May 22, 2009 5 Comments
Over the last couple of years, I’ve become addicted to Wikipedia. Not just consulting it for answers about everything under the sun, but writing and editing articles as well. Yes, I am a Wikipedia editor. (And you can be one too.)
It’s not really a big deal. Anyone can do it; you don’t even need to create a user account (though it’s much more fun to do so). That’s the beauty — and the danger — of the whole system: Wikipedia is literally open to anybody, which means it’s uniquely vulnerable to vandalism and deliberate misinformation. And of course we’ve all heard horror stories about how "inaccurate" it is, or infamous examples of slander (particularly in biographical entries). Or how Wikipedia is not considered a legitimate source for academic research. (There is also a study, however, that compared a range of science-related Wikipedia articles with those from Encyclopedia Brittanica and found the two sources virtually identical in terms of accuracy.) Actually, what makes Wikipedia such a formidable force is how little vandalism there actually is. And the fact is that most articles of any significance are constantly vetted, and any malevolent contributions are speedily removed. Wikipedia actually has an incredibly stringent set of guidelines for writing articles, and you will find the best entries are widely sourced and footnoted, overseen by editors with a great deal of professional knowledge.
In any case, just try doing a Google search, and most often the top result is a Wikipedia entry. With Wikipedia and Google (even unintentionally) combining forces, Wikipedia is increasingly becoming the dominant Internet research tool.
Personally, I’m charmed and fascinated by the "crowdsourcing" ethos at the heart of Wikipedia. I love the idea that collective wisdom is more reliable and "objective" than the old encyclopedia model of a selected few "experts" deeming what’s relevant and factual. Which brings me to my own particular journey down the rabbit hole.
In the course of doing research on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina for A.D., I came to strongly rely on Wikipedia. As is natural, in the course of my research I followed internal links to other articles, and then others, becoming increasingly amazed by the breadth of topics the site covered. Eventually I began to check out areas I already had some expertise in, and I soon discovered that although Wikipedia was attempting to be a clearinghouse of knowledge about all things comics, it was sorely lacking in its coverage of the alternative/literary comix scene.
For instance, back when I started editing in 2006, there were no entries at all for James Sturm, Steven Weissman, David Collier, David Greenberger, David Lasky, Gabrielle Bell, Linda Medley, Dennis Eichhorn, or Joyce Brabner; not to mention mainstream creators like Tom Orzechowski, Bob Wiacek, Ken Bruzenak, William Stout, George Pratt, Bob Larkin, Earl Norem, or Joe Jusko; or (admittedly) obscure creators like Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Jack Binder, Akin & Garvey, Kerry Gammill, Jerry Bingham, or Cynthia Martin. Similarly, independent publishers like Black Eye Productions, FantaCo Enterprises, Vortex Comics, Millennium Publications, and Desperado Publishing were nowhere to be found. Neither were such notable (?) comics as Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans, or Superman and Spider-Man (the sequel to Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man). It drove me crazy that a resource as complete and wide-ranging as Wikipedia had so many gaps in its coverage of my industry. And the fact that I could actually do something about it was too hard to resist.
In the course of my attempting to redress these omissions, I discovered that (other than Lambiek’s Comiclopedia — which is unfortunately becoming increasingly out of date) there were very little Internet-based authoritative one-stop-shop places to learn about the people and publishers who’ve contributed so much to North American comics culture. It’s amazing how much digging one has to do — much more than a simple Google search. (Obviously, the majority of my sleuthing is done online; I can only imagine how nuts I could go with this if I actually went to a library. But I do have a day job [such as it is] and a family to support, so the bulk of my editing takes place in fits and spurts, when the mood strikes and the opportunity presents itself.)
Eventually I began to know where to look online. Sources I keep coming back to include the aforementioned Lambiek’s Comiclopedia, the Comic Book Database, the Michigan State University Comic Art Collection, Comic Book Buyers Guide (for dates of birth), the New York Times archive, Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter (especially his obits and interviews), Mark Evanier’s site, Kirk Kimball’s Dial B for Blog, and Brian Cronin’s Comic Book Legends Revealed (on Comic Book Resources). Even so, sometimes there is very little information to be found, and some of my new articles are little more than stubs. All the same, I believe it’s more important to create even a nascent article than leave nothing at all. More times than I can count, I’ve found it to be true that "if you build it, they will come": I love starting a new article and then seeing other editors add to it, watching it grow from a stub to a full-fledged, informative resource.
I’ve always been a bit of an auto-didact, and for me the last two years has been a sort of crash course "master’s degree" in North American comics. In essence, I’ve written research papers on such topics as the history of the comic book letter column; Silver Age comics fandom, fanzines, and amateur press associations; DC Comics logo designer Ira Schnapp; Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates and the Crusty Bunkers; and Marvel Comics in the 1970s! (My "research" into that last topic — which was basically reading a ton of 70s Marvels salvaged from the basement — lead to my greatly expanding three other entries: Curtis Magazines, Bullpen Bulletins, and the No-Prize.) That’s in addition to the 40-plus of biographies I’ve created!
I also love taking a "stub," doing the requisite research — often motivated by own personal curiosity about the topic — and expanding the article to create a valuable new resource. It’s a great feeling finding and correcting an important biographical or factual detail, and providing a reliable source to back it up. So along the way I’ve also greatly augmented (in my opinion) articles like Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Terry LaBan, David Anthony Kraft, Dave Cockrum, Jim Shooter, and the Marvel Try-Out Book, just to name a few.
Outside of the comics realm I’ve created entries for (among others) Prince’s song "The Beautiful Ones", journalist Rob Walker, newscaster Clete Roberts, sports imposter Barry Bremen, the short-lived Janis Joplin backup group Full Tilt Boogie Band, pioneering editor Louise Seaman Bechtel, and (on the prompting of ) illustrator Roger Hane. And I have the dubious honor of having authored the "Rappin’ Duke" Wikipedia article! Duh-ha, duh-ha indeed.
There are just a handful of other editors working on Wikipedia’s "Comics Portal," and despite some early mis-steps (where I was well and properly chewed out on the discussion pages), I feel like I’ve earned my place amongst them. I’ve learned a lot about proper documentation, reliable sources, and avoiding "weasel words" ("some critics say," "people feel," etc.), "original research," and of course the big no-no of plagarism (copying website bios and obits is strictly verboten). I believe that Wikipedia editing has also taught me to write more effectively and efficiently (not that this entry supports that!), and to not take my writing too seriously. (As Wikipedia states very clearly on every entry, "if you don’t want your writing to be edited mercilessly . . ., do not submit it.")