Issue 5 - Fall 2004
Journal of the

"Ontology on the go!"

Editorial

Welcome to Issue 5. In our first issue I mentioned that time flies when you're over forty and it seems like I wrote that editorial only yesterday. I'm not the only one with thoughts on the post forty years, we have in this issue some of William Roper's thoughts springing from thoughts on the much (to us) truncated life-cycle of the cicada. And although forty will come and go for most of us, housework, relationships, and NYC go on forever and we have the essays by Laurel Sutton, Tom Good, and Ertel Gray to prove it. Mr. Allison Burnett graces our pages again with his tale of coming out as the straight author of a book written from the perspective of a gay man. Returning to the subject of webcomics, this issue reprints an essay on Plan 9 publications and an interview with the publisher, David Allen. Mr. Allen is also co-author of "Black Box Voting", a very important expose on electronic voting machines. This is especially timely because we will be voting in a presidential election in a very few days from now. And as far as time speeding up, well, for some of us these have been the longest four years of our lives.

Ginger Mayerson
Fall 2004

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William Roper

Cicadas

May 2004. I don't watch television. All of my friends and acquaintances know this. They canít help but know it -- I trumpet the fact whenever I can. Often against my better judgment. But my ego has found that the announcement gains enough needed attention that the revelation just sort of pops out. Not watching television does not limit my intake of news. I probably get more news than the average viewer. My sources are the radio -- mainly NPR and Pacifica (though even for this old lefty, the local Pacifica outlet is getting harder to take) and the web. This means that to a large degree, I am less at the mercy of news producers, cosmetically altered announcers, and the strange hypnotic power of the tube.

That being said, in these past few weeks of May, it has been impossible to avoid the story of the seventeen-year emergence of the Cicada. It is their year and the media is letting them have it. I understand the attention. It is a fascinating story. Millions upon millions of bugs chortling loudly as they fuck their brains out, lay eggs, die; the hatchlings burrowing underground to go through their life cycle interred, not to reemerge for another seventeen years. Perfect science story, perfect space filler, and if you live in the part of the country where it actually happens, it is a totally necessary story to report. The media would not be doing their duty if they didn't.

So I understand why, even on the radio and on newspaper web sites, I keep running into the story. The story, however, causes me some minor dissonance, basically around two points. The first is simply confusion. That confusion is based on the fact that although I am California born and raised and live here now, I have also lived in the Midwest and the East. I have heard the Cicada.

So why the dissonance? I haven't been in the right place at the right time? This is 2004. The last emergence would have been 1987, the one before that, 1970. I was here in California then, not there. So what gives? I am certain there must be a simple explanation: perhaps not all Cicadas come to life at the same time, so the seventeen-year cycle is not the same seventeen years for every Cicada. Certainly when I heard Cicadas, I did not hear thousands of them. Maybe hundreds. More likely, scores. I did not see a one, nary a one. Then too, in one of the reports they mentioned that there is a thirteen-year Cicada. Perhaps this is the explanation. Perhaps I was at that place, at that time? It creates a minor dissonance but I am sure the explanation can be found in one of these two theories. I have confidence.*

Now, for that second dissonance. It too is simple, for it is just a question. A simple question that is asked by many a middle-aged human when confronted with happenings that take place in cycles. In episodes. Like the blossoming of the Yucca, or lunar eclipses. Or the seventeen-year emergence of the Cicada. It is this: 2004 + 17 = 2021. 49 (my age) + 17 = 66. Will I be around for the next emergence of the Cicada? Or more importantly, do I care? I haven't revealed my quandary to any of my friends. Frankly, I've been too busy for much conversation. Were I to present it to them, not a one of them would be surprised. They have all known me far too long. No small amount of them would feel annoyance with a good helping of pity. They would enter that rolling of the eyeballs and the "there he goes again" space. "Only you would ask that question", I was once told behind some similar thinking. That, of course, is a lie.

I do, fairly often, go to that realm of darkness where this question resides. I have known its coordinates for many decades. It is a somewhat comfy place. Certainly not warm and fuzzy, but comfy just the same. I'm not a depressive. It is just that I had more than my fair share of brushes with mortality at an early age. Encounters with death at an early age affect how you view the world. For sure, it does not affect everyone the same way. Some people end up feeling immortal -- they got through it, after all. Something or someone must be on their side. Me? I just never make long term plans. Long term dreams galore, but no long term plans. Makes it hard on relationships. There you have it.

There is a smaller percentage of my friends who would get downright angry. They tend to be mostly women, well ensconced in middle age. I can't explain this gender thing. I wouldn't be silly enough to try. That is just the way it is. The anger thing, though? The fact of the matter is that once you hit forty you need not have had close encounters with death in your early life to realize that you don't have much time left. In fact, the odds are that you don't have as much time left as you have already had. This is true whether you say so or you say no. Most people don't live past 80. And what if they do? What kind of life do they have? Especially in this country? What kind of life will we have, the way things are going, if we are not rich? Especially in this country? They get very angry, these mostly women friends of mine, when the topic comes up. Like they're being cheated. They almost deny that people die at 60. At 70. "So young", they say. "So young."

