The Strangest Fandom on the Internet

Christian Weston Chandler is a celebrity, though why may not immediately be clear. He’s never written a bestseller, recorded a platinum album, invented or discovered anything of note, or committed a significant crime. Even most famous for being famous celebrities of the Hilton-Kardashian variety wield a certain charisma, which Chandler lacks. A glance at Chandler’s biography reveals nothing more than an unemployed thirty-seven-year-old, who lives in suburban Virginia with his mother and two cats.

Yet somehow Chandler has become one of the most closely watched individuals in history. The CWCki, a wiki dedicated to him, holds 1,965 articles, meticulously recording everything from his three-month stint as a Wendy’s crew member to his oral hygiene, wardrobe and high school transcript. On the Kiwi Farms forums, 31,495 registered users work to fill the gaps in Chandler’s biography. Chandler has inspired numerous pieces of fan art and cosplay, and has been spotted everywhere from music videos to Alex Jones’s Infowars.

“There’s more [written] about Chris-Chan than about George Washington,” remarked animator Harry Partridge in 2011. “Robert Pattinson or Justin Bieber, these huge heartthrobs, don’t have wikis with 1,000 articles about their pet cats and the places that they like to go and eat and what kind of shirts they’ve worn on different days.”

Chandler owes his fame to Sonichu, an autobiographical comic series he’s been posting online since 2004. The comics follow the adventures of Chandler’s self-insert protagonist and his sidekick, Sonichu, a supposedly non-copyright-infringing hybrid of Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu. Chandler uses his comics to dramatize events from his personal life, such as his ongoing search for a girlfriend.

Like Tommy Wiseau’s cult film The Room, the Sonichu comics aren’t good, but neither are they merely bad. It’s true that Chandler’s artwork, accomplished with Crayola markers on copy paper, could be mistaken for that of a grade-schooler rather than a man approaching middle age. It’s true that his dialogue, typed out in Comic Sans, is stilted and confusing. It’s true that the comics’ plot, which unfolds in a befuddling tangle of battles, time-travel-mediated love triangles and parallel universes, would leave Thomas Pynchon speechless. But Sonichu, like The Room, is also a product of profound creative zeal filtered through a deeply unusual mind, something that spellbinds audiences by its sheer strangeness. Like its creator, Sonichu is a riddle all the more fascinating for its unsolvability—a Gordian knot in which readers find themselves entangled.

Unlike Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical comics spotlight the workaday awkwardness of the author’s life, Chandler uses Sonichu to write his own failures out of existence. In one especially regrettable real-life episode in 2004, Chandler was ejected from Charlottesville Fashion Square mall, apparently after pestering shoppers in the course of searching for a girlfriend. While, in reality, Chandler was humiliatingly perp-walked out of the building by security guards, he was able to set things right in the pages of his comics. A 2005 issue of Sonichu shows Chandler beating up the guards in a slapstick fight scene, declaring, “I hope that you have learned to never mess with a truly frustrated virgin when he is on a quest for a girlfriend to share true love and trust with!” In this revision of events, Chandler not only triumphs in battle, but forces his enemies to hear his side of the story.

Around age five, Chandler was reportedly diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and his work reflects the self-enmeshment and narrow, intense fixations that have become criteria for identifying autism. That Sonichu went entirely unnoticed for years before going viral seems not to have perturbed him at all. Like outsider artist Henry Darger, Chandler invested years in elaborating a baroque private mythology, indifferent to whether anyone else would be able to see, understand or enjoy it.

While Sonichu’s crude art would disqualify it for mainstream publishers, it could fit into the European independent comics scene, with its tradition of intentionally unsophisticated artwork. Less polished visuals can create a sense of intimacy between author and reader, explains German comics artist Mara Wild: “The art style [of Sonichu] is pretty naïve. I actually like it. It’s a bit childlike—not really looking at proportions and stuff like that in the correct way … I do believe it wouldn’t be published, not because of the art style, but because of the story. I mean, no one wants to read this.”

