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Harlan Ellison vs. Penny Arcade

So I spent a slightly shameful amount of time last week following the Internet dust-up between Harlan Ellison and Mike Krahulik, a.k.a. "Gabe," the artist behind the incredibly popular webcomic Penny Arcade. Short version: Ellison, Gabe, and Gabe's "Penny Arcade" partner Tycho (a.k.a. Jerry Holkins) were guests of honor at a Seattle-area convention called Foolscap. After the convention, Gabe posted an account of an onstage encounter with Harlan, who reportedly was rude and profane to them. Some of Penny Arcade's fans swarmed the bulletin boards of Harlan's home page, calling him names; Harlan responded with a post to his own boards calling Gabe "a superannuated teen-age golem with a slack jaw, a slow manner, a typical pointless surliness at a world unwilling or unable to accept him as Superlative, and on sum a twerp easy to dismiss."

And then it was on. Penny Arcade fans ran rampant over Harlan's site, namecalling and accusing, and a few hackers tried to vandalize the site. Harlan's fans responded, generally, with more namecalling and accusing. The gist of the "conversation" could perhaps best be summed up as "I have never heard of the person on the other side of this fracas, but he's clearly rude, juvenile, talentless, and dum, dum, dum."

I'm exaggerating; one of the reasons the whole thing held my attention was that so many of the posts – which extended to the Penny Arcade forums as well – were well-reasoned, sincere, and achingly detailed about what either Gabe or Harlan REALLY said, or REALLY meant, or what REALLY happened. I haven't seen such back-pedaling justification since it became clear that there were no WMDs in Iraq.

Whatever DID happen (Harlan's version of the initial confrontation is very different, and full of "and then he completely misinterpreted everything") seems pretty irrelevant at this point; it was at most a brief exchange between two individuals who don't seem to have understood each other well, or really cared to. The thing that fascinates me is the degree to which all the fans are instantly willing to believe the worst about someone they don't know, but only the best about someone whose work they respect. Even for people who've never met either Gabe or Harlan, the kneejerk assumption often seems to be "His stuff is great, so he's great, so anyone picking on him totally sucks."

Now, I've been a fan of Harlan's writings for 15 years; I spent much of high school scouring used bookstores for his mostly-out-of-print books, and I wanted to be him when I grew up. I still have about 25 of his books. I've been reading Penny Arcade for the last couple of years, mostly to keep up with my video-game-geek friends, who quote it often and lovingly, and while it's not really my thing, I think it does what it does really well, and the intensity of its fandom speaks to that.

But both "Penny Arcade" and Harlan's vast body of writing point to creators who are trash-talking, acerbic people whose ire and contempt is easily aroused. And it fascinated me how their various fandoms refused to acknowledge this, insisting that THEIR golden boy was clearly not at fault, and all the trouble must have come from The Other. You know, the most interesting artists and creators are often iconoclasts, social rebels, and, frankly, assholes. It often takes self-confidence and self-immersion verging on the level of sociopathy for creators to get their ideas on film or paper or CD without giving in to all the "helpful" agents and marketers and producers who want to water their vision down. And strong perspectives, especially outré ones, generally produce the most interesting art. I've gotten to interview a lot of my artistic idols over the last half-decade, and guess what? Some of them are just not nice. And so what?

So it seems to me in this case that Gabe and Harlan were both snitty, quick to take offense, and quick to sneer publicly at each other, and they were both kinda being ninnies. But for the most part, their fans couldn't acknowledge it. It had to be someone's fault, and it was most likely the fault of whoever they liked least. There's something unutterably schoolyard about that. Because I suspect that on some level, much of the fan outrage was basically a combination of loyalist sports-team rooting – My artist can beat up your artist! – and attempts to display that loyalty in a space where the artist might see it. On the Internet, everybody gets their moment on the Jumbotron, if they wave and dance and yell loud enough. Proclaim your fandom in public, in a space where the artist is looking, and he might just take notice.

Then again, maybe the whole thing should just be considered a definitive proof of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, as illustrated in this 2004 Penny Arcade cartoon.