A Tart Point of View: Users Recognizing Heterogenous Participation and Leveraging Their Own Free Labor

Abstract Since 1990, creators and readers of U.S. comic books have become more diverse as women and people of color take an increasingly active role in the industry. These changes have been supported and facilitated by independent websites, which make the work of independent comic creators available, bypassing corporate publishers and retailers, and which operate as independent fora for the reporting and review of comic book culture. One of these, a resistant webzine entitled Sequential Tart, has created a space for women readers, and has worked to change industry perceptions of women as both readers and creators of comics. Founded in 1998 and now entering it's tenth year, the webzine has always depended on substantial voluntary labor from its staff. Tart's longevity can be in part attributed to characteristics of the fan culture from which it sprang, in part to the structure of the community deliberately created by participants, but the webzine's survival has also been enabled by the way participation has been designed into the user interfaces for both contributors and readers which facilitate and leverage heterogenous participation.

Though in the early days of Internet research many scholars posited the web as both a tool and a locale that would allow disenfranchised groups to form stronger communities and speak with stronger voices (Turkle, 1995; Jenkins 2001), this utopian view has given way to a more complex understanding. In the late 90's more attention was focused on groups that were marginal in terms or race, gender, or sexual orientation (Bell), and subsequent work suggests that attention should be focused not just on discourse and human behavior, but also on technical design (Bruns 2008, Schaefer 2009). Most recently, Schaefer has convincingly argued for considering participation as a dispositif that includes both human actors and technical elements as well, in order to better understand the complex relations between them. He writes of cases in which companies leverage unpaid user participation for their own profit and he further offers the useful concept of "heterogenous participation" for examining individual cases. I employ this concept to explore the interdependence of the participants and technological platform of an established alternative

webzine, Sequential Tart, which is devoted to comic books and popular culture and published through volunteer labor by fans. These users, bent on resisting a dominant corporate discourse, have designed their own platform to leverage their own unpaid labor in order to sustain participation (Scholz 2007). In doing this they took into account the heterogenous nature of participation enacted by the members of their own group, each of whom has different skills to offer, and differing amounts of time available. Further, the comic book industry has always been far more entangled in fan culture than other culture industries and these historical connections carry over into online fan activities, comic book creators' use of the web, and in the way larger producers of comic books and related items (fan magazines, action figures, costumes and of course films) try to sell their products via the internet. Thus we also see an example of Schaefer's "extended culture industry" which rather than growing out of Web 2.0 applications has been an innate feature of comic books at least since their golden age in the 1940s.

However, the members of Sequential Tart, did not set out to resist or alter corporate structures on principle. Rather, they aimed to overturn gender stereotypes of women characters in and readers of comic books and to provide a different perspective on comic books that better represented the views of women readers. In order to create a space for this alternate discourse they created a webzine, and email list for contributors, and a bulletin board system for readers. In all of these activities they essentially re-imagined the identities of both female fans and characters. Because comic book publishers and companies producing related merchandise were reinforcing gender stereotypes, they were the natural targets when explicit targets were used, but in fact merely by refusing the dominant discourse and creating their own, the Tarts also implicitly resist corporate discourse as well.


The Internet has often served to provide a space in which members of a marginal group might resist stereotypes and (re)construct their identities without being constrained by the dominant culture (Nakamura 2002, Bell 2001, Turkle 1995). This identity work is shaped not just by the already existing structures participants seek to escape or subvert, or by the dynamics of online communities, groups and networks, but also by the technology itself. Though a wide range of online groups have been studied in terms of their social structure, discursive behavior, or political activity, comparatively little attention has been paid to how technology itself interacts with the structure of an online community and channels participant behavior in certain directions rather than others. In cases where this dynamic has been explored, the focus has been almost exclusively on how corporations have tried to channel the behavior of individual users (Bruns 2008, Schaefer 2009). Looking at the way Sequential Tart is designing for participation can reveal to what extent users can leverage their own participation and even channel the behavior of corporations in response to their resistant activities. Further, this research examines the way members of Sequential Tart exhibit many characteristics of heterogenous participation (Schaefer 2008) . Tart has defined itself as stated below in an epigraph that appears at the top of every issue, and which makes clear their resistant position and their own recognition of differences among participants: sequential tart (si-kwen'shel tart) n. -- 1. a Web Zine about the comics industry published by an eclectic band of women; 2. a publication dedicated to providing exclusive interviews, in-depth articles and news, while working towards raising the awareness of women's influence in the comics industry and other realms.1
1 Also a pun on the description of comic books as 'sequential art' and on 'tart' as a derogatory term for women who are too forward 3

(www.sequentialtart.com) In fact, the topics covered are now far broader than comic books, including film, television, music, books, events, and a variety of cultural phenomena ranging from Olympic scandals to a grandmother's feelings about her first computer. But, to understand participation in this webzine, we need to first understand what motivated its creation.

