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Mar
07

The Comics Journal Message Board: A Requiem

While I’m certainly excited about the newly-revamped tcj.com, it is with mixed emotions that I note that this event has apparently precipitated the demise of the (in)famous  Comics Journal message board. Admittedly, it’s been a good while since I was an active contributor to the board and for sure there are others who can comment more knowledgeably about its history and general role in comicsdom–Tom Spurgeon’s writeup comes immediately to mind–but here are a few random thoughts.

(Pictured here left to right: TCJ message board regulars “Ray Tan” and Ed Gauthier)

Sean T. Collins over at Robot 6 makes a hilarious but apt comparison of the board to Star Wars’s “Mos Eisley spaceport”–a sort of wild west frontier town in space. That the first thing that comes to one’s mind about the board is its free-for-all nature isn’t really surprising. Through the years the message board has gone through various periods of being somewhat moderated (basically just enforcing a “real names only” rule, and making people stay on comics-related topics) and being pretty much totally unmoderated, as it seemed to be in the last year or two of its existence. (And the “real names” rule really just boiled down to being a “vaguely-real-sounding name” rule anyway.) From what folks can glean at this point, it looks like the new TCJ.com will move to a system similar to the current editors’s previous site, the excellent ComicsComicsMag.com where authors post articles and then feedback (if allowed at all) will be in the form of blog comments, moderated both by the site editors directly and by a Reddit-like up/down vote system. There are certainly many who are applauding this decision, but personally I’m not so sure.

(Film still courtesy of Mark Masterman. Join the Conspiracy!)

Sure, all other things being equal, civil discourse is preferable to the petty bickering, ridiculous flame wars, and obvious sock-puppetry that’s endemic to pretty much any message board (absolutely, positively including the TCJ board), but the point is: all other things aren’t equal. With the fading of the venerable online message board–specifically the TCJ board, but generally just the format itself–and its replacement by the blog/comments format comes an entirely different paradigm: that of the authority, the article-poster himself who hands down thoughts from on-high (and given the editorial lineup at the new TCJ.com, I’m reasonably safe using “him” here) and the responder, the reader who passively receives this information and then is allowed to post brief reactions to it.

(Pictured here: occasional board interlocutor/recent Daily Show guest, Bosch Fawstin)

There are big plus sides to this setup for sure. If you visit a site like ComicsComics that employs this sort of system you’ll see a pronounced lack of a lot of the stuff that made the TCJ boards justifiably notorious. And to be clear, I couldn’t be more excited about relaunch of TCJ.com with the crew of people currently on-board editorially. The bit of trepidation–and dare I say, sadness?–I feel about the ending of the old message board is I guess just a general wariness a the swapping out of the bazaar for the cathedral, so to speak. While the heterogeneous user roles and the (potentially) tight comment moderation of the blog/comment format make for more pleasant reading, it’s often the case that the things that are the most cogent are not the things that either the “authorities” or popular opinion necessarily recognize as such right out of the gate. The internet has made instantly-accessible an incredible wealth of information, but at the same time it has made it incredibly easy for us to pick and choose what information we receive–and we too often choose to surround ourselves with thoughts and opinions that mirror our own. While there were many, many (many!) times that I’d read posts on the old TCJ board that would make me long for a pair of white-hot butter knives to stick in my eye sockets, there are also many many amazing comics, interesting takes on things in the comics world, new cartoonists, and of course just plain entertaining bickering I’d have never experienced except for the “Mos Eisley-esque” chaos of the Comics Journal message board.

I can’t wait to start digging in to some of the upcoming writing on the new TCJ.com, but I wonder if anything posted there will ever give rise to exchanges like this gem–a discussion about the gigantic, super-produced, super-expensive indie comics/art comics anthology, Kramers Ergot 7:

Andrei Molotiu: Next Kramer’s Ergot? I  was thinking about how the next Kramer’s Ergot is going to be the size of the Little Nemo book or something, and I can hardly wait to see it. Any news on when it’s supposed to come out?

