Requiem for an Engine: A comic board’s legacy

It was a strange and fruitful blip in the online comic community. Writer Warren Ellis’s comic book message board The Engine ran from early September 2005 to Aug. 31, 2007, birthing in its short life new comic books, ongoing collaborative superteams, Eisner and Harvey Award-winning projects, and at least one marriage.

My affectionate memories are not only those of a participant, but of one of six hand-picked moderators (or Filthy Assistants, or Enforcers, or Attack Wombs, or…) from its birth to retirement. I spent hours a day reading, enforcing, and talking Engine, so it looms large in my memory as a crucible of comic history. The Engine was uniquely suited to making things happen, not just talking about them, and I’m heading back into the mid-aughts to explore what made it such fertile ground and why its echoes affect comics to this day.

The Engine logo by Brian Wood

The Engine logo by Brian Wood

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”

The Engine’s original charter called for a unique structure: protected sections for published or contracted-to-publish creators working outside the superhero genre. Somewhere in the mid-aughts web small indie fora devoted to a particular creator’s work no doubt puttered along nicely, but major comic sites simply didn’t excise superheroes.

A few days before The Engine went live, Ellis expounded on his two primary intentions in 8/29/05’s Bad Signal e-newsletter:

[The Engine] serves two purposes: a point for conversation about FELL, DESOLATION JONES and my other adult-oriented, non-superhero, creator owned works. There are loads of other places for people to talk about PLANETARY, NEXTWAVE, JACK CROSS, ULTIMATE SECRET and all. And also a stage for like-minded creators, involved in original non-superhero work, to talk about what they’re doing. That, you’ll note, is not an all-inclusive and all-welcoming stance, and I’m going to be selective about it, too. There’ll also, with luck, be a space for pros to talk that’ll be read-only to everyone else: there are conversations worth having in public that wouldn’t survive thread-drift from the audience.

Later missives pointed out that the genre rule wasn’t an exclusion born out of animosity but out of the protective instinct that would later categorize many of The Engine’s successes. From Bad Signal on 9/5/05 (also posted to his website):

I realise the [no superhero] genre distinction is going to put some noses out of joint. But there are loads of other, bigger message boards that are pretty much all about superhero comics. It’s not my field of interest. I’m not even talking about my own superhero work at the Engine. And there’s just not a big public place for those of us working outside the genre to talk. I wanted to make a space for people like me, focussed on making original material outside the genre. That’s the whole deal.

But to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the reasonable message board adapts itself to the world, and Ellis’s skill at trendspotting and adaptation kept his message boards evolving to fit the moment. As The Engine grew, the superhero ban was lifted in stages. In October 2006 a section opened for discussing Ellis’s superhero work. In Bad Signal he explained this move:

All part of the original plan. There were discussions that needed to be had and information that needed to be moved around in the first year… In the second year, it starts moving towards becoming “my” message board. One element of that is bringing discussion/news of all my work under one roof, trapped by section.

After a year and a half of verboten or carefully curated superhero discussions, it was time to bring capes and spandex into the equation. Ellis announced the new era and shared his reasoning via his website and Bad Signal in May 2007:

In reconfiguring the Engine message board, I’ve taken off the no-superhero rule. That’s less interesting to me than it was two years ago, and, as I move into other concerns, it only makes sense to let everyone have use of the place. It’s not backtracking, so much as not giving a fuck anymore…!

Moreover, I want my friends to be able to talk about all their work.

The cape change brought about more talk, more threads, and an expansion of pros invited to participate in the Creators’ Conference.

Traffic logs would be an interesting footnote to the superhero switch but all I can offer is anecdotal evidence from a moderator’s memory: I recollect a noticeable spike in superhero talk but without an accompanying increase in discourse quality. That’s often the way: most comic fans are in a position to voice an opinion about Wolverine while far fewer are conversant in indie non-genre titles.