I told one of these friends that my grandmother had died. "What a shame, what a shame", she moaned. She didn't know the woman, yet she actually moaned. And she meant it. "What a shame?" I asked. " My grandmother was 93 years old. Give her a break. She was happy to go."

Angry. They get angry. Because the truth does not always set you free. The truth can tie you up in knots and throw you into Abu Ghraib. It can make you wish you wasn't born. So mostly I've stopped bringing up the subject around these people. I don't ask the question out loud. If they have found some personal little heaven that they don't want trampled over, well, I'll respect that. I have come to be able to respect that. I have, in fact, come to wish that I had at least one foot planted on that little piece of real estate.

What I do have is the thought that I may not be around for the next emergence of the Cicada. On the other hand, I might very well be. If I am, if I'm around at 62, I'm going to take a good hard look at my financial situation and do my best to work things in a manner that would allow me to travel to that section of the country where I can experience live, those millions of singing, fornicating Cicadas, that whoop it up, give it up, and die. Then I will find a little lady in the winter of her life and make like a Cicada -- 'cause, Lawdy, Lawd, what a way to go.

***

* This dissonance has become a consonant. See: http://bugs.osu.edu/~bugdoc/PerioCicada/PeriCicadaID.htm for clarification.

William Roper is an artist, composer, and plays the tuba. His website is at http://home.pacbell.net/kyanite/

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Tom Good

Between a Man and a Woman

Let us define bickering as being between a man and a woman. Some activists want to expand the definition to include same-sex arguing, but that would only weaken some of society's most sacred values. Think about the nature of true bickering. Either partner can initiate it, but for example, the woman might open with a statement such as, "You left your socks on the floor again!" The man then responds with a countering complaint, like "What about the time you were an hour late for dinner because you stopped to shop for fabric? What about that?" She replies, "That wasn't an hour! That was twenty minutes!"

As this example illustrates, the process is completely natural and normal. The Creator designed the two sexes to be different from each other, so that a man and a woman could get on each other's nerves and have endless petty squabbles. That is the order of things, the grand design.

Yes, two men might clash verbally, or two women might get into a tiff; we all know that this happens. But it would be wrong to give this the same elevated status as bickering. That would just cheapen the special discord that a heterosexual couple in a committed relationship shares. And where would it all end? Suppose we formally recognize as bickering the act of two men arguing about a controversial offsides call, or two women disputing whether a designer handbag is a fake. What next? Before you know it, some guy who yells at a dog for defecating in his yard will try to call that man-on-dog bickering. What kind of example would that set for our children?

And it should go without saying, but obviously bickering occurs between only two people. Crowds can clash or disagree, of course, but we already have other names for that: war, riot, or family reunion. And a man or woman whose domestic nemesis passes away might join with a new bickering-partner, but never more than one at the same time.

In conclusion, we should recognize the special role that bickering plays in our culture, and value it as part of the glue that strengthens families and holds society together. Without it, we might all have to get along all the time, and nobody wants that.

***

Tom Good lives in Portland, Oregon, works for a software company, and his interests include T'ai Chi Chuan, gardening, and riding motorcycles. His blog is at http://ironmonkey.blogspot.com/

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Laurel Sutton

Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is the shit

I'm not kidding. This thing is the most amazing cleaning product I've ever tried. In case you haven't seen it, it looks like a white sponge, only lighter and squishier. You just get it wet and rub it on the offending marks or stains and they disappear. Honestly. As you use it, it disintegrates a bit (just like a real eraser), and eventually you throw out what's left. But man! You sure do get a lot of use out of one, and as far as I can tell, it's non-toxic and non-evil. I did a little bit of web research and I can't seem to find out what it's made of, or how it works. Perhaps it really is magic.

I own a house now, and cleaning has become a higher priority on my list these days. Not that I was ever unclean; messy, perhaps, but I never co-existed with vermin or insects, or allowed food into the bedroom. But now I want the house to be clean, if not neat, and in this quest I have purchased and tried many different cleaning elixirs. When you have a small child, it's par for the course.

Mr. Clean won my heart because he got rid of the Blue Chalk Stain. When I moved into this house four years ago, it was summer. The child loved drawing on the sidewalk outside with some funky colored chalk I got at IKEA. Naturally the chalk made it into the house. I spent one frazzled hour cleaning blue chalk marks off the banister and the stairwell, and by the time I made it to the top of the stairs, I could clean no more. The child's father promised he would clean the large blue chalk scribbles off the linen closet door.

Three years later, that damn blue stain stared back at me every time I put towels away. Nothing would remove it: I tried 409, Scrubbing Bubbles, SOS pads, Clorox, every trick in my cleaning book. I figured I'd just have to repaint the door. So, when I heard about the Magic Eraser, I thought this would be the ultimate test. And hot damn! It took off ALL of the Blue Chalk Stain with some water and a little elbow grease. I couldn't believe it. It was really and truly gone and my door was white again.

I think that was where it began. This house was built in the late 1960s and has had some serious interior remodeling since then, so it's been a long process of figuring out what cleans best where. In the bathrooms it's Scrubbing Bubbles everywhere and a little Dutch Boy in the tub; Windex for the mirrors, and Pine-Sol and water for the floors. Funny colored grout? Back to Clorox.