Strong Roots in Feminism and Fan Culture Comic book culture has long been recognized as the province of fanboys, who almost by definition are hostile towards women (Jenkins 2001) and their domination of an already marginal social group (comic book fans) has become ever more vexing to women as their position with regard to gender equality improved in other areas. Faced with a stubborn adherence to gender stereotypes, many women disengage from comic book culture, but the founders of Tart chose instead to create an alternate space in which other voices could be heard. Feminist scholar Teresa de Lauretis has argued that this step is crucial for women: I believe that to envision gender (men and women) otherwise, and to (re)construct it in terms other than those dictated by the patriarchal contract, we must walk out of the male-centered frame of reference in which gender and sexuality are (re)produced by the discourse of male sexuality...(de Lauretis, 1987, 17). Sequential Tart was founded in 1997 by a group of women who all belonged to another comic book-centered email list who "didn't like their [Wizard magazine's] extremely limited coverage of the [comic book] medium" and how "we just couldn't find a magazine about comics that we liked to read, one that talked about the kinds of comics we were reading, in the way we wanted to see them discussed" (Keller, 2002). These women agreed that stereotypes about the comic books women were or ought to be reading largely accounted for this lack; the male-dominated industry assumed women preferred cute and fluffy comics, while at the same time some voices railed

against violence and sexual content, which was largely blamed on male tastes and industry catering to their perceived primary consumers (Simone 2008). From the start, Sequential Tart criticized not only the industry, but anyone, including women, who tried to pigeonhole the female comic-book readership. According to founding member Katherine Keller, they were: sick and tired of being told (as it were) what kind of comics women liked or would/should like. We weren't reading a damn one of them. We were sick of hearing about SIP and Bone. Fuck that. We were reading Preacher, and Hellblazer, and Invisibles, and Starman, and we knew a lot of other women who were reading (and loving) the same comics. We liked violence, blood and gore. We didn't like "nice" books. (Keller, 2002) The embryonic Tarts recognized that merely rejecting a male dominated genre was not the answer, as this would not provide the perspective the sought but would merely deprive women of the enjoyment many experienced through comic books while also confirming that most comic books were read only by men. Film theorist Rey Chow has commented on the effect of constructively critiquing visual media rather than merely rejecting the it, and she has argued that because the idea 'image-as-feminized-space,' breaks down when we acknowledge that women enjoy 'stereotypical' and male-defined images as well, we must shift our focus from the 'moment of production to the moment of reception' (Chow, 1991). Because in the comic book industry male domination is often paralleled by corporate domination, we can also shift theoretical frames, and say that as the founders of Sequential Tart were resisting male domination, they were at the same time resisting "overflow" from big comics publishers and the surrounding media convergence of magazines, tv shows, websites and movie tie-ins, and at the same time using these materials to create their new space (Jenkins, 2001, 2006; Brooker, 2001). Whichever frame


is applied, from the first participants in Sequential Tart exhibited a passionate commitment to changing perceptions of women comic book characters and creators through publication of commentaries, reviews and interviews. In generating this original material while engaging with corporate artifacts, the Tarts represent a clear example of convergence, in which corporate producers use every possible medium to attract and hold an audience, while members of the audience appropriate material from all kinds of sources and media to create new content (Jenkins 2001). Sequential Tart represents a pioneering effort in the latter category that continues to this day in its work to reclaim popular media by reinterpreting it and re-inscribing its meaning to suit their own interests and ends, rather than those of corporate producers.

Firm resistance is required of any fan who disagrees with the practices of major comic book publishers.2 In the comic book industry, some of the most aggressive marketing strategies can be observed, particularly now that so many film adaptations of superhero comics have been produced. Will Brooker further elaborated the dynamics of fan responses to convergence in his discussion of 'overflow,' the process through which a media corporation tries to control fan experiences of product that primarily exists in one medium, by flooding other media with associated content. For example, in conjunction with the broadcast of a new Doctor Who Series in 2005, the BBC launched extensive webpages associated with the series, along with novels based on the show, guides to monsters of the show, action figures, and so forth. By flooding all media channels with corporate products, the BBC hopes to cash in on any possible interest fans might have in buying products related to a program they enjoy. More importantly, they may preclude fan production of competing products and interpretations. This strategy is especially
2 The two largest US comic book publishers are DC and Marvel; the former is a subsidiary of Time-Warner while the latter is a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, self-described as a "mini-Disney." (Raviv 2002) 6

evident in the way fans are invited on the website to vote for favorite episodes or characters, suggest new monsters and otherwise participate. Not incidentally, fans of the show at the same time provide demographic information and useful feedback to the shows producers. In comics, this kind of strategy has often been enacted based on very narrow assumptions about the gender of readers or what might interest women readers3. So in fact, women feel excluded even from this corporately controlled manner of participation. When women encounter overflow in the comic book industry, the ways in which it does not suit them are usually blatant, often offensive, and may lead to open rebellion, as in the case of Sequential Tart. As will be discussed, the activities that have been spawned in this rebellion place Tart's user activities mainly within the categories of accumulation and construction, and later technical developments allow an element of archiving to develop (Schaefer, 2008, 2.2).

