Being a webcomics creator has its challenges, but here’s one you don’t see too often: finding out the title of your long-running strip is being used by someone who tweeting bomb threats to airlines. That’s the surreal situation Mark Mekkes found himself in on Saturday.
Mekkes is the creator of the long-running Zortic, which he describes as “a weekly science fiction, comedy adventure comic with a lot of parody and popular references.” The comic has been running for 14 years, but on Saturday, Mekkes noticed a spike in traffic and social media mentions. He didn’t think too much of it until he got a phone call from his brother-in-law, who had seen “Zortic” mentioned on the national news. The reason: Somebody using the Twitter handle “King Zortic” had tweeted bomb threats to Delta and Southwest airlines, resulting in two planes being escorted by fighter jets to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and then scoured by bomb squads. The threats were ultimately determined to be a hoax.
Mekkes told ROBOT 6 that “Zortic” was just a name he made up; it doesn’t have any other meaning. “When I started on the Internet there were a lot of webcomic lists; many people started their comics with the letter ‘A’ so they’d be at the top of the list,” he said. “So I decided to go the opposite route and start with a ‘Z’ for people who were starting out at the bottom of the list. Then it was just a matter of finding the right combination of vowels and consonants that looked and sounded good.”
We asked Mekkes to tell us what it was like suddenly finding himself on the national news for something he had no hand in.
ROBOT 6: What sort of reactions did you get? I saw that some comments were made on Twitter that have apparently been deleted. Has it caused any other problems for you?
Mark Mekkes: Nothing too tangible. I had several people write to tell me that what I did was really stupid, but they seem to believe me when I say that wasn’t me. I certainly understand the confusion by any casual investigator and don’t disagree that what “KingZortic” did was really stupid. So that’s been annoying, but not too malicious.
The bigger issue is just the feeling of violation and accusation. Although the crime wasn’t directed at me, it still feels like I’ve been invaded. I just can’t do anything about it. Even when you know they’re not talking about you, it leaves a nasty feeling in your stomach when you hear morning news shows all across the country talking about how stupid “Zortic” was.
You were quick to get a press release out about it. What were the reactions to that?
Understandably mixed, even by myself; I actually struggled with it all weekend. I know it’s not the biggest issue (no one was actually hurt, fortunately), and there have been other artists that have experienced this kind of negative association with events (The Dark Knight). I really don’t want publicity out of this; this isn’t the way I want my work to be noticed. What’s more important to me is to generate discussion about how to cope with this kind of thing in order to help anyone else in a similar experience, especially if next time it’s something worse.
Do you have any idea what the connection was with your webcomic, if any?
I honestly can’t remember anything that could be any kind of connection. And with a science fiction setting, there wouldn’t be any actual depictions of planes or kings. But Zortic’s been going for 14 years, with a lot of popular parodies and references. So I can’t promise that there wasn’t something in there that could have been misconstrued, but I can say that I would never present that kind of behavior as a good or humorous thing.
This must have been a really weird situation for you. What was your initial reaction, and how do you feel about it now that a couple of days have passed?
It has been surreal. I’ve always loved and respected my fans, but even the thought that this might have been a regular reader of my comic is disconcerting. I don’t know if he was somehow calling out for attention or help, or if he just has a twisted enough of a sense of humor to think this prank was a good idea. But the idea that he might have been right there on my webpage is uncomfortable.
And like I said, I love my fans, but all this attention has driven extra traffic to my site and it’s a horrifying feeling to think that I’m hesitant to trust my new readers. Did they just come because they thought I was him? Are they waiting to see what crazy thing I’ll do next? Do they share this person’s sensibilities?
On a more personal level, on Saturday morning I innocently updated my comic strip hoping to entertain a few people. Now, through no actions of my own, I know there is no way I can look good in this situation. If I come out in the open, it looks like I’m taking advantage of these events for promotion. If I go into hiding, it looks like I’m guilty. The only way I can possibly imagine a silver lining out of this is to present it in order to generate discussions that might help someone else the next time it happens. I just hope no one else needs it.