COOP:  Sammy told me that the new KE is printed on thin sheets of plywood, and will unfold into a full-size Chris Ware-designed hillbilly outhouse. They have just signed an exclusive distribution deal with Home Depot.

COOP: Can I mention that each issue comes with a dried corncob, hand silkscreened by Jordan Crane?

Rest in peace, Comics Journal Message Board. We’ll miss you. Kind of.

 

32 comments

  1. Dustin Harbin says:

    You make some good points here Ben–but ultimately it sounds like you’re saying “I wish people felt free to be as rude as they want to on the new TCJ site.” Which I know you’re not, I know–I know that for all it’s ugliness, that board had value to some people. But for me, each and every time I would get interested in a discussion, it would be sidetracked by the same crappy 8 or 9 guys, and ultimately devolve into monkeys flinging their feces at each other. Like Sean and Tom, I left each time feeling soiled and depressed about the level of discourse in comics.

    I agree that people should be free to say whatever they like, but I for one am happy to be free to prefer a site with a level of reason and sanity that’s less zoo-like.

  2. Ben says:

    I’m not necessarily advocating for the free for all system (how the new guard at TCJ run the site is none of my business); just pointing out that there’s no perfect system and that there’s some consequence to controlling the situation more tightly. I think people often want to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to online discourse–or, more to the point, I think that when people say they want to engage in discussion, what they really mean is “discussion with other people who have tastes and opinions that are pretty much the same as mine.”

    I one hundred percent agree that discussion was often curtailed by jackasses on the old board… and of course tastes/opinions are different than tone. While I don’t appreciate online belligerence, a part of me wonders though if it’s possible to have a passionate, engaged discussion that remains a (virtual) tea and crumpet affair.

    (comment edited 3/8 AM now that I’m on a real computer instead of my phone.)

  3. Dustin Harbin says:

    I like very much how polite we’re being here, considering the topic. I caught myself giggling!

  4. Cheese says:

    While I understand everyone’s hating on the TCJ message board, Hell, I hated it on and off too over the 12 years or so I was posting there. Here are some reasons I’ll miss it:

    It was a place where I could graze over a litany of topics spurred on by the community, not some editorial control. It was a place where topics perhaps not deemed editorially important enough for a site to have a specific post about, got some light. I wouldn’t have to subscribe to 40 different creators blogs to find news about them, they’d post a topic on the boards, or someone would mention it.

    I discovered some of my favorite cartoonists through the board, guys who still get no attention, but are amazing creators nonetheless. Specifically, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blog post about Darryl Ayo, who has been making great comics for years, who wakes up every morning at 5 am so he can hit the coffee shop to make comics for two hours before he goes to work. The kid’s got more comics heart in his little finger then most pros I know. Or Dave McKenna, an amazing artist whose book MONSTALAND (http://monstaland.blogspot.com) is drop-dead gorgeous but got no attention from anyone. I could go on, Steve Hogan, Ian Harker, BALD EAGLES, etc. At least on the message board they could make a post and get some responses.

    I started my NYC Comic Jams there. One drunken post led to a decade long love affair with the cartoonists of New York. PLUG: http://nyccomicjam.com

    And yeah, it was often a pit of assholes, myself often included. It was a place I got to call Millionaire a sot, COOP an Oakie and Ted Rall Ferret-Face and get hilarious responses back from them. Most of that was almost a decade ago, and today the poo-flinging is admittedly, creeps yelling at other creeps.

    All that said, it certainly has been past it’s prime for a long time, and perhaps putting it out of it’s misery is the right thing to do. But wether you liked it or not, to deny that it didn’t have its place fostering the indie comics scene for the last fifteen years would be untrue.

  5. Ben says:

    @Dustin – Yes, it’s hilariously ironic for sure!

  6. Josh Latta says:

    I stopped going to tcj.com after Bil Wray, oh, excuse me, William Wray called me an asshole for no reason. Well, perhaps he was jealous of my hairline. But at any rate, it sent me packing and I never went back.