The morons who lived here before I did remodeled the kitchen and bought all black appliances, thinking, oh, I don't know, that they wouldn't show the dirt. Ha. Each black surface is a perfect mirror, unless it has a molecule of grease on it, in which case it looks like it has acne. Stove: Formula 409 Orange Power on the range, and Windex (and only Windex) on the back, where the clock and oven controls are. Microwave: 409 inside, Windex outside. Refrigerator: 409 inside and -- wait for it -- NOT Windex outside, which leaves cloudy streaks on whatever the covering is (some kind of vinyl, I think). The only things that will get the outside clean are my old friends the Scrubbing Bubbles. Jeez. Black appliances. What were they thinking?

I actually don't mind cleaning and I get a sense of real achievement when it's done. Washing dishes, scrubbing the floor -- it's the kind of thing you lose yourself in, and you are able to focus on the moment. And it certainly makes your environment more pleasant. And for me, lately, it makes my house more. . . mine.

I know that my current obsession with household cleaning products really began when it was clear that the child's father would finally be moving out of my house and my life, something I had tried to make happen for a long time. Suddenly I am faced with the delightful prospect of cleaning, and keeping things clean, the way I want them to be. For the first time in 15 years, I don't have to argue with someone and get mad because they pissed on the toilet seat just after I cleaned it.

Which is another thing that pleasantly surprised me. Men are really fucking messy, you know? From the piss around the toilet to the whisker hair in the bathroom to the dirty dishes in the sink -- man, all this time I was worried about how I was going to keep this house clean! When he's not around, it is clean! And it smells good! Let me reinforce another stereotype: women are just cleaner and smell better than men, and this extends to all they touch. Women do not clean a counter top by sweeping everything into a cardboard box and shoving it in the corner. My check book may not be balanced, but I sure as hell know where my statements are.

It's such a delight to walk down the cleaning products aisle at Target and look at all the brightly colored bottles, read the labels, buy something new and know that I get to use it myself, on my dirt, in my house. With my array of elixirs and potions, I am secure in the knowledge that I can clean up any mess quickly and efficiently. I open my cleaning cabinet at home and the full bottles of Windex and 409 Orange and Simple Green sit patiently, waiting for their turn, never misplaced or used up. To me, it feels like money in the bank.

So I spend a little time every day cleaning this, cleaning that, wiping away fingerprints and spills, restoring and renewing, knowing that with every swipe of the sponge I'm reclaiming a little piece of my house, my life. Me, Mr. Clean, the Scrubbing Bubbles -- together we're washing the past away. The future's so bright, it sparkles. And it smells good too.

***

Laurel Sutton is a Bay Area branding and naming entrepreneur and an editor for the Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society.

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Ertel Gray

New York City News

Oh New York City, New York....where do I even begin? You're like Pennsylvania's older, cooler cousin.

You can buy beer in a convenience store, we can't.

You have people that can walk down the street, talking to their hand, and you're so cool that you don't so much as bat an eyelash over it. A man walks down the street in Pennsylvania, and he'd probably make the lead story on our 6 o'clock news.

Oh sure, we try to be hip, educated, and urban. People wear Tommy Hilfiger here, but sadly it's the cheap knock-offs found at the Flea Market. I can't help but think that as long as we have local television programming called "Pennsylvania Outdoor Life", we're just a pale imitation of our cool, hip, streetwise cousin to the Northeast. We're like Old Spice compared to your feral musk. It's like comparing Aquaman to Spawn.

I was never class president, I was never prom king, yet in NYC, I felt as though I was both. I do regret not being able to see the good stuff, Broadway, Central Park, and CBGB's as I didn't want to stray too far from the bus, lest I wind up lost in NYC like Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone". And having to cleverly foil Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci time and time again.

The reason I didn't go gallivanting all over NYC -- only to West 42nd street to catch the staged reading of "Hungry Ghosts" by Bill Corbett -- is because I'm terrified of going places by myself. Yet I sometimes have that urge, not easily squished, and I can never find anyone to drag along with me, so I swallow my paranoia for a time, and brave it alone. I went to Chicago that way too.

I had paranoid images of things going through my mind, like I'd be suddenly walking down the street, when all of a sudden, someone would point at me and yell, "There he is! He's the one who raped that horse! Get him, officer!" to which I'd scream, (somewhat effeminately, I might add) and start running, tripping over my feet, bumping into people, until a large mob was chasing me with pitchforks and torches, even though the sex with the horse was consensual (I kid! It was a donkey. See? I kid again! But man, what an ass!). Then they'd catch me, and I'd be forced into a stockade in the middle of Times Square, with my pants down, and people would point and laugh and throw rotten tomatoes at me.

What? What's that look for? It could happen.

So, to remedy this uneasy feeling, I briefly considered following around one of the many people on the bus that I'd talked to during this trip. After all, I was rather charming, if I do say so myself.

But everyone, and I mean everyone, hates a "tag-along". Oh, you know the type. You'll be at a carnival, hanging out with your friends, when next thing you know you're being closely followed by a carny with a greasy, splotchy, bearded face, and 3 teeth in the middle of his mouth, who routinely tries to interject himself into your conversations with your friends with his witty repartee. All because you had to say "hi" and "thank you" to him when he fastened your seatbelt for you in the Tilt-a-Whirl cause you couldn't get it to lock properly.

