This Comic Captures 'Growing Up Internet,' From 4Chan Trolls to Forum Cops
Merritt Kopas's 'Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy' recalls coming of age online pre-Facebook.
Image: Merritt Kopas/Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy
"MAKE THEM WORK FOR EVERY DROP OF ICHOR SHED FROM YOUR WIRED BODY, WISHING YOU WERE A MACHINE…"
Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy delivers on the intensity promised by its name, exploring the passions and aggressions of an online childhood which now lie dormant and forgotten in cyberspace.
The webcomic, created by game designer, author of Videogames for Humans, and all-round creative polymath Merritt Kopas, takes the experience of "growing up internet" as its theme. It delves into a personal history of multiple virtual identities, niche cultural fixations (Dragonball Z, Ghost in the Shell and manga series Rurouni Kenshin), and sexual awakening which many will remember from life online in the 90s and early 00s. The comic celebrates the fluidity and eclecticism of a pre-Facebook cultural diet, occasionally mourning its loss—though Kopas also sees it as something of a cautionary tale.
"I certainly hope the book doesn't come off as romanticising the old web," she said over Skype. "I wouldn't wish it upon anyone to have to grow up on 4chan. To forge a '4chan identity' would be the worst thing ever, and there are still people doing it. I feel terrible for them because there are other places they can go now..."
Kopas wrote the comic as a poem before collaborating with 28 artists, all of them personal friends, to bring each page to life. It's currently on preorder and will be released on March 4.
The comic is loosely themed around the idea of tracking down everyone who ever insulted or trolled the author, the "revenge fantasy" of the title. It captures the feverish culture-gathering and curiosity many of us will remember from our dial-up years: link-chasing from forums through to MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and fan communities, joining in a rhizomatic internet culture which was never "forced" the way memes are today.
Kopas sees this serendipity—happening across things you end up becoming obsessed by—as all but vanished from the modern internet. "Maybe it's the case that I'm just not in those spaces anymore, and I'm sure people do have the experience of being surprised by the internet," she said. "But it certainly doesn't happen to me in the same way. It feels like I'm always in the place I'm supposed to be, and expected to be."
In Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy, online life is something you dedicate yourself to after your homework, a creative act which can be solemn and laughable at the same time. We relive the pathetic power trip of being a "forum cop" and the oddly gratifying humiliation of being attacked in comments. We intrude on fantasies about "bishies" who have the ears, tails, and pointed noses of furries, and attempt to make peace with it all years later.
There are clear cultural touchpoints for most millennials who spent their childhood playing games—Zelda, Mario, Pokemon, illicit copies of GTA 3 bought by grudging adults—but Kopas does not set out to trace a universal "internet childhood," not least because back then the internet was a less predictable place. She chooses instead to showcase her personal experiences in all their specificity and weirdness.
Similarly, she wanted to avoid producing a simple homage to old internet kitsch, replicating the look of Windows 3.1 and Geocities websites. "In my games, and now in other projects, I'm interested in looking at what those memories mean for us and what we are going to do with them, rather than simply recreating the form of them without considering why they were there in the first place," she said. The comic goes beyond recreating an "old internet" aesthetic by examining its idiosyncrasies and rituals: the covert clicking on 4chan and the subsequent self-disgust; the strategically shrunken text, too small for parents notice across a room.
"I wouldn't wish it upon anyone to have to grow up on 4chan"
There is something defiant about this quasi-seedy, quasi-sentimental vision of the old web, at odds with the antiseptic memories in "On this day" Facebook posts, or the rampant fake 90s nostalgia we are fed through listicles. The comic reminds us that a memory doesn't always have to be good in order to be formative.
Within the comic's revenge fantasy framing, we're not revisiting old foes for nostalgia value but to track them down and annihilate them. Kopas calls on the cybernetic spectre of Roy Batty, anti-hero of Blade Runner, and pays knowing tribute to his celebrated death speech. The question looms: Who is the replicant here? The narrator? The reader? The invisible online enemy? Or is it all three, along with anyone who "grew up internet" and learned about adult life through a dial-up modem?
By casting the reader as the rebel cyborg, Kopas celebrates and condemns the internet at once. She revisits the rich cultural lexicon an online childhood has taught us, along with the loneliness, uncertainty, and guilt it leaves behind.
Kopas identifies threads between past and present, and takes stock of what was lost. This includes the freedom we once had—unfashionable today—to choose our own online names and identities: In one panel we see a body with many faces, online avatars now turned to "vampire dust." The splintered self, spread across different websites and profiles, was once central to many of our online lives, but today seems alien to Twitter and Facebook's culture of "self-branding."
Kopas agrees. "I think there's a pressure to interact with the internet as a singular, coherent person, and be tied into one single identity," she said. "There are a lot of people who don't do this, for various reasons—people doing sex work, for example, might have several personalities—but there isn't that same creation of characters. People do still role-play but it seems much less common. There were problems with that kind of fragmentation, but there was also a freedom of being."
The comic is worth reading for anyone seeking to commemorate that lost time, and to make peace with their multiple past selves. It reminds the reader how much of an emotional cyborg they are: We have grown up both online and off, outsourcing to the internet a great deal of our development, allowing it to mediate our opinions and our capacity to feel.
There is something heartbreakingly futile to the comic's ending, because justice may never be served. The demons the protagonist is chasing logged off long ago, their domains expired and their passwords forgotten. Their actions will go unavenged. A true "Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy" could never be, but it is this impossibility which keeps us coming back, creating, self-fashioning, and searching for an identity that lasts.
As Batty says in his final words, "All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain..."