  7. Shannon Smith says:

    Great post Ben. Nice pic of Ray and Ed. I agree with a lot of what Cheese is saying. I’m not sure I’d have ever heard of guys like Josh Simmons and BALD EAGLES without the board. Don’t know if I would have ever heard of Coop and I love Coop. For the past 8 years or so, I’ve been in 2 to 5 anthologies a year. I don’t know that I would have heard of any of them without the board. I don’t know that I would have ever heard about Fluke without the board and I used to live 45 minutes away from it. Also, Like, Cheese was getting at, just having everything in one place was nice. But I guess that is something that is gone forever now it takes twitter, facebook, a blog reader etc. to track folks down.

    But the board has been 99% dead since the last tcj remodel. In the late 90′s and early 00′s I posted to so many boards. (All of them much more vicious and less moderated than TCJ.) I moderated boards. I ran my own board for a while. But it’s all dead. Empty playgrounds now. Instead of having our little clubhouses we all now play in the Wal-Marts and Targets of teh intronets. (twitter and facebook). And one day they will be gone too.
    Ain’t change a bitch?

  8. Ben says:

    @Josh Latta – But being told that you suck was all part of the fun! I for one looked forward every year, for example, to Craig Yoe’s annual “I went to SPX and no one can draw” post.

  9. Josh Latta says:

    Eh, perhaps. He told me I was not good at anything but starting fights and jerking off. I am not too good at the starting fights part.

  10. Shannon Smith says:

    Ah, tcj message board. Where else could you have people who’s products you had paid for and enjoyed insult you and your mother?

    There are some cartoonists that I flat out hate as people because of that place but still admire their work. And, call me petty but, there are a few people who’s books I will never buy because of that place.

  11. Ben says:

    @Shannon – I actually think of the analogy the other way. Message boards seem to me to be like the Wal-Marts of the internet: for better or worse (and there was plenty of both), all were welcome. With the newer “social media” you can pick and choose, and be highly selective about whose voices you want to hear… and there’s good and bad sides to that as well.

  12. Ben says:

    I neglected to mention it in my post, but it seemed to me like a big milestone toward the eventual demise of the board was the mass defection of a lot of folks to that private “Study Group 12″ board.

  13. Shannon Smith says:

    I meant that it was a clubhouse compared to a Wal-Mart in that it was centered around one theme, comics. I see facebook and twitter as less focused but the great thing about facebook and twitter is that I read them through this little Yoono reader thing and I can “hide” people that get on my nerves. That option would have fixed a lot of the message board’s problems. I think I’m going to like how the new TCJ has the comments set up though.

  14. Josh Latta says:

    Good point, Ben. I guess what gets lost in the selective social media lost is the cry of criticism. Of course there really isn’t a shortage of that on blogs.
    I gotta say though, tuning out all that noise saved me many of headaches.

    Oh, and Shannon, you called the demise of the message boards before anyone else. I think you were saying this as far back as five years ago. You get a no-prize!

  15. Dustin Harbin says:

    I’ve been thinking about it Ben, and I just don’t get your “all are welcome” point about messageboards. It’s not like blogs with moderated comments are Gestapo thought-police regimes or anything. Comics Comics in particular let a LOT of chicanery go on before Tim would clamp down on it–if anything I saw the moderation as added value to the quality of the conversation–it kept things moving in a direction that had some value. Having a discussion of some serious comic turn into a turd-throwing match between Andrei Molotiu and Uland or something was just incredibly ugly, every time.

    Messageboards aren’t dead because they’ve been outlawed or something–I think it’s more that that sort of Wild-West discourse has ruined it enough for people to PREFER a quieter, moderated (although often not moderated except for spam comments) discussion. For those who want to get down and dirty, there are still messageboards out there.