However, Sequential Tart did not begin in order to explicitly resist media overflow and they did not merely reject the way women were represented. Instead they focused on the responses of women readers and opened a dialogue in which problematic representations of women could be discussed without denying or outlawing the enjoyment women take in comic books. Thus rather than rejecting comic books themselves, they reclaim and redefine the medium. In addition to creating their own space apart from, yet intersecting the world of 'fanboys,' the Tarts also promote women taking control of the way others respond to and interpret real women as icons or objects.

Or as founding Tart Katherine Keller succinctly put it, 'instead of just bitching and pissing about
3 A recent example would be some of the merchandise produced for the last Spiderman movie, including one statue of a scantily clad Mary Jane washing Peter Parker's spider suit by hand. http://www.sideshowtoy.com/?page_id=4489&sku=68181# 7

how much we were dissatisfied with the current state of comics journalism we decided, WTF, let's do something.' But tackling this reclamation is easier said that done, and plenty of groups and websites devoted to empowering a subaltern group have come and gone over the years, as have numerous magazines and websites devoted to comic book culture. Sequential Tart's unusual longevity was recognized as early as 2001 at the San Diego ComicCon, at which the Tarts were invited to present a panel on how they had survived for 4 years already—at that time an eternity for online communities and journals.

This history may suggest that from the start, members have been unified in their motivations and in their goals, but this is far from true. Among the core of the staff, most resent gender (and other) stereotyping in comic books, but many of them still love superhero comics which have often been the worst in this way. Some want to make sure women and other under-represented groups are more able to participate in the industry itself as creators, editors, journalists and what have you. A few of the more casual participants have these goals and motives as well, but many simply wanted a space where they can voice opinions that had previously been ignored because they did not match what the industry wanted to project or the sexist opinions typical in the wider comic book fan culture. The most unifying motivation and goal are a love of the comic book medium and a desire to promote greater appreciation of comic books in mainstream culture.

Tart's continued survival and growth in the face of continued gender stereotyping, increasing efforts of media conglomerates to cash in on comics, and the varying goals members hold and levels of participation they can offer depends on Sequential Tart's roots in both fan culture and feminist practice, how Tart manages its relationship to the 'real' world, and how it has designed


participation into the platform on which the webzine is published. Examining in more detail the kinds of activities carried out by the Tarts, and the way they have designed their publishing platform, further suggests that groups like Sequential Tart may endure not in spite of heterogenous participation from users and an ambiguous relation with the industry, but because of them.

Entering the Land of Sharp-Tongued Women

As the magazine developed, the Tarts have made several choices that distinguish their community from other similar sites. Most of these choices boil down to emphasizing accessibility (for writers and readers) both in "policy" and in technical design. Along with their determination to combat gender stereotypes, an important and explicit goal for all Tarts is encouraging other people to read and enjoy comic books, and promoting this agenda is behind most policy decisions. For example, from the beginning Sequential Tart portrayed itself as professional site, including a masthead listing credits and contact information for the staff and all writers. In addition to making individual contacts easy, the Tarts invite readers to participate by providing a link in every article for readers to click if the reader wishes to respond, or if they wish to open a new thread in the associated bulletin board system (BBS), Tartsville. Those who choose to respond directly to the article are then asked if they would like their response printed in the next issue. Not only does Sequential Tart print every response in the "Going Postal" section, but authors of of the article in question always write back. Readers may even be invited to write an article themselves after this kind of interchange. In this way readers may make a very small and easy contribution and are assured a response that often then prompts further



Along with encouraging participation, this willingness to hear and respond to all voices gives Tart the credibility to make quite pointed critiques of both the comic book industry and of individual creators. Consider Figure 1, which pokes fun at the hyper-developed breasts women now sport in many mainstream comics. In this illustration the realistic proportions of Wonder Woman4 are contrasted with the oddly proportioned figures in the center,5 which also appear in a real comic book. A future heroine is following this line of evolution has been supplied by the article's author, Lisa Jonté. It is humorous, but also makes a real argument about the illusionary, or perhaps delusionary proportions many artists assign to female characters. Jonté frames her critique as the findings of a committee charged with studying the mutagenic effects of environmental disaster on super heroines. The dry humor of her report is capped by the stinging mockery of the following footnote: While some heroine's breasts are merely abnormally large, some are so distorted that they appear to have become separate entities from their host bodies, with an all-round cleavage that suggests that said breasts are in fact completely detachable. This researcher witnessed a pair of the aforementioned 'balloon' breasts as they broke free of their minimal restraint and wafted gently heavenward. After several moments of frustrated calling, (in which the breasts did not return) the owner, one Vengeancia, was forced into pursuit of the truant ta-tas ("Bizarre Breasts," Sequential Tart 7/01) Note that in the footnotes mentioning 'Vengeancia,' Jonté, herself a professional illustrator, takes
4 Wonder Woman #166 by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, DC Comics

