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

Own Free Labor

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

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


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)

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


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.

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/ girlfriend-

in-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


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


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


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-it-

yourself 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

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.

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.

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.

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