In fact, I wonder whether the superhero noise wasn’t part of the decision to close the Engine three months later. Ellis announced its imminent demise in 8/7/07’s Bad Signal:

THE ENGINE will close a little before midnight UK time on August 31 2007.

The first year was about getting creators together and facilitating conversations that didn’t have anywhere else to go. The second year was about just providing people with an interesting place to talk. Two years is enough. Time to move on.

Very shortly, Whitechapel opened and the comic board evolution continued with a new feel, staff, and structure (albeit with some pieces that had worked well on The Engine and WEF).

By June 2009, Ellis’s retrospective of his boards placed The Engine solidly in a collaborative vision: “My previous boards had some kind of activist or ideological intent… The Engine was There Is Power In A Union”. That writhing mass of 24/7 comic talk promoted creative labor, inspired new works, and gave a voice to non-superhero, non-Big Two creators.

Post and be merry, for tomorrow this thread may be nuked

We value the ephemeral. Consistency leads to boredom. Ellis understood this and kept his Engine in motion. Frequent unannounced restructuring meant we knew we were partying on someone else’s terms. Be merry, for tomorrow this thread may be nuked! It cast a bacchanalian energy over the board.

Warren Ellis casting a benevolent eye on his creation circa 2006.

Warren Ellis casting a benevolent eye on his creation circa 2006.

At no point could we whine about a structural change or moan that it was fine before and we’d always done it this way. Change was too frequent. As The Engine adapted to industry trends and Ellis’s whims, so we adapted to new playgrounds and rules. We stayed limber.

When The Engine completed her mission and went dark for the last time nothing was archived; we are all free from whatever mistakes we might have made then. We benefited from growth and experimentation without repercussion.

Collaborative fertility

In its two years, the Engine’s creative culture birthed fruitful collaborations, partnerships, and projects. This was part of its charter: a dedicated section of the board facilitated artists and writers meeting to join forces.

Sex Criminals criminals Chip Zdarsky and Matt Fraction met on Ellis’s previous board, the WEF (where Fraction also met his wife Kelly Sue DeConnick) but bonded on The Engine. “We clicked on The Engine, for sure, “ says Zdarsky. “On the ‘Chip Zdarsky Day’ (one of the best days of my life, honestly) I interviewed a bunch of people over the course of the day and Fraction was one of them. I feel like that was the day where I actually thought, ‘Huh. I’d really like to work with this guy,’ which is something I rarely, rarely, think. Another highlight of that day for me was in the ‘Chip portrait thread,’ when Mike Wieringo, who I didn’t know, joined in and did a sketch of me. I think I actually jumped out of my chair.” (I don’t have Wieringo’s portrait to share, but my drawing of Chip survives.)

“I owe my return to comics — both as a fan and as a creator — to the ENGINE,” says creator Rantz Hoseley. “It was the hub by which I caught up on what changes had occurred in the decade I’d been out, it helped focus my ‘vision’ and [was] where I met many, many, many creators who I didn’t know and would go on to become friends… Comic Book Tattoo likely would not have existed if not for the Engine, and I would not have gotten the Eisner and Harvey awards for it.”

Other Engine pairings didn’t result in comics alone: writer Leslie Powell and artist Michael Furious started out as comics collaborators, quickly fell in love, and were later married. “It was The Engine that brought us together, ultimately,” says Leslie today. “It was a good place. I love the connections I’ve made there.”

Professional protection

Ellis and his moderators enforced a clear division between amateur and professional creators: only pros with published work to their name or contracts to publish were allowed to post in the Creators’ Conference area.

As an Engine moderator who dealt with angry people demanding Conference posting privileges, I can assure you that this angered a lot of amateurs. But the benefits were clear: maintaining a safe space for professional discussion meant creators could chat, vent, solicit advice, and offer their perspective unfettered by fan interruptions.

