DFC: The Stories

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The DFC is dead. And when something dies, we want to tell its story, to find the coherent narrative which makes some sense of it, and of our loss. But so far it's refused to settle down into just one story; there are at least five.

Story of The Man

When Greg posted the Scary Lawyer Letter, this was the story that imposed itself. Here we were, one page among 60 million, turning a tired old comic into one of the funniest sites on the web. And evil lawyers came by to stomp on our fun.

The first reaction, of course, was for everybody to pull out their armchair law degrees. I can't count the number of people who told us to check out the parody defense, sometimes attributing it directly to the Constitution, if not the Ten Commandments. Others pointed us to various valiant victims who'd fought and won, or who'd ignored the letters and survived.

People were imagining, I think, a little Monopoly-like Parody Exception card you could send back to the lawyers. You can make a case for parody-- but you have to make it in court... or rather you have to pay lawyers to do so. It's nice to be in the right when you play that game, but having deep pockets is nicer.

In alt.fan.spinnwebe and other SpinnWebe hangouts, there was a good deal of speculation on the source, timing, and purpose of the letter. We had even heard that Bil Keane knew about the DFC, and didn't really mind it. The consensus was that Bil had nothing to do with it, and the real purpose was probably to eliminate competition for the new FC website.

As Steve Outing of Editor & Publisher News pointed out, none of this is necessarily sensible behavior on King Features' part.

One character on a.f.sw even nattered darkly about corporate fascists and AmeriKKKa. You don't have to swallow that to get depressed about the sort of Web we'll have if King Features has its way-- sanitized of all non-corporate voices, of all individuality, quirkiness, and subversive comedy.

The Ballad of Greg and Bil

And then the story changed. We started getting news coverage, and the reporters had managed to contact Bil Keane. Turns out it wasn't the lawyers' initiative; it was Bil. He had known about the DFC for years; but he thought it was getting "more dastardly." People were complaining to him, and he had to do something. He didn't mind satire, he said, but he did mind the "blue" material. "It just shouldn't be allowed."

Some people would just take this as noise, and hit the accelerator. But Greg didn't; it bugged him.

He continued consulting with lawyers, and even drafted a response to King Features, enclosing the Parody Exception card. As he says, he ran the DFC because it was fun-- and he'd heard that Keane wasn't too bothered by parodies. "But knowing now that he's upset about it, I had to think: what say this did go to court, and what say I did win. Would it still be fun for me? I don't think so."

Here's where he really left the script: he decided to give Bil Keane a phone call. He ended up talking with him for an hour and a half.

Bil turns out to be a likeable guy, with a sense of humor. He had seen the DFC-- he doesn't have a modem, but his daughter Gayle (the model for Dolly! is this surreal or what?) used to print out DFC pages for him, and he'd laugh. He and Greg even chatted about other ideas for parody sites.

Now, in the Hollywood tearjerker this seems destined to become, Bil would have his own epiphany at this point, and send Greg on his way with his blessings-- perhaps even contribute a few sly gags to DFC #523.

Instead Greg decided to end the DFC-- and take down the archive. After talking with Bil, he just didn't have the stomach to fight him in court for the right to make jokes about his drug-dealing, incest, and stupidity.

As Raven put it, in a moment of emotion, suddenly it felt like "taking a decent man's lifework and ruining it for him. SUDDENLY, IT'S NOT ABOUT HARMLESS FUN ANY MORE."

The Paradox of Parody

This story provides closure for Greg; I'm not sure it does for me.

Keane told one reporter he wouldn't mind the DFC "if it was kept clean and within the parameters of my intentions." Ah yes. If only we'd avoided the offensive captions, and just kept the funny ones.

Only that's not how parody works. Parody is brutal. Check out Harvey Kurtzman's '50s Mad sometime-- say, the portrait of Archie as a brutal teenage gangster (to say nothing of Sherlock Holmes as a clueless lech, or Mickey Mouse as an unshaven, jealousy-ridden freak, or Batman as a murderous vampire. DC sued over that one).

It shouldn't be allowed? I beg to disagree. Forget the legal or moral arguments-- Kurtzman's Mad was hilarious, and so is the DFC. I'd hate to not be able to read those '50s Mads, and it's a shame that the DFC won't be around to similarly bend minds and contribute to the fall of Western Civilization.

The raunch charge bothers me in part because I helped edit the DFC, and struggled with the issue on many a caption. We were not trying, as Keane alleged, to "come up with the raunchiest and most disgusting captions". Believe me, Bil, we got a lot of those; and we dumped their sorry asses. Every caption in the DFC is there because one of the editors thought it was funny. Sometimes it was innocent fun; sometimes it was rather mean; sometimes the meanness was an essential part of the humor. And sometimes the readers or even the other editors wouldn't like it. But the point was always the wit.

Admittedly there's some fun in making Bil's wholesome creatures swear and get sexual. But it gets old fast. Other incarnations of the DFC contain little but this kind of humor-- stuff we'd reject outright, or display in the "red zone", the hall of shame for captions that invite mockery of the captioneer rather than the comic.

Take a look at a typical DFC page-- the Keanes arriving home from a wedding, with Dolly and Thel looking totally wiped... one of those pictures you can hardly believe Bil really drew. (The cat with its head in the toilet is another.) I can't say which captions would be acceptable to Bil; but some of my favorites are impossible to tone down:

That isn't to say that we can't have clean, intellectual, absurdist captions... in fact, those are some of my favorites too. But I don't want Bil Keane drawing the (dotted) line; no matter how wicked a sense of humor he has in private, he's going to draw it a lot closer than I would. It can't be kept within the "parameters of his intentions"... the whole point of parody is to be able to step out of the author's parameters and subject them to criticism.

