"Campbell Campbell Campbell!" the thread screamed at me, flaring a red "angry" face at the top of the message board.
It was late. I was tired and sleep-deprived, and we had just officially begun the War on Terror, but I tried to steel myself for whatever the message might have to say. I tried, but not hard enough.
"I would have thought that the last story would have been enough to get him to put down the pen forever. I guess not."
The poster excoriated my past work and called for my immediate dismissal from Cool Cat Studio. The artist and creator, Gisele Lagace â€“ God bless her â€“ e-mailed me shortly thereafter to reassure me no such thing would happen (Gisele would retire later that year for reasons of her own). But it was still upsetting… and it wasn't the most upsetting thing that happened that day.
I investigated the poster a little. This appeared to be his first post… so apparently he'd registered just for the purpose of blasting me. A little more digging, however, revealed that he had the same e-mail address as another poster, who'd STOPPED posting about six months ago, after blasting me THEN. I apparently had a nemesis.
But that wasn't the most upsetting thing that happened that day.
The most upsetting thing was that I flamed back.
I didn't THINK of it as a flame, mind you. I thought of it as a setting-straight-of-the-record. He seemed to think I was responsible for all the SciFi in what had been a realistic series, when actually, Gisele introduced the SciFi concepts and brought me on to run with them. He seemed convinced that I didn't believe Gisele could write, as if I hadn't taken on the project because I admired Gisele's early stories. And he was posting under a false name, which felt a bit underhanded to me.
And that morning, as we prepared to bomb Afghanistan, I considered it my duty and my pleasure to share these facts with the world. It seemed so terribly important.
My reply used the "thumbs down" icon, a less inflammatory version of the "angry face." At the time, that felt like diplomacy.
Very soon after, Gisele asked if I was okay with deleting the thread, and I agreed…
Before it blinked out, though, one other long-standing poster, whom I respected, urged me to calm down.
THAT post was like a bucket of ice water in the face. Battle not with flamers, lest you become a flamer.
The webcomics world is still a remarkably friendly place, considering it's made up largely of artists, comics fans, and avid computer users â€“ not three groups always known for social grace. When it turns ugly, it can turn REALLY ugly. The "Ecartoonists" Newsgroup was founded in response to a flamewar that rocked the whole webcomics community in 1999. "To this day, some of my clothes still smell like smoke from that one," winks Jim Alexander, sounding for all the world like he's talking about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Scott Kurtz is perhaps webcomics' greatest flamewar veteran, having had well-publicized tiffs with Joey Manley and Tycho and Gabe (which have since been patched up), a long-standing feud with Chris Crosby, and a tendency to attract unreasonable critics.
"At this point," he says, "I can't say ANYTHING online without it pissing someone off. Even the most innocuous statement will send someone flying into a fit of outrage… Everyone has this opinion of me as a big fat egomaniac throwing things at people from my ivory tower and screaming, 'Fuck off!'"
Some cartoonists appear to thrive on the controversy. Whether mocking other cartoonists or addressing nerd debates, Kurtz's satire shows he's not afraid to get yelled at. Eric Millikin turned one of his flamewars into an amusing essay and a random flame generator.
For most of us, though, flames are a drain on energy, if not on self-esteem, and flamewars can do real damage to cartoonists' reputations. How to deal with flamers, then?
Maritza Campos and Scott McCloud have two of the kindliest, smilingest personas in online comics. This, despite the fact that Campos' readers can often debate the merits of particular characters or relationships with the fervor normally reserved for religious argument. This, also despite the fact that McCloud got into a brief flamewar of sorts with Tycho and Gabe and has long put forth controversial ideas about comics' future.
Campos has rarely had to face personal attacks, but she often has to step between two or more participants in a flamewar to keep it from poisoning her forum. "When flame wars go too far in my forum, I delete the threads. I don't believe in locking threads, I just pn the whole thing."
Campos says she used to attack posters more frequently for violating the rules of civil discourse. "Later I realized that a lot of people just love to type without thinking, and they back off just like that. In the meantime you get all worked up and stuff."
McCloud, as one of webcomics' most public figures, has drawn more fire than most, yet appears made of Teflon â€“ though the debate about his ideas rages on, no personal criticism sticks to him for long.
"My policy with hateful attacks," says McCloud, "is to simply respond on point (if at all) and treat them as human beings. Ad hominem attacks and questioning a critic's motives are never necessary. Either they're wrong, in which case you correct them on the facts, or they're right, in which case you should take your medicine and move on. WHY they're saying it is never relevant."
"There's really only one rule," says Joey Manley. "Stay out of it."
"If you absolutely can't, if something has been said â€“ some misrepresentation â€“ that cannot be allowed to stand â€“ then there's a secondary rule: don't think about the fact that your 'opponent' or your 'supporters' in the flamewar will read your post â€“ they actually won't, or, at the very best, they will pick through it for things to take out of context, which they will use for their own purposes.
"No. Your real audience is the vast majority of people reading the thread who will NOT be participating. They are the only ones who matter. Correct any factual errors, calmly, and state any important must-be-stated positions, calmly, and, most of all, don't imagine you are going to change the minds of those who disagree with you publicly on the board. Flamewars are not about reasoned debate â€“ they're about axes grinding. But if someone has, say, completely misrepresented you, by reacting calmly and reasonably, you may very well be able to change the minds of the silent majority who aren't posting. As long as you stay calm, polite, and careful.
"The best is when *those* people start posting in support of your position and making fun of the troll. Then you know you've won."
Sound advice… advice I wish I'd asked for in 2001, before going toe-to-toe with my "opponent." But that's why Comixpedia is here, so we can share the hard-won wisdom of webcomics' short history. The international community has much more to offer than war, and the online community has much more to offer than flamewar.
T Campbell is a contributor at large for Comixpedia.
Illustrations by Vince Coleman.