Get Scared or Get Silly: A History of The Fright Night Project by Xaviar Xerexes
In 1999, there were a number of webcomics in regular publication, but nothing like the vast number of creators today. It was before Keenspot and Modern Tales, when the webcomic community was a much smaller world. In this smaller universe of webcomics, creators seemed more aware of their fellow peers, more prone to help each other out, and more likely to collaborate with one another. There were crossovers between webcomics, guest art for other webcomics, and on April 1st of 1999, Terrence Marks organized the first Great April Fools' Webcomic Swap, where webcomic creators surprised their readers by swapping webcomics with other creators for a day.
"I don't think anybody cares as much about the webcomics community as Terrence [Marks] does," says Bruno the Bandit creator, Ian McDonald, "and I think I speak for a lot of webtoonists when I say we're all grateful for his hard work to spread the word about us."
Later that year, and to follow up on the success of the April Fools' event, Terrence began organizing a project for Hallowe'en. His idea was to put webcomic creators in groups of five to six and have each group create a comic for October 31st. The first event was called "The Big Comic Switch: Fright Night Special" and featured seven webcomic stories with such titles as: "Tiny Demons From Hell Invaded My Life And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" and "Misplaced, Mismatched and Misfortunate Too!"
"[The first event] was a lot of fun to do," says McDonald. "I worked with four other cartoonists, including Chris Crosby, one of the owners of Keenspot. "The story we did was called 'The Scourge,' and [it] was about a demonic entity that traveled to each of our respective cartoon universes, in order to devour the soul of that strip's most popular character. The creature would be foiled each time, and would travel to another strip. Someone from the strip he just visited would also travel to the next strip, to warn the characters there about the Scourge."
The Brothers Grinn also participated in the first Fright Night. They remember the 1999 project well in part because it was dedicated to the memory of a friend and fellow online cartoonist, Jeff Myers. "Our friend Jeff was also meant to be a part of the project, but died before it happened, says Stu of the Brothers Grinn, "This gave us an opportunity to include his characters as a tribute to his memory. Blessed by his fiancÃ©e of course."
It's probably lost to the bits and bytes of Internet time as to how popular the first event was, but even today, the hub site for the first Fright Night draws almost 500 readers during the month of October.
The effort to turn a one-time collaborative project into an annual event was plagued by gremlins from the start. Terrence Marks decided to turn over the organizational reins to someone else in the midst of planning for the second event and after a few false starts, it was turned over to me, Xaviar Xerexes. I organized two editions of Fright Night that mirrored in many ways the first year effort. In 2000 and 2001, we organized groups of webcomic creators to collaborate together on several short webcomic stories for Hallowe'en. We moved to an official URL â€“ frightnight.org â€“ and Keenspot was generous enough to donate hosting for the Fright Night Project in both years two and three.
The 2000 project featured seven webcomic tales with such titles as: "How to Succeed in Conquering the Universe Without Really Trying," and "Herr Grossman's Fiendraiser." Lee Adam Herold, the creator of Chopping Block also created a creepily appropriate logo for this second edition of the event. By 2001, the number of webcomics had increased exponentially and it became ever more difficult to organize groups of webcomics creators. It was also entirely possible that creators were beginning to feel that the spirit of the project, still in its original format, was becoming a tad stale and repetitive. Nevertheless, the third edition of the project featured five webcomic stories with such titles as: "It Came From The Silver Scream," and "Convention Madness." It also featured a deceptively simple, but spooky "red skull" logo as drawn by Jon Morris, the creator of Jeremy.
"I'm trying to paste together my scattered memories of that project â€“ I remember that I drew my pages sprawled out on the bed of an Anaheim hotel room while the evening news blared, using a sketchbook for support and stopping periodically so that my wife and I could make fun of the anchorwoman's enormous hoop earrings," says Jon Morris. "Definitely a fun experience. I still clearly remember the unease and excitement I felt when someone had Jeremy say 'Boobies.' Kids these days, they grow up so fast. Outside of boobies, I remember it being a blast trying to nail down all these different characters, and better yet, seeing everyone take on Jeremy."
Rudi Gunther, the creator of Deathworld, has participated in every edition of the project. Which one was his favorite? "That's a tough one. All three groups consisted of a bunch of great talent, so it's hard to pick. If I had to choose, I guess it'd probably be the third Fright Night, where the group I led did a story called "Convention Madness." [My team consisted of] Jon Morris of Jeremy, Usagi & Mofo of Warp 9 to Hell, Kristopher Straub of Checkerboard Nightmare, and the Brothers Grinn of Supermegatopia. It was my second time as group leader, and although it was difficult wrangling the group members into getting their work done in a timely fashion, it turned out to be one of the strongest contributions of that year. I was busting a gut with laughter every time each member sent me their section of the story, and the Brothers Grinn did a surprise ending that was hilariously unexpected. It was also the only group I was in which had everything go according to plan."