Is this because we're evil people? Well, no. I've met or corresponded with quite a few DFC regulars, and if I had to generalize, I'd say they're intelligent, geekish, and likely to have their vices in check. A good skeptical mind doesn't waste itself on drugs or ideology, and prefers to break the rules in our minds, in the form of humor, rather than in real life.

The Tale of the Editor

My own DFC story starts one day in rec.arts.comics.strips, where someone posted the URL and mentioned, as a selling point, that if you submitted something really stupid it'd end up in the shameful red asterisk. That impressed me for some reason-- when I submitted my first caption, for DFC #11, I was terrified that this could happen to me.

That's why I used an alias, by the way. If you're wondering, "Horselover Fat" is a character in a Philip K. Dick novel. As a linguist, I'm filled with admiration of that name. It sounds completely weird; and yet it's just a translation of his name into English. Philippos is Greek for 'horselover', and Dick is German for 'fat'.

It was like at first sight, but it turned into love when that caption was accepted. A positive first experience is a powerful thing, as movie directors and drug dealers know; the same thing happened to me with Usenet, when my very first posting ever got an e-mail response from Marvin Minsky.

Not that I've ever been one of the most prolific captioneers. I've got something over a hundred captions in-- not even in the top 25.

One day in June 1996, however, I got an e-mail from Greg. Basically, he liked the captions that Craig and I were submitting, and asked us to help edit. So far as I was concerned, this was like David Letterman calling up and asking me to look over the Top Ten lists for him. I negotiated a six-figure salary, and never looked back.

OK, so the salary was about six figures less. It's almost always been a blast. (The "almost always" refers to the jerk factor among our contributors... people who send in abusive captions, people who whined about not getting in, people who accused us of playing favorites. Get a life, folks.)

Ever since then, every couple of days I'd log in and plow through a mass of raw captionage. The mass has grown steadily larger; at the start we'd get a couple hundred captions per cartoon; then we'd get the occasional thousand; then a thousand became routine. We've gotten as many as 1800 (not counting the last DFC, which is a special case).

Curiously, the quality has only grown. We used to get lots of red-zoners, abuse, or people playing with the interface-- which was at least easy to reject. Now, almost all those thousand submissions are at least respectable attempts at a real caption. We reject the majority for the two great sins:

It amazes me that some people still don't realize that humor is subjective. With the DFC this usually means someone's griping that although their captions just slay their immediate circle of friends, we reject them in favor of this pissant milkwater that just isn't funny-- probably, it's implied, because we're accepting sexual favors from the submitters.

Whoa! Don't tell me I've missed out on yet another opportunity for casual, soulless sex!

Nothing is objectively funny-- unless you take "funny" as meaning "amusing millions of people", in which case Bil Keane, with his 1500 papers, is funny, by definition. When I posted a peek into the DFC slush pile, some people figured that my choices were arbitrary. Not exactly-- my choices were just my choices. The DFC reflected my sense of humor and that of the other editors, and ultimately Greg's, since he chose us. A lot of people liked that mix; if you didn't, you could always read something else, or start your own DFC.

And now the gig is over... <snif>...

The DFC Myth

I don't know how much longer it could have lasted, really. Cheap art goes on forever, but great comedy blazes and dies. Like MST3K, the DFC accumulated quite a lore of in-jokes. And all the easy jokes had been done. In DFC #1, you could get in with "Does Daddy know you're a lesbian?" In #462 you had to be more sophisticated: "It's not that I'm averse to working it out in trade... but are all your sales clerks male?"

Ideally the DFC would end while it's hot, and the archives would remain on-line. The DFC would be remembered, and discovered by new generations of cybernauts, as a classic of comedy.

Instead, now the DFC becomes myth.

No matter what the lawyers do, the archives aren't going to disappear. That's not how the Web works. The Web allows anyone with a browser, anywhere in the world, to download content from your server. Mostly that content gets erased by new content; but people aren't stupid. People have made copies of the DFC.

Ironically, by singling out this one website, King's lawyers have ensured that physical copies of the DFC have multiplied. It's gone underground, and it will continue to circulate forever by cybersamizdat.

And the DFC meme has been exposed to thousands of new hosts. (When the shutdown was in the news, traffic to the site increased threefold.) There will be imitations. (And some of them won't share Greg's scruples, and will fight off Keane's lawyers.)

Greg's version will be hard to top, however. I've seen a few of the other DFCs out there; with all due respect, most of their captions would barely rate the yellow zone ("okay, but could be improved").

What Greg added to the meme was a bit of technology-- some solid cgi scripts for picking and displaying multiple captions-- and a bit of cachet: his version was edited.

No one likes seeing their babies rejected; but the editing made the DFC, in several ways.

So, SpinnWebe/DFC, ave atque vale oing. Thanks to Greg for running the site, letting me edit, and becoming a friend. Thanks to the other editors, despite the fact that they were the ones who accepted all the bad captions: Craig, Vice Pope Doug, Raven, and Ken. And thanks above all to that wiggy, groovy crowd, the DFC submitters. In a better world they'd have offered us a talk show, at the very least.

Don't go away, folks. There's always the IADL... and the next SpinnWebe project.... The Hello Kitty Appreciation Page!

Hey, I was just kidding! Come back!

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