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"Melonheads Unite: The Death of the `Dysfunctional Family Circus'"

by Paul T. Riddell

Originally published in the Hell's Half-Acre Herald (September 21, 1999)

Addenda: Between this and the tip I sent to "Wired News", the DFC might stand a chance against the cease-and-desist letter. All I can say to Spinn is "Nil illegitimatus carborundum."

By the way, Spinn's real name is Greg Galcik, not Gary. I'm leaving this intact for completeness' sake: it's very easy to go back and correct everything in previous columns after the fact. Anyway, Spinn's mom wrote me about that, and I'm in debt to her.

It is my sad duty to inform one and all about the death of a Web veteran at the hands of corporate greedheads. I am, of course, talking about the notorious "Dysfunctional Family Circus" (http://www.spinnwebe.com/dfc/). The main story was carried by "Wired News" at http://www.wired.com/news/news/culture/story/21853.html and spread around the Web, but it's a personal tale for me.

At its purest level, the DFC was a parody of Bil Keane's "The Family Circus", one of the most saccharine comic strips ever to pollute the American newspaper this side of "Love Is..." Actually, "saccharine" is an overused adjective when discussing "The Family Circus", but it helps describe one of the major reasons why it instills such hatred among comics readers. Back in 1995, when "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" finally sang their last rendition of "My Way" (Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious version, take your pick), a political cartoon I snagged featured their characters in a "Comics Rest Home", with representatives of "The Family Circus" and "Beetle Bailey" standing outside, wondering why they couldn't have retired instead. The strips were cutesy in a Franklin Mint way: parents Bil and Thel watched their kids (Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and PJ), dogs (Barfy and Sam), and cat (Kittycat) interact in any number of unbearably nice and sweet ways, all with the sort of vaguely uplifting attitude seen in old episodes of Davey and Goliath.

Well, Fox's Mad TV took on Davey and Goliath with "Davey and Son of Goliath", where little claymation Davey Berkowitz shot couples in lovers' lanes whenever Goliath drawled "Daaaavey, Goliath needs more blood", and "The Family Circus" finally got a shot of Everclear passing as insulin with the arrival of the DFC in the beginning of 1995. From the beginning, visitors knew they were getting something different: the Webmaster, simply known as "Spinn" to all (real name Gary Galcik), opened his page with a slightly modified "Family Circus" cover. In this one, though, Billy was wearing a ski mask and waving a gun, Jeffy ran screaming from an eviscerated Kittycat, blood still covering his hands, Dolly skipped away pantsless with Barfy chasing behind (the knife full of peanut butter being painfully obvious), and PJ crawling off the panel with a joint in his mouth. Oh, and we can't forget Bil's "Gay Pride" shirt and Thel's split-at-the-thigh cocktail waitress dress.

The concept was simple, with a few modifications over the years. Visitors were encouraged to submit their own new captions to existing "Family Circus" strips, and most ran the gamut from disgusting to sick. Regulars mentioned any number of new characters, such as Bil's "friend" Uncle Roy (never seen, but always present) and Not Me's invisible friend "Piss Off", and the best new captions were archived for future generations. Some regulars became notorious in their own right, with comments made about their contributions. In one of the few "Family Circus" strips that made concessions to the passage of time, Billy sat looking at a computer while Thel looked over his shoulder: in a tribute to one of the most prolific contributors at the time, one caption read `Yeah, I'm `Vice-Pope Doug'. What's it to you?"

The job of maintaining this must have been thankless. Before the DFC initiated a screening process for captions, where the obvious dross were clipped before publication, anyone could see their captions until the unfunny or just plain stupid were removed. Afterwards, the DFC started a "Difficult Zone" rating (captions that everyone submitted, so any new variation had to be pretty damn funny before it would be accepted) and an "Impossible Zone" that contained the absolute worst or most pointless captions submitted in a particular period. (Although this wasn't intended as an honor, people honestly tried to enter the "red zone" with especially tasteless comments, leading Spinn to remove it earlier this year when he discovered discussions on the best way to get into it.) Even though all of the editors tried to let visitors know that the final results were purely subjective, being dependent upon the captions' ability to make them laugh, they received constant complaints of "Well, the caption you published wasn't as funny as mine." Complaints of partiality aside, generally only the best comments made the final archive, and considering the traffic on the site helped show the bright side of Sturgeon's Law, some of them were roll-on-the-floor-twitching funny.

Well, it's all over now. A lawyer from King Features Syndicate, the licensers for Bil Keane, Inc., shoved a cease and desist order under Spinn's nose, demanding the names of everyone involved with the DFC, as well as ordering the immediate termination of all activity connected with the syndicate's copyrighted characters. Never mind the fact that Spinn contacted King Features years ago and received no response, or the strange rumor that Bil Keane actually enjoyed the attention, or that each and every page contained a copyright notice and the home page contained a link to the "real" "Family Circus" page. The language was not open to interpretation: submit or face further legal action. To the end a professional, Spinn kept the party running until the last minute on September 20, putting up cartoon #500 and then closing off the DFC to any new submissions. He still runs other features on spinnwebe.com, but the DFC was the start, and, as "Wired News" put it, one of the longest running parody sites on the Web.

Whenever a previously popular site dies, many refer to it as "an end of an era", but in this case, it's literally true. "The Spot" and the other online soap operas of the mid-Nineties died due to financial concerns, and not many miss them. The DFC, however, went offline due to legal threats. While technically protected by First Amendment issues shielding parodies and satires, few Web site operators can afford the legal expenses necessary to take on a beast like King Features Syndicate, so the site goes down without much of a fight. The precedent was already set with the shutdown of unauthorized Star Trek and Star Wars sites, as well as nearly any site that dares make fun of Bill Gates and/or Microsoft. This just confirms that the freewheeling days where anybody could put up anything are finally over, and that the specter of a body comparable to the Federal Communications Commission, allowing corporations to do whatever they want while denying the ability of regular folks to use the medium, is very real. The DFC was purely a fan site in its best sense: Spinn made no money from the site, bought no advertising, and depended solely upon word of mouth to attract traffic. Most of all, as opposed to most "humor" sites, the DFC understood the limitations and advantages of the Web.

