Origin of the Grand Comic-Book Database by Bob Klein

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by Bob Klein, Co-founder, October 16 , 1997

In the early days of organized comics fandom, the 1960s, Dr. Jerry Bails and Howard Keltner put together some leading projects to catalog the comic books of the Golden Age. Jerry's "The Collector's Guide to the First Heroic Age of Comics", "Howard Keltner's Index to Golden Age Comic Books" and their collaboration on "The Authoritative Index to DC Comics" opened up the world of Golden Age comics to the younger fans of the 60s, like me. You can imagine the excitement of somebody like me, a teenager, reading about all the characters and comics that I had only glimpsed once or twice -- it was thrilling.

The next big step came with the Overstreet Price Guide. For whatever faults it has, and there are many, it was the first best attempt to list factual information beyond the super-hero comics. It was certainly the first catalog to get widespread distribution.

In 1978, the GCD's immediate predecessor, APA-I (the Amateur Press Alliance for Indexing) was formed by Gene Reed, Mike Tiefenbacher, and a few other fans who were interested in exchanging information on comics in index form. These people were generally interested in either one of two things - either following the plot threads and continuity of the stories, or the creator credits. Only a very few people were interested in both, but there were a few of those hardy souls.

APA-I is running to this day. Historically it has had between 15 and 25 members. Its distribution is very limited since the membership is so low and photocopies of mailed lists are the distribution method. It is also very difficult to update or correct information since it is so hard to go back and re-do a paper index unless it is actually stored on computer.

On the positive side, many of APA-I's members were/are dedicated in the extreme. Gene and Mike have gone so far as to gather editorial records. Other members have conducted interviews with the pros. Some of fandom's most knowledgeable members work through APA-I. Others of us just work like dogs at this. The material run through APA- I has encompassed all sorts of comics over its 20 years of existence.

In late 1993 and early 1994, Tim Stroup and I, two members of APA-I, started up an email correspondence. We were discussing I don't know what, probably something that was related to APA-I or comics history, but I really don't recall. We were each very interested in comics and the history of comics. As part of APA-I, we also had a very good sense for the shortcomings of paper-based distribution. We were also very enthusiastic for the sorts of information you see in the GCD.

Tim and I were each very comfortable with the electronic medium, and very quickly the conversation turned to sharing indexing information in a common format using electronic media for storage and distribution. In March of 1994, we decided to form a group and see how far we could go with creating an electronic version of APA-I. A few years ago, Tim dug up the original note between the two of us in which we outlined the GCD and gave it the name. If you're interested, he may even have it still.

Very shortly thereafter, within days, we were joined by Jon Ingersoll. Jon was also a member of APA-I, perhaps the chairperson at that time, as he remains today.

Between the three of us, we defined the early goals for the group. Very importantly, we also set standards for submissions and defined methods to collect and distribute information. We planned very carefully, and we tried a few experiments within our small group of three. In retrospect, a lot of it seems very crude from today's vantage point. We distributed indices on floppy disks via surface mail and the file structure was basically one-file- per-title.

Once we were satisfied that we knew how we wanted to start, we used email to canvass friends and acquaintances from APA-I as well as other contacts in fandom to form the original group of about ten. We were very keen on deliberately avoiding unrealistic goals. There had been several previous attempts to set up similar groups. All had died very quickly. It appeared that most had goals or methods that were not capable of sustaining volunteer organizations. We did a lot of planning.

Perhaps our biggest single asset was the reflector that Jon Lovstad, another early member, set up for us. It has enabled us to maintain a level of timely communication and activity that rivals any industrial concern. With it, the group has evolved to become a clearing house for all sorts of discussion of comics - we have outgrown indexing as our only activity. We're now a place for serious discussion on almost any aspect of comics.

Over time, everything we started with has changed. We recognized that technology would move forward, and it certainly has, enabling capabilities not possible at the time of the GCD's early steps. It was also clear that we didn't know everything that we really needed to know, so we deliberately left ourselves some flexibility in some areas. This was a good decision, although it has been difficult to keep up with the changes we have decided to make over the last three and a half years. We've spent a lot of time just re-formatting.

Our joint experience in APA-I was a good school for the GCD. The dynamics of that group helped guide us in setting up the GCD. Even with that, we did have a lot of new ground to cover. The electronic medium is so fast and so powerful that we have had to improvise a lot.

From the beginning it was clear that we would have people looking for a variety of information, satisfying a variety of purposes, not just the sorts of things that the APA-Iers were after. At the same time, it was clear that we needed to standardize on a format, as APA-I never needed to do.

The original design tried to moderate between several pitfalls. The project was designed to walk the line between covering enough information to attract the interest of most fans and avoiding a narrow look at comics, and yet we didn't want to include such a lot of data that it would be a burden on an indexer. We had to navigate between the user needs and the indexer's dedication.

Since we started, our file structure has changed, our distribution and collection methods are almost exclusively over the internet, and our expectation for a small group of enthusiasts has been surpassed. I've been very surprised at our success in almost any dimension. The fact that most of us are still getting used to the power of the networked computer means we have a lot more growing to do. But surprisingly for all the changes in some things (mostly format), the other aspects of the project are still very close to the original outline. I think our current charter is almost identical to the original.

In spite of our successes, we still haven't met one of our key goals - that's to make our information available to fandom at large. That's still in the future.

There are other things we want to do. Not just improve or expand our indexing , but exploit other electronic aspects of sharing information on our hobby. There are a lot of things we'd love to do, but there's no time just yet. Soon though....