Not to mention he touched your mid-section when he fastened your seatbelt. He's probably thinking marriage, babies that will eventually be raised carny, and you'll be stuck working the funnel cake stand. All because a carny impregnated you with his seed. Oh, and don't waste your time dreaming of a "Donna Reed-esque white picket fences and a dog named Spot" type of life either, cause chances are he won't carry you over the threshold when you're married, because you won't have a threshold to be carried over.

So, I didn't do the tag-along thing. I did my best not to stick out like a sore thumb, but hey, that's NYC.

Eight million people and I'm the one who's feeling out of place?

***

Ertel Gray is an author and bartender in Montgomery, Pennsylvania and has managed to remain 100% website free.

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Allison Burnett

Coming Out

A secretly straight author takes a deep breath and exits the closet.

Not too long ago, I was a 40-something straight screenwriter. Then I awoke one morning to discover that I'd become a hot young gay novelist. Although the change was sudden and startling, it was not mysterious. My first novel had just been published, and its narrator was a witty, erudite, chemically imbalanced, alcoholic, predatory, middle-aged gay man named B.K. Troop.

When I'd first imagined B.K., it never occurred to me that his narrating my book was such a big deal. Despite my woman's name, I am male, and I'd been writing film scripts about women for years without anyone ever lifting an eyebrow. Yet when I finished writing Christopher, many of my friends -- gay and straight alike -- reacted with shocked concern. Wouldn't a gay narrator turn off straight readers? Wouldn't it make the book harder to sell? What if people confused me with B.K.? What if people thought I was gay? And, by the way, why the hell had I done it? I didn't really have an answer, other than that I adored B.K., and that writing him was more like taking dictation than creating. When a character stands up and walks around, you don't question it; you type. As for how this would affect sales, I didn't really care.

When my agent sold the book, she confessed that the buyer had seemed so pleased to have discovered a promising gay novelist that she had done nothing to disabuse him of the notion. Because she knew that I was already writing a B.K. Troop sequel, she advised me to do the same and not mention my heterosexuality to my editor. It wasn't that she wanted me to lie, exactly. It was simply a matter of don't ask, don't tell.

As I am chronically candid and had never lived in a closet before, I was uneasy at first. But I reminded myself that I had a right to my privacy and that a writer's personal life ought to be irrelevant to the appreciation of his work. I recalled Gore Vidal's droll suggestion that someone should write a tragic novel about a young artist who comes to the big city but cannot get ahead because he is straight. I decided to go along with the plan. Luckily, it seemed fairly easy to pull off, as my editor and I lived on opposite coasts.

The awkwardness, however, began during our very first phone call, when my editor asked me what I thought of the novel Fag Hag. He was stunned that I had never heard of it. Weeks later, there was an equally tense moment when I confessed that I had never watched an episode of The Golden Girls. In midsummer, I was nearly busted when I let slip my passion for the Cleveland Indians. His incredulity was fierce, and it wasn't based on the Tribe's lousy record; he just thought baseball "trashy." Each time, I had been sorely tempted to come clean, to fling open the closet door and swing out like Tarzan, or at least sidle out like John Wayne, but I was moving deeper and deeper into my second novel, falling more and more deeply in love with B.K., and the last thing I wanted to do was queer -- or, rather, un-queer -- a sequel deal.

Not long before Christopher's publication date, my editor came to town for a book convention and we finally met. Driving down to Orange County that day, I told myself that if any moment arose when to remain silent was, in essence, to lie, I would out myself. No such moment came. We had a lovely lunch.

But the inevitable finally happened not long after his return to New York. I casually mentioned an actor I had met. "Oh, I love him," my editor said. "Is he one of us?" A long silence. "I have something to tell you," I sighed. Although he was shocked by the news, and maybe even a little bit embarrassed, he was very good-natured about it. Soon we were laughing and debating whether this was something I needed to share when publicizing the book. We decided that I should play it by ear.

When Christopher was published, the gay press was universal in its praise. The Advocate picked it as one of the best reads of the summer. The Chicago Free Press called it "one page after another of witty, outrageous, raunchy, insightful, tender, and romantic prose." Instinct offered my favorite compliment of all: "You'll find yourself cracking up and thanking higher powers that you aren't this much of a flaming queen!"

Although the mainstream press was just as enthusiastic -- the Los Angeles Times gave Christopher a full-page rave in the Sunday Book Review -- my book was quickly labeled gay fiction. In fact, the computers at Borders literally labeled it as such, which meant that most of the chain's stores relegated it to the gay section. So did some other chains and websites. Although I was thrilled and proud to be receiving so much support from the gay community, to have the book defined this way made no sense to me. Yes, the narrator was gay, but the title character was straight and so was every other character in the book. If Christopher is gay fiction, an English friend wryly observed, that makes Oliver Twist orphan fiction.

Before long, I was being approached to submit work to gay anthologies, speak on gay-literature panels, and read at gay bookshops. I was even put forward for the Stonewall Award, the highest honor in gay fiction. My need to promote the book, as well as a complete lack of ad support from the publisher, gave me little choice but to make my closet as comfortable as possible. (I considered a mini-fridge and TiVo.) But, still, I hated my confinement. I lived in continual anxiety, feeling thwarted and half-expressed, and certain that I was just moments away from being found out. The only consolation to my self-esteem was that I had yet to tell a lie. In one interview, when asked for my opinion on the state of contemporary gay fiction, I simply answered, "I have no idea."