The structure of the "Family Circus" made it perfect for satire of this sort. Setting up any kind of mechanism to add new captions to a standard four-panel would have collapsed, but the "Family Circus" was perfect. Its single circle containing all of the action allowed visitors to concentrate on the strip and not any progression, and Keane's lack of sense of perspective added to the surreal nature. (Spinn himself tired of cracks about Keane's drawing ability; considering that compared to "Dilbert"'s Scott Adams, or "The Quigmans"'s Buddy Hickerson, who both draw like baboons on methadone, Keane was a da Vinci protégé.) Keane regularly misplaced eyes, nostrils, and whole appendages on his family, and their general dimensions prompted snide cracks of "melonhead". The whole millieu added to the satire potential, with only the occasional black or Asian kid or the very occasional computer to remind us that the family wasn't trapped in 1957 after all.

Many of the final captions on the DFC reflected pop culture (how many times had a strip of Billy with a baseball bat influenced A Clockwork Orange captions?), but others reflected the general perversity of youth. Who didn't want to attend a wedding and yell "Can you believe this shit? Somebody nailed up a dead Jew behind the altar! What a bunch of sick bastards!", or ask a sick relative "You know how you can tell you're really sick? I can poke you in the eyes and you won't blink or nothing." The DFC was a perfect place to exorcise all of those antisocial and (let's face it) dysfunctional tendencies by taking it out on a newspaper family instead of a real one. We all think these things, but we worry too much about thrown glassware, slit wrists, or a frying pan to the head in the middle of the night to say them out loud.

A lot of the appeal of the DFC also lay with a strange misplaced love: accusing Dolly and Bil of incestuous behavior was akin to punching the crap out of Donny Osmond. As horrible as it sounds, most captioneers wouldn't have gone to the effort of learning the names of the existing characters and inventing new ones if they didn't care in some way; I very seriously doubt that anyone would have gone to the same effort for "The Fusco Brothers", "Garfield", or "Tumbleweeds". This even applies to visiting more than once in the first place, if most of the visitors didn't have some sort of deranged childhood memory of reading the strip on Sunday mornings.

Well, it's all moot now. Upon hearing word of the cease-and-desist order, DFC regulars started collecting at the site to throw a few more snappy comments on the bonfire and compliment others for a job well done over the past five years. The attitude was of a longtime friend dying: if the old mantra about Internet years and dog years holds true, the DFC had a lifespan normally found in old soap operas and news programs. It predated most of the big entertainment sites, and was a direct link to the grand old days when one could believe the tales on how the Web would change the face of entertainment. The DFC was a coelacanth in an age of barracuda, surviving because it filled a niche nobody else could manufacture or co-opt. The concept was tried elsewhere, but it rapidly fell apart without someone at the wheel to keep some sort of standards intact.

This shouldn't be construed as some sort of soppy tribute. The DFC had a good life, and offered me and thousands of others a few cheap laughs at the expense of a (literally) two-dimensional post-nuclear family. What should be remembered, though, is that in a time where hundreds of corporate and entertainment sites die due to a lack of understanding of the medium in which they float, the DFC managed to survive and even thrive, all because of the basic human urge to smack the hell out of some fleshy-headed mutants. I don't know what sort of lesson this imparts to all of the business majors who plan to make their fortunes from the Web, but I heartily look forward to the analysis.

In other developments, I would like to announce that my lovely Canadian assistant Velvet Delorey has finally escaped from the wilds of Ontario, and reported back to work last Monday. As was well-known to regular readers, she disappeared in April while trying to escape from British Columbia, and found herself kidnapped by Sasquatch and marched to Toronto. I think I speak for everyone that we're all glad to have her back, and I've taken pains to make sure that she's back on the payroll. Of course, she doesn't get paid until I get paid, so I guess we're back to stripping wallpaper and boiling it into soup.

Also, this week's Shameless Plug is for ExotiCon 2000: The Fandom Menace in New Orleans this November 19 through 21. Right now, the guest list is pretty impressive, and considering that Tom Savini's movie makeup work is one of the early corrupting factors that made me what I am today, appearing in the "Guests" list with him is a true honor. The convention just moved its site to http://www.exoticon.net about a week ago, so take a peek at what easily qualifies as an anti-convention.

(This for the completists: a very few of the readers of this newsletter may remember a barely coherent attempt at a book written by this author, based very loosely on events occurring at Armadillocon, a literary convention in Austin, Texas in 1991. I hadn't been back since 1994, when the convention was so dull that my wife and I left on Saturday afternoon and went back home, but I went back to Austin the weekend before last to see two old friends and see what sort of trouble I could stir up. No trouble happened: in the five years since the last one, Armadillocon managed to turn into a literary convention again, with none of the staff in Next Generation uniforms and all that rot, and it was one of the most relaxing conventions I've attended in the last decade. Of course, most of this may have been due to Wayne Douglas Barlowe being the Artist Guest of Honor: he does that to people.)

And as one last plug, check out http://www.dare2dream.com/gallery/ellison.htm when you get the chance: for all of the ranting I've done over the years about fanboys, it's obvious that I'm starting to revert again. No big deal this time: everybody deserves a decent birthday present on their 65th birthday.

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©1998-1999 Paul T. Riddell. Revised September 23, 1999.