"It's funny, I remember loading Zelda.com, and Zelda.com was definitely a porn website," Merritt Kopas, author of Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy, recalled. "This was like, early '90s, so I'm sure Nintendo bought it back, but [it used to be] a porn site." It's different in 2016, of course. Nowadays, Zelda.com dutifully tells you about all the Nintendo-branded games you can buy, because of course it does.
Here is what lies at the heart of Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy: it is a comic about the experience of growing up and finding yourself while surfing the wild west of the old internet. It is a meditation on the ways the internet has changed over the years, and the ways we change alongside it.
Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy started as lines of poetry, independent pieces that didn't necessarily link up to one another. Earlier this year, however, Kopas started a fundraiser to raise money for facial and top surgery, and that's how she got the idea to sell her art to help the proceedings. Kopas went on to enlist the help of 28 different all-star artists, such as Mia Schwartz and Michael DeForge, to contribute their art to the project. (Full disclosure: some of the artists are personal friends of mine, and I've worked with Kopas on a separate book.) Every artist picked their own lines and drew their own interpretations of the text, which probably sounds like it would result in a giant mess, but that's not what happened. There's a cohesion that binds Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy together, helped by the fact that most of the artists who worked on it are around the same age.
Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy is technically a story specific to Merritt Kopas, but aspects of her experience, like using the internet to explore sex, or loving anime like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, are things plenty of people are familiar with.
"I think about my day to day over the past few years, I have internet access everywhere I go," Kopas said. "I have the internet in my pocket, and it's like this omnipresent source of information that can talk to other people.
"That whole concept of 'IRL' -- the only people who really talk about it seriously are people like Sherry Turkle, who make a living off of writing books about how the internet is destroying our brains or whatever. Most people don't really take that seriously any more. Whereas when I was growing up, people knew what the internet was, but there was this whole sense that it was this weird unexplored territory still."
For Kopas, the internet used to be a place that we actually visited, and explorers who braved its unruly jungle didn't have the luxury of a map. Back in the '90s, once someone was online, there was no telling where they might end up.
"A lot of my experiences were just sort of stumbling into something and having this vague sense that I wasn't supposed to be there," Kopas said.
Contrast that to now, where you can assume that the average person frequents the same specific websites most of the time: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram. Each one comes with its own ecosystem of trends, in-jokes and popular memes.
It's the sort of thing that makes it easy to look back on some of our early internet experiences with a tinge of nostalgia: weren't things more interesting back then? Hasn't the internet become less unruly and exciting, have we perhaps lost something along the way? But, it's worth noting that some of what the internet used to offer wasn't necessarily positive. Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy also grapples with the guilt and disgust of growing up on 4chan, a website that, even after its heyday, still serves millions of people every day.
"I remember in the early 2000's, finding someone else who would admit to being on /b/ in person was like, such a weird connection that you could share with someone," Kopas said.
"Meme culture wasn't a thing as much, it sort of started to get out there through South Park and some other mainstream sources, but it wasn't like it is now. People weren't posting memes on Facebook. [4chan] was like a weird secret society. I guess over a period of time it occurred to me that it was a horrible place."
Lots of people go through that realisation, which is why people don't openly speak of 4chan's impact on their lives.
"A lot of people have that same experience of growing up on these awful places with no oversight and no kind of harassment policy," Kopas said. "That was kind of the idea, that they were just this free for all. And people still have a lot of shame around that. I've had conversations with other artists and writers who talk about this stuff, and I think people think it's much less common than it is.
"I think stuff [like 4chan] has an impact on you," Kopas said. "Any place, or any culture or media that you're engaging with when you're in a formative time is gonna stick with you in some way. It's weird because so many of the depictions of sexuality and bodies and women are so horrific, but there's also this weird freedom [to it].
"I think this is true of a lot of weird fetishy kink places: they're super gross and horrible, and also the best way to find permission for stuff you wouldn't otherwise... a lot of people who came up on those sites acknowledge 'yeah these were really gross and bad but they gave me a space to think through stuff. Even if it wasn't the best space possible, it was the best one that I could find at the time.'"
In one of the most memorable lines in the comic, Kopas says that she still feels the mark of 4chan a decade later. This, for me, is what makes the comic so outstanding: it reminds me of all the different websites I used to frequent as a kid. There are so many communities out there that shaped much of who I am today... none of which exist still. I can't navigate those pages any more, I can't just log in and talk to the same people I used to in same way I might be able to walk down an old neighbourhood street that's changed but is still there. The most I can hope for is an Archive.org daguerreotype; years of memories turned into a digital graveyard.
Some things remain, however.
"There are a couple of really vestigial, compulsive internet behaviours I have, and one of them is that I do the GameFAQs poll every day," Kopas laughed.
"My GameFAQs account is 15 years-old," Kopas said. "I've had it for over half of my life."
"The other weird internet vestigial thing I do is something called 'NationStates'," Kopas continued. "It's this online game that's existed for like 12 years. Basically, it's like a political simulator thing where it gives you issues every day, and you can pick one out of a few different possibilities. I've been playing it since high school; it's like the only game I play any more, and it's not even really a game. I just have this enormous nation because I've just been plugging away at it for like ten years."
In a sense, it's not that the internet has gotten less weird, but rather, the internet has gotten more corporate. People post off-kilter things to the internet all the time, it just happens to mostly live on centralised social media websites. In particular, teens and people of colour make up a good deal of our experience online, coining catchphrases like 'What are thooooose' and 'on fleek', only to never see any of the fame, recognition or profit that should accompany their contribution to popular culture. Instead, those spoils will come to the brands and websites that manage to monetise memes the fastest. Before you know it, that hilarious joke you saw two weeks ago is getting parroted by a chain restaurant to try to sell you burgers.
Arguably, that the way we present and exist on the internet has changed, too.
"The fact that we have much higher bandwidth connections now, and that we have much better digital cameras means that everyone can upload selfies," Kopas mused. "Selfies are a thing now. Selfies couldn't have been a thing at a time when that tech didn't exist. Very few people were scanning pictures of themselves to use as message board pictures. Very few people had webcams, and if they did they were very low res. The whole idea of the selfie, the whole, 'this is who you are, this is a representation of your meat body' was not really [as ubiquitous]."
The specifics of who you are and what you do have become pretty important online. Websites increasingly ask for your real name, or ask you to link your actual social media accounts. And if you do carve out a space for yourself anonymously, it's never a sure thing. It's practically become a rite of passage on the internet to have some arsehole reveal your personal information to the world ("doxxing"), and since the internet never forgets, bits and pieces of who you are always floating around, waiting to be discovered.
"It [used to feel] a lot easier to be different people in different places," Kopas said. "I think that's still possible, but it's discouraged.
"I remember being on a DDR forum that was hyper local, it was by region. I was on there, and I was on a Warhammer forum, and then I played on a Dragon Ball Z MUD, and I was like a different person on all those places. It's still true that the kind of aspects of myself that I present on Facebook or Twitter are different, but they're all me. They're all kind of expected to be similar. There is this pressure to unify your presence and to have a brand in a way that there didn't used to be. I think that's what I miss the most, the lack of pressure to present like a coherent self."
Every so often, I'll look up some of the people I used to know on old forums, much like you might old high school classmates. None of us talk any more, haven't talked in years, really. They probably don't even remember who I am any more. That's fine. Just seeing them out there, leading their lives, is a comfort. We made it through all those confusing, hectic years as teenagers on the internet. We made it, and it's going to be OK, guys.