Mark Mekkes participated in 2000, but not without having to drive over some bumps in the road. "I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember specifically who I was working with that year," says Mekkes, "but I did end up as the team leader for our group. And of course, disaster struck. Someone in the group didn't like some of the content of one of the other contributors. When confronted, the offending artist cried 'censorship' and refused to alter his work."
Mekkes had to help his group navigate between issues of censorship and a need for everyone to agree on the ultimate shape of the final webcomic created for the project. "Of course I ended up right in the middle of this debate," says Mekkes. "It ended up with the offended artist dropping out gracefully, [but] the rest of us had to scramble to cover the rest of the project."
Some of the participants took their collaboration beyond the one-time nature of The Fright Night Project. Alternative Brand Studios (or Altbrand), a collective of webtoonists, really grew out of the group's collaborative work on the 2000 story, "Herr Grossman's Fiendraiser." The Altbrand artists collaborated a second time on a Fright Night webcomic called, "It Came From the Silver Scream."
Being one of the charter members of Altbrand, I can say that not only was it a blast working with several other talented cartoonists on the collaborative Fright Night webcomics, but being part of a collective group of artists in Altbrand was very educational and supportive. In particular, it was very humbling to not only get to play around writing and drawing for some great characters, but to also see other talented artists' versions of your own creation. Once we survived working with each other under some very short deadlines for the Fright Night project, I think we realized that not only could we put up with each other, but that we actually enjoyed working together on webcomic projects. Altbrand just became a natural extension for continuing our Fright Night collaboration.
In 2002, the project took a more low-key approach, inviting submissions of Hallowe'en-themed webcomics for display on frightnight.org. Submissions came from both well-known creators such as Clan of The Cats' Jamie Robertson and relative unknowns such as Brad Hawkins, creator of Monkey Law and Chris Harrell, creator of Hotel Grim. The logo and website design were crafted by Gluemeat's Case Yorke.
This year, I've turned the reins of The Fright Night Project over to Matt Shepherd, Special Events Editor for the Comixpedia. As we hope you're already aware, Shepherd has worked to re-invent the format for this annual webcomic community event. "The whole Fright Night thing was Xerexes' idea," says Shepherd, "and as an old-school original Altbrand fan I'm honored and challenged to be wrangling under that august name. Or October name, as the case may be."
"The key to good events is the challenge aspect. I'm attracted to things like 24-hour comics because there's an interesting constraint at work. I think most artists are like that. They don't want carte blanche to do whatever they like, they want to be given a couple of conditions to really get their creative juices flowing," says Shepherd. "So the new format for the Hallowe'en event is a combination of 'how can I challenge people,' 'how can I give people prizes on a zero budget,' and 'how can I get people to do something really cool that's Hallowe'en themed?' And there it was, sitting in front of me like a severed head on a silver platter, and the whole thing sort of came together from there."
Throughout each year of the event so far, most participants agree that their experience was artistically challenging and typically just plain fun. Add to that the benefits of putting their work before a potentially new audience: "Of course, collaborative efforts allow more people to see what you're capable of," says Stu of the Brothers Grinn. "Often people who [would] not normally [do so], [go] check your stuff out."
"I'm always a bad person to ask about the relative value of [collaborative events] â€“ even when I was (semi-)regularly producing webcomics, I was never really part of the webcomic community," says Jon Morris. "I'm even less so now. What I do know is that any time artists have a chance to collaborate and generally test themselves against their fellow artists' skills, it's always to a benefit. What with the fact that better and better cartoonists are making their presence on the web, that benefit's only going to grow stronger."
"Something else to consider now," says Mekkes, "is that there are a lot more cliques or groups that tend to keep this kind of cross-promotion to themselves. This has its advantages and disadvantages. What made Fright Night such a great experience was that it was a great place for anyone to get involved and brought together a great range of talents."
"These days, I'm more inclined to participate in something like this for fun," says McDonald, "and to give something back to the webcomics community, as it were. I'm sure a lot of my fellow veteran webtoonists feel the same way. But for the webtoonists just getting started, I think this is still a great way to get some exposure for your work, and to introduce yourself to the webcomics community at large."