55 plus 12: The old neighbourhood

Posted: 29 August 2019 in 55 plus, comics
Tags: , , ,

In 1995, after long years of studying, I qualified as an accountant. This had several effects upon my home life, the most relevant here being that my wife actually saw my face again.

For the first year of our marriage, the most common view she had of me was of the back of my head, as I worked on some potential exam question or another. And then, suddenly, with no warning, but with the arrival of that bit of paper that said “Congratulations”, she was faced with the prospect of having to look at me on a regular basis.

This was obviously too much for one person to bear, so she did the only sensible thing that would pretty much guarantee that she’d only see the back of my head again: she bought me a modem.

Almost at once I discovered “the Internet”, a wonderful resource… for wasting time.

This was, of course, back before anyone had even thought about what became Twitter, was before Facebook, before Flickr, before… well, before most everything that makes your internet experience what it is now.

But yes, I got online the weekend after I qualified as an accountant.. So, unlike perhaps many, I’d wager, I can remember to within a couple of days the exact date I ‘got online’.

Thanks to a previous correspondence with the comics writer Tony Isabella, I headed straight for Compuserve’s Comics/Animations Forum, the message board at the time, where I could correspond with…and for heaven’s sake, actually chat to, comics professionals: writers, artists, editors.

A large number of professionals not only visited the Forum/message board, but actually chatted with fans about their work, about books that had just come out, and what’s more… shock, horror – they engaged in constructive dialogue about their work. People like Warren Ellis, Peter David, Neil Gaiman, Chris Claremont. Over the next few years, some became friends. A couple remain friends to this day.

It was the first message board, let alone comics’ message board, I belonged to, and the welcome I received from both pros and fellow fans was warm, inviting and, I’m wholly convinced, the reason why I hung around, and discovered other boards.

Now, there weren’t that many rules in the place. Not many were needed. I’m not pretending it was a golden age of internet interaction, but it was certainly a politer one day-to-day. But there were some rules… the three most important being:

  • no personal attacks (attack the argument, not the person making the argument)
  • no repeated invitations to chat/interact, and…
  • everyone had to use a ‘real name’, or at least, not an obviously fake one. The last rule was in place simply because it was regarded as a courtesy to others. It was a little easier to talk about the latest issue X-Men when you’re not talking to “Remy LeBeau”. You could use a format of “firstname (nickname/handle) lastname” but your ‘real sounding name’ had to be there.

As I say, it was a different time.

(Oh, and that’s when and where I resurrected the nickname “budgie”, a name by which far more people know me now than know me as ‘Lee’, and after almost 25 years, a name I much prefer to go by, to be honest.)

For the most part, the Forum/message board was a [mostly] polite, [mostly] interesting, and [mostly] fun place in which to hang.

Doug Pratt, the owner of the Forum never let members ‘mistake a light touch for a soft one’, and troublemakers were, on occasion, ejected from the Forum.

Only once can I remember a thread that turned really nasty. Someone had raised the question of gay characters appearing in Strangers In Paradise. This came up every so often, but on this occasion… well, the brown smelly stuff hit the round whirly thing. The hit rate went from a couple of hundred messages a day to a few thousand, and those with, shall we say, less than enlightened views about homosexuality found a voice: and that voice, with all its poison, spewed forth. And fifth and sixth for that matter.

It was the only time I can recall where Doug outright killed a thread and banned the topic from future discussion in the Forum. (The ban, by the way, was lifted shortly thereafter when the subject matter came up, and it was discussed sensibly – I have no idea why that particular subject on that particular day hit the hot button, but these things happen.)

As I mentioned above, Warren Ellis was a member of the Forum before he left and set up The Warren Ellis Forum on Delphi in 1998. It ran for four and a half years, and was, beyond peradventure, the best comics message board of the time. And, to my mind, the best message board I’ve ever belonged to. The next two best were also both started by Warren: The Engine, and Whitechapel.

I think it’s worth considering why The WEF was so successful. Yes, it was the right board at the right time, but why? The simple answer I guess is that it possessed certain attributes that made the WEF insightful and fun. Doesn’t help much explain why it was a necessary part of my online life for so long, though, does it?

So, what made it so good? In general and for me?

The sense of community that existed in the Forum
Despite a regular posting membership in the thousands, there was an actual sense of community that was very deliberately fostered by Warren. There were regular (and by regular, I mean weekly) get-togethers of Forum members in London and New York; less frequently, they also took place elsewhere. But anyone mentioning that they were visiting either New York or London would get a “you are turning up to the Drink-Up, aren’t you?” message… and they were welcomed with open arms, and a drink, when they did turn up.

Despite organising various events, including promoting a “Help Top Shelf” campaign, this sense of community in the WEF was never more clearly expressed though, than on 11th September 2001, and in the days following. Certainly, along with the television news, the WEF was where I found out what was going on in New York. (And the successor Forums did similar on 7/7. That mattered in the days before Twitter and Facebook.)

After a while, because of the traffic in the Forum, and the number of repeated threads that arose, one member started an FAQ that all newcomers could read, covering what was discussed in the Forum and also answering most of the FAQ that Ellis got asked. It was probably the first genuinely useful examples of the form that I encountered.

Another Forum member maintained a place that had recent photos of WEF members. If you were curious as to what the person you’d been talking to – or even arguing with – looked like, then you could more than likely go and see for yourself. Again, it made a difference.

The WEF Forum was definitely not a place for children
Despite the notion that comics are for all ages, the WEF most certainly wasn’t. It was an Forum for adults, if not grownups, and subjects were often discussed, some of which I’d have felt most uncomfortable children witnessing.