5 Avengelyne: Armageddon #2 by Scott Clark, Extreme Studio.

aim at Scott Clark, creator of 'Avengelyne,' for being so poor an artist. Rather than commenting directly on the inherent sexism of Clark's illustration, Jonté makes the argument that the proportions he represents are not only unreal, but can only be the product of an environmental disaster, which makes the world of his comic series dystopian in a way Clark probably didn't intend. Thus we see an example of how Sequential Tart revises the response to representation of women in comic books. Establishing credibility and maintaining authority are important activities in fan culture, but as will be addressed later, they also lead to a visible influence on comic book publishers.

Identity Correction In 1997 Lovink and Garcia defined tactical media as: Tactical Media are what happens when the cheap ‘do it yourself’ media, made possible by the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to the internet) are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture. Tactical media do not just report events, as they are never impartial they always participate and it is this that more than anything separates them from mainstream media (Lovink and Garcia 1). By definition, Sequential Tart is a tactical media group, and like others, they practice "identity correction," changing the public performance and reception of established and well known identities, such as those of large corporations. Some tactical media groups like the Yes Men are famed for their hijacking of corporate identities and performing outrageous stunts in that guise. However, members of the Tart staff practice another kind of correction in the way they represent their own identities. Rather than co-opting an existing identity or creating and presenting new


identities, the Tarts rewrite the interpretations made of their own original identities. The staff biographies allow the Tarts to transform their real selves into superheroines, lest readers have any doubt. These actions are supported by technology; the webzine's extranet has an easy user interface for creating these revised identities, which then are automatically linked from the masthead. Transforming interpretations rather than identities allows the Sequential Tart community to change perceptions through exemplary and often humorous behavior. Though not as highly publicized, these corrections have helped to empower individual Tarts to become more successful and influential, and will be discussed later.

Sometimes however the critique is more serious and direct than identity correction; In the excerpt below, Rebecca Salek makes her criticism explicit when she comments on Wizard Magazine's list of ten greatest comic book heroines, arguing against their interpretation of what defines a great heroine: But — why only mainstream characters? Why only spandex-or kevlar-clad super heroines? Why only current characters? And why are they all white (with the exception of Cassandra Cain)? *** There are other kinds of heroines besides super heroines. Police officers, for instance. Comic books are filled with strong female police detectives — not to mention private detectives. Space ship captains. Spies. Archaeologists. Witches. Elves. Goddesses. Angsty teenagers. And ordinary women who struggle through the pain and joy and uncertainty of everyday life. In the above passages Salek addresses the basic and obvious problem of racial exclusion, but


perhaps more importantly, she points out a lack that may not be so obvious to casual comic book readers, and that is the poverty of storylines built around women. By focusing only on busty white super heroines, Wizard sends the message that no other women are at all interesting. In fact, by this measure, no real women are interesting or worth our admiration. By this standard, nothing that real women might actually do deserves to be chronicled; strong admirable women exist only in fantasies. Salek goes on to consider how this contemporary Top 10 List does not even reflect the minimal progress made by the mainstream comic book publishers in representing women and people of color: There are other heroines besides white heroines, even at the mainstream publishing houses; the presence of Cassandra Cain on the list attests to that fact. No black or African-American women? ... Are comics so white-biased (historically, even unconsciously) that there are no credible Native American, Hispanic, African-American or other contenders?

The answer seems to be an unfortunate yes. Historically, the protagonists were all white men, while white women filled the role of sidekick/Girl Friday/ girlfriendin-peril. The industry was slow to respond to the critiques of the Civil Rights and Women's Rights Movements. ...

[And now] Nine over-bosomed super powered white women, and one Asian teenager.

You've come a long way, baby.