  16. Ben says:

    @Dustin – You’re correct. There are certainly blogs/comments sites out there that are if anything more wild west than anything on the old TCJ boards. And of course, vice-versa: there have always been some heavily moderated boards that were downright draconian. It’s important to note, though, that to keep things going in “a direction that had some value” requires a subjective evaluation on the part of *someone.* (And the accompanying action of removing posted comments and/or chastising people to get things back on track.)

    Again, please note that I’m not advocating for a TCJ-like message board as being some superior mode of discourse. (Case in point, I’d not been to the board in months, but have read ComicsComics pretty regularly since it cranked up.) I’m just pointing out that sculpting an online conversation so that it’s quieter and more palatable isn’t a value-neutral proposition.

    And, yes, I think you’ve correctly identified why message boards are going the way of the dodo: people prefer not to have to deal with some of the ugliness you get in a more free-for-all setup. What’s most pleasant, though, isn’t always what’s most valuable in my opinion.

    Bottom line: I think it was high time for the board to go and I’m really looking forward to the new TCJ.com.

  17. Dustin Harbin says:

    Yes! We’re agreed, I hereby officially agree with you, let the agreement commence, time for Leia to pass out the medals!

  18. Josh Latta says:

    I wish there was a Ben Towle message board that discussed all things Ben. I wanna start a thread about you without your glasses.

  19. Brad says:

    Great post! I think the big difference in the blog comments versus the message board format is the real long form ongoing discussion that would take place over months on a single thread. I know it happens in the comment section of blogs, but it seems to require an almost impossible amount of work to keep up with so many discussions on SO many blogs.

    I also liked the fact that people were a bit harsh on that board. There was a lot of childish nonsense, but there were a lot of good fights with a lot of purpose there too. Much like the Craig Yoe “learn to draw” thread you mentioned. I don’t think he would have posted that on his blog, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable calling him out on his own blog either, but it felt right to do so in that forum because that was just the personality of that place.

    Blogs are too specific to really capture that crossover audience that made that board so interesting for so long.

    Fantagraphics puts out such a wide array of books that the new TCJ.com might attract that crossover again. It’s not too hard to imagine an old timer looking for some prince valiant reprint info and stumbling on to a Dash Shaw comic and just losing his shit. Sounds like a pretty good discussion to me!

  20. Shannon Smith says:

    Brad makes a good point. There are a lot of topics worth debating that one would start a message board thread about but not be comfortable starting a blog post with. (Or maybe not brave enough to put on thier own site or on TCJ’s site.) But, I think twitter and facebook are the catch all for that. But, again, it was nice to have it all in one place back in the infancy of our intronet lives.

    Remember when individual comics had their own huge message boards? I remember in the mid 90′s thinking that there might be 20 people that read The Invisibles. Then by the late 90s I was posting in a huge international community where everyone there was wearing blank badges.

    I think we are still in the infancy of social networking. We’ll look back and laugh at all of this.

  21. Ben says:

    Yeah, that’s a good point that a message board like the TCJ one was on “neutral ground” so to speak. One problem with Twitter (and maybe Facebook; I wouldn’t know) is that it’s so often used as an overt self-promotional tool. In fact, I’ve noticed a real aversion among a lot of comics folk on Twitter (including myself, frankly) to levy any specific criticisms about particular books or creators. There’s a lot of specific back-slapping and glad-handing (“Hey guys, Joe Schmoe is the best person ever!”) and some very general complaining (“C’mon, aren’t there more important things to talk about than Brad Pitt’s new kitten?! #serioulsy”). There were some belligerent jerkidy-jerks on the boards for sure, but I feel like the flip-side of that was that people would say what the meant, without worrying about whether they’d lose “followers” or whether it’d affect their current Kickstarter campaign.

    Also, you kids get off my lawn!