The peculiar plotlines and muddled artwork of Sonichu have fueled well over a million discussion posts on the Kiwi Farms forums alone. Some particularly baffling turns of phrase have, like Zen koans, been subject to years of careful ponderings and discussions. A particularly infamous example appears on the cover of Sonichu issue #4, where the chief jerkop (jerk cop, i.e. mall security guard) bellows, “My wooden badge was delicious!” apropos of nothing. Questioned by fans about this strange non sequitur, Chandler tersely explained that, while rank-and-file jerkops carry phony badges made from graham crackers, the chief’s badge is made of wood. However, in a moment of confusion, the chief jerkop bit into his wooden badge as if it were a graham cracker. To Chandler, this was all perfectly self-explanatory.

There is another notable moment in issue #2, when Chandler’s stand-in warns Sonichu to flee from an approaching enemy. In reply, Sonichu incomprehensibly quips, “You don’t have to tell me twice!  But during the Stone Age … !” “I have been trying to understand this joke for three years,” comments one Tumblr user. These are the moments when Sonichu lapses from the merely bizarre into the downright extraterrestrial.

If Chandler’s unmindfulness of his readership is what makes the Sonichu comics so confusing, it also makes them surprisingly resonant. Witnessing Chandler’s stand-in traverse a desolate, chaotic world populated by Pokémon, Transformers and characters from Family Guy, it’s impossible to doubt the sincerity of his helpless anguish. In Sonichu issue #3, Chandler offers an inarticulate and yet oddly compelling description of his loneliness and sense of victimhood:

Well, it’s been over one-year and ten-months now since I started my Love Quest … I still haven’t found an 18–23-year old boyfriend-free, caring, smoke-free, non-alcoholic, white girl to build a relationship from the ground-up with. I detest the men, except for my father and me, because they take all the pretty girls, leaving me with none to choose from. This sucks; I’m very lonesome, and there are prople [sic] around here who do what they can to keep me from getting one … I feel the world is against me finding a girlfriend of my own.

A less solipsistic author, remembering that he is broadcasting his misery to a crowd of potentially unsympathetic strangers, would be tempted to write more guardedly. A writer like Osamu Dazai shows a certain abandon in spilling out all his impotence and self-pity onto the page. But, for Chandler, who often seems to forget that minds outside his own exist, there is no self-consciousness to be abandoned. It’s rare to come across such a wide-open window into another person’s psyche.

The requirements of Chandler’s love quest were rigorous. The disqualified included smokers, single mothers, police officers, women over 230lbs, “real drunk alcoholics,” the mentally disabled, those with autism disorders, “real ugly” women and those of a “medium or dark-chocolate” complexion. These criteria, inflexible and tactlessly communicated, ensured that Chandler’s romantic ambitions would remain unfulfilled.

After three years of unnoticed publication, Sonichu suddenly found its audience. On 26 October 2007, a poster on the Something Awful Forums described a local oddball, identified as Christian ‘Sonichu’ Chandler, whom they found strangely enthralling:

This guy used to leave ‘business cards’ at my school’s library where he would hang out for hours looking for a ‘boyfriend-free girl.’ This is how I first learned of him. From here, I developed something of an obsession, culminating last summer when I made a special trip to a gaming store and local hangout where he had posted he would be.

Forum members immediately voiced skepticism that Chandler and his comics were anything more than an over-the-top hoax. A few Virginia-based posters, however, had already experienced run-ins with Chandler, whose penchant for wearing brightly striped polo shirts and a Sonichu-shaped medallion made him easy to spot and difficult to forget. “This is no prank,” confirmed one Charlottesvillian.

The surrealness of Chandler’s cartoons also seemed to permeate every other facet of his life. From his attempts to recruit a girlfriend using business cards and posters to his improbable personal dialect, everything about Chandler sparked fascination, incredulity and amusement. Here, it seemed, was the anti-Everyman.

As a growing fan community pored over the pages of Sonichu like historians examining an undeciphered manuscript, interactions with Chandler grew confrontational. Chandler, it quickly emerged, harbored a hysterical defensiveness about his heterosexuality. Presented with tongue-in-cheek congratulations on his broadminded inclusion of gay themes in the comic, Chandler would predictably launch into a frenzied anti-gay tirade.