*** So, I'll end the article this way, instead. I want you all to do something for me. Everyone who reads this article — draw up your own list. Send it in to Tart. Send it to Wizard. Send it to every comic or pop culture or art list to which you subscribe. Share it with all your friends. Get a conversation going. Talk about these characters, these women — what you like about them, what you admire, why they are important to you. The more conversation, the more debate, the better. The louder the conversation, the more attention it will attract, and The Powers That Be will take notice. They'll notice just how important these characters are to us — and treat them with more respect and dignity. Give languishing characters a second chance. Maybe even invent a few new role models for our daughters (Salek, Sequential Tart, April 2002). This article was published on 1 April, 2002. By 10 April, 68 responses had been posted on the Tartsville BBS offering a wide array of admired heroines, and sharing what individual posters liked most about them. This public BBS serves to strengthen the community around Sequential Tart by helping readers to connect with each other and with the Tarts themselves. Further, the BBS is another way to recruit new writers for the webzine and to communicate the feelings of the Tarts and there readers into the larger comic book industry. The line between the Tarts, their readers, and members of the industry is often quite blurry, and interactions among them are generally characterized by a far friendlier tone than is typical between users and corporate producers.

The Industry Takes Notice


In creating such an atmosphere the Tarts give power to others just as they want power given to them, and in doing so, create a community that is far more attractive to other fans than those communities based on competition over who has been there longest, or is most knowledgeable in comic book trivia, or what have you. In other words, alternate viewpoints and identities are welcome. This dynamic may represent an example of 'TechnoVolksgeist' as described by Peter Lunenfeld, which he proposes as a way to understand digital cultures: "the communal sensibility that develops as individuals struggle to form groups with others with whom they share a deep culture" (8). Lunenfeld argues that digital culture generally has been characterized by a gift economy in which prestige is the most valued commodity; prestige is acquired through the demonstration of programming skill. In this economy, prestige is important because many websites , lists, and other forms of community services are provided through the volunteer work of members, and money rarely enters the equation (7). Sequential Tart fits the definition in so far as all the Tarts volunteer their time and expertise, whether they are writing, doing illustrations and graphics, programming, or administration. But as Lunenfeld points out, any community can deteriorate into nationalism or xenophobia, and certainly hostility to outsiders is a familiar attitude in some online communities. In this scenario, members often perform their prestige through flamewars, taunting “newbies,” and acting intolerant those technologically inexperienced, apparently having to defend their status constantly. Because the Tarts wanted their own heterogenous views, motivations, and contributions to be recognized, acceptance and even encouragement of heterogeneity shaped both social and technical practices and is now deeply embedded in both the community and the online platform. This in turn attracts more participants.


In the Sequential Tart community, each member does not have to maintain her own prestige, rather the community offers positive reinforcement for all its members, based on appreciation for good writing, editing, drawing, and programming, but also on behaving in a reliable, courteous, and supportive way. Because the boundaries of this community are so fluid, the practices of the community mayn expand into the larger comic book culture. Perhaps more importantly when it comes to catching corporate attention, because Sequential Tart is know to be a safe zone for participants, comic book creators are very willing to be interviewed and to contribute original art, which substantially increases Tart's authority in the eyes of fans and comic book publishers alike.

So, while Sequential Tart was not founded to explicitly resist a hegemonic industry, it has facilitated resistance by creating a space in which other views are welcomed and given voice, and allowing the views to be heard outside that space. In creating this space and strengthening these voices, the Tarts act to subvert the dominant narrative of the comic book industry. In Writing a Woman's Life, Carolyn Heilbrun defines women's writing as subversive whenever they privilege it over interactions with men (44). More broadly, we can define the writing of any group as subversive when members privilege their own words and stories over that of the dominant group. So whether that Tarts are writing against a corporate worldview or not, they are choosing to privilege their own responses to comic books and culture generally, over any stereotypical views that others might try to assign. Because it has lasted so long and has been growing steadily, Tart has caught the attention of the mainstream comic book industry itself and has demonstrated to publishers focused on the bottom line that other readers beyond young white men matter as well.


The Growing Influence of Sharp-Tongued Women

Evidence of this growing influence can be seen in the reprinting of reviews and interviews from Sequential Tart on the websites of comic book publishers and creators. For example, the Elfquest website posted a two-part interview with well-known creators Wendy and Richard Pini originally published in Sequential Tart. Elfquest is a venerable comic that has been around since 1977, perhaps the first series to really take off independently of comic book publishing giants DC and Marvel. The Elfquest website has now reprinted the interview; allowing a lengthy interview by Tart Dani Fletcher and then posting it on their own website illustrates the high regard Sequential Tart now enjoys. Dani's interview with the Pinis also demonstrates another reason creators are so cooperative with and supportive of Sequential Tart; when Tart assigns an interview, they send someone who knows the comic, and they solicit questions from anyone else on the staff who has an interest, so that unlike the elementary and dull questions that typify interviews in popular magazines, creators enjoy a conversation with interviewers who are already familiar with their work and often with other interviews they have given. The positive response of individual creators has expanded to publishers as well.

