CYBERPUNK: Death of the Online Mags

So, constant negation doesn't make for a good long-term business model. Tell me something I don't know.

Suck, that once-legendary online lode of cynical commentary, has gone on hiatus, and so has Feed, another e-zine under the umbrella of the Automatic Media (www.automatic-media.com) group, which has run out of money and ceased operations. For the past six years, Suck had been serving up fresh blasts of opinion five days a week while its staff looked for a way to make a profit. The search was unsuccessful, and last week Automatic pulled the plug. According to the site itself, the hiatus is temporary, but don't hold your breath waiting for Suck's return.

When I first wrote about Suck way back in the spring of 1996, the site's founders, Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman, had just sold it to Wired Ventures, which provided sufficient scratch for a seven-member staff. I was amazed at how quickly Anuff and Steadman had sold off their good thing. I mean, jeez, at least rock stars, cartoonists, filmmakers, and the like usually do a little hand-wringing over "selling out" before rushing off to the limo dealership to inquire about the hottub package. It took less than a year for these two Web wiseacres to start feeding from the hands they bit.

This eagerness to cash out seemed at odds with Suck's core commodity: genuine, almost nihilistic loathing, as served up via the then-menacing medium of a freewheeling Web zine. Suck's sharp daily jabs punctured the overinflated Internet ballyhoo. What concerned me was that the trouble with such raw vitriol is that they just don't make for a sustainable revenue stream. Artists who try to milk that level of outrage for the retirement benefits either end up becoming toothless parodies of themselves (Alice Cooper, Hunter S. Thompson, and Marilyn Manson spring to mind) or collapsing under the weight of all the bad will they bring down on themselves (Creem magazine, the Sex Pistols, Abbie Hoffman, Bill Hicks).

Certainly, Suck wouldn't have lasted as long as it did without the kind of financial backing Wired provided. But the question is, what did it gain by sticking around? Anuff and Steadman might have been better remembered if they had packed it in five years ago and left Suck's mystique to do the heavy lifting. Its reputation might have swelled to mythic proportions, like that of Might, the small, mid-'90s San Francisco magazine co-founded by future literary star Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) that died after a handful of supposedly brilliant issues. Arguably, the existence of Eggers' book, if not its popularity, owes a good bit to Might's glowing cultural reputation, a reputation fanned by its very scarcity. Also arguably, McSweeney's, Eggers' current periodical adventure, does not glimmer with anything approaching the angelic aura that surrounds the memory of Might. After all, it's still being published.

To be fair, in its last few months Suck was as good as it ever was. Along with the justifiably talked-about musings on the pathetically lovelorn by Polly Esther (aka Heather Havrilesky), a Suck writer would occasionally cough up the most brilliant essay you'd read that week. Cartoonist Peter Bagge's illustrated story on the gentrification of Seattle's waterside watering holes "Tavern Turnover" was one of the funniest, most insightful things I've read anywhere this year.

But as far as cultural legacy goes, Suck's drawn-out existence left it neither here nor there. It got too tamed to be considered a genuine underground phenomenon on the order of, say, Seanbaby.com, MetaFilter, or Robot Frank. But I doubt it will be given much more than bottom-rung status in the rundown of the great failures of the Net's first literary age, well below the nearly dead Salon, the starting-to-wane Onion, and maybe even the read-it-while-you-still-can Ironminds.

The worst insult of all was how Suck died--or, more precisely, was put to death. Suck always claimed to be above the industry hubbub it so mocked, but to have its demise coolly executed as a business necessity exposed that pretense for what it was. Whatever Suck set out to be, it ended up as just another unprofitable venture.

One of the most heartless if amusing commentaries on Suck's demise came from the indie zine I contribute to Pigdog Journal. In "Don't Let the Cyberdoor Hit You in the Cyberass on the Way Out," Pigdog editor "Mr. Bad" asserts that Suck was never an honest-to-god free-for-all Web zine at all, but a "little corporate loss-leader lapdog that continually bit its owners and shat on the Chippendales ..."

"It doesn't matter how much you call yourself a 'Web zine' ... "because when the market is down, Master is gonna put you in a Hefty bag and throw you out by the side of some country road," Mr. Bad continues, stretching out the lapdog metaphor. "At night, when the feral curs come to chew through the plastic, think they're freeing you so you can be their little buddy and join the gang? Think again, Alpo. I mean, FIFI."

How's that for rampant negativity?

E-mail Joab Jackson.

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