It’s worth revisiting Ellis’s 8/29/05 Bad Signal on the topic: “There are conversations worth having in public that wouldn’t survive thread-drift from the audience.” Amateurs and fans both benefited from watching the pros being pros. “The Engine was a place where you could dissect the craft, culture and creation of comics with people who absolutely knew what they were talking about,” remembers fan Nick Ellis.

artist Anne Timmons (http://www.annetimmons.com) shared some of her sketches on The Engine's Flickr group.

Artist Anne Timmons (http://www.annetimmons.com) shared some of her sketches on The Engine’s Flickr group.

Because professional creators were respected and protected, The Engine accumulated a who’s who of stellar participants: Dave Gibbons, Brian Wood, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Chip Zdarsky, Becky Cloonan, Carla Speed McNeil, James Owen, Jacen Burrows, Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Robert Kirkman (briefly), Dean Haspiel, B. Clay Moore, journalists like Tom Spurgeon and Heidi MacDonald, comic shop owners like James Sime, and so many more. And don’t forget that Warren Ellis was participating daily (hourly). “Seriously, the Conference section is my favourite part of the Engine, and I’d love to see more pros there,” he said in a June 1, 2007 website post.

There aren’t many places on the internet where so many professionals can share and joke freely with their peers. Finder maestra Carla Speed McNeil says of The Engine: “It made it worth beginning to overcome my computer-phobia. Warren made getting on-line like taking part in a piece of fiction anyway, training wheels for the Singularity.” Warren Ellis’s boards provided an extraordinary place for this. “If in vivo brain dissection technology advances far enough (we’re all crossing our fingers, I’m sure), it’ll be clear that I learned a disproportionate amount on The Engine,” says writer Jim Ottaviani.

More than any other factor, this seems to be the secret of The Engine’s legacy: an established comic creator offered a welcoming but strictly moderated site for comics professionals. With such quality participation assured, the rest of us enjoyed all the typical joys of a comic site as well as an unprecedented look behind the scenes.

Ellis’s uncanny ability to guide staggering web traffic helped pros, too. “It certainly helped me financially,” recalls McNeil. “The day I set up a bookstore, Warren pointed a Fu Manchu lacquered fingernail in my general direction, and my computer beeped erratically (every time I got a sale) for forty-eight hours.”

Nurturing up-and-comers

The Engine welcomed new talent. Anyone dreaming of professional industry work could show off their pictures, solicit their self-published books, and generally show off. (It worked. I spent more time in Artists’ Alley at comic conventions saying hello to Engine folks and buying their work than before or since.)

Felipe Sobreiro (http://www.sobreiro.com/) redesigns Wonder Woman for an Engine Remake/Remodel thread (prompt archived here http://www.flickr.com/photos/sobreiro/4632998104/)

Felipe Sobreiro (http://www.sobreiro.com) redesigns Wonder Woman for an Engine Remake/Remodel thread (prompt archived at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sobreiro/4632998104)

“The egalitarian nature of the place was important,” says Leigh Walton, who in the Engine years was a student and intern at Top Shelf Productions and today works in marketing for Top Shelf. “It gave me the confidence to talk to industry pros as peers, and was a pretty significant factor in me feeling like I could belong in the comics industry – that the bar for entry was low and the planet was small, so I could just be a college student who had read a lot of comics and blogs, and that would be enough to almost wrap my head around the entire field. Without the Engine, I wouldn’t have approached Top Shelf so confidently, and maybe not be where I am at all.”

The Engine’s influence plays an indirect role today in West Coast comics academia. Matthew Silady published his first graphic novel in 2007 and today serves as Chair of the California College of Art’s MFA in Comics program. “I know [The Engine] had a major impact on me, Silady says. “The folks on WEF and the Engine conned me into thinking it was a good idea to give comics a try. Of course, they were absolutely right.”

The sense of community stemming from pros and fans sharing the same space meant a lot to Multiplex creator Gordon McAlpin. “The Engine was the first place on the internet that I really started getting a sense of “comics” as a community on the Interweb — and that I was a part of it. Actual pros, would-be professionals (like myself) and fans all bumping shoulders with each other… just talking, nerding out, and of course arguing like a bunch of equals. That was a pretty amazing feeling for a guy who had never had a conversation with a professional cartoonist outside of a convention center.”