These anxieties began to work their way into Sonichu, where homosexuals joined mall cops as regular villains. In issue #9 of the comic, Sonichu delivers a fiery three-page monologue defending his own heterosexuality:

I know, you know, Christian knows, and everyone should know that I, Sonichu, am straight!!! I want nothing to do with them in their papers, parades, and God knows whatever else, at all ever … And we will not take the misunderstandings, mislabels and all the like sitting down!!! I am straight; do not label me otherwise. I would rather suffer a painful gender-change operation than ever be a homo.

This culminated in a 2009 issue featuring almost clinically explicit sex scenes between Sonichu and his wife, thereby proving the character not to be gay. Chandler’s evil twin, Reldnahc Notsew Naitsirhc, was also rewritten as a flamboyant gay twink, sporting a codpiece and lime-green bondage gear.

In a leaked email to a friend, Chandler seems more insecure than militant: “Yes, I am a homophobe; I fear them all, and I fear the tormenting temptations of falling off the straight path … I tell you what, if I ever stoop down to changing my path, I might as well would [sic] get a gender change operation.”

A cycle of provocation and reaction escalated as Chandler attracted the notice of posters on 4chan and on Encyclopedia Dramatica, a wiki focused on online drama. While some teased Chandler more or less good-naturedly, others were frankly malicious. In 2008, three YouTubers, jointly posing as an attractive single woman, convinced Chandler to mail them his prized Sonichu medallion, which was promptly chopped up and incinerated on camera. Subsequent trolls, many of whom also took advantage of Chandler’s credulity and romantic desperation, duped him into driving 800 miles from Virginia to Ohio, releasing nude images of himself and publicly wearing blackface. Other overly committed Christorians have surveilled Chandler’s house and sifted through his garbage to obtain his grade school homework and other artifacts. A kind of mutually degrading symbiosis has developed between Chandler and his more obsessive followers, who provide him with a convenient scapegoat for his own failures.

Mainstream media have often used Chandler as a punchline: the MTV show Failosophy held him up as one of the Internet’s “most outrageous fails” and Nicole Richie jokingly presented a photo of Chandler wearing his mother’s underwear as an image of her brother-in-law, Benji Madden. In a 2017 talk at the University of Washington, ex-Breitbart polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos mockingly described Chandler as “what the first social justice president will look like.”

Charitable coverage has usually come from quasi-underground figures like YouTuber PewDiePie, who has produced several videos exploring Chandler’s biography and the Sonichu mythos. In 2016, YouTuber Fredrik Knudsen released a 23-minute documentary summarizing Chandler’s life and art. At 3.1 million views, “Sonichu and Christian Weston Chandler” is Knudsen’s most popular video. Knudsen reports that

Chris’s name is muttered throughout the Internet—not shouted, but muttered—just enough that people want to know what’s going on. These sorts of weird personalities have been on the Internet for a significant period of time, but this was the first time that a small cadre of people had dedicated themselves to seeing how much humor they could squeeze out of this person … This sort of harassment is nothing new, but, up to that point, it hadn’t been done in this volume or to this degree.

While early interactions with Chandler were coordinated by a small group of trolls, the Sonichu fandom has grown to include many well-intentioned, or at least passive, observers. Most of Knudsen’s viewers seem sympathetic to Chandler, or at least aghast at the ways in which trolls have abused his gullibility. “Different individuals are engaging with the phenomenon that is Chris-Chan in different ways,” says Knudsen. “These topics are never so black-and-white as people like to make them.”

Debate over trolling methods continues today, and the range of acceptable tactics has narrowed. In 2009, little was thought of the trolling operation that dispatched a group of female escorts to Chandler’s house, though this action would certainly be condemned if repeated today. A taboo has grown up around directing sadistic or humorless abuse at Chandler, and Kiwi Farms admins encourage posters to dox people seen treating Chandler with actual cruelty.

