A month after the last episode of The Magnus Archives aired, fanheart3 catches up with Jonathan Sims to talk about the podcast and its incredible fandom.
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A couple of years ago I was scouring Tumblr for updates on the difficult life of Supernatural fans when I realized I kept bumping into posts about the same fandom. One that – to my shame – I had never heard about before, called The Magnus Archives.
As I always do when these things happen, I reached out to my colleague at fanheart3 Cristina to ask her what all the fuss was about.
I remember the way her eyes lit up and how, in a dreamy voice, she started telling me about this “brilliant horror podcast” that fans were raving about because it was creepy and a little romantic and the main characters were just beautiful, and different, and perfect and “You have to listen to it, Agnese, you’ll love it!”
I also checked out AO3 – my main resource of information about fandoms – before starting my journey through The Magnus Archives. There were already thousands of fanfictions on it. The only other two times I’d seen something like this happen with podcasts were with Welcome to Night Vale and the BBC radio show Cabin Pressure, and both didn’t reach the amount of original fan productions this work had already produced up to that point (14,591 fics as of the current time, April 19, 2021).
It took me about 10 minutes into episode one to realize how great this production was. By the time I finished the first season I was commenting on theories with friends, shipping the shippable, and using a different Jonathan Sims fanart each week as my phone screensaver.
Lest people say we fans do things halfway.
Connecting authors and audience, The Magnus Archives way
For those of you who have never listened to this podcast, The Magnus Archives is about “the archives of the Magnus Institute, an organisation dedicated to researching the esoteric and the weird”. The new head archivist, Jonathan Sims, “attempts to bring a seemingly neglected collection of supernatural statements up to date, converting them to audio and supplementing them with follow-up work from his small but dedicated team. Individually, they are unsettling. Together they begin to form a picture that is truly horrifying because as they look into the depths of the archives, something starts to look back…” (synopsis from the official website).
A month ago, on March 25, The Magnus Archives reached its end. The moment was so relevant that even Old Gods of Appalachia, a podcast that was supposed to air its new episode that day, changed its schedule “in recognition of the Magnus Archives finale” (here’s the official statement).
The finale of The Magnus Archives was a powerful, dramatic and beautiful rollercoaster of emotions that left fans crying for days.
To celebrate the road traveled together, Rusty Quill, the production company behind The Magnus Archives, supported the fandom for the weeks leading up to this moment and those that followed by producing bonus material for the show, launching twitter campaigns that engaged fans, such as #MagnusMemories (to share the memories fans will cherish of their time with the show), and even creating special contests on fanarts (like this one) and a limited edition t-shirt for those who were there until the end.
Not only is The Magnus Archives a mix of great storytelling and character / world-building that might appeal even to those who don’t belong to fan communities or are on their first podcast listen.
It also is a beautiful example – one of the best offered by the media in recent years – of the respectful and honest relationship that authors and creatives out there can form with their audiences.
In an age where social media allows for even more pregnant use of fan service, and TV shows often play with fan hopes and social issues just to broaden their audience, Rusty Quill does something different: it still calls upon the fan community for needed support (on Patreon, for example), but at the same time it delivers a story that is always true to itself. A story that had a direction that was honestly followed to the end, but told by people who still took the time to show their fan community that their devotion mattered and that their artistic interpretations were always worthy of being openly acknowledged.
This article is a case in point: when we reached out to Rusty Quill to request an interview with Jonathan Sims, writer and lead performer on the podcast as The Archivist, their enthusiasm at the idea of talking about fans was immediate. So, here’s what Jonathan told us about The Magnus Archives, its end and its beautiul fandom.
Behind the scenes with writer Jonathan Sims
AGNESE – Let’s start from the end: on March 25, 2021, almost exactly five years after it began, the last episode of The Magnus Archives aired. What did it mean for you to reach this moment?
JONATHAN SIMS – There was a lot of relief to it, I think, but the weird way that writing/productions schedules work out meant that I’d already had it written for three months and recorded for two, and there was still a lot of post-finale content to do, so the actual drop didn’t feel quite as much of a ending as it might have.
I was certainly very pleased with the fan reaction – it was overwhelmingly positive and really seemed to resonate with the majority of listeners. Obviously, with the weight of 200 episodes and a huge fandom behind it the ending isn’t going to live up to everyone’s expectations, but I couldn’t be happier with how it went down.
I find myself fascinated by the post-Season 5 world, after the apocalypse goes away […] I guess that’s probably what my theoretical fanfiction would be looking at
A. – 200 episodes is a long journey! #MagnusMemories helped fans express what it meant to them. What are your most beautiful memories associated with it and its most significant steps?
J. S. – Probably all the different places we’ve ended up recording, especially in the early days: shoving my friends under blankets to sweat through scenes in Season 1, or putting my mum in a thirteenth floor corridor in a Hackney tower block, lit by a weird revolving disco lamp. Spending Saturday mornings recording with awesome folks and cool collaborators was always such a highlight.
A. – Poor mum! I bet that will be one of her #MagnusMemories… In the first Q&A for The Magnus Archives, you mentioned that you had a whole laid-out plan about this story – which was one of the reasons why the audience appreciated this work so much. Now that it’s over and you can look back at it: were there times when you felt a strong urge to change direction and take the story somewhere else?
