Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns
I've talked, a few columns back, about Superguy. Superguy was (and still is) a mailing list for amateur fiction, started in the late eighties. Not really 'fanfiction,' since the stories and characters were original, but instead a wholesale satire on superheroes, Superguy let people who loved the media, or loved humor, or just loved typing a chance to build an audience, create, experiment, learn the craft of writing, and in general build whole new worlds. Also, there was a supernatural talking fish.
Superguy was born on the BITnet. Never heard of it? That's because you're not old. I am, and I remember BITnet. I remember the joys of Relay, of NICBBS, of UMNEWS, and of using VM/CMS systems. This was the hardcore old days, long before the World Wide Web. Long before Windows, for that matter. Graphics were something you had on Macs or you had in games, and those few bits of graphics that were passed around were uuencoded, sent over USENET, and took an hour to download using Kermit or XModem. And that was for a single badly manipulated fake porn picture of Dana Plato.
So, we essentially didn't have graphics. But we had text. Phosphorescent green glowing text. And by God, we ran with it.
In a lot of ways, Superguy - and similar projects out there, like Dargon or Sfstory - filled the same niche that webcomics fill our modern world. Superguy was a series of serials, written by Authors (we always capitalized Author) who broke their stories into e-mail friendly 200 line chunks. Some Authors were prolific, setting regular schedules and putting out hundreds of posts. (One - a fellow named Bill Paul - often posted multiple 200 line episodes every day.) Others posted two or three episodes and then went on 'hiatus' for extended periods of time. There was some good stuff - even some great stuff - on Superguy. And there was a whole horking lot of crap.
There was even experimentation. I did a story arc in my own "Adjusted League Unimpeachable" where long passages of the story were told in transcript form, with 'ers,' 'ums' and stutters intact. Another person wove time travel scenes through a one-hundred chapter arc. There were accepted conventions and shared pieces of the world, but there was also pushing and prodding. And there were even rival collectives: when Superguy was at its heydey, the Legion of Net.Heroes - a USENET based writing collective, was also at its heyday, and there was some cheerful competition between the two groups.
Most of all, we were convinced we were on the cusp of something amazing - a whole new way of looking at fiction, of storytelling, of distribution without editors and without men in suits deciding if our schlock was commercial enough. If four of the more experienced Authors wanted to post an incoherent story about Weasel-based superheroes, they just did. If I wanted to write a story about a lead character who got shot in the stomach as a running gag, I just did.
And yeah, going back and rereading my old Superguy stories, I can see a whole lot of unmitigated garbage. I mean, there's some hideous crap sitting on that server, and it has my name (well, "Eric, Lord Sabre," and if you think that embarrasses me today, you're absolutely right) on it. There's this one story called WarHammer I wrote that might be the single worst piece of fiction ever composed in English.
But every so often, I see something really good. And I remember how proud I was of it. And of the awards I won.
That's right. Awards. We had our own awards show. "The Golden Grunions," after Wonder Grunion, who was the first Superguy character. These were given out yearly, following a needlessly elaborate nomination and voting procedure that the writers and readers alike participated in. Our categories had all the high points - Best Writer, Best Hero, Best Villain, Best Supergroup, Best Miniseries, Best Series - you'd expect from such an affair. And, we had a pile of sheerly ridiculous categories: Best Celebrity Guest Star, Most Confusing Plotline, Best Ultraviolent Character, Best Freefall, Best Song, and indeed, Best Hair.
I had a character win Best Hair, one year. It was the only time I ever seriously lobbied for a Golden Grunion. I wanted Best Hair. I got a Lifetime Achievement Award once, and yet Best Hair was still the moment I was most excited.
And, naturally, we had an awards show. We all pitched in and wrote outrageous scenes where Cthulhu was Master of Ceremonies and wacky anthropomorphic rabbit girls read nominees alongside stock cynical antiheroes. We did it every year. It was fun.
And we realized, somewhere in the back of our brains, that the Golden Grunions were essentially meaningless. We didn't have that many readers. We were mostly giving them to each other. But it meant something. It was exciting. It was weirdly thrilling. It was validation, in a world where validation came all too rarely.
And yet, it's been years since I even thought about the Golden Grunions. I think about Superguy from time to time. I even think about dusting off the word processor and banging out another episode or three. I commiserate about it with John Bankert, Gary Olson, or Bill Paul (or yes, Randy Milholland, to throw the obligatory reference to our alumnus done good). It still means a lot to me, after all this time.
But the Golden Grunions? Hardly ever cross my mind... until this year's Web Cartoonist's Choice Awards.
I was highly interested in the awards this year. This was the first time I was eligible to vote in them, after all. (Technically, this was also the first time I was eligible to win something, what with Gossamer Commons and all, but given how new we were when nominations were called for, I didn't have much hope. As it was, we got an honorable mention for Outstanding Newcomer, which made me very proud.) I screwed up my nominations, but I voted pretty seriously. And I watched the turmoil around the choice of categories and the nominations. It all seemed so... familiar to me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
And there were winners, and there was controversy - I know of at least one person who was outraged - outraged that Ryan North won Outstanding Anthropomorphic Comic for Dinosaur Comics. Which amused me, because I was a little stunned Anthropomorphic had a category of its own in the first place. I mean, it's not like every furry or funny animal comic out there doesn't also fit into some other category, and it's not like some of them (like VG Cats, and Digger) didn't actually win some of those other categories). And there was the obligatory Goofy Ceremony where artists contributed some pretty funny presenters and advertisements. One set of presenters were Marten and Faye from Questionable Content, and Faye mentions how there really should be an award for hair.
And it hit me: these things are the Golden Grunions.
Honestly. The Web Cartoonists Choice Awards serve exactly the same function as the Golden Grunions served for Superguy, all those years ago. They're a little goofy, with some goofy categories thrown in. They're given to web cartoons and webcomics by fellow webcartoonists. The prestige they convey is entirely dependent on the context - if I told someone who knew nothing about the digital world I received a "Best Author" award for my online writing, even if he wondered slightly about the words "Golden Grunion," he'd be no more and no less impressed if I told him I won the Outstanding Writer WCCA.
Does this make it sound like I'm denigrating the WCCAs? I'm not. I think they're great. I think they're exciting. I think they're an ego boost for the winners and a chance for people to learn about new and good comics. I like them.
More to the point, they highlight the things that artists and writers in webcomics are impressed by. They affirm, and bring attention, and grant kudos.
In short... they validate. Yeah, webcartoonists often (though hardly always) get more feedback than we used to get for Superguy, but we still need all the validation we can get.
And when we get upset or get angry with the choices our peers make (or wonder why it isn't us or isn't our own favorite strip), we should sometimes remember that these awards are what they are. We should be happy for the winners, not upset because our favorites didn't win. It's not like this award brings prize money. Or even a statue for the mantelpiece. All these awards bring are that sense of validation -- that sense that yes, what we do matters to someone.
The Golden Grunions meant something to us, even if no one outside Superguy could possibly understand why. The WCCAs mean something to the Webcomics community, even if no one outside the Webcomics community could possibly care.
Someday, I hope to win one.
And I totally hope it's "Best Hair."