Online Comic Fandom in 1995

At the Spring 1995 American Culture Assocation / Popular Culture Association national meeting, I presented on the state of online comic fandom using the following paper as a basis. The big three areas at the time were Usenet, CompuServe, and AOL (mainly DC’s then-exclusive content). Times have changed, ten years later, as the centers of online comic fandom (such as they are) have moved today to blogs, web boards, and invite-only mailing lists. This, by the way, was my last stab at formal academia before I went off to the fleshpit of commerce.


Like any enthusiast, I’m always looking for someone to talk to about my hobbies. However, aside from occasional events like this one, it’s sometimes hard to find adults willing to admit that they read comic books. Computer online services, such as the Internet and CompuServe, have been in the news lately, promising areas where people of similar interests can share their viewpoints. So I went looking online, and I found several groups dedicated to comic book discussion.

The three services I’m going to talk about here are CompuServe, which has two comic forums; America Online, which has an arrangement with DC Comics, one of the two major American comic publishers; and the Usenet newsgroups on the Internet. I quickly found that each service has its own personality, and that the types and subjects of conversations in these groups nicely reflect the historical and cultural differences between the services.

I’m primarily going to talk about the bulletin board-like facilities, where users post messages to be retrieved by other group members. There are other methods of fan communication, such as live chat sessions and file transfers, but I consider the message areas the core of the services I looked at, and fan reaction seems to back me up.

The guidelines for posts vary from service to service in terms of what’s appropriate, what’s tolerated, and what’s discouraged, which I’ll be talking about later, but generally, the title of the post or thread is one of the important characteristics. In most cases, other members of the discussion group choose to read the message based on the title. If the subject or author doesn’t interest them, then they’ll usually skip it. This self-selection process makes the perception of the forums unique to an individual. My experiences and interpretations differ from everyone else’s, since my interests influence which messages I read.

On Usenet, this process is augmented by “kill files”, which automatically ensure that you never see topics or authors that you don’t want to read; if you put a particular person in your kill file, then it’s as if that person is no longer a part of the newsgroup. This approach fits right in with the history of Usenet and its defense of the individual. Conversely, on CompuServe, you don’t have that level of control; instead, the group is taken care of by a benevolent dictator, the system operator.

The sysop answers basic user questions and manages the threads (which is the CompuServe name for messages on the same topic). When a thread strays off-topic, he renames it, or moves it to another, more appropriate section of the forum. The person who wrote the message is no longer the ultimate authority over it, as I found out when I logged in one day and downloaded a message with an interesting subject. It turned out to be a post I had made, after the sysop had changed its title.

Message subjects get changed on Usenet as well, although only in followup posts. No one had the authority to rewrite my original posts, or so I thought. Recently, however, I’ve come to revise this opinion; my posts are being changed virtually. I’ve made statements on Usenet that could be interpreted in more than one way (a normal hazard of written communication). In some cases, the followup poster has misinterpreted what I meant. If I then repost, saying something like “No, what I meant was …”, invariably someone will respond, “Admit it, you’re changing your opinion because you were wrong”.

As this demonstrates, it doesn’t matter what the original poster said or meant; in many cases, the group interpretation is taken as the correct one, in a sort of democracy of meaning. The same problem occurs in terms of subject matter, with the group determining the appropriate perspectives to hold on certain matters of opinion. Certain comic creators, for example, cannot be constructively criticized or commented upon, since supporters of those creators will immediately tell the original poster how wrong she is.

Speaking of subject matter, I should tell you about the content and structure of these services. Let’s begin with Usenet. The main comic-oriented group is rec.arts.comics.misc (for miscellaneous). As the name suggests, this group is the equivalent of “none of the above”; whatever doesn’t fit into another group goes here. The reason for this setup stems from a flaw in the creation process for new groups. On Usenet, new groups are voted on, and they are only created if they pass several criteria. When the original rec.arts.comics group became too large, a split was proposed that involved a variety of new groups, each with a more specialized subject: one for superheroes, one for alternative comics, and so on. Unfortunately, the only one of these groups that passed was r.a.c.xbooks, which deals with the Marvel X-Men titles. As a result, new Usenet members unfamiliar with the history of the comics hierarchy are often confused about where to post, since none of the group names are immediately recognizable.

Other Usenet groups include, for moderated news and reviews, r.a.c.alternative, for alternative books, and r.a.c.marketplace, for the buying and selling of comics. This last group has always posed a problem for the comic group structure, since there are always people who don’t think the rules apply to them. They really want to sell their merchandise, so they post to r.a.c.m., where they can get the largest audience possible. The only way to control this kind of behavior on Usenet, since there is no sysop to appeal to, is through peer pressure, which is why the F.A.Q. was created.

