Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Golden Age Of Fan Sites

Kuljit Mithra is celebrating this month. Seventeen years of working on his Man Without Fear website. Congrats to him -- that is one HELL of an accomplishment.

The site is one of those that came about in the mid-1990s like so many others. The world wide web was still pretty new and a number of us who were comic fans and eager to get out onto the web built electronic shrines to our favorite characters. Yes, "us." I was one of them, building a Fantastic Four fan site called "4 Freedoms Plaza" after the team's then-current headquarters. (Sidebar: when I finally got my own domain name a few years later, I shortened it for FFPlaza for two reasons. First, there was an issue on whether it was "4", "Four", "For" or "Fore". And second, the headquarters I had named it after had been taken over by a team of villains, blown up and then destroyed entirely.)

We all took different approaches, based on our character preference and skill set. Most of the earliest sites -- mine included -- were crude, hand-coded beasts with bad formatting. Any time one of us learned a new trick or had a clever idea, it tended to circulate through the other sites. We became a loose network of friends, and I'm still familiar with several of those guys, including Kuljit. (I use "guys" throughout this piece. Seriously, I did not know of any females making fan sites back in the day, although there may well have been some.) Well, I was familiar with the ones who ran Marvel sites. We didn't have a whole lot of interaction with the DC sites, though we certainly weren't unaware of them.

And what was interesting, too, was how several folks independently came up with doing sites for the same characters. We had something of a friendly competition on whose site was best, but just among Fantastic Four sites. Or Spider-Man sites. Or whomever. I was only just getting interested in the notion of fandom as a separate topic of study around that time, and I started to note how it seemed to mimic the dawn of comic fanzines in a lot of ways. In fact, there were more than a couple fan sites that were operating in a fanzine-esque manner.

As time wore on, there were two notable changes that took place. First, and most obviously, was the technology improved. Folks started running their sites through databases and providing more interactive experiences. They got better at (or called in help to) the site design and navigation, since people in general began understanding how the web worked differently than print. The sites gradually took on a more and more professional look and feel.

Secondly, we started getting older. I think a lot of us were in our 20s and 30s when we started, and I'm seeing birthday notices for these guys now who are in their 40s. More significantly, though, I'm seeing birthday notices for these guys' kids, many of whom are getting into their teens. And it's not so much an age thing, but it's a Life thing, where these guys are not quite as responsibilty-free as they used to be. They don't often have the free time they used to.

Especially over the long haul. I ran FFPlaza for over a decade (with another couple years of just leaving it online but not updated after that) and I don't mind telling you that it was a chore sometimes. Not that it wasn't without some perks, but it took a LOT to keep that going that long.

Especially in light of a lot of the same information being available in other forms elsewhere. Does it make sense to have a database library of every issue of the Fantastic Four, when the same information is available on comics.org? Does it make sense to have a history listed out when it's just as available (and more likely to get seen) on Wikipedia? In my particular case, there were other personal issues too. My friend and issue reviewer, Gregg Allinson, died. The "Civli War" storyline absolutely killed my interest in the entire Marvel Universe. My divorce put a big strain on my finances. But that guys like Kuljit are still out there honoring their heroes, that's damned impressive. Congrats, Kuljit! Job well done!

2 comments:

Matt K said...

Seventeen years, wow. Let's see, if I had maintained my Warlock fan site it would be getting nearly that old. In some ways it seems like yesterday; reading your post I could just picture the Yahoo page (from back when organizing the whole web as categorized listings seemed like a viable idea) of Entertainment/Comics/Marvel or whatever it was. I almost lived on that page, my first year of college, I think.

That site of yours was a uniquely good resource, honestly, though I obviously understand pulling the plug.

Also, I think you left out the interior contents of the building being warped into the Negative Zone and the exterior structure being teleported to the moon (iirc). ;-)

Kuljit Mithra said...

Thanks Sean, very kind of you to mention me and the site.

I always tell people I used to scan stuff for my site with a hand scanner and when Netscape 1.1 allowed background colours, it was the most amazing thing in the world. ;)