Months ago, a gay literary website not only reviewed Christopher but also published an excerpt and an interview. Only just recently did I notice a banner on the site: "For GLBT talent everywhere." The site was not for writers whose work was of gay interest, but solely for gay writers. By agreeing to the interview, I had unknowingly deceived them. I had crossed a line.

It was time, I realized, to say goodbye to my double life. I flung open the closet door with a bang, vowing never to return. While I still believe that a writer's sexual preference should be irrelevant to the appreciation of his fiction, I also know now that living a lie of omission is just as exhausting and demoralizing as living one of commission. I can only imagine how terrible it must be in the military, where the penalty for speaking up is not a possible dip in book sales, but the certain termination of one's career.

Last month, I was asked to join a gay author's chat room. I wrote back to the author who had invited me: "I would love to, but I am not gay." I heaved a deep breath and waited for his reply. It came quickly. "Yeah, I heard that. It doesn't matter." I'd always hope I'd find that kind of acceptance. But when you've been oppressed as long as straight writers have, you begin to have your doubts.

***

Allison Burnett is a Los Angeles-based writer and film director. Mr. Burnett's website is at www.allisonburnett.com. This essay originally appeared at MediaBristo.com and Advocate.com. His novel, "Christopher", was recently picked as a Finalist for the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction.

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Ginger Mayerson

Paper Freaks in the Digital Age

Sequential art jumped the paper to pixel divide like a gazelle. Then, at Plan 9 Publishing (http://plan9.org/), it sort of jumped back.

In 1996, David Allen, the founder of Plan 9 Publishing, began reading the online strip "Kevin and Kell". Enjoying the strip, Allen wanted all the strips in a handy, easy-access format: a book. There was a precedent for such a product -- newspaper comics have often been collected in book form, from the venerable "Peanuts" strips through the one-panels of "The Far Side". The creator, Bill Holbrook, had no plans to publish because publishers, being rational businesspeople, couldn't see consumers buying something that had already been available on the web for free. But Allen looked at it from a fan, not business, point of view and knew a market when he saw one. And, if this was the only way to get a copy for himself, it was worth it. Also proving, once again, that fans will do a lot to get their fix.

Plan 9 was founded to publish "Kevin and Kell" and now publishes more than 277 titles. Having never published anything before, Allen had to learn the business on the fly. He seems to have found the secret to success in low print runs and, according to an article in the April 14, 2000, Triad Area Business Journal, "...a print broker in Virginia Beach who finds printers with slack time on their presses so (the books) just get ganged in. We get a fairly decent price break." Economies in production and the rabid followings of the online comics have kept Plan 9 in business since they placed that first print run.

So, I must ask, what kind of visceral pleasures are there in holding a book of webcomics already read on the web? Sure, you can always do it yourself, in the dead of night at the 24/7 photocopy joint or even take a few bookbinding courses and become an endpaper junkie. But is a homemade "book" the same as a published book? How does the experience of a daily webcomic in pixels differ from the same strip collected in a book? And here's what I want to know: Why pay money for what's free on the internet?

Rational consumers are not supposed to act this way, but fans and the internet don't behave rationally. Sequential art fans in internet culture do other odd things, but buying collections of webcomics is one of the more interesting ones. It's also good for the economy in ways online comics really aren't since the bottom fell out of internet advertising. Real money for real goods is moving around at Plan 9 Publishing. And in addition to being good for the economy, supporting small presses is one of the best things anyone can do in these mega-media consolidation days. Small presses are really the only place to find new voices outside the mainstream, where safe bets are the only bets on the table.

Like "Kevin and Kell", the genesis strip for Plan 9, "Sluggy Freelance" (by Pete Abrams) has decent, if simple, drawing and long, complex story lines. I rolled into "Sluggy Freelance" a little before Christmas 2001, in the middle of the annual Christmas narrative. Now, understanding why a switchblade wielding, lop-eared, talking rabbit was in a James Bond parody fight to the death with an alien Santa Claus requires considerable background. At the time, I simply accepted it and enjoyed the strip as it was.

However, the moment of truth came in January 2002, when the creator, Pete Abrams, made a departure from his usual four, occasionally more, panel style in the "Fire and Rain" chapter. The "Fire and Rain" chapter is one of the most suspenseful and gripping stories I've ever read in online sequential art. It was well drawn and fluidly told; I waited up each night for the comic to update. In short, I was hooked. I was, however, also confused. Who was this psychotic woman with very strange hair named Oasis, and why was she trying to kill Zoe, the heroine? Fortunately, there was a very helpful New Viewers' guide for that chapter and I finally resorted to using it.

Of course it all makes sense if you know the background, so two weeks later I gave in and read all the strips from the beginning. I was very tired when I had finished. I salute Abrams for his dedication, his art, his characters, his narrative drive, and his humor. "Sluggy Freelance" has gone from a simple black-and-white four-panel-long running gag to a beautifully rendered, occasionally epic, daily strip. A community has grown up around this online comic strip, and part of that community is Plan 9 Publishing.