F.A.Q. stands for Frequently Asked Questions list, and it was originally just that. Long-time members got tired of answering questions from one new member only to see them asked again when someone else found the group. In an attempt to preserve the group knowledge in an easily accessible form, the F.A.Q. was started. If you wanted to know how many colors of Kryptonite there were, this is the place to find out. Soon, it also became the place to find answers about the group and its history as well.

Currently, the size of the rec.arts.comics FAQ is ten files, most of which are lists of comic-related resources on the net, web sites and the like. In addition, there are strong indications of appropriate behavior and warnings against what the group considers inappropriate. The sheer size of “what every good poster should know” is disheartening. Not only does it discourage a poster looking for the information she needs, but it indicates how much control the group is trying to assert over the behavior of its members.

Considering the audience involved, however, this control might be appropriate. The net is still tied to its beginnings in academia, and many of the r.a.c.m. posters are in school or otherwise associated with colleges and universities. Because of the subject matter, comic books, most of the group members are fairly young. Pseudonyms are common, and perhaps because of this, rude behavior is not considered all that extreme; after all, the net is also the birthplace of the “flame”, an intentionally obnoxious and insulting message, as an art form. In terms of communication style, the computer-community roots of the net are obvious. A logical, reasoned style of discourse is preferred, and even when a poster is not being at all logical in content, the style is aped.

One last comment on the audience of this particular Usenet group; there are very few comic professionals participating. When asked why, comments along the lines of “why put up with the nastiness?” are often the response. When a professional does announce his presence, the responses are often extreme. Some people go overboard in fawning over the pro and his work, while others criticize the pro or even attack him personally in order to demonstrate that they are not impressed.

There are some pros accepted as members of the group, but usually only after they have demonstrated their ability to live through this hazing ritual, and they are not held to the same level of behavior as “regular” posters. I have seen pros flame people who asked innocent questions. When someone pointed out the double standard, that person was attacked, with most other group members standing up for the pro’s behavior or remaining silent.

The status of participants is very different on CompuServe. If the net is the frontier, then CompuServe is the civilization back east. There are two forums for comic book discussion there: the Comics and Animation Forum, and the Comic Publishers Forum. As the name suggests, the publishers forum is where company representatives interact with the fans, while the comics forum has sections like news and reviews, comic books, animation, meetings and cons, and chatter, which is the equivalent of an online cocktail party. This section seems to be a result of recognizing that the members of the forum are interested in talking with each other about more than just comics. On Usenet, there is no way to talk about anything other than comics without violating the group charter, although people do that frequently; on CompuServe, this mechanism enables off-topic conversation without damaging the group integrity.

As I’ve mentioned before, the sysop helps maintain order and organization here. Off-topic threads are taken care of in a reasonable time, and there are a number of introductory messages, one of which you have to look at before joining the forum. The comics group here thus doesn’t have the problem that Usenet does, of people not reading or being able to read the F.A.Q. If someone’s posting to the comics forum, you can be sure they’ve at least looked at the group guidelines, which differ in significant ways from the Usenet norms. The main concerns here are the necessity of using real names, not pseudonyms, and the warning to not repeatedly page people while they’re online; in other words, to respect the right of someone not to talk to you. This warning is necessary because some members use software for downloading that won’t let them respond.

The reminder that other people aren’t necessarily just like you is an idea that distinguishes CompuServe from Usenet. Differences are more easily tolerated, whether in personality or opinion. If someone disagrees with you, for the most part they will do so politely and acknowledge that you have the right to hold a differing opinion. Sometimes this can be rather frustrating. After a debate on Usenet, I might be upset at the style of attack used, but I have great faith that my ideas are sound; they have to be, to survive there. In contrast, on CompuServe, people can say, “Let’s agree to disagree” before I even understand what it is we’re disagreeing about.

Another benefit to CompuServe is the way everyone interacts on a roughly equal basis, even though there are a large number of comic professionals participating here. In fact, the number of pros who participate is one of CompuServe’s selling points; they claim to have the most comic professionals of any online service as members, perhaps due to their policy of giving pros “free flags”, which means they don’t charge them. Usually, though, all these connections to the industry mean that news and rumors often break here first. While Usenet members are speculating about what their friend heard from the employee at the comic shop, I know what the artist or writer actually said or did. Unfortunately, this may be changing as CompuServe develops their share of flamers, some of whom have gone so far as to drive some of the pros off of the forum.

