Wednesday, September 22, 1999

Previous Issues:

July 21, 1999
Frozen Moments

July 28, 1999
Burger! Burger!

August 11, 1999
I Want My VH1

September 8, 1999
Meet Jim Valvano

Devin Pike is a freelance designer. No, wait, he's a DJ. No, sorry, he's a sports nut. He lives in Irving, TX with four cats and a hamster, who are plotting to kill him in his sleep this week.

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Ye gods, where was I back in 1995?

Oh, yeah, I know. I was just getting back from my cancer scare, living with my girlfriend (she was supporting me, truth be told), working at Kinko's as a designer doing resumes and business cards by the bushel. I thought I padded my resume with useless stats before... sheesh.

I was also getting my toes wet on the World Wide Web, using my free three pages that my dial-up ISP (the Why Network, long since bought out) gave me to begin the Laszlo Finnegan myth anew to an audience of... well, I didn't know if anyone would ever read my stuff. I still don't, but that's another tale for another day.

I'm not sure how I stumbled across the Dysfunctional Family Circus. It was probably a blurb in one of the three magazines I read on a regular basis to give me tips on how to surf, and how to code HTML. It wasn't e-mail -- I only got three messages every couple of days, compared to the hundreds I wade through daily. However I found the DFC, though, it made me sit up and laugh. A lot.

Run by a guy known by his faithful as spinn, the Dysfunctional Family Circus is a simple concept. Take the super-saccharine one-panel Family Circus comic strip, drawn for decades by Bil Keane, and let readers submit their own captions for the panel of the week.

If you've been on the Web for more than a week, you know the perversions of popular culture that occur. Long before there was Jar Jar Binks, there was little Jeffy. A panel of Jeffy with his friends walking down the sidewalk would get a caption such as "I've got to take a crap like you would not believe! Never, I mean never drink a pot of coffee after eating shredded wheat!"

The Dysfunctional Family Circus was something that made me laugh like a giddy schoolgirl. I even enlisted my services to spinn when he asked for some help with scanning and graphics placement. Bear in mind that I had no experience in web work, or how to effectively compress a scan that is fine for print work, but a bandwidth hog for a high-traffic site like the DFC. He graciously declined my offer for help after a sample piece of artwork I had scanned crashed his mail server. My loss.

Flash-forward to 1999. As is usually the case in truly great satire as well as fan sites, the other shoe dropped . Bil Keane's lawyers sent spinn an extensive letter telling him why he's such a bad, bad boy for using Bil's strip for evil.

The letter is on his site for everyone to see. It's a similar letter to the one that Paramount sent to people running Star Trek fan sites in 1996, just before they launched their bloated Continuum site. It also bears a striking resemblance to the note LucasFilm sent out to Star Wars fan site owners, serving notice that their content was stolen from Uncle George and they'd better knock it off. Never mind that while Lucas was sleeping, these site owners were keeping the Star Wars mythos alive.

These examples are different, obviously. The sci-fi fan sites were done with undying affection for their show of choice, and the supporting studio didn't want to divide the viewing market between a glossy, corporate-cleaned image that usually falls short content-wise, and a site that has everything a reader could want, be it a comprehensive episode guide, sound bytes from the show, or fan pics or fiction.

The DFC has little, if any, affection for the Family Circus. What it does have is a unified reaction to the little roundheads that anyone shares who grew up with, then out of, the Keane strip. The site has a subculture and its share of inside jokes, evidenced from the 500th and final DFC entry. References to past contributors abound, as does paraphrasing classic literature, such as Shakespeare and Dickens. I won't quote them here... you need to see them for yourself.

Sites like these are mowed down each day, regardless of the fact that the owners don't profit at all from them (the DFC has no advertising on its site) or that no one would ever confuse the DFC with the original Family Circus. All that matters is that people get the corporate-cleaned image. And the Web, and all of its millions of readers, and you, are cheated just a little more each day because of it.

-- Devin Pike

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