Many publishers displayed their respect for and trust of Sequential Tart during MegaCon 2002 (A national comic book convention in the southern US). For the first time, Sequential Tart experimented with running a booth, and focused their efforts (as always) on outreach. The Tart staff gathered and compiled nineteen recommended reading lists divided by genre, each with about 5 titles listed with a brief description and a 'if you like X, try Y' tagline. When they contacted the creators of the series to let them know they had been selected, the response was


was gratifying; many creators and publishers contributed comic books and graphic novels to be given out as free samples. Editor Lee Atcheson reported afterward that: Creators such as Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), and Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison) and publishers such as DC Comics (Sandman, Lucifer, Starman, The Authority), CrossGen (Meridian), CPM Manga (Aquarium, Dark Angel), Oni Press (Whiteout, Hopeless Savages) and Fantagraphics (The Evil Eye, Safe Area Gorazde) were just a few of the many people and publishers who contributed comics to our booth (Atcheson, Sequential Tart, April 2002). An even greater show of support was enjoyed at the 2003 San Diego ComicCon (an international comic book and pop culture convention) when to celebrate its five year anniversary, Sequential Tart ran an even more elaborate booth than at MegaCon. In addition to publishers donating many comics and graphic novels, many comic book creators volunteered their time for signings and their autographed works for a free raffle. The booth also received rave reviews from members of the BBS community, who relished the chance to meet the Tarts in person.

The positive response from publishers is not so surprising; Sequential Tart provided them with some great free publicity as well as valuable stamp of approval. This kind of exchange takes place less explicitly as well in the steady stream of free items (including comic books, dvds, free movie tickets, press passes, and so on) sent to staff members in the hopes of garnering a good review, and article, or an interview. This might create a conflict of interest, except that since most of this material is entirely unsolicited, the staff feels no obligations to respond unless they really enjoy the material, or unless they find it so egregious that a response is required.


Since 2003, when Tart gained higher visibility, several staff members have moved into paid editorial positions with other comics magazines, or have been hired comic publishers (as creators). Further, one founder, Katherine Keller, was invited to sit on the panel judging nominees for the Eisner Awards, the highest given in the comics industry. Thus we see that the Tarts have moved beyond “poaching” from comic publishers and big media to sometimes taking official roles in those industries, and in any case changing the industry perception of women. They have helped the industry entertain the notion that audiences beyond the youthful male, and creators beyond the generally white male, deserve attention and more importantly, respect.

The interdependent relationship that has evolved between Sequential Tart and the industry differs markedly from the often adversarial dynamic seen in the music or film industry. Two factors explain this: the Tarts never infringe on copyright and they quite clearly are always trying to promote comic books as a medium, a goal they have in common with any comic book publisher or creator.

Unlike many other forms of entertainment or publishing, the comic book industry has always been characterized by highly permeable borders between fans, creators and publishers; a do-ityourself approach; and a complicated, ambivalent relationship with copyright laws. Since the 1950s at least, fans of and participants in this industry have long been grappling with issues often assumed to have been made prominent by the expansion of the web. Comic book creators have never needed institutional credentials to get started. Even the major American publishers, Marvel and DC, still find new talent by trawling conventions

and now websites for talented writers, illustrators, inkers, etc. Because fans become creators with relative ease, they feel a far greater sense of ownership over the media and tend to be more active in related organizations or communities. At the same time, because comic book publishers have a long record of abusing the rights of individual creators, and comic book history has been peppered by many bitter and highly publicized lawsuits, both fans and creators are far more aware of intellectual property issues. In fact, legal disputes over rights are such a problem for individual writers and artists that many well known creators and publications, including Sequential Tart, have commented publicly on the problem in an effort to educate others and prevent novice creators from losing control of their characters and series.6

But even though an adversarial relationship exists between publishers and creators, because many members of the industry started as fans or creators or both, they share many unspoken but shared beliefs. Chief among these is the sense that comic books occupy a permanently precarious position in American culture. Ever since the creation of the comics code in 195? in order to protect children whom is was argued were the primary audience7, comic books and their creators have lived under the constant threat of censorship and struggled to reclaim their early status as a medium capable of producing sophisticated, thought-provoking, adult work. Though the code was finally repealed in 198?, mainstream perceptions seemed fixed on the idea that comic books are for kids. Though most creators, editors, and fans agree this is a problem, corporate executives have realized that children have significant buying power, and
6 For example, Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman, filed a lawsuit against Marvel Entertainment in 2007 over his rights when the characters are licensed for use in other media. 7 Frederick Wertham made this case most in his inflammatory and influential book, Seduction of the Innocent, which led directly to creation of the code. 20

so they pitch even adult series and movie adaptations towards younger audiences, perpetuating both misconceptions about the audience for comic books and feeding the fears of those who feel comics are a bad influence.8

Creator rights to characters or series are also recognized by publishers, creators, and fans as a crucial issue, but the nature of those rights is hotly debated. In cases where a single person has been responsible for creating a series, such as Neil Gaiman was for Sandman, the vast majority of fans agree that the stores and characters belong to Gaiman and his versions of both are "canon," that is to say they are definitive, even if fans would have preferred something different. Further, fans will often not share illegal digital copies of these works, or will share them in addition to purchasing print copies because they don't wish to deprive the creator of royalties or sales numbers. Again, because comics are always preceived as precarious, most fans take a protective view of favorite creators and series.