That adult nature of the place had the likely, some might say inevitable, consequence that swearing, if not actually encouraged, was seen as merely part of normal conversation. Oh, I’m not saying that’s the reason why so many people visited and posted there; instead I think that the Forum didn’t pretend to be anything other than a site where adults post, and as such, swear words weren’t regarded as anything over which to be upset.

The occasional “fuck” never did anyone any harm. And both fans and pros obviously didn’t mind that much or they wouldn’t have posted there in the numbers they did.

Presence of working comics pros
As with the Compuserve Forum, yes, the presence of pros there was a factor. The fact that Warren set up threads specifically encouraging pros to plug their upcoming work (and was not amused when non-pros posted in that thread) didn’t hurt matters. A simultaneous thread was usually set up for the discussion of what was in the other thread… but the first one was purely for plugs, promos, and additional material that didn’t find its way to Newsarama, Comicon or the other news/plugging sites.

The Dictator
Warren Ellis ran the Forum as a benevolent dictatorship, and sometimes not that benevolent. There was no arguing with him and everyone knew it. So they behaved, or they were out. That’s fair enough – everyone knew the rules going in, and no one could cry about it later. Such a place wasn’t for everyone. That’s also fine, and there were any number of other places for comics discussion. (Warren, by the way, was far from the only one to have that rule in place, and compared to The John Byrne Forum, Warren’s place was a flat out perfectly fair and just democracy.)

Seeing Is Believing
This ain’t relevant so much, in fact, it’s hardly relevant at all now, when anyone can easily with a few clicks or presses upload high definition images to any online platform but remember, the WEF started back in 1998. Because it was on Delphi, with their easy WYSIWYG interface, Warren encouraged people to post images. That ease of use allowed artists to strut their stuff, and pros to plug upcoming work with images. It was used that to good effect, and members and pros often posted ‘teasers’ from upcoming scripts, together with the associated art.

Something Old, Something New…
Warren took – or at least seemed to take – great pride in the place, and enjoyed throwing something new out to the members, which, combined with the sense of community mentioned earlier, leads me straight into…

So that’s what you look like!
The previous points linked with Warren’s almost indecent love of new technology led to something entitled World Wide Wednesday: he challenged as many people as possible to post a webcam image of themselves, taken within a 24 hour period.

(OK, he usually cheated; he started it at midnight London time and allowed it until midnight the following day, wherever the poster was). He said later he was hoping for 200 images at best. Almost 600 images, either webcam photos or very recent (as in within the past week or so) photos, were posted to the Forum. Occasionally, he’d add a requirement, say ‘a pic of you with something you bought this week’, or ‘a photo of your most recent haircut’.

“They like it, they really like it!”
The speed of responses could be frighteningly fast. I was once involved in thread where a couple of hundred posts appeared online in four hours. Doesn’t sound much, does it? When a Twitter thread can get hundreds of responses in minutes. But – once again – this was before Twitter, and the responses came from a couple of thousand regular posters, not a selection of a few million people. People enjoyed posting… and reading other’s responses. And then arguing like hell over them… often slamming the arguments, never by slamming the people making them.

“Sorry, you are?”
It may seem trivial, but it’s not. There was always a “Start Here” discussion running, where newcomers to the Forum could introduce themselves. And there were sub-threads of it; “Start Here – writers”, “Start Here – artists”. I believe there was even a “Start here – medical people” on one occasion; there was certainly a “Start here – accountants. Which brings me on to…

The Incredible Gestalt
One of the glories of comics fandom, I’ve always found, is the wide range of jobs held and experiences… well, experienced, by those who love comics. The WEF had an large posting membership, and I couldn’t count the number of times that someone would ask a question about one esoteric subject or another.

Unfailingly, within an hour or so, there’d be a half dozen messages from different people attempting – seriously – to answer the query. Yes, of course there was the occasional gag response, but overwhelmingly, they were genuine, serious, honest attempts to answer the questions.

Furthermore, since one of the skills people had in abundance was a good memory, if the question had been asked previously, someone would always be able to post a reference back to the previous thread, without the now sadly ever present snarky ‘Can’t you use Google?”

Painful Purchases
A weekly discussion on who bought what… and why. Every week, the subject would be different. One week it might be purchases bought from habit, and brand new purchases. Another week, it’d be major publishers, and independents. A third week might bring anything you’ve started buying in the last year – what keeps you buying it?

One Careful Owner
As I mentioned previously, Warren cared about the place, and took care over it. His constant presence (at a time when that seemed to be a rarity) in what could so easily have merely been a vanity project, but was more, just made the place more comfortable to hang around in. The Filthy Assistants he recruited to help him run the place – a wise move – were chosen carefully and made life so much more pleasant.

So do I miss the place?

In some ways yes, just as I sometimes miss Livejournal, but not that much, to be honest. The Warren Ellis Forum was the right place at the right time, and a place whose time had come… and has now gone. But the principles behind the best of the reasons for its success would serve as a pretty good place to start if you’re setting up a community online, and in real life.

And I do miss the “feeling like a neighbourhood bar, with a decent landlord, in the last hour before throwing out time”.

One more thing, about Warren’s place(s): it was incredibly funny. I think I had more genuine Laugh Out Loud moments reading threads in that place than any other single Forum to which I’ve belonged.

While writing this, I somehow stumbled over this which I’d previously missed; definitely worth reading. Take a look: An Oral History Of The Warren Ellis Forum.

OK, enough… something else tomorrow.

  1. I miss WEF and yet I don’t. I know I shouldn’t. The paradox remains, nevertheless.

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