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Wild reviews: "Frightmare" comments test bounds of e-commerce

Tuesday, April 20, 1999

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Family Circus" is about as provocative as a pair of kiddie pajamas. But the wholesome comic strip is creating controversy for Amazon.com, the Internet's biggest bookseller. For each of the 4.7 million titles it offers, Amazon.com offers readers the opportunity to submit their own reviews. They leave their e-mail address, their hometown and a brief opinion, and within a few days their critique will be included under the "Customer Comments" section of the book they reviewed.

Among the more popular titles in the catalog is "I Had A Frightmare," released in 1991, a series of seemingly innocuous strips from the popular comic strip "The Family Circus." Or maybe not.

The collection (Amazon.com price: $3.19) illustrates "the delicate layers of bruised egos and the family's unquenchable thirst for love and acceptance in their daily everydrama," writes a reader from Los Angeles.

A Chicago reader -- calling himself "Julio Franco," the name of a former White Sox infielder -- calls artist Bil Keane "a product of the scientific rebellion of the 19th century," noting that he "has been influenced by German pessimism" and the arguments of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Another reader liked the book so much, he said, "it almost knocked me off my seat ... It made me laugh so hard that milk came out my nose."

Still another attempts to place Keane in some literary context. "Although Shakespeare and Milton toyed with the idea of mispronounced food, neither was able to raise it to the high art that Keane has."

A few months ago, Amazon.com found itself in a controversy over its policy of allowing publishers to pay for placement of reviews on its site. (They are now marked as such.) Now it finds itself in a controversy over smart-aleck comments from its customers.

Call it the Amazon Enigma: technology that simultaneously expedites and subverts commerce. In one of the Web's more unusual lessons, the adventures of Mommy, Daddy, Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ are illustrating the perils and promise of doing business on the Internet.

Other books in the Keane oeuvre -- including "Daddy's Cap Is On Backwards" and "I'll Shovel the Cards" -- evoke an equally high-minded response. All this for a cute, unsophisticated strip that, depending on your sense of humor, is as likely to elicit a groan as a chuckle.

"There seems to be a minor cult out there," says Bill Curry, director of public relations for Amazon.com, who says that it will post any review as long as customers follow Amazon.com's review-writing guidelines.

"It's explicitly available in the site what is in bounds and what is not," he says. "It's not a chat room. It's a book-review section."

Among the guidelines: "Focus on the book's content and context." "Feel free to mention other books you consider similar." "Resist the temptation to comment on other reviews."

It also prohibits the use of obscenities, single-word reviews, comments focusing on the author, and reviews that spoil the ending. "Any review in violation of these guidelines may not be posted," it reads.

That's why about a dozen reviews of "I Had A Frightmare" were removed from the Amazon.com site last week, Curry says. (Not to fear: Almost a dozen more, of comparable tone and quality, were posted over the weekend.)

Curry says that such risks come with the e-territory. Removing reviews is not a matter of censorship, he says, but of irrelevance. Thus does he justify the unusual circumstances of Amazon.com's reviews actively discouraging Amazon.com's customers from buying Amazon.com's products.

"The point is, we want people to find and discuss the right book," he says. "It's not a question of whether they're bad or good or whether they're well written or poorly written. It's a question of whether the reviews stay between the lines" of Amazon.com's guidelines.

And it may be that a few bad reviews may be a small price to pay for several hundred thousand favorable ones. If an informal survey of the 2.4 million reviews on the site are any indication, the vast majority of reviews on the site are positive.

Typical of the 229 reviews for J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," for instance, is the following:

"I would have to say that The Lord Of The Rings is the greatest trilogy in the history of mankind!!!! I read them this year. Believe me, many may try, but no one with (sic) succeed in topping this all-time classic! IF YOU AGREE, LET ME HEAR YOU SAY YEA!!!!!!!!! GIVE IT UP FOR TOLKIEN!!!!!!!"

It continues for several more sentences.

Less fortunate authors, of course, may not appreciate readers poking fun at their work -- nor the company that gives them the means to do so.

In one instance, at least, Amazon.com has nothing to worry about. Bil Keane, who has been drawing "The Family Circus" for almost 40 years, doesn't mind the attention.

"There's nothing really you can do about preventing people from commenting on public work on the Internet," he says. "It's not something I would blow the whistle on."

The strip, which appears in some 1,500 newspapers nationwide, has long been the butt of jokes, he says. "I've found over and over again, when people want to mention a cartoon that's innocent and warm and funny, they'll use the 'The Family Circus,'" he said, citing David Letterman monologues and punch lines on "Friends."

Keane doesn't have a modem, he says, so he's not connected to the Internet. But he has heard of some of the Web sites inspired by (if not respectful of) his work, such as the "Dysfunctional Family Circus."

And he laughs when read a few reviews from Amazon.com's site. Some of it is in bad taste, he says. But some of it is funny.

"I assume my readers are intelligent enough to know I didn't do the bad stuff," he says. "But if they think it's funny -- well, I don't mind them thinking that I may have done it."



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