the kind of energy that carried over to Tumblr’s “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” era.
Maybe it was that specific shift that caused Pon and Zi’s relevance to wane. Each social media platform had its own aesthetics and sensibilities, and as MySpace and Multiply fell to digital oblivion, Tumblr’s proclivity for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gifs began to capture our digital imaginings of desire.
Much has changed, but when I catch myself in moments of childish pining, I realize that much has also stayed the same. We’d like to think we’ve outgrown Pon and Zi’s saccharine mush, but I disagree.