In the Beginning… My Earliest Days on the Internet (Part Two)

When I first joined CompuServe UK, back in Christmas 1995, we were still in that antediluvial period when we had to pay by-the-hour for internet access, and it was a couple of years yet before Compuserve was to introduce monthly flat-rate payments (at the end of 1997), in response to an earlier similar move made by AOL. But, despite this, I quickly became an online junkie, with some pretty big quarterly phone bills to show for it. I learned very quickly (after the first phone bill, which was huge) that it would be very wise to start using an OLR (Off-Line Reader), a fantastic piece of software that automated the connection process with CompuServe, going online, downloading all my forum messages very quickly, and going offline as soon as that was done.

This helped cut my time online (and phone bills) down considerably from what they had been initially. I could now read and respond to all my forum messages offline, without running up huge bills, and all replies would be automatically uploaded and new messages downloaded the next time the OLR connected to CompuServe. I loved my OLR – actually, there were two – first I used NavCIS, then I moved on to OzWin, my favourite OLR, when NavCIS was discontinued. So much so that, even when CompuServe did away with the by-the-hour charges and introduced a monthly flat-rate of £19.99 in late 1997, I continued to use my OLR instead of the normal CompuServe online software (WinCIM), simply because it was a better piece of software, and much nicer to use.

By the end of the 1990’s, the state of the primitive web browsers had improved to a level where I started using them occasionally to venture out into the Web. But CompuServe remained my main base of operations for several years yet. AOL, CompuServe’s biggest rival, bought out the CIS branch of CompuServe in 1998, and CompuServe went into a slow and steady decline thereafter, with many members deserting it for other online enclaves or taking the big step of just booting up their web browsers (Mosaic and the earliest versions of Netscape were the most powerful at that time) and striking out into the web by themselves.

I hung on at CompuServe for a while yet, but, by 2002-2003, I followed the mass exodus out into the internet. By that time, I had another, cheaper ISP, which let me have browser-based internet access, and CompuServe had declined to such an extent that it was a mere shadow of its former self. I no longer saw any need to pay for two internet accounts, so I dropped CompuServe, ending an era which had encompassed my earliest, most happy days online.

Moving out into the wilds of the World Wide Web, I roamed all over the place for a couple of years like a crazy man, absorbing and downloading everything that I could. But once the novelty had worn off, I began to realize that I’d lost something very important, very special, that strong sense of belonging, of being a member of that classic, irreplaceable CompuServe community. In all the years since then, even with the advent of Facebook and other social media, I’ve never quite rediscovered the magical feeling that I felt during my first few years online with CompuServe, and I’ve never come across forums as active, exciting and fun to be a member of.

Those days will always remain my happiest times online, when I was part of that huge, close-knit, vibrant CIS community. I’ve always retained a deep affection for my first online home, and I still go back regularly to the CompuServe forums (what’s left of them) to visit my old buddies in SFLIT. CompuServe Classic, the original service, is now gone, but CompuServe 2000 still exists, and a few of the old forums still survive, and will continue to exist as long as there are enough people still using them to make it worthwhile.

The forums are now, of course, a pathetic shadow of their former glory, and most of the thousands of forums that existed back in the good old days are long gone, disappearing as the original membership left CompuServe in droves. But a few small groups of die-hards in SFLIT, BOOKS AND WRITER’S COMMUNITY and a handful of other forums have refused to give up, and are still fighting the good fight. So those forums continue to keep on keeping on, although the overall number of forums is now a tiny fraction of what once existed. This number continues to shrink ever further as forums fold, one-by-one, due to declining membership and post activity.

SFMEDIA folded into SFLIT quite a while back, and, most recently it was the COMICS & ANIMATION forum which folded into the BOOKS AND WRITER’S COMMUNITY. Those were two of my Top Three forums to hang out in, back in the day, when I used to check in on SFLIT, SFMEDIA and COMICS & ANIMATION daily, downloading hundreds of messages and posting regularly. So it really saddened me a lot to see those two forums disappear.

