Pain and Unconsciousness (Book Three, Part 61: Project Chanology)
Previously in Last War in Albion: Even as his relationship with DC and Time Warner deteriorated, Alan Moore supported his friend Steve Moore getting work novelizing the V for Vendetta and Watchmen films, in part because Steve Moore was supporting his ailing brother. In spite of this, DC abruptly cancelled the Watchmen novelization following a phone call between Moore and Gibbons.
“Engrams are a mental image picture containing pain and unconsciousness.” – Neil Gaiman, 1968 BBC interview
In response to this, Moore was incandescent, reasoning that this was “what that odd turn-of-phrase ‘quietly compliant’ was all about–that they expected me to be quietly compliant because I would have been thinking like them, and thinking ‘Oh, if I don’t do what they say they’ll take that job away from Steve.’ That had never even occurred to me. I didn’t think that anyone could ever be that verminous. But, once I had thought that was probably what had happened, I immediately spoke to the people at DC. I told Karen Berger she could never call me again, and that I didn’t want anything to do with anybody at DC Comics. I was furiously angry and sickened at—at least what I’d perceived—had happened. I though that was completely unforgivable and subhuman.” He also took a moment aside at his wedding to Melinda Gebbie shortly after (which dates all of this to early 2007, a year or so after the release of V for Vendetta) to tell Dave Gibbons that he no longer wanted to discuss Watchmen with him at all.
Some time later, Gibbons—who Moore claims had not actually ever thanked him for the money as requested—called Moore to further discuss Watchmen. Specifically, Moore recounts, Gibbons relayed an offer from DC to return the rights to the book in exchange for Moore giving DC his blessing to do prequels and sequels. This, more than anything else in the story, is the bit that is difficult to quite make sense of. Did DC really see the rights to one of their most successful perennial sellers as worth giving up just for permission to do sequels and prequels—sequels and prequels they would eventually decide to do anyway? For that matter, what would the rights to Watchmen actually entail in this case? Clearly DC would retain a license to the characters, and it’s hard to believe they intended to let the original book go out of print, so what could they possibly have been offering Moore?
Whatever the answer, Moore was thoroughly uninterested, angrily retorting, “No, no–I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want these prequels and sequels to exist, and I certainly don’t want the rights to Watchmen back. DC has been abusing that book for a couple of decades. They presumably feel that it is no longer of much value to them, compared to the potential value of the sequels and prequels. So, they’re giving me back the spent carcass of a book that I was once very, very proud of.” He was further unswayed by Gibbons’s subsequent proposal that DC would throw in a very large amount of money. Moore, in response, blew up, ending his friendship with Gibbons, having only one more conversation with him, a bit later, when he belatedly called to thank Moore for the money and to insist that he had misunderstood DC’s intentions regarding Steve Moore, at which point Moore hung up on his longtime friend for the last time.
Could DC really have been so comprehensively petty and manipulative as Moore thought? The possibility is difficult to refute in the face of other data points—Paul Levitz’s staggeringly petty description of Moore as a “stage magician” in the 75 Years of DC Comics hardcover, for instance, or the basic fact that as soon as Moore left DC was immediately willing to engage in all of the sorts of deal renegotiations that they’d refused to do with him with Neil Gaiman, giving the strong sense that what they really objected to was simply that Moore was an uppity troublemaker. Certainly nobody has ever gone egregiously wrong overestimating the callousness of a major media corporation. Equally, Moore’s comprehensive dismissal of the V for Vendetta film in the wake of Joel Silver’s bit of bog standard Hollywood bullshitting makes it clear the extent that once he’s made up his mind about something he is not especially receptive to new information on the subject. And the sheer number of Moore’s creative partnerships that turned sour, including ones like Karen Berger, who didn’t even have anything to do with this controversy, does suggest that Moore’s position, while undoubtedly principled, was short on the qualities of empathy and compassion, and that he was perhaps too quick to seize on individual slights, whether or not he was wrong per se in his interpretations of them. Tempting as it is to look at something like how his anger at Joel Silver’s bullshit snowballed into the end of his friendship with Dave Gibbons and ask questions of who is in the right or the wrong, above all the situation is simply heartbreaking—a chain of events that is at once inevitable, and yet seems like it could have so easily been preventable.
The story of V for Vendetta would, however, prove to have one more act to run—one that would, for Moore at least, see it move to a resolution that was as unexpectedly satisfying as it was simply unexpected. This aspect of the story begins in 1999 with the foundation of two websites: 2channel and Something Awful. The former of these was a Japanese website called a textboard—an anonymous discussion forum that initially positioned itself as the “second channel” to a chronically overwhelmed site called Amezou that had a similar setup. In 2001, when it looked as though 2channel might get shut down, another spinoff board called Futaba Channel spun off at the website 2chan.net. Futaba Channel notably evolved the concept of the textboard into the imageboard, which allowed for image-based posts. This led to a culture focused on absurdism and visual humor of the sort that would eventually be referred to as memes.