The "Sluggy" books are not expensive, but I was still resisting buying what I'd seen online for free. I finally decided to buy one book, the second one, "Worship the Comic", because it had the most strips I liked at that time. Some time went by, and the buzz for the seventh collection began -- New format, bigger, better, bolder, now! -- and, being hooked, I found that irresistible. Like any addict, my rationale was ironclad: I should buy this because it's "new!" stuff. There was also another favorite chapter, "The Punyverse", in the seventh collection, which would eventually be named "A Very Big Bang".

At the time I pre-ordered (and got a deal!) the collection did not have a name. One of the many joys of online sequential art fandom is watching the comic, and in this case the media around it, grow. I'm very fond of "A Very Big Bang" because it was a departure and a gamble for Plan 9 to try a new format -- and everyone loves to watch a race or a game they have a bet on. "A Very Big Bang" turned into a very big headache for Allen at Plan 9 due to artist delays, formatting delays, printer delays, and -- this had to be a little karma working out -- the dockworkers strike that kept more than half the shipment sitting in Los Angeles harbor for over a month. I, of course, got mine early because I was in that lucky first wave of pre-orders. It's not exactly like hitting the Pick Six at Santa Anita, but it was fun anyway.

So, after that excitement, I caved in like rotten fruit and bought everything except Books 1 and 3. Why? Well, I pretty much had Book 1 memorized, the narratives and storytelling are in their infancy, and I don't especially care for the look of those very early strips. Book 3 just didn't interest me, but I did buy it at Comic-Con 2002 and even got it autographed by Abrams, who is very gracious to his fans. (I still don't have Book 1, so there must be some hope for me yet.)

There is, I find, a difference of distance and perception in reading the strips online and reading them in books. Computers -- love 'em, hate 'em, they're here with us in a big way -- have a certain set of parameters for access. The technological requirements for reading anything online are somewhat daunting. First, one has to have access to a computer with internet access. The benefits of reading online, at least in webcomics, is that if the interface is well designed, all the strips are right there and it's easy to jump around in them. Also, again in the right interface, it's possible to link to various strips or group them for easy access, as Abrams did in the very useful New Viewers' guide. However, online readers are still at the mercy of their computers' speed, modem speed (for those of us who still have such things), the comics server, our own internet service provider, and how well our eyes hold up staring at a CRT or LCD. Reading online brings the reader into a chain of being that stretches a considerable distance and is interdependent. The reader, in this crowd and separated from the physical object by time and technology, is once removed from the material as we usually experience it.

The other experience, of holding a book in your hands, is older and more complex. Most work that ends up in books is conceived and created in solitude. That work is then received in solitude by the reader. The medium of transmission is an object one physically holds and in most cases, owns. Readers generally buy books either for reference or amusement. Sequential art book buyers are buying for the latter; but is it the ease of, or easier, access to visual pleasure or the more inchoate joy of possessing the visual pleasure of a web comic that keeps Plan 9 in business? Hard to say, but in my library there's evidence of both.

The internet has, unexpectedly, become a hunting ground for offline publishing. A non-webcomic example of this is the success of Etiquette Hell's book (http://etiquettehell.com) "Bridezilla". Counter-intuitively, people are willing to buy what they can get for free and, once publishers realized that something successful on the net had a built-in market, they moved on it. Bibliophiles can be very adaptable as long as the beloved is on paper and hand held.

What Dave Allen and Plan 9 figured out ahead of everyone, as far as I know, is that catering to the fan market, instead of the mass market, is an even surer thing. The Plan 9 print runs are small and most of each run is pre-sold. It's not exactly a business plan to get rich on, but it has stayed solvent, provided a service to sequential art lovers and made Allen something of a hero to the fans. Unlike most publishing houses, Plan 9 is accessible and their FAQ (frequently asked questions) is homey. I don't know of any large publishing house that even has a FAQ, homey or not; questions are not particularly welcome at the mass culture-makers.

As curatorial as Plan 9 might seem in publishing online webcomics, they only publish the successful ones -- the ones that are likely to survive on the web one way or another. As in all businesses, online or off, only the strong or highly adaptable survive. Plan 9 also publishes "Greystone Inn" (http://www.greystoneinn.net/), which has an established following and is hosted by the online webcomics pioneers at Keenspot. Keenspot has a reputation for developing saleable talent from their free webhost, Keenspace, where "Greystone Inn" got its start. "Greystone Inn" is a highly readable strip and soon moved to Keenspot, which gets more promotion, bandwidth, and faster servers. But Plan 9 isn't playing it completely safe; they are also publishing their first non-humor and non-fiction title, "Black Box Voting" by Bev Harris. Based on the description of this book on the Plan 9 website, it is the kind of politically sensitive book a larger publisher wouldn't touch. However, it is the kind of book a small publisher can take a chance on -- in a small print run -- and I salute Plan 9 for offering it to the public.

The internet has become fertile soil for developing and discovering talent. Like any media, the internet itself is a passive canvas, but the content is active and constantly expanding. Or simply disappearing, which happens far too often: "404 error" and "Page Not Found" are some of the saddest sights online. Webcomics either strike a chord and have a following or they don't. Or they have one and then it falls off. As diligent and loyal as fans are, even the most die-hard fans lose interest or access, get pissed off, or simply move on to something else. For most webcomics the only payment is love from the fans and if that dries up, the comic withers fairly soon after.

