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Popular @Horse_ebooks web comic loses its comedic engine

by Michael Cavna

The Washington Post

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, the wired world learned that a couple of conceptual-art bards had been masking themselves as the equivalent of gibbons, sending seemingly random spam into the Twitterverse.

Jacob Bakkila (of Buzzfeed) and Thomas Bender (formerly of Howcast) were revealed this week as the human brains behind the popular Twitter account @Horse_ebooks, meaning that its disjointed, nonsensical tweets were not in fact algorithmic spam-as-poetry. (The two men are also behind the YouTube channel Pronunciation Book.)

This unmasking, first reported by the New Yorker, didn’t just mean that their own multiyear act of performance art could now be humanely euthanized. Their accounts had inspired so much spinoff creativity — from T-shirts to tattoos — that at least one other humorous read will need to be put down.

Enter Burton Durand, a design-firm art director from Lafayette, Louisiana. And exit “Horse_eComics,” the web comic that the then-28-year-old Durand launched in December of 2011 and that had gained an online following in its own right.

Durand was convinced that the @Horse_eBooks account was a spambot given the “pure comedic genius” of its oft-cryptic, ostensibly willy-nilly burps of text. (Sample: “You love french fries and other” or “Who can get hair.”) And a large part of his web comic’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 wrote by email 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 his creation. His gift Horse is gone. Durand shared his reaction:

Michael Cavna: What was your initial reaction when you learned the account was not a spambot but an actual human or two?

Burton Durand: 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.

MC: 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?

BD: It’s been almost two years since I started drawing “Horse_eComics.” I stopped counting, but I think I’ve drawn over 300 strips. 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 (Tuesday), I suppose.

MC: So will you continue your “Horse” comics? And will you mourn the demise of the original account?

BD: 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.