With some exceptions, though, people here take great pride in being considerate of others; they will go out of their way to help you out. Since joining CompuServe, I have received a good number of offers to send me comics that I might want to read with no strings attached, just because someone thought I might like them. Overall, there is a high level of empathy. For example, one person always makes sure to send a message to someone whose review he has read to let them know that he appreciates the work they put into their post.

I attribute this greater sense of community to three factors. First, CompuServe costs. It’s the most expensive online service, and both of these forums are extended services, which means that the user pays an additional hourly fee in addition to the regular monthly CompuServe charge. The high cost weeds out younger and more obnoxious fans; the audience here is older and more serious about their hobby, as well as concerned with getting value for their money. Creating an environment where everyone enjoys themselves is thus a good economic decision. The older audience is also more settled in who they are and has met a greater variety of people in their life, expanding their willingness to get along with different types. Second, with CompuServe’s download and storage software, it is possible for people to think about their posts for as long as necessary before replying, and to reread posts if necessary. This feature gives members time to think about what they’re about to say to thousands of people. Last, a pay service has increased permanence. A CompuServe account can follow you when you move, unlike some Internet connections, so your reputation is more likely to follow you.

Originally, I had only intended to discuss the above two online services, since those are the ones I am most familiar with, but then DC Comics announced that it was signing an exclusive deal with America Online, the fastest growing online service. DC has set up its own area, with arranged conferences with its professionals and art from its books available for download. This area is divided according to its publishing imprints: the regular DC books, Milestone, Mad Magazine, Paradox Press, and Vertigo. There is a bulletin-board-type area, but most of the selling points revolve around the chance to preview upcoming comics and talk live with various writers and editors.

What is most interesting about the DC area on AOL is the way members of the other services have reacted to the idea. Many people think that exclusivity is a really bad idea (“stupid” and “fatuous” were the words used in a recent discussion on the Internet), but some have admitted joining AOL just for the DC information, so the idea seems to be working.

Because of this deal, the publishers’ forum on CompuServe always seems to have a message in it asking where DC’s section is. The sysop usually quietly explains why they can’t have one, and ignores the resulting rants. In my opinion, exclusitivity in an information economy is a relative idea. Status in these groups is determined by what you reliably know and can contribute, so as soon as something is announced on AOL, it is posted on the other groups by people who belong to both.

AOL members are uniformly considered young and clueless. With their “five-hour-free-trial” diskettes easily available, it’s hard to maintain any control over people who sign up, use the service, and disappear when the five hours are up. Since AOL allows its users to pick screen names, there are a lot of pseudonyms used that have no other information associated with them. A given account can have up to five screen names, as well. Nevertheless, AOL is trying to maintain some control with their guides, who can kick someone off the service for violating their Terms of Service agreement. Most of the time, these violations revolve around inappropriate language, although just what is inappropriate is up to that particular guide.

Overall, AOL is considered highly commercial, out for the money it can get, bound to take from the net without contributing anything in return. Everything must be done online, costing its users money to think about their replies. The rapid response this makes necessary seems to suit the young core audience. Message folders contain lots of “Superman rules!” “No, Superman sucks!” types of messages and little discussion beyond that. CompuServe members have reported going on AOL and being mistaken for pros due to their knowledge of what’s going on in comics, since there’s no way of knowing who’s really behind that screen name.

The issue of names illustrates another difference in my experiences on CompuServe and Usenet. I found myself, for different reasons, making phone calls to a member of each group. When talking to the person from CompuServe, we discussed other group members and swapped real-life experiences about the ones we’d met in person. While talking to the person from Usenet, however, I had problems when it came to the names of other members. I’d never had to speak them aloud, so I thought of them as a visual pattern instead of a sound. Part of this had to do with the difference between the ordinary names used on CompuServe and the sometimes fanciful pseudonyms from Usenet, but I also think it illustrates the ends of a continuum of the online experience.

CompuServe members seem to join because they already know someone in real life who’s on, so moving that friendship into cyberspace is just using another communication medium. In contrast, Usenet friendships form online, and only then meet in real life, although this is changing with the expansion of the net.

Let me close by reminding you that this is a personal interpretation and is composed, out of necessity, of generalizations. I researched this paper in an attempt to come to terms with my changing attitudes toward the online community after experiencing a number of disturbing posts. I came to the conclusion that the Usenet group norms, in particular, had solidifed due to the rapid growth of the net, similar to the way the comic market has solidified around the stereotype of the young male. With other alternatives out there, however, this is not necessarily bad; now, a wider range of available choices provide different groups for different tastes.

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