We were once told that in the future there would be no books, that we would do all our reading on computer screens. This prediction underestimated the sentimental human connection to the look and feel of books. It is impossible to know which medium is the more durable as computer and books share many vulnerabilities, but also have their own particular weaknesses. In the US, the internet is not as ubiquitous as it seems and many people feel uncomfortable navigating the void-like cyberspaces. Servers, fiber optic cable, and other infrastructure are not indestructible and ISPs cost money, month in and month out, forever. As resources become scarcer and books become more expensive, economics might drive paper publishing into extinction. Downloading books might become the norm and books, as we know them, might become either quaint or luxury items. But for the foreseeable future, the paper freaks in the digital age at Plan 9 have found a way around techno-domination, economics, and even logic to give online sequential art a home in the physical world, where the fans are.

***

Ginger Mayerson is a composer, author and an editor for the Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society. Her webpage is at www.gingermayerson.com. This essay originally appeared in the monograph "Whither Webcomics?" (link fixed 010805 Ed) in August 2003

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Ellen Baurele, Ginger Mayerson and Laurel Sutton

An Interview with David Allen

David Allen founded Plan 9 Publishing on an "Ed Wood budget" (i.e., shoestring) in 1996 so he could read the webcomic "Kevin and Kell" in book form. More than seven years and 88 titles later Plan Nine is still going strong and, with the publication in paper and PDF of Bev Harris' "Black Box Voting", now has an important non-fiction title on its list. Mr. Allen very kindly gave editors Bauerle, Mayerson, and Sutton this interview in January 2004.

Ellen Bauerle: Do you feel that your location -- not in New York, i.e. -- has had any effect on your editorial direction and interests? Are there aspects of your work that are made harder, or easier, by not being in "the center of the universe"? (or so my Manhattan-born spouse calls it).

David Allen: Well, the rent's a LOT cheaper, which certainly helps. Actually, I would go insane in New York, so it is good I am where I am. We're in the country. If things get too tense, I can go for a walk with the dog or watch the rabbits playing in the field.

As to an effect on my editorial views or interests, I can't say since I just wouldn't work in New York for any amount of money.

Laurel Sutton: As a small, independent publisher, do you feel more free to publish work well outside the mainstream? Is there anything you wouldn't publish in print that currently exists on the web? In general, do you feel that there are different constraints on content published on the web vs. on in books?

DA: Well, yeah, I get to decide what I publish, which is nice. I have one main criterion: Does it make me laugh? If it fails that test, it doesn't get a second look. The only restriction on what gets published is how many money-making titles I currently have. Like it or not, I have to have a certainly number of titles that pay the bills or its back to working for a soulless mega-corp.

There're plenty of things I wouldn't print that's on the web, but mostly because it's not my cup of tea or it doesn't "fit". Most of my titles are G/PG rated, not because I disapprove of "racier" stuff, but because I haven't found that much that is actually funny. There are a few exceptions, like "Partially Clips", but it's rare.

As far as constraints are concerned, there are fewer restrictions on what appears on the Web than what appears in print, but that's mostly a matter of the production cost and the absence of the "third-party" between creator and reader. If you want to publish on the web you don't need a print shop, or an editor, or a publisher. You can just slap it up yourself and wait for traffic.

EB: I know other publishers, especially in specialty academic areas, who've made your model work -- print to fill the pre-orders and then some percentage on top for later orders. What other business advantages do you see that this gives you, in addition to solvency?

DA: Am I solvent? I better ask my accountant. Actually the main advantages are cash-flow and flexibility. If I don't know how a title will sell, I do a small run and scale up quickly if demand appears. Because I can now print as few as 100 books and turn a small profit I tend to keep all my titles in print.

LS: Are you making any money out of all this?

DA: I am paying the mortgage and drawing the occasional paycheck. This year there were a lot fewer paychecks due to the economy, but things are looking up a bit for 2004. As long as I can keep a roof over my head I'll stay in the biz.

EB: Have you had many dealings with "regular" publishers and their associations -- BEA, Publishers Weekly, etc. -- and if so, what are the things they don't understand about your list of titles and your publishing model?

DA: The greatest fun is dealing with the syndicates whose lawyers are mystified by my royalty structure. I have a two-tiered royalty: If we sell the book wholesale, we pay x, if we sell the book retail, we pay 2x. This concept seems to short-circuit the brains of syndicate lawyers. As to "regular publishers", I really don't run into them.

EB: If you run your materials on presses during slack time, what does that do your delivery schedules?

DA: It makes me plan carefully. Though I have lately begun expanding the number of printers I work with in order to have greater flexibility. The hardest printers to work with are my color printers in Hong Kong, since it can mean a 3-4 month production cycle.

EB: Why do you think people buy what they can get for free?

DA: Because balancing a laptop in the bathroom is tricky. Seriously, people still like the feel and smell of a book. It doesn't need batteries, cables, and you never get spammed. Also, there is a big difference between a comic at 72 dpi and a printed page at 600 dpi. A lot of on-line comics have very involved storylines, and even though the archive is online, it is faster to flip open a book and read than plow through an electronic archive.