There are still some good old friends in SFLIT, and it’s always nice to go back for a decent conversation. Some things about CompuServe will never change, even if it has gone downhill, compared to the glory days of the Nineties. But I really, really miss the sheer excitement and fun I had during my earliest days on the classic CompuServe forums. It’s a great pity that we’ll never see the likes of those days again. 🙁

In the Beginning… My Earliest Days on the Internet (Part One)

I’ve been online for a long time now, almost twenty years, in fact. My love affair with the internet started when I first came online on Christmas morning, December 1995, and has continued ever since. I can now barely remember what life was like before the internet, and it’s so much part of my daily existence nowadays that I simply couldn’t picture how my life would be without it.

Back in those days, the internet had been up and running for a while, but the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, and only a relatively few people were brave enough to venture out into the “wilds” of the Web, using nothing but one of the primitive web browsers available at the time. Besides, that early on in the Web’s existence, there weren’t really very many good websites out there anyway. So most of the fledgling web denizens tended to hang out in the safe online enclaves provided by the large commercial online services such as AOL, CompuServe and GEnie, which dominated the internet during its first couple of decades. And it was on CompuServe, otherwise known as CIS (CompuServe Information Service) that I was to spend my first few years on the internet.

In the heyday of CompuServe and AOL, every UK household used to get AOL and CompuServe CDs regularly in the mail. They bred like rabbits! I had dozens of them lying around the house, so many that I was never short of beer mats. 🙂 Early on Christmas morning, I unpacked my latest, most anticipated Christmas present, a shiny new US Robotics Sportster 28.8k modem, connected it to the computer, popped a CompuServe CD in the drive, and I was off and running. I was about to enter the online world for the very first time.

I was a huge Doctor Who, Babylon 5 and Star Trek fan at that time (I still am), so the very first thing I did after joining CompuServe was to become a member of the SFMEDIA forum, a busy, bustling community full of nice, friendly sci-fi geeks, who all just happened to love the same kind of television series and films that I did. After living my entire life in almost complete isolation from other sci-fi fans, I was now in geek heaven. I had literally thousands of like-minded geeks to converse with online every single day. I made my first posting in the Babylon 5 section of SFMEDIA at 4.55am on Christmas morning, and never looked back.

As I was also a big fan of written SF, I moved on to join the SFLIT forum a day or two later, and I liked that forum even better than SFMEDIA. Then, after a few weeks finding my feet in the two SF forums, and as I was also a comics fan, I joined the COMICS & ANIMATION forum, then the SCIENCE forum, the SPACE forum, the HISTORY forum, and quite a few others. But it was the SFMEDIA, SFLIT and COMICS & ANIMATION forums which always remained my main hang-outs, my central “base of operations”, so to speak. From 1995, up until about 2002, my entire online existence, both on CompuServe and elsewhere revolved around those three forums.

These were the days before everyone and their dog had their own webpage/website, when anyone who was anybody had a presence on CompuServe. Big companies like IBM, Microsoft, Lotus and Borland had their own communities there, and ran their online business from CompuServe. Many of the big SF authors and fandom figures hung out on SFLIT (Mike Resnick, Ray Feist, Catherine Asaro, David Gerrold, Jeff Carver, Gardner Dozois, Jon Stith, Dave Truesdale and many others come to mind), the likes of Joe Straczynski (yeah, JMS himself) hung out on SFMEDIA, and Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Steve Gerber and many other big comics writers and artists hung out on COMICS & ANIMATION.

Having notable media figures like this all in one place, interacting directly with fans and other members in the forums every single day, made CompuServe an absolutely incredible place to be back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

To Be Continued…

Reborn #1 and Marvel’s “Hard Sell” Tactics – A Step Too Far?

I’m rarely surprised these days by any of the seemingly ceaseless dirty goings-on in the comics industry, particularly the never-ending merry-go-round of hype and sneaky “crossover” tricks that the Big Two (Marvel and DC) use to con us into buying their (mostly rubbish) titles each month. But the latest issue of Marvel Previews contains possibly the newest “low” in a long line of questionable tactics employed by Marvel in their eternal attempts to part us from our hard-earned pennies.