  22. Eric says:

    There are a few big differences between a comments section of a blog and a message board. I can’t admit to having stopped by the TCJ boards often, usually only when a result turned up through a Google search, but if it worked like any other message board, I see these differences:

    1. To borrow some terms from Axel Bruns, blog comments are a top-down model, message boards are a bottom-up model.

    This seems to me to be the heart of what you guys are debating above. Blog comments follow a hierarchy where authority is maintained by an original post/er, and conversation follows within the limitations provided by that original post. On a message board, participation is more open. If I don’t have a response to the topic at the head of the page, then I can start a new one. The authority of the original poster in the conversation is reduced, and topics can cover a wider range of subjects according to the interests and capabilities of posters.

    2. Blog comments are arranged strictly temporally, according to the time of the original post, whereas message boards have the ability to “revive” old posts.

    Thus, to respond in the comments section of a blog, one has a limited window (depending on the blog and the subject at hand). There are ways to improve this, for instance, the “recent comments” widget that Ben has above and right. But, for instance, in posting this comment, I know that my audience will, if I’m lucky, consist of Shannon, Brad, Josh and Dustin, and maybe one or two others who stumble on the post in the next few days.

    Once a week or two has passed, regardless of what I feel I may have to contribute to the (now digitally petrified) conversation, my eagerness to comment is dulled by the feeling that few will take notice. On a message board, however, posts are arranged according to most recent, meaning a response to a year-old post gets top billing again. This extends the conversation for those who might not be present for the original argument, and can allow for new voices with different interests to enter into and renew the conversation.

    I see this often on blogs, where someone will say, “I’ve just read a post by Ben Towle from last year, and had this thought,” but that’s a new conversation on different grounds, with a different audience, and necessitates the respondent having a platform of their own from which to speak.

    Twitter is another story. It is full of a good bit of back-patting, but for me, part of the reason is that the infrastructure doesn’t support depth of conversation. Even with “New” Twitter, it’s hard to trace a conversation among multiple respondents, and I am still daunted by the limitations in characters. For instance, the other week, I took part in a conversation with you and Dustin where my response, after dropping words and characters, turned out to be something like, “Sometimes criticism means is it good or bad, and sometimes it means more than that.”

    Well, no shit, Eric. I had a much more nuanced argument that addressed imagined audience and rhetorical strategies of reviews, but it wouldn’t fit into the limited character space, and I didn’t want to string it out over twenty different tweets

    Obviously, there are pros and cons to every communication medium, and those mediums can determine our style of communication. The problem is optimizing. With blog comments we get this, but we miss out on this. With message boards, we get that, but only by cutting out on this. What’s the solution? What’s the better technology that balances freedom of discussion with keeping jackasses out?

  23. Andrei says:

    Hey Dustin–the “turd storms” between me and Uland usually involved my posting some work and Uland trolling on me–except for the one where I called him out for his rabid anti-semitism. But thank you for putting me on the same level as the TCJ messboard’s ultimate troll. You’ve proven eloquently that the message board’s spirit can survive in newer social media.

    In any case, here is my own take on the board’s demise:
    http://abstractcomics.blogspot.com/2011/03/abstract-comics-and-tcj-message-board.html

  24. Dustin Harbin says:

    Haha, Andrei, no one “put” you on a level with TCJ trolls–you’re one of the biggest ones. Pretending you’re on some higher intellectual level is just your particular flavor. Like the demolition expert Charlie’s Angel. Anyway, I’m not interested in engaging with you on.. any level. And certainly not here on Ben’s blog. If you’d like to communicate with me further, feel free to email me privately. I look forward to ignoring it.

  25. Cheese says:

    Gotta love the, “I’m going to engage you to tell you how I’m not going to engage you,” tactic.

  26. Andrei says:

    Dustin–tell you what. The TCJ messboard archives from 2006 are still online. Feel free to find a single discussion between me and Uland that does not fit what I said. Feel free to find a *single* instance of me trolling–then post it here, by all means. (Others, of course, will have to agree that trolling it is.) And when you don’t, you know, there is such a thing as apologizing. I’ll be waiting.