J. S. – I don’t think there were any points where we were looking to change the overall direction or destination of the story. The initial plan was pretty sparse, just the skeleton of the overall structure, and we filled a lot of the spaces in as we went along.
There were a lot of smaller ideas that were discarded along the way (the Archivist’s season 4-5 arc was a lot less sympathetic when we initially conceived it, for example), but I don’t think there was ever a point where we were tempted to change the direction of the story.
Me and Alex are both pretty structure-focused in our writing, so once we have a plan we tend to stick to it.
A. – I’m curious: if you were to write your own fanfiction about The Magnus Archives, today…. what would it be about?
J. S. – I find myself fascinated by the post-Season 5 world, after the apocalypse goes away. The idea of a world that has had this massive supernatural trauma and still remembers it is very compelling to me. It’s so far outside the scope of the main story of The Magnus Archives that we couldn’t fully engage with it in the actual series, but yeah, I guess that’s probably what my theoretical fanfiction would be looking at.
A. – One of the most amazing things about The Magnus Archives is the incredible amount and variety of fans’ artistic creations it inspired. When did you realize your show was having such a significant impact on the fan community?
J. S. – It was around the end of season 3 that I think I realised how massive a fan community Magnus had managed to amass and how important it was to a lot of people.
In the early seasons I really enjoyed engaging with the fandom and community, but once a fandom reaches a certain size and devotion I think it’s impossible for a creator to directly interact with it so I’ve generally stepped back from direct fandom engagement over the last couple of seasons.
A. – The fundraising and charitable activities you have worked on have been very much supported by the entire fan community. Can you tell us something about the most satisfying successes from this point of view?
J. S. – Rusty Quill Gaming & Giving is obviously the most significant charitable activity we’ve been involved with and it’s always a huge amount of fun to do, but the scope of our audience means that fundraising and charity stuff is always very rewarding wherever we do it. At the end of the day it’s important to try and use your platform to do material good where you can and it’s a very satisfying thing to do.
A. – We found the idea of creating a Census of the people who work at Rusty Quill a good example of your sensitivity to grasping the social changes and needs that characterize our time. However, in some cases it can be difficult to draw a line between a choice that wants and must be narrative and the need to treat a topic with the “right care”. How did you balance these aspects?
J. S. – Most of the challenges have been the same as any work in the Horror genre, which is at its strongest in its ability to engage with and explore darker or more upsetting topics, but that also brings certain risks.
I think it’s very important to be as thoughtful as possible in how you’re dealing with grim subjects and be careful not to fall into lazy or harmful tropes, as well as working with sensitivity readers to help with your blind spots or dealing with things that are outside your direct experience.
And at the end of the day, there are certain things some people simply don’t feel comfortable listening to, which is why I think content warnings are very much worth putting out on Horror fiction, to let people opt out of things if they need to.
The future of storytelling is that humans will keep telling stories and finding ways to turn whatever new media exists to the purpose of doing so
A. – What can we expect from your future projects?
J. S. – I’ve got my novel Thirteen Storeys out now, and a second book coming out later this year, as well as a lot of cool tabletop game design that me and my partner Sasha put out through MacGuffin & Co.
A. – Podcasts are becoming increasingly relevant as a medium to tell stories, these days, to the point where even a film festival like the Tribeca Film Festival has started accepting submissions for podcasts in 2021 (x). A bit of a tough – and broad – question for you: what is the future of storytelling in your opinion?
J. S. – I mean, the future of storytelling is that humans will keep telling stories and finding ways to turn whatever new media exists to the purpose of doing so. I think podcasts are a really cool way to distribute fiction, but in actual form it owes most of its DNA to a century of fascinating radio storytelling.
I find the most compelling new ways of storytelling, especially in the Horror space, tends to be the semi-live, semi-ARG (alternate reality game) experimental work being done in integrating internet video and social media.
Overall, though, I think the lesson I’ve learned is that while each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, what makes a good and satisfying story remains the same.
A. – As we have seen in so many of your productions, you are the first to know what it means to “be a fan” of something: if you had to sum up what your being a fan has meant for your lives and your work, what would you say?
J. S. – What’s strange is that, to me personally, being a fan has always been a solo thing. Growing up it was me falling down a deep rabbithole and getting sucked into a piece of media, focused almost entirely on my own personal relationship to it.
I never really engaged with or saw fandom as a communal or social thing, which I think is a lot of the reason that many of the currents and dynamics within fandom writ large came as such a surprise to me when Magnus blew up.
A. – …One last word for the fans?
J. S. – Thanks for a hell of a ride.
The Magnus Archives is a podcast directed and produced by Alexander J Newall, written and performed by Jonathan Sims. You can listen to its episodes on Rusty Quill‘s official website and major audio platforms.
At the end of this interview, we’d like to thank Jonathan Sims for sharing these words with us and the entire Rusty Quill team, starting with Alexander J Newall, for giving us fans such a great story to dream on and fill our imagination with.
Our thanks to you, the fan community, for the material you all created and are still creating to make The Magnus Archives live forever: we owe you!
And finally, a special thanks to the fan who helped us work on this interview: Juls SK Vernet, this piece is for you, who walked us through the history of this fandom and helped us find out everything there was to know about its most significant moments. All the awards to you!