It centres around the first issue of a new, upcoming five-part Marvel mini-series, known only as Reborn, which, apparently, is the next Big Event in the Marvel Universe. Leaving aside the fact that I dislike these Big Events intensely, and avoid them like the plague – they’re so common these days, and mean so little now that they have no real impact or meaning anymore (why the hell can’t we just have normal, decent stories, without everything having to be Yet Another Boring, Bland and Irrelevant Marvel Big Event or Crossover?) – there’s something new about this one that disturbs me like none before it has.

There’s always a certain amount of secrecy involved in the run-ins to these Big Events, as the publishers don’t want to give away too much, too soon. But there’s also always some information available, just enough to whet our appetites or to let us know enough about it that we can decide whether or not we want to buy it. But in the case of this new Reborn mini-series, there’s an incredibly high level of secrecy involved, way beyond anything we’ve seen before. Marvel won’t give us any information. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not the slightest clue what it’s about or who’s in it.

They’re messing with our heads. We’re expected to buy it without knowing anything about it, like we have to take Marvel’s word that it’s gonna be great. Like we’re dumb shits who can’t be trusted to make up our own minds, mindless sheep who will pay up without question for anything that they throw at us. They regard their customers with total contempt, arrogantly assuming that if they tell us absolutely nothing about this new “event”, we’ll all be so overcome with anticipation that we’ll rush out in droves to buy it.

Well, guess what Marvel? No thank you. At least from this particular customer. Some of us have enough intelligence to know when we’re being insulted and manipulated, and I, personally, feel really insulted and irritated when confronted by cynical con-man “hard sell” tactics. And this new Marvel selling tactic stinks. It bugs me, I mean REALLY bugs me, extremely, big time, with lashings of cream on top.

The vile stench of cold, hard, cynical manipulation of comics buyers by the marketing department of one of the so-called “leading lights” of the comics industry is positively nauseating. As a long-term Marvel junkie – I’ve been buying their comics for four decades now, and more than 75% of my $400+ monthly comics spending goes into the Marvel coffers – I find this level of sneaky, underhand, taking-for-granted manipulation of their ultra-loyal customer base totally repulsive. At this moment I’m thoroughly disgusted and ashamed to be a Marvel fan.

And it isn’t just the lowly customers. Marvel are also keeping comics retailers in the dark about Reborn, a fact that shocks and surprises even me. They’re being messed around even more than we are, since they’re expected to pay handsomely and upfront for the honour of stocking a whole bunch of these (non-returnable) Reborn #1 thingies, unseen, and all just on Marvel’s say-so. Well, at least one of these retailers is really pissed off about it (and good fer him).

Yesterday I received this rather interesting email from my friend and esteemed comics supplier Jack Curtin (well worth a visit). I’d urge you to click on the link for Savage Critic and have a read for yourselves:

“Those of you who became pals with Brian Hibbs back in the CIS days, might appreciate seeing this…

Much of what Brian Hibbs says in his article echoes my own sentiments. I recall Brian from my days on the Compuserve Comics & Animation Forum (known as CAF to long term members and ex-members), although he probably wouldn’t remember me, and I’m not one bit surprised he’s taken this stand. He’s definitely one of the good guys, and we need more like him in the business.

On the Reborn #1 thing, Marvel is treating both its retailers and customers with astonishing arrogance and contempt, and it’s absolutely refreshing to see a comics retailer act on his conscience by telling them to sod off, thankyouverymuch, rather than letting greed rule his head. Far too often, single-minded greed is sadly the bottom line for too many retailers out there.

It’s not a question of whether or not retailers will shift all the copies of Reborn #1 on the shelves. It’ll probably sell by the truckload. Rather, it’s the principle of the thing, and we need far more people emulating Brian Hibbs, retailers sacrificing a few sales and customers a refusing en masse to buy this particular title, just to let Marvel know in no uncertain terms that they can’t treat us all like shit. Most importantly, we have to make darned sure that this despicable new sales tactic they’ve employed does NOT become accepted industry practice.

