Put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter, the old theory goes, and they’ll eventually hunt-and-peck some Shakespeare. But on Tuesday, we learned that a couple of conceptual-art bards had been masking themselves as monkeys — or, a particularly inspired spambot.
The revelation Tuesday that Jacob Bakkila (of Buzzfeed) and Thomas Bender (of Howcast) were behind the Twitter account @Horse_ebooks (as well as the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book)—as first reported by The New Yorker — didn’t just mean their own performance art, now revealed, could be humanely euthanized. Their accounts had inspired so much spinoff commerce and creativity that at least one other humorous read will need to be put down.
Enter Burton Durand, a design-firm art director from Lafayette, La. And exit Horse_eComics, the webcomic that the then-28-year-old Durand launched in December of 2011, and that had gained more than 8,000 followers on Tumblr.
Durand was convinced that the Horse_eBooks account was a spambot, given the “pure comedic genius” of its oft-cryptic and seemingly randomly excerpts. And a large part of his webcomic’s dynamic was the notion that he was illustrating the thoughts of a bot.
So how does Durand feel now that he knows the prose wasn’t generated randomly?
“It’s like someone just told my comics that they were adopted,” Durand tells me by e-mail Wednesday.
In this case, his comics now also will have abandonment issues, because Durand — who grew up doodling Sonic the Hedgehog in grade school— says he must say goodbye to them.
“I don’t think I could” continue, Durand says just hours after the revelation. “Even if Horse wasn’t being put out to Twitter pasture, learning that a spambot wasn’t actually behind the tweeting probably ruined it for a lot of people.”
Durand — who earlier this month brought his minicomics to Bethesda’s Small Press Expo — shares his reaction and speculates further on the news:
Michael Cavna: So Burton, how did you find out about the Horse_ebooks revelation?
Burton Durand: I started getting tweets from shocked friends and followers around 7:45 [Tuesday] morning [the morning of the revelation]. And my social feeds soon became nothing but Horse talk.
What was your initial reaction when you learned the account was not a spambot but an actual human or two?
A mixture of outrage, sadness and questions. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the news. In the description on my Horse_eComics Tumblr page, I state that these comics are based on a spambot’s tweets. The silly, strange and sometimes poetic tweets were a source of inspiration for these comics, which I felt added a life of their own to the subject matter. And to learn that for the past couple of years, someone has been role-playing as Horse. . . feels strange. I’ve been thinking about it all day.
How long have you done your “Horse” comics, what sort of following have you fostered, and what was the “pure genius”— your words, ironically or no—about the account that inspired you?
It’s been almost two years since I started drawing Horse_eComics. I stopped counting, but I think I’ve drawn over 300 strips. Shortly after I started posting them, I was interviewed for an article in the New York Times Bits Blog and since then have gained around 8,500 followers on Tumblr. The beauty of the account was that a spambot—usually the source of irritation and garbage—was actually creating, on some level, entertainment. And there was enough variety in the tweeting to range from cryptic to serene, from morbid to nonsensical. It was a champion of “Weird Twitter.” Until this morning, I suppose!
So will you continue your “Horse” comics? And will you “mourn” the demise of the original account?
I don’t think I could [continue]. Even if Horse wasn’t being put out to Twitter pasture, learning that a spambot wasn’t actually behind the tweeting probably ruined it for a lot of people. I definitely got the feeling that a few e-tables were flipped in response. It just takes most of the fun out of why everyone loved the account in the first place. I liked the idea I was the comic artist, and that a robot Internet horse was the writer. So I’m going to draw one last comic and make one final post. It’s been a very fun ride, and I’ve enjoyed making people laugh. It’s just time to find a new way to do that.
What’s your take on the original account as project “concept art”? Do you think it was a success, by whatever metrics or means you want to define that?
Well. . . it was definitely something press-worthy, which is always good for works of art. I’m sure staying in character for two years and building up a 200,000-plus Twitter fan base, along with dedicated fan pages—including my own—feeding back into the project is an amazing accomplishment. Now, whether it actually accomplishes what they want it to is another story. Most of what I’ve been seeing online was a negative reaction and a lot of doubtful questions about where the project is headed.
Do you have any plans to reach out to the two humans behind it?
A friend suggested that I contact the two behind the whole thing, but I don’t know what I’d say. I’d be interested to know if they’ve seen my comics. And, if so, what were their favorites. And if they’d want to buy some original art.