However, characters and series that are own by a publisher and are created by a revolving set of writers and artists are regarded quite differently. These are considered fair game for parody, slash versions, and other appropriations, not to mention extensive file-sharing. Members of Sequential Tart have a complicated view on this latter situation. While many of the Tarts privately might engage in any or all of these, only parody occurs with any regularity and occasionally slash versions are mentioned in the webzine itself, while file-sharing is not mentioned at all. In fact there have been heated but private debates about piracy in the staff email list, but none of these have yet been made public because agreement has not even been

8 The most recent Batman film, the Dark Knight, is a case in point. 21

reached on whether even publicly debating the matter is acceptable enough to everyone involved. Because some participants do have positions of responsibility in the industry, they face a serious conflict of interest should they even enter a debate which admits the possibility of piracy being an acceptable practice.

In spite of these tensions, fans, creators, and publishers are bound together by the industry's need to draw new talent from the fan-base, creators' needs for support from fans and jobs from the industry, and of course fans' desire for comics to continue being published.

comic book industry has always not just been characterized by significant intertwining with fan communities, but in fact depends on it.

The Tarts' resistance to the sexist stereotypes prevalent in the comic book industry subverts a genre that is itself often a site of resistance to mainstream culture. As noted earlier, even the acts of turning away from a dominant discourse and shifting the focus from production to reception is subversive in feminist terms. Because women and people of color are still often perceived as only a very small fraction of comic book readers, their concerns and interests have often been ignored by the industry. Some creators have turned to the Internet as way to breach industry barriers, but face the stiff challenge of attracting readers. Their efforts have been supported and facilitated by Sequential Tart through reviews, interviews, the BBS, and even through hosting some online comics at the Tart site itself. All of these avenues of communication help to make the work of independent comic creators more widely available, bypassing corporate publishers


and retailers, or organizing readers to influence those entities. But all of this positive activity would be short-lived if Tart was not designed to make participation easy for its own staff.

Keeping the Door Open Any online community is bound to affected by issues of access, and Sequential Tart is no exception. Barriers to participation can be both social and technological and the Tarts are always working to help potential readers overcome these hurdles. The e-zine and the BBS are relatively low tech on the front end, not requiring special plug-ins or software for viewing, which makes them easier for readers to access. Far more importantly, access is also eased for contributors.

Tart has always been a work of love, depending on the volunteer efforts of women who can write, or code, or create graphics, or otherwise contribute needed labor. In its early days, each monthly edition was jointly authored via several mailing lists, one for discussion among all members, one for monthly staff, one for submissions, and one just for editrices. The editrices then coded the html pages by hand, which was enormously time-consuming, even after they taught even the least technically inclined Tarts to use the webzine's standard tags. An even greater burden fell on Lee Atcheson, who has been webmistress from the start. She created the entire Tart website from scratch, hosted it on her server, which she also administered. This continued until 2002 when she created (again from scratch) a web-based system for submitting reviews that maintained a database of information entered in each text field.

The addition of online submission forms for reviews (and later for articles) ensures that all pertinent information is supplied, saves contributors from having to worry about formatting, and


relieves editors from having to hand-code the elements common to every page. When a contributor wishes to submit a review, she logs into the extranet and proceeds through a series of pages in which she enters extensive information about the subject of the review, including items like author, illustrator, publisher, and so on. Eventually the reviewer reaches a page with a text box in which she enters (or pastes) the actual review. In order to enable the review's publication in the standard Sequential Tart "wrapper," the text page also has a drop-down menu offering a choice of Tart's standard html tags, thus freeing the reviewer from any need to code them manually or even know the code. The system for creating articles is similar, except in addition to saving trouble for the writers, it saves work for the editors as well. Rather than the bibliographic data entered for reviews, users who are composing articles instead choose which section of the webzine in which their piece should appear (Columns, Interviews, etc.), fill in headlines, taglines and relevant links. As with the reviews, standard tags can be selected from a drop down menu. At any point the review or article can be saved and completed later, but once it is complete editors approve it and assign a publication date. When that day arrives, the review or article will automatically appear on the website along with all of the other content for that issue. Besides making the coding easier for both writers and editors, the review system in particular functions to leverage user participation. Every piece of metadata entered with a review is then added to a database on the back end. Subsequently, any Tart will be able to select information about comic book series, film studios, and so on from drop down menus, rather than having to enter information manually.