Boy, do I hate these Big Companies… Speaking as a customer, I myself will definitely not be buying Reborn on principle, whether or not it might be my cup of tea (probably not, being a Big Event thing), and despite the fact that I usually like the work of both Ed Brubaker and Bryan Hitch. Even if I really, really want to have it, I’m still sticking to my guns and refusing to buy it, either in comic book or trade paperback form, precisely and solely because of Marvel’s new selling tactics.

Nor will I buy ANY other Marvel title employing the same approach. And if they adopt it as a general marketing tactic, I will boycott their entire range – and believe me, I do not say this lightly, since I’m a die-hard Marvel fan and the bulk of my comics spending goes on their products. But I’m sure there are a lot of deserving indies and small press titles out there who who be glad of a larger chunk of my monthly $400.

In my case, Marvel’s new “hard sell” has backfired, badly, and I reckon (at least I hope) it’ll also backfire with a sizeable percentage of the customer base. When I read the Reborn entry in the current Marvel Previews, my only thought was “BASTARDS!!! They can take Reborn and stick it where the sun don’t shine”. I make a point of reading Previews each month solely to get information on upcoming releases, so I can make up my own mind on exactly what I’ll be ordering. Marvel’s refusal to give any information whatsoever about Reborn prevents me from doing just that, at least in the case of Reborn. So I won’t be buying it, simple as that.

I really am quite livid at what I see as Marvel’s latest, and possibly most blatantly cynical and arrogant attempt to hook and reel in the Marvel Faithful. Most of the obsessive Marvel Lemmings will most likely just behave like crack addicts, and buy this thing in droves, so Marvel will see the new approach as being successful, at least in terms of sales. But I’m sincerely hoping that enough of the more discerning general readership may just see through this cynical marketing ploy, and that there’ll be some kind of backlash.

We badly need a lot of retailers and readers to do the Right Thing for once, giving Reborn #1 a well-deserved raised middle finger, and sending an emphatic message to Marvel that they really should quit messing around with their customers and retailers, the people who have made them what they are.

If this doesn’t happen, and, unfortunately, there’s a strong chance that it won’t, since most comic fans are mindless sheep – no offense intended to the more intelligent and discerning minority, nor to the younger readers, who haven’t yet learned about the cynical side of the comics industry – I anticipate lots of bad shit descending upon us down the road a bit if Marvel continues on this path, and DC and others start to follow in line.

It looks like a certain greedy company has forgotten the very stark and costly lesson provided by the implosion of the industry back in the ’90s. But remember this, Marvel. Piss off enough customers, and history might just repeat itself. Biting the hand that feeds you is not a good long-term business practice.

I’m sincerely hoping that many, many more retailers will follow the brave lead set by Brian Hibbs, and refuse to order Reborn #1. For once, please, think longer term, beyond the extra bit of money you’ll bring in for the few weeks that Reborn is the new Big Event on the block. Take a stand, ‘cos even if it costs a few bucks now, it may just cost a heckuva lot more in the future if you don’t. Send a loud, clear message to Marvel that the Direct Market should never be abused in this way, and that this kind of behaviour simply will not be tolerated. My most fervent hope is that this cynical, underhanded game-playing blows up completely in Marvel’s greedy face.

Did I mention that I hate these Big Companies? They’re a lot like the Ferengi in Star Trek: The Next Generation and DS9. To them, Profit is God, and they’ll use every low-down trick in the book to bleed us dry. If they’re allowed to, that is. The Big Guys really do need the occasional swift, hard kick in the nuts to bring them right back down to Planet Earth. Be warned – apathy and mindless subservience to Marvel now on the part of retailers and collectors will reap lots of pain for all of us later on down the road.

It takes guys in the industry like Brian Hibbs to bring this sort of thing to the public’s attention, to get us all to sit up and take notice, because most people are, lets face it, apathetic and easy-going at the best of times. So a big Thank You to Brian, and, come Friday night, when I’m in the pub with my mates, enjoying the music of a decent local rock band, and imbibing a few glasses of the old liquid pick me up, I’ll make sure to take a minute or two out to toast Brian’s good health.

I wish there were a lot more like him in the comics industry.