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How to disappear completely from the internet

In 2011, there was a Kickstarter to fund a printed collection of John Campbell’s webcomic Pictures for Sad Children. The comic, started in 2007, centered around a ghost named Paul. Paul came back as a ghost to the land of the living, and, having nothing better to do, went back to his job. It was a good story, but before long, the story of the Kickstarter—and of John—eclipsed it entirely.

Campbell first started a commotion by writing a Kickstarter update about having faked depression for profit. That update was followed up by one about having faked faking depression, and then one called “What do you guys think money is,” then “$35 BACKERS HELP MAKE THIS END,” and “WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING EXPECTATIONS,” and finally “IT’S OVER,” a nearly 5000-word post on privilege, property, capitalism, art and artists, money, and so on. The post was topped with a video of Campbell burning one book for every email that read as some variation on “Where’s my book,” (127 in total) and it starts, “AFFLUENT PEOPLE: PLEASE DEFEND YOUR DESIRE FOR AFFLUENCE AND PARTICIPATION IN CAPITALISM.” It suggests that individuals (specifically artists) shouldn’t have to produce value or products in order to receive food and shelter. It also features the phrase, “If you are reading this to summarize it for someone else, please fuck yourself instead if possible.” Shortly after the post went up, all of the Pictures for Sad Children comics came down off of Campbell’s website.

the ones you can find aren’t organized cohesively anywhere

In the complicated details of the post, John expressed a desire for a diminished internet presence and hinted that she didn’t feel comfortable being identified as a man—she would later tell other people in other places that she preferred female pronouns, but this information trickled down slowly into the forums and the comic-loving subcultures of the web. It was hard to know what was true, and what was slander, and what was part of John’s bizarre sense of humor. In an episode of the Anecdotal Evidence podcast that’s since been taken down, she talked about her childhood and her experience with DMT, a subject she also covered in at least one comic.

After all that, Max Temkin, one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity, stepped in and worked out a way to get the rest of the books to people who’d pledged money on Kickstarter. The bizarre story ended, or faded into web media obscurity, about a year ago.

Campbell’s descent has been chronicled all over the internet, but the work, Pictures for Sad Children, is harder to find. If you’re looking for one comic in particular, there’s a chance it’s on Pinterest or Reddit or one of NPR’s Tumblrs. They have a distinctive style that any fan can recognize, but they’re all without signatures or watermarks, some are just missing, and the ones you can find aren’t organized cohesively anywhere.

Or they weren’t organized anywhere. As it turns out, a group sprang up in the comments on the Kickstarter when it became clear that the books weren’t going to make it to backers. Jacob Weiss, one of the few who’d received his copy of the book, offered to send it around. “All I did was post a comment on Kickstarter that I’d mail my book to someone else since it was collecting dust and I read it,” he told me. “The day after I posted on Kickstarter, I had over 20 replies. Great! But also not great. By the end of the week there were over 100 people asking about the book and wanting my copy.”

The world of Pictures is bleak and lonely, but absurdly so

Weiss sent his book to another backer, along with $15, so that that person could send it to someone else. The comic had made enough of an impact that sharing and reading the book was important to this group, who would send it forward, and so on. “Along with the requests came offers,” he said. “Some people, unprompted, told me they had saved some old PFSC comics and could share them. Others had the first PFSC book and could send it around or upload scans of it. Others had blog screengrabs, audio interviews, and so on. Tons of people had tons to share. All I did was create an open folder on my Google Drive account and sent the link around to everyone who responded asking to contribute, and piece by piece people rebuilt the entire PFSC back catalog. I would jokingly refer to this as the Sad Children Book Club, and then I guess it became official over time.”

Weiss described finding Campbell’s comics as a young person and being not just entertained, but comforted by the sense of humor and the aesthetic. The world of Pictures is bleak and lonely, but absurdly so, to the point where it becomes funny, instead of upsetting. Weiss said, “The idea that you could find some comfort and happiness within your overall sadness was an idea that helped me.” This resonates with many fans of PFSC, among them Lauren Weitzhandler, who found Weiss’s comments on the Kickstarter page, got in contact with him, and became one of the main organizers of the Sad Children Book Club. Weitzhandler told me, “I think I just wanted to preserve those things that made me feel like that, and try to connect with other people who felt the same way, so that they didn’t have to feel like they’d lost something.”

If Campbell made such an effort to take her comics off the web, how does she feel about this 895MB zip file that contains as much of her work as possible? Concerned, Weitzhandler contacted her personally to find out. “More than anything, I just wanted to check up with John and see if she was okay, but I also talked about the archive and what we were trying to do with it. The deal we made was essentially that we could keep everything for personal reading, but John didn’t want it publicly hosted or reposted. So, it’s a kind of secret club. She didn’t really seem to know what direction things were ultimately going to go long-term, though, so I don’t think any of us really do, either. The future is an uncertain place, I guess.”

When I talked to Jacob, he told me the archive was coming down—or that it had been scheduled to come down. He said he and Lauren had decided that they would stop hosting the Google Drive folder in late 2014, but, he said to me, “When the deadline passed, I couldn’t bring myself to take it down … I don’t think anything that comforts people, or has the potential to be comforting, should be taken away.” Maybe there’s some hope, then, for the Sad Children Book Club, and the continued life of Pictures for Sad Children, in the hearts, minds, and hard drives of those who love it. Weitzhandler said that during her conversation with John, she asked for projects that SCBC members hadn’t been able to find, and that John gave them to her, which means maybe she has an archive, too. Even if she’s not interested in being a public figure anymore, Pictures can still be, as Lauren said, “something that’s going to be around in all these little hidden places, with the people who care about it, for a long time.”

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Update, 7/16/15: Since the publication of this article, the Sad Children Book Club has ended, and the files are no longer accessible to anyone.

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Header image via Rennette Stowe.