Writer and artist Montilee Stormer summarizes its influence neatly: “The Engine was a community for Creatives and Fans and Future Fans. There’s still nothing like it.”

Other protected classes

Well before Google started demanding real names on YouTube comments, The Engine required similar personal responsibility. Names were required. Moderators mined the new user queue daily for nicknames and laid a swift smackdown on anyone attempting to participate under a pseudonym or handle. Requiring real names led to more genteel exchanges and prevented anonymous attacks.

Artist's rendition of four of the Engine moderators. Melinda, Jessica, Rachel, Maddie. (Attribution lost.)

Artist’s rendition of four Engine mods. L-R: Melinda, Jessica, Rachel, Maddie. (Attribution lost.)

Another stroke of genius on Ellis’s part was to establish an all-female moderating force. With five women in multiple time zones enforcing the rules and communicating with participants, it was clear from day one that The Engine wouldn’t tolerate the sexist bullshit that female fans faced in nearly every other corner of online comics fandom. A constant female presence showed that The Engine welcomed women and ensured that female voices rang out every day in nearly every conversation.

Strong moderation kept conversations mostly civil and on-topic. Writer Joseph O’Brien says “I miss The Engine. It was a beacon of sanity and civilization in a world overrun with idiots.”

The dirty bits

Oh, there were flaws. I don’t mean to misrepresent The Engine as a comic community utopia; not even my advanced level of Engine nostalgia could allow that.

It wasn’t a two-year laserlike focus on comics. Though Ellis did his damnedest to keep the professional and comic-focused sections lively, the catch-all threads were usually the most heavily trafficked, because everyone likes to blow off steam without having to say something profound about comics. To boot, Warren Ellis has a famously sharp tongue and doesn’t suffer fools, which occasionally dissuaded folks from discussing his work as much as he would have wished.

Finally, like every message board or online community ever, there were flounces and attacks and public breakdowns. By protecting professionals to the extent The Engine did, it was almost impossible to delicately remove published pros harboring hateful politics or martyr syndromes. Happily, these were rare.

Favorite memories

Some of my favorite Engine memories include:

  • Chip Zdarsky’s day-long Engine takeover. We gave him admin powers and, as you’d expect, he ran rampant in the most delightful way.

  • I once helped host an image for Dave Gibbons. Dave Gibbons!

  • New comics. Discovering new titles from fans and pros alike was hell on the budget and grand on the reading list. In 2006 I read 108 distinct comic titles.

  • I became a comic book character! Starchild creator James Owen modeled a goddess after me in chapter 3 of his story Obscuro, printed in the anthology Negative Burn #1. Artist Jacen Burrows drew me as a zombie on a variant cover of Ellis’s Blackgas #2. And here’s me as a zombie by artist Shawn Richter.

    Enforcer Maddie in Engine t-shirt; May 2006

    Enforcer Maddie in Engine t-shirt; May 2006

  • My kitchen game leveled up thanks to the cooking thread. This is where I learned to make gnocchi and stuff a chicken breast. Rachel, bless her, archived a lot of the recipes here and I’ve returned to it several times over the years. My only sorrow is that Carla Speed McNeil’s potato gnocchi in aurora sauce didn’t make it to our off-site archive.

  • We had t-shirts!
  • Meeting my astounding co-mods. Though usually separated by an ocean, Rachel and I managed to meet up and travel together from San Diego to Las Vegas. Jessica and I had a blast at San Diego Comic-Con 2007; she’s a woman of talent and mystery. The Engine brought me to lifelong friends.
  • To this day I recognize creators that I first became aware of on The Engine. For instance, at Image Comics’ July 2013 Image Expo, I was astounded by how many writers and artists present were folks I had first learned of on that message board. The Engine’s influence lives on.
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