  27. Eric says:

    I like that I did my best to start a constructive conversation on media technology and you guys started fighting.

  28. Ben says:

    @Eric … and now you understand the Comics Journal message board.

  29. Andrei says:

    Eric–well, I suppose that the sheer mention of the TCJ board does that to some people.

    But I wanted to comment on something else, before I got distracted–specifically Ben writing:

    “With the fading of the venerable online message board–specifically the TCJ board, but generally just the format itself–and its replacement by the blog/comments format comes an entirely different paradigm: that of the authority, the article-poster himself who hands down thoughts from on-high (and given the editorial lineup at the new TCJ.com, I’m reasonably safe using “him” here) and the responder, the reader who passively receives this information and then is allowed to post brief reactions to it.”

    Exactly! Quite a while ago, when someone on the board mentioned the slow replacement of what we might call the “message board paradigm” with the “blog paradigm,” Mike Hunter (whose posts are definitely going to be one of the things I’ll miss) did a perfect graphic to demonstrate the difference between the two–one basically showing a group of equals talking to each other, the other showing someone speaking from on high, and his minions reacting below.

    Basically, what has happened–for whatever reason, changing fashions or whatever–is the replacement of a democratic system with a hierarchic one. Fans now–at tcj.com or most any other important forum for comics discussion on the web–can’t start their own threads. Their participation is restricted to commenting on the posted topics: they can only speak when spoken to, so to speak. On a message board, anyone with a new comic could post it, and get a few hits, and build some word of mouth. Where is the place for that now? Yes, you can start a blog, but if no one knows you, how are you going to get any hits? Is the solution for people to surreptitiously stick links to their own work in the comment threads on more popular blogs? That seems kind of, you know, pathetic. We had a system whereby people, even coming out of complete obscurity, could get noticed. The current system is not built for that; I hope that someday, not what we’re all supposedly more mature (well, most of us), we will give the message board model another try. It just might work again.

    Anyway, this is why I wanted to emphazise in my post on Abstract Comics how much I owed to the TCJ boards in getting my work out there. I wanted to point out the good things about it, to try to counter all the negative vibe and jubilation at its demise.

  30. Andrei says:

    Ugh, I meant “NOW what we’re all supposedly more mature.” Yes, let me hear it: Freudian slip!

  31. Chris Reilly says:

    Ben,

    I am so happy that the polite discourse here lasted for about 21 posts and turned into a fucking fight.

    When Cheese said: “Gotta love the, “I’m going to engage you to tell you how I’m not going to engage you,” tactic.”

    He was spot on and I actually forgot I was on Benzilla and thought I was on the TCJ message board. Honestly though, it has to hurt being compared to Uland. Whatever Happened to the ever so burdened Ursela Hitler? Without the board we will never know.
    All joking aside; great post. The only thing that confuses me is that people are glad the board is gone. I never go to Brian Michael Bendis’ Jinxworld but I wouldn’t be glad it was gone because no one ever forced me to go there before I could have my first coffee of the day. To me it didn’t exist in my little world.

  32. galumph says:

    Just found out the TCJ forum is gone. Seems sad, I read through all the posts and even recognised a few names. The old internet is dead. I wrote a comic about my first experiences on TCJ forum called reinforcements, how nieve of me. 10-13 years ago the internet was a bright place bubbling with all sorts of people. Now you are liable for everything said and done. The state has control via Twitter and Facebook. I really liked the forum but it got bogged down with what I can only think of as a privelidge mentality. it was like people understood that many people, people like me, live in a box with no friends and TCJ was a way out and it worked. But they slowly bullied that away, the trolls, ignoring posts when there was no reason too, being critical for no reason. It was like there was a price to pay to be there, and I didnt want that. However, im very sad that its gone. Not that I care, but it was a real part of my time back then. I think there are lessons learnt but as said above, forums are dead. I remember going to 10-20 forums, posting links, reading stuff. Finding any forums these days that isnt dominated by a small crowd is next to impossible. Very sad.

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