Something Awful, on the other hand, was an American website that began as a comedy blog started by a man named Richard Kyanka, who used the handle “Lowtax.” Its forums quickly developed a distinct culture with a deep love of shock humor of the same basic sort that characterized the Summer Offensive—one that proved tremendously influential on the larger Internet as ideas that got their start on Something Awful became more widely promenant. One of Something Awful’s subforums was an anime forum whose name gave a pretty vivid sense of the character and sense of humor of the place: Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse. Eventually the posters on Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse discovered Futaba Channel, and began being influenced by the culture there.
In 2003, two events happened at roughly the same time. First, Lowtax cracked down on a lot of the more extreme content that was popular on Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse, creating a large number of dissatisfied users who looked to jump to a new site. Coincidentally, a Something Awful user named Christopher Poole, using the handle moot, created an imageboard of his own around the same time called, in a riff on Futaba Channels url, 4chan. 4chan ran on the same open source code that powered Futaba Channel, roughly translated by Poole, who did not actually know Japanese and so was forced to rely on automated translations. In a key decision, the word “Nanashii,” meaning nameless, which was used to denote posters who did not provide any sort of username, was instead translated as “Anonymous.”
The early days of 4chan were fragile, anxious things, with the site nearly getting shut down four times in its first year of operation, sometimes because of horrifically buggy site code, sometimes because of 4chan’s explicit anti-moderation stance, which meant that extreme content, including child pornography, was often shared there. In August of 2004, however, the site finally acquired stable hosting and began to expand rapidly, developing its own freewheeling culture based on shock humor, gratuitous and giddy excess, and raucous absurdism—one that would heavily influence the larger Internet culture of the years to follow. Later years would reveal the myriad of dark sides to this—perhaps most notably, amidst the shock humor and edgelording was the widespread tolerance of “ironic” racism. This was seized upon by white nationalists, who correctly realized that people who thought racist jokes were funny could be successfully radicalized into being full-blown neo-nazis, and engaged in active recruitment on 4chan—efforts that would give rise to the fascist resurgence of the late 2010s. But other tendencies existed within the vast melange of people drawn to 4chan. The site, after all, was more than anything a place where weirdos could do weird stuff, and that attracted many types of weirdness, There’s a truism that everyone who was on 4chan in the early days has by now either transitioned or become a Nazi; like most truisms, it exaggerates the case—plenty of 4chan users were just ordinary nerds of various stripes. But it is true that 4chan provided a pipeline to political radicalisms beyond the far right.
The key moment in this came in 2008 with a movement called Project Chanology. The underlying structure of this was something that had long been an aspect of 4chan’s culture, with users regularly organizing collective actions in which they utilized sheer numbers to create chaos on various websites for reasons that usually boiled down to “the lulz.” Some of these were simply mean-spirited pranks—repeated disruptions of the online game Habbo Hotel with pranks like crowding people around the game’s swimming pool so that no one could use it while claiming it was “closed due to AIDS,” but that sometimes had a more ideological bent such as the hacking of far right radio host Hal Turner. These hacks were often attributed to Anonymous, a cheeky group about the way in which people’s posts on 4chan were credited meant to ironically imply that they were all the actions of one person. In 2008, however, their ire turned on the Church of Scientology. Scientology had long been one of the most infamously obnoxious organizations on the Internet, with a long and ugly history of using lawsuits to shut down critics. In January of 2008, they did this to remove an embarrassing video from YouTube, which played badly in the emphatically anti-censorship community of 4chan. And so the Church of Scientology suddenly found itself faced with a very new sort of foe: several thousand pissed off Internet trolls with a flair for the ridiculously dramatic.
On January 21st, 2008, a video was posted to YouTube featuring synthesized speech over time lapse video of clouds. “Hello, Scientology,” it opened. “We are Anonymous.” What followed was at once ominous and braggadocio filled—a manifesto informing Scientology that “Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind–for the laughs–we shall expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form,” culminating in the famous slogan that “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” This was quickly followed by a call for in person protest at Scientology sites around the world—a significant escalation for a group that had generally restricted its activities to the digital sphere, which spoke volumes to just how popular this movement was on 4chan. Because of Scientology’s infamous litigiousness, protesters were advised to conceal their faces. One of the more popular approaches to this proved to be buying one of the cheap plastic Guy Fawkes masks that Warner Bros had produced as merchandise for the V for Vendetta film. This quickly became an iconic image within the movement and its tactics.
Exactly why this happened is not entirely clear, especially given that the extreme decentralization of Anonymous means that there is no singular motivation for a given aesthetic choice other than that it proved popular with the people doing it. It has been suggested that it began as a reference to an old 4chan meme called Epic Fail Guy that used the image of the mask, a reference meant to suggest that Scientology was a bunch of failures. Certainly this is possible—arbitrary humor like that is common. But it does little to describe the way in which the mask quickly spread as a popular symbol. More fundamental, surely, is simply the fact that the aesthetic worked. The uniform plastic mask emphasized the basic fact that these people were Anonymous, while also tapping into the iconography of both the comic and the film, in which a massed protest of Guy Fawkes masks was a key part of the resolution—a change that, it must be said, had much more to say about how change and protest is actually affected than Moore’s romantic notions of a lone visionary terrorist. In essence, Anonymous simply noticed the same thing that Lloyd and Moore had nearly thirty years earlier: that delivering ominous and threatening messages about revolutionary in a chintzy Guy Fawkes mask was a really good visual. [continued]