The Weird Saga Of A Geek WebsiteS


(ETA more material on the Kickstarter. As well in full disclosure I have written a few articles for Talkbacker.com.)

If you were to illustrate how not to run a website, Aint it Cool News http://aintitcoolnews.com would be a good choice. The brainchild of Harry Knowles - a guy who was literally born into the movie memorabilia business - since 1996 it's been a geek favorite. But recently the site has faced competition from an offshoot site Talkbacker, http://www.talkbacker.com and other geek sites.

Like many AICN readers, I used to really like Harry Knowles. He's best described as a cross between Quentin Tarantino and Comic-Book Guy. What Knowles lacks in journalistic skills he makes up for in enthusiasm. In many ways, he represents the Web 1.0 world of Angelfire sites and more personal blogs. But lately his schtick has started to get old.

Knowles doesn't so much review movies as post rambling tirades about them. His most infamous review was of Blade II http://www.aintitcool.com/node/11793 , directed by his friend Guillermo Del Toro. Knowles compared the director's work on the middling vampire movie to (I'm so sorry) cunnulingus. In graphic detail. (Another comment on the show Heroes speculated that the indestructible cheerleader character would have a self-repairing hymen - again, so sorry)

Even his less shocking reviews have raised hackles, mostly for their atrocious grammar ("I've seen Jack Reacher for about a month now" http://www.aintitcool.com/node/59895) and self-aggrandizing claims (in an article criticizing Roger Ebert for his review of Kick Ass http://www.aintitcool.com/node/44670 Knowles claimed to have watched Siskel & Ebert defend Taxi Driver when he was six; Knowles also thinks Travis Bickle was the hero of the movie)

Knowles has also been criticizing for accepting gifts (in early 2011 he showed off the Green Lantern ring given to him by Warners; Knowles gave the movie one of its few positive reviews) and some questionable ethics ("reviewing" a colleague's screenplay without disclosing the relationship, refusing to review movies when he didn't get free screenings).

Last year, Knowles started a spinoff youtube series produced by Nerdist, and the response was... mixed. While Knowles talking about movies is actually quite interesting, the show is full of awkward comedy and odd, MST3K-style gimmicks like a talking boiler with the catchphrase "FUCK YOU MICHAEL BAY."

In one of the more notorious episodes, Knowles waxes rhapsodic about a "Kong bomb," a gas grenade prop from Knowles' favorite movie, the 1935 King Kong. Knowles' love for the movie is clear, but the segment plays like a rich kid bragging over his toys.

Nerdist passed on a second season, so Knowles started a Kickstarter to save the show. A lot of Talkbackers balked at supporting the Kickstarter, pointing out that other sites like Red Letter Media http://www.redlettermedia.com have made entertaining videos with less money. Some even contributed a dollar so they could post links to Knowles' more notorious reviews.

I feel a little uncomfortable calling out Knowles for sexism. The Heroes and Blade II reviews are pretty foul, and his comments on a female Captain America costume ("Imagine your girlfriend waiting on you in that") on AICNTV suggest that he doesn't understand female geeks. But in some ways this is a case of the plank in one's own eye. Talkback has long been a haven for offensive language. Sexism is mostly of the ogling variety, and racism is mostly the work of drive-by trolls rather than regulars, but homophobia is epidemic. (Talkbacker has so far been much more civil; more on that later)

Even more troubling is the near constant comments about Knowles' appearance. Yes, Knowles is very overweight. But so was Roger Ebert at one point and it would have been cruel to mock him for it; "fat ginger c*nt" is one of the tamer epithets thrown at Knowles. (Nasty epithets have been aimed at Knowles' wife, Patricia, who is Asian-American. Inexplicably, Knowles himself refers to his wife as "Yoko," possibly as a way to deflect the jokes.)

In the end the Kickstarter succeeded, with some help from friends Del Toro, Peter Jackson and Eli Roth. Knowles even struck a deal to broadcast the show on PBS. Old media, with its FCC regulations and regular schedules, will likely change Knowles' show, but it's doubtful it will change Knowles himself.

Talkbacker.com isn't bad, but it's a little rough. Anyone can submit an article for approval, so quality can vary. It's still a very guy-populated site, but so far it's an improvement over AICN's often toxic atmosphere. It's an interesting example of readers creating their own site. Along with other geek sites like Badass Digest http://badassdigest.com/ and the geek girl-oriented The Mary Sue http://www.themarysue.com (not to mention io9 http://www.io9.com, the online geek world is getting more and more interesting everyday.