Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Nathan Bitner Saga


Happy 31st birthday to Nathan Bitner, one of the more unusual obsessions of the blogosphere a couple of years ago.

On May 21, 2003, the publishers of a blog called X-Entertainment (focusing, in the publisher's words, on some of the "more obscure, geeky parts of [80s] pop-culture") posted an innocent piece of fluff on a 1986 contest held by Mattel Toys, maker of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line of action figures, challenging children to design a new He-Man character. The winner of the 1986 contest, and a college scholarship, was a sweet-faced 11-year old kid named Nathan Bitner, who had designed a humanoid superhero with a camera in place of its head named "Fearless Photog." In its press release, Mattel promised that it would "produce Fearless Photog as part of the Masters toy line," but as the publisher of X-Entertainment observed, Mattel never got around to making the toy.

Like countless other blog postings (the one you're reading for example), this one might have been consigned to web obscurity were it not for a diligent group of X-Entertainment readers who took it upon themselves to find out whatever happened to Nathan Bitner. One of the readers posted a follow-up pointing out that someone named Nathan Bitner was one of the lead designers of the videogame Halo (1998; a story-based fighting game) for Bungie Software. Soon, other "Nathan Bitner" Internet sightings were found: in one, he appeared to have left Bungie in 1999 to set up his own videogame company, Island Four; in another, he was posting thoughts about suicide on a newsgroup; in others, he had attended UNC Chapel Hill, or was serving in the U.S. military, possibly in Iraq.

Then came a sordid tale, posted on a Halo message board, about the collapse of Island Four, and Bitner's bankruptcy, eviction, non-sexual involvement with a prostitute named "Genesis" whom he hired as a concept artist, and mental illness. As reader Ed Franklin wrote, within hours of the original X-Entertainment posting, "I think I've found out too much already. It seems obvious that he won the contest, got the scholarship, went to UNC Chapel Hill, worked at Bungie for a bit . . . quit Bungie to start his own company, flopped, then joined the army at age 28. That's more info than I have on some of my blood relatives."

Franklin's stripped down version of the tale turned out to be true, but the Nathan Bitner mystery began to take on a life of its own, especially after Franklin found an interview with Bitner elsewhere on the Internet in which the Island Four founder boasted, prophetically, "Oh, yeah, and most importantly, I want a cult following." The story was picked up by Matt Haughey's MetaFilter blog, drawing hundreds of readers to X-Entertainment to join in on the speculation, creating a humorous blog-thread of epic proportions (comprised of thousands of individual messages) and multiplying "Bitner" references across the Web.

Old friends, a disgruntled investor in Island Four, and several runners-up in the original He Man contest all made appearances on the Nathan Bitner thread of X-Entertainment over the next several months; there was a collection of Bitner haikus ("Paid hooker, no sex/ Screwed out of Fearless Photog/ That is so Bitner"); people claiming to be Bitner flamed in and were swiftly weeded out by the "experts," and there was even one person who claimed to be Bitner's father who said that Bitner had died many years ago.

Finally, on Thanksgiving weekend 2003, 6 months and one week after the first posting, Nathan Bitner addressed the assembled bloggers with his own posting. Gallant, clearly humbled by his past travails and frankly blown away by how much of his personal life could have ended up for all to see on the World Wide Web, and how much speculation about him could have been inspired among total strangers, Bitner -- then serving as a medic in the U.S. Army at Fort Stewart -- wrote:

"Wow . . . This has got to be the most insane thing I have ever seen on the internet. And that's coming from me . . . When I first saw this, I have to admit that I was pretty devastated. I couldn't believe it. It was a harsh reminder of just how horrible everything had been not so long ago. I had done everything I could to put that life behind me and flat-out start over. Much of it was brutal to read, to say the least. I knew very well when I posted non-anonymously to alt.suicide.holiday (oh, yeah, those were the days baby) that it would be there forever -- so that's pretty easy to accept. But there are other things I never thought would be up for public discussion, and I have the very strong opinion that they never should have been. I think it was wrong, poor taste, poor judgment, kind of vindictive, and somewhat cruel. At the same time, I was guilty of at least the first three on enough occasions that it is not very difficult to understand that it happens."
While there may have been nothing all that extraordinary in the Nathan Bitner saga itself that bears memorializing, the Nathan Bitner scavenger hunt was a curious example of the speed with which gossip and pop-mania can spread, and the surprising indelibility of one's "fifteen minutes of fame" within this seething, larger-than-life electronic archive known as the Web. Behind it lurks the uncomfortable realization that there is nothing that is truly private in any of our lives. Google your own name and see.

The Nathan Bitner thread on X-Entertainment is preserved for posterity, and unauthorized Nathan Bitner t-shirts and mugs are available at Cafe Press.

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9 Comments:

Blogger socalled_spaceage said...

Man, I would have loved to got that figure as a kid. I was so excited (and jealous) of Nathan getting a toy made. Sad that it never happened.. but perhaps one day it shall!

6:30 AM  
Blogger Vampyre_Girl said...

Hi Nathan~~

If you read this wherever you are. I think about you sometimes... wonder where you are and what you are doing. I wonder what I did wrong the last day I saw you. Needless to say, I am on 1200 mg of Seroquel and 4 Lithium a day. You ARE in my prayers-- regardless of what happened in the past.

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every summer I would visit my Grandparents house and read my cousin's magazines. One of them was the He-Man mag. I remember clearly exactly what Fearless Photon looked like but I couldn't rememeber the name. Didn't take long to find it though. I ripped this character off in my own fashion that entire summer as well as my cousin. I drew characters with cannons on their heads becuase I thought it was a canon. I know now that it was a camera. My character was named "basher bolts." I was VERY young. Needless to say, my drawing became better and I love drawing this character even today. I would have never started drawing if it wasn't for this Fearless Photon. Sorry the Mattel thing didn't work out but you inspired me to become an artist. Thank you. I will always remember this character fondly. It was awesome.

4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all the information on Nathan that was thrown about back in those days, I think it would be wrong to not point out that these days, he seems to be happily married with steady work and a newfound faith in God. More power to him.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Wyngarde said...

THEY JUST MADE PHOTOG! He's coming next year!

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Eat the Babies! said...

So, weirdly, I have always remembered the announcement of Fearless Photog in that Masters of the Universe Magazine. That character has some real Kirby-esque qualities. Clearly, the kid had talent.

I've wondered about the character for years and finally did a web search to see if the Web knew what happened with it.

boy did it. Crazy.

10:10 AM  
Blogger ZhaneAugustine said...

One has to wonder if Mattel has allowed you to agree with the backstory, now that they have FINALLY produced this figure after twenty five years later!

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember it very well, and always checking the store shelves for the figure, which never materialized. Just today, I was searching for infor on it, and apparently it was relased for a 30th anniversry or something. I saw it on a site called Matty Collector. Pretty cool actually. I also foind the article online with the final 5. Fearless Photog and 2 others were decent, however "Netta" and "Eye Beam" make me wonder just how awful the entries that didn't make the final 5 must have been.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sad tragedy of geekdom.. These temporal obsessions.. like this. Things you had to be there for. Things which make you who you are and shape your desires. Things which grant a satisfying nostalgia.. They are but moments that only you in your perspectives have cultivated. The true tragedy is.. that all these moments will be lost in time. Like .. Tears in rain.

11:51 AM  

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