The Tarts' activities clearly represent construction in Schaefer's categories, but by creating a database of comic book metadata, Sequential Tart goes beyond being a simple community of


fans because with every month of reviews and articles they add to a growing archive of data about comic books and popular culture. This growing archive of reviews not only aids other reviewers as described above, but also benefits Sequential Tart's readers. New reviews are published each week, but readers may also go to the Reviews Section where they can filter the archive by genre (movie, comic book, manga, website, and numerous others), and then sort the results by reviewer, grade, title, or again genre. Being able to access the reviews this way is useful not only for casual readers or fans, but also for those who wish to carry out more serious research. Comic books are not catalogued the way books or periodicals are, and many publishers don't maintain very accessible records of publication data. Thus being able to find any records at all, let alone records that can be accessed online, is a great benefit. The reviews and articles are especially important because Tart emphasizes drawing attention to overlooked or marginal creators and titles, many of which are not documented elsewhere.

Perhaps as importantly, the Tarts do not scold people who are inexperienced with computers or with writing. While many of them are by their own admission rather geeky, the Tarts recognize that not everyone has the interest or the money to get very involved with computers. So when people make mistakes in contributions they post, someone typically will explain via email the correct way of contributing an article or formatting the text, if the issue exceeds what is covered by the submission system. Further, extensive documentation on how to write various kinds of articles is available in the extranet, and contributors can get help via the list with the content of their article, not just the technical aspects. The Tarts allow any women who is interested to write for them, regardless of whether that woman's preferences in comic books matches anyone else's or not, and regardless of technical expertise. This openness might lead to the magazine becoming


huge and unwieldy if not for effective guidelines developed by the editorial staff about article length, number of articles in each section per publication cycle, and the frequency of contribution required of staff writers. As Schaefer has pointed out, in file-sharing groups, open-source projects, or other groups that appropriate cultural material there are core participants who make most of the contributions and then a range of other users who participate in a heterogenous way. But in many communities only the core users garner much respect while "newbies" are disparaged. Because at Tart a variety of skills and contributions may give participants high standing in the community, heterogenous contributions are explicitly recognized as an asset.

Further, staff members generally participate in ongoing discussions via the email list about what articles are in the pipeline and what kind might be needed or wanted, encouraging less experienced members to contribute, and allowing the different contributions to be managed more easily. Because there are no printing costs and storage space is abundant, any and all women reading comic-books may be invited to contribute. By designing a system that lowers technical barriers as well, Sequential Tart avoids the pigeon-holing they originally complained of, and as more women participate, more women begin to evolve more thoughtful responses to comic books as a medium.

However, In spite of designing the web platform to enable easy participation, increasing professional and personal demands on core members create continue to pose a challenge. In order to accommodate the changing lives of the senior members of the community another kind of heterogeneity has been accepted. Many of the founders were just finishing college or graduate school when they organized Tart and so had relatively few personal commitments. Now they


have full-time jobs and greater responsibilities there, along with long-term relationships and sometimes children. In order to avoid participants burning out and to accommodate these changes, some senior Tarts have traded roles , have trained assistants, or have even stepped down to become occasional contributors, for short or long periods. In a social sense as well, heterogenous participation has been explicitly recognized and accommodated.

In the already marginal world of comic books, women have used the web to create sites like Sequential Tart to subvert the stereotypes and overcome technical barriers that prevent women's greater participation. Rather than trying to regularize participation, they have instead created a technical platform that supports heterogenous efforts from staff members, and also explicitly encourages participants to participate at whatever level they can offer. Sequential Tart illustrates how users can harness their own free labor by designing a system to support heterogenous participation. But this case also shows how an ambiguous relationship between users and produces may be not only a natural consequence of user participation in a culture industry, but in fact a crucial ingredient ensuring the survival of industry and fans alike.


Works Cited Atcheson, Lee (2002) Personal email, April.

______, (2002a) 'It Lives! In Which the ST Booth at MegaCon Takes On A Life Of Its Own,' Sequential Tart, April. URL (consulted April 2002): http://www.sequentialtart.com/art_0402_10.shtml

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Jonte, Lisa (2001) 'Bizarre Breasts' Sequential Tart, July. URL (consulted March 2002): http://www.sequentialtart.com/bb_0701.shtml

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Salek, Rebecca (2002) 'The Ten Greatest Heroines in Comics Today According to Wizard Magazine or, The List O' Big-Busted, Super Powered White Women (With The Odd Exception).' Sequential Tart, March. URL (consulted March 2002): http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/mar02/art_0302_3.shtml

Schaefer, Mirko (2008) Bastard Culture. Forthcoming, Utrecht University Press, Utrecht, NL.

Scholz, Trebor (2007) "A History of the Social Web." Collectivate: Journalisms, October. URL (consulted August 2008): http://www.collectivate.net/journalisms/2007/9/26/a-history-of-the-socialweb.html

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