LS: Do you think that web comix are just another extension of traditional (i.e., printed) comix? Or are they something else entirely?

DA: Both actually. All the strips started out mimicking newspaper strips, but as the artists learn more about the medium, they are able to do more with the art form. Sound, animation, color, crossovers, etc. are things that can be implemented on-line cheaply. Also, real-world events can be reflected in a strip more easily since there is no long production process between the creation of the strip and its delivery to the reader. An artists can change his mind about the direction of the story right up to the point of publication.

EB: Given that technical abilities among the young (younger than 21 years old) are growing, and that server speeds and net connections are growing faster, what do you think of the future of printed strips? Will they always be here in some form, or 50 years from now will they be a quaint artifact?

DA: I know it's fashionable in some circles to predict that all strips will be animated in the future, thanks to massive CPU power, wide pipes and powerful animation software, but I don't see it. At that point you stop being an artists and start being a writer. Director, producer, cinematographer, Foley guy, Best Boy and actor. Pretty soon, you have to start sleeping with yourself just to get a part in your own strip. Comic strips are pretty complicated and time consuming to produce now. You have to come up with a different gag every day and that can be grueling. There just isn't enough time in the day for one person to rise to that level of complexity. With that said, I think you will see some strips like that, but it will be a group effort. Of course, once you bring other people into the creative process, it is no longer one-person's vision.

Ginger Mayerson: Missed you at Comic-Con in 2003. Are you doing any cons or have you given up on them?

DA: I like going, but cons like Comic-Con are very expensive. It costs thousands for booths, thousands to ship books across the country and back; and more money for hotel, air fare, food, truck rental, etc. Once you get there, you have to compete with Hollywood studios and comic companies owned by conglomerate who can buy acres of space and trot out the talent to draw people into the booths. Kind of hard to make an impression when you are competing against companies with a half-million dollars to spend on one event. Going to cons is almost always a money-losing affair. You do it to meet your readers and show the flag with a hope of attracting new readers. Since this past year was abysmal as far as sales went, I couldn't justify going and concentrated instead on cons closer to home, or at least within driving distance.

GM: How did you, a webcomic book publisher, end up publishing Bev Harris' "Black Box Voting"?

DA: I met Bev when I was looking for someone to do PR for Plan Nine. While I was looking at her site I read all these articles she had written about the curious ownership of voting machine companies and how a US senator was a stockholder and former board member of one company that made voting machines in his state. Bev and I got to talking about this and I asked her if she planned a book. She said she had approached a few publishers, but most didn't understand the problem. Having been a systems engineer before I was a publisher and having written on these types of issues myself, I told her I'd do it, provided she didn't mind a comic company.

GM: What kind of response -- sales, kudos, slanders, etc. -- are you getting on this title?

DA: Lord, we have been called heroes by some folks and a threat to democracy by the voting officials. My favorite disparagement was by a Diebold spokesman who called us "Luddites". In my office I am within twenty feet of a dozen computers and make my living on the Web, so I am an unusual Luddite.

GM: You're the only guy I've ever seen make money selling in the real world what's in cyberspace for free, which is no mean feat. How does the free PDF (and refunding money to anyone who prepaid the book if they want their money back) of Ms. Harris' book fit into all this?

DA: Well, the refund part was easy, as we had not charged for the book yet. BBV was a different animal from my comics collections in that I will put it out even if I lose money on it. The information in the book is just too important to our democracy. I know that sounds a bit melodramatic, but if we can't trust our votes to be counted accurately, the game is pretty much over.

If I make money on BBV, great, if not, so be it. I didn't set out to make money on the book, I set out to educate people.

LS: You founded Plan Nine as a personal project. What is the future of Plan Nine? Do you plan to expand into more non-fiction?

DA: Yeah, I'd like to do that. I'd love to branch out into other genres as well. But first, I want to make sure Plan Nine is running smoothly.

GM: What's been your best seller so far?

DA: Gosh, that would be "Sluggy Freelance". If you can imagine the TV show "Friends" being written by Monty Python, you get a taste of what "Sluggy" is about.

GM: What Plan 9 titles are coming soon?

DA: Ooooh, lots. We are negotiating for "Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet" and have signed classics "Kudzu" and "Tumbleweeds". Also in the pipeline is MST3K actress and writer Mary Jo Pehl's book "I Lived with My Parents and Other Tales of Terror". "Sluggy Freelance" is being re-issued in a new, larger format (with color). All this plus new editions of our regulars, "Kevin and Kell", "GPF", "Ozy and Millie", and many more,

Last Question

LS: Is "Plan Nine from Outer Space" really the worst movie ever made?

DA: Actually, anyone who has watched Mystery Science Theatre 3000 knows that there are much, much worse movies than Plan Nine. For my money, "Manos the Hands of Fate" makes Ed Wood look like Fellini.

EB, LS, and GM: Thank you, Mr. Allen.

***

Ellen Bauerle has worked in the publishing industry for almost 20 years, for trade, scholarly, and educational publishing houses. She is the publisher and director of Fatcat Press, www.fatcatpress.com. Ginger Mayerson is a Los Angeles based composer and author. Laurel Sutton is a Bay Area branding and naming entrepreneur. They are all editors for the Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society.

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