In May 2019, one veteran Kiwi Farms poster summed up the prevailing attitude on trolling:

Of course no one is stopping you from doing anything but many including me would HIGHLY discourage it. Chris has been through enough and most people just wanna keep track on the trainwreck that is Chris nowadays … Do whatever but [don’t] whine about being “doxxed” and shit if you do since Chris has a massive spotlight on him.

Though Sonichu is an online phenomenon, it has its analog antecedents. In the late 1800s, San Francisco was home to the Emperor Norton, a man who had, without irony, crowned himself supreme ruler of the United States. San Francisco newspapers published Norton’s edicts with faux fanfare, police officers were ordered to salute him as he passed and literary celebrities including Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson immortalized Norton in their writings. As Stevenson’s stepdaughter later recalled, “[Norton] was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being ‘let him be emperor if he wants to.’ San Francisco played the game with him.”

Like the Emperor Norton’s subjects, Sonichu fans play the game with Chandler, participating in his private world. Christorians pepper their speech with Chandler’s idiosyncratic turns of phrase: boyfriend-free girl, jerkop and so forth. Many articles on the CWCki offer tongue-in-cheek analysis of the Sonichu comics as if they were typical works of fiction.

Unfortunately for Chandler, the Internet has proved a less friendly and sentimental place than Norton’s San Francisco. There have, however, been a few moments of healthy symbiosis. In 2014, when Chandler’s house burned down, Kiwi Farms posters quickly assembled a care package containing shampoo, razors, pet food, art supplies and other staples, along with $100 in restaurant gift cards and a $500 money order. The accompanying note was disarmingly heartfelt and devoid of irony:

I know you often feel that life is hopeless, but there’s good in the world and in people. I hope this package helps you see that. No person on the Internet can ever take away your right to be happy. You must find reasons to enjoy life, even when there are enemies trying to bring you down. I’ve included some arts and crafts to help you take your mind off things … Try to create something that makes you happy and that you can be proud of … We will be around if you need us.

The Sonichu fandom has also given Chandler a lucrative outlet for his artwork. One of Chandler’s high school art projects—a lopsided papier-mâché sculpture of Sonic the Hedgehog—sold on eBay for $1,500. Chandler has also sold numerous autographed photos for $50 apiece and at least 300 replica Sonichu medallions for $30 apiece. Underground celebrity status has also brought opportunities for creative collaboration. Most recently, Chandler joined 200 other artists contributing animation and voice work to Shrek Retold, the 2018 scene-for-scene remake of Shrek.

In 2014, Chandler abruptly renounced his long-cherished homophobia, changing his first name to Christine and declaring himself a “Tomgirl, Intersex of Female Soul with Male Body, and a Tranny Cross-Dresser.” Whether Chandler is genuinely transgender or this new identity is merely an extension of his previous fetishization of women is an open question. As ever, a simple explanation has not been forthcoming.

Despite his prior homophobic antics, Chandler’s status as something approximating transgender has won him a few woke defenders. Among them is the author of a rather alarmist New York Magazine profile of the Kiwi Farms, who claims that the forums have targeted Chandler simply “for being autistic” and “for being transgender.” However, Chandler’s unique fascination can hardly be boiled down to a set of demographic labels.

As a decade of organized harassment and the frustration of his romantic appetites have eroded his optimism and quixotic self-belief, Chandler has become a less comical figure. Chandler spent much of 2018 begging for money online and delivering disorganized rants about the imminent absorption of our universe into the parallel dimension where Sonichu lives.

Chandler’s future seems bleak. He has remained unemployed for eighteen years and lacks the personal finesse to make normal social connections. After Chandler’s mother, who is currently seventy-seven years old, passes away, his only companions in life will be his fans.

The Chandler phenomenon will continue to resonate with anyone who’s been tempted to cast off their responsibilities and retreat into fantasy. Watching Chandler, Knudsen recalls his own youthful social awkwardness, obsession with Pokémon and desperation for a girlfriend.

“I feel like I was a hair’s breadth from becoming Chris-Chan,” says Knudsen. “I think that’s why everyone gets interested in Chris in the first place—because there’s